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Alaska Nellie lived a life to remember, deserves an epitaph to match

Helen Hegener
OPINION: Nellie Lawing, whose exploits at her Kenai Lake lodge were once the talk of the town around the world, deserves to have a tombstone that matches her stalwart demonstration of Alaska's best spirit. University of Washington Libraries, special collections division

Nellie Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as “Alaska Nellie,” lived a life much larger than most, even by Alaskan standards. She was a fisherman, a hunter, a trapper, a cook and a roadhouse keeper; she fed the crews building the Alaska Railroad, welcomed princes and presidents into her home, guided big-game hunters and developed an impressive trophy collection of her own. She mushed a dog team, kept a pet bear cub, became famous for her strawberry pies, and saw a movie made about her adventures. She was one of a kind, an Alaskan original, and she lived life to the fullest.

Her happiest days were spent with the love of her life, Bill Lawing, in their log cabin on the shores of beautiful Kenai Lake. She mentions it in the opening paragraph of her autobiography, "Alaska Nellie":

Glancing out through an open window of a large log home on the shores of Kenai Lake at Lawing, Alaska, the rippling waves had become glittering jewels in the full moonlight of a summer’s night. Mountains covered with evergreen trees and crowned with snow were reflected in the mirror-like water of Kenai Lake. Was I dreaming, or was the curtain of the past rolling up, so that I might glance back over twenty-four years spent in the great North-land and say, "No regrets."

Nellie’s early life is succinctly described in an article which was written by Lezlie Murray, Visitor Services Director, Chugach National Forest, and published in the Fall 2011 issue of SourDough Notes:

The oldest of 12 children, Nellie Trosper was born into a farm family in Saint Joseph, Mo., where she dreamed of coming to Alaska. As a young child she learned to trap and hunt in the countryside around her parent’s farm, becoming a good shot and capable woods woman. She left home in her late twenties after she had helped to raise her brothers and sisters and could be spared. A diminutive woman barely five feet tall, Nellie began to work her way to Alaska in 1901, stair-stepping her way through the west. She spent the most time in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where she worked at a variety of jobs, owned her own hotel and married a prominent assayer. Unhappy in her marriage due to abuse at home, she made the decision to divorce and moved on to California, where she booked steerage to Seward, Alaska.

Arriving in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway, Nellie wrote in her autobiography that she set out to seek “a contract to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad.” Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named Grandview. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained.

Wiry and independent, Nellie was an excellent shot and a respected big game guide, and she rapidly accumulated an impressive array of wildlife trophies. She maintained a dog team in winter, and trapped along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

Nellie later operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Curry, and then, in 1923, she bought her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book,“Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status:

Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply "Nellie, Alaska" were always delivered.

Nellie finally established herself at “Lawing, Alaska” on Kenai Lake, and converted an old roadhouse into a museum for her multitude of big game trophies. It was a great railroad stop and the highlight of any Alaskan visit. Her guest register of over 15,000 read like the Who’s Who of the early twentieth century: two U.S. Presidents, the Prince of Bulgaria, Will Rogers, authors, generals and many silent-screen movie stars.

Nellie was so popular and loved that she was honored with an “Alaska Nellie Day” on January 21, 1956.

 

A short movie clip, "Land of Alaska Nellie," was produced in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

 

At the end of her foreword, Heim added the following somber note:

Nellie is laid to rest in Seward, Alaska, where you can see Nellie’s gravestone which simply reads, "Lawing," unkempt, forgotten, unloved, with not a hint of the incredible little pioneer woman who lies beneath it. Every time I drive past the little dirt road which reads "Lawing" I say to myself, "What a tragedy it is to have forgotten Alaska Nellie. What is left to remind us of the glorious days of the railroad roadhouse and the many lives that were so touched by Nellie?"

That same question was recently asked by Talkeetna resident Dave Folk, who created an online effort to raise money for a new headstone for Alaska Nellie. Dave wrote, “I found her headstone in grave need of help. It’s all but a crumbled mess and I have made it my mission to get her the notoriety she deserves…”

Please contribute to Nellie’s headstone project. This heroic and iconic Alaskan deserves to be remembered for her love of Alaska and the many lives she touched with her kindness, humor, and never-ending hospitality.

Helen Hegener is the author of several books about the history of Alaska, the 1935 Matanuska Colony, and long-distance sled dog races. Through Northern Light Media, which she founded in 2007, she produced a documentary about four-time Iditarod and Yukon Quest Champion Lance Mackey, and she builds and maintains websites for national organizations, research projects, and several mid-size companies. This post originally appeared in different form on her website and has been republished here with permission. Contact her via email at helenhegener(at)gmail.com.

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