Julia O'Malley: Alaska Railroad family's memories, uncovered after 50 years

jomalley@adn.comDecember 24, 2013 

Last summer, workers demolishing an old Alaska Railroad warehouse near Ship Creek found something unusual inside a wall. It was an old-fashioned photo album: Black leather-bound cover with pages made of delicate black paper. "Marie and Irvan Christian" was embossed on the front cover. 

Inside were pictures of a couple who had married in 1906. The album was made after a party was held for their 50th wedding anniversary. There were pictures of family members seated at well-dressed tables. Ladies in gloves and hats. Interiors with wood-paneled walls, linoleum floors and lace curtains. A napkin printed with their names was pressed between the pages. Newspapers from Florida and Ohio printed announcements about the party, with detailed lists of who attended.

No one knew what to do with the album after it was found. Months passed. Eventually it landed on the desk of Tim Sullivan Jr., external affairs manager for the railroad. He pored over it looking for an Alaska connection. There was a sticker from the Alaska Railroad on the last page. In one of the newspaper announcements, he came across a name: Gladys Kahler, the couple's daughter. She'd come all the way from Anchorage, Alaska, the story said. A letter addressed to Gladys, tucked in the album, said it was made and sent to Gladys around Christmas 1957 by someone named "Dot."

Sullivan sent the name to the railroad's human resources department. The railroad opened its headquarters in Anchorage in 1915 and ignited the growth of the city. It is one of the Anchorage's oldest employers. Because workers had pensions, it has records of when employees died. Gladys Kahler's name was in the railroad's files.

Born in 1910, she had been the secretary to the superintendent of operations from 1950 to 1959. She died in 1960 in Anchorage. There were other Kahlers in the records, too. Howard Kahler, who was married to Gladys, worked a number of jobs with train freight. He died a few months after his wife, also in 1960.

Two more Kahlers came up, Kent and Phillip, Howard and Gladys' sons. Both worked on and off at the railroad between 1952 and 1962. Sullivan searched for them on the internet. Kent, it turned out, had died but Sullivan found many references to Phil on espn.com. Phil Kahler was a longtime woman's basketball coach for St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. At the time he retired, in 2008, he was the winningest coach in the NCAA Division III, according to a profile Sullivan found. Sullivan called the college athletic director. The director gave him the number for Phil Kahler, and Sullivan gave a call.

"I asked him if he knew anything about (the album)," he said. "He didn't have a clue."

Sullivan promised to put the album in the mail. When I reached Phil Kahler, who is 80, in Rochester last week, he told me he grew up in Anchorage and graduated from Anchorage High School, which was located in a building downtown, in 1953. His parents came to Alaska to run O'Hara Bus Lines, which he said was the state's first bus service. The city had lots of people employed by the railroad at the time he lived here. The town revolved around that and basketball, he said.

"Maybe 10 (railroad) cars would go to Palmer to see a basketball game," he said. "People could hardly get in the gym, we sold out every single game. Of course what else was there to do in January in Anchorage, Alaska?"

Their family lived first in Government Hill and then in Mountain View, which would have been a newer subdivision at the time. His mother died unexpectedly from a bad reaction to an injection she had for arthritis. His father died soon after. He had a brain tumor, it turned out, but no one knew it. Phil Kahler had just graduated from college. His mother was 49. His father was 52. It was a stunning loss that came all at once for him and his brother.

"We weren't that surprised," he said, that his parents died so close together. "They were very, very, very close, both of them."

They had been married more than 30 years, he said.

He knew his mother's parents, the ones in the album. They were railroad people, too. His grandfather worked for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. He remembered when his mother went to the anniversary party in the album. She'd taken a whole salmon packed in dry ice.

Sullivan's call surprised him and stirred thoughts of his parents, he said. His brother died eight years ago.

"I'm kind of like the last one left," he said.

It's him and his wife, Fran. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary seven years ago, he said.

He's thought a lot about how the album wound up in the wall. There's no reason that his mother would have found herself in the warehouse, but his father might have. The rest of the story, he can't guess.

"It's just a mystery as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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