Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
No place in Anchorage is as aged and steeped in history as the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. The cemetery is both a landmark and an institution. The city around it has evolved, boomed and busted, burned and froze, while the cemetery survived.
The cemetery can fit many a purpose or mood, from a reconnection with passed elders to a scenic walk. The cemetery is also a living history lesson. Weathered, cracked and chipped headstones are witnesses to the passage of time. The worn inscriptions, including wars long gone and distant countries of origin, are hints. For every grave is a story, some tragic, some simply capstones to extraordinary lives. Histories of Anchorage previously covered the history of the cemetery. However, there are too many cemetery tales to be contained within a single article.
As expected, some of the stories are heartbreaking. Close to the wrought iron fence along Cordova Street are two gravestones linked into a joint memorial. On Sept. 1, 1925, three young boys all around 15 years old were rowing a pontoon like a canoe near the mouth of Ship Creek at high tide. Their makeshift vessel was a remnant from a crashed seaplane.
While shifting positions, the pontoon suddenly capsized. While falling off, the boys accidentally pushed the pontoon away. When they broke the surface, the boys were 30 feet from their craft and 50 feet from shore. They struggled, alternately thrashing about and grabbing at each other. The water was 18 feet deep and cold, their clothes weighed down by sand. One boy made it back to the pontoon and was later rescued by even younger children.
Two of the boys, Robert “Bobbie” Patterson and Scheiber Elliott, drowned. In life, they were good friends who worked together as star paperboys for the Anchorage Daily Times. In death, they remain close.
Opposite in nearly every way is the simple marker for Pinkney McMahill (1847-1936), located closer to the eastern edge of the cemetery in a tract reserved for veterans. Though frontier life wasn’t well suited for the elderly, he was one of early Anchorage’s oldest residents.
In 1862, while just 14 years old, McMahill ran away from his Galesburg, Illinois, home to enlist for the Union in the Civil War. Because of his age, none of the Illinois units would let him join. But the young boy pressed west, and in Kansas sufficiently impressed a captain with his “pluck and courage” so that he could enlist.
McMahill saw extensive action during the war, mostly guerilla actions in Western states. He nearly lost a leg, but survived and refused his father’s pleas to return home. After the war, he spent a few decades mining in California. His first Alaska experience was in 1903, when he tried his hand at prospecting in Nome. He returned to Alaska in 1913 and moved to Anchorage in 1917, where he was in the hotel trade. He died at age 88 with his wife and son at his bedside.
Some grave markers offer mysteries with answers lost to time. Johanna Taft’s (1871-1933) gravestone spells her name as Johanne Toft. An additional, much more recent marker notes the corrected spelling. Multiple spelling errors on a tombstone suggest a possible story, albeit one likely never told.
Other grave markers, like John Sultan’s obelisk monument, offer familiar stories for longtime residents. Sultan (1890-1936) was a longtime local café owner, perhaps the town’s first true restaurateur. He was born in Greece and immigrated to America in 1911. He moved to Anchorage in 1915, where he worked for the Alaska Railroad briefly before buying the Royal Café on Fourth Avenue. As noted on his gravestone, he was also a founding member of American Legion’s local Jack Henry Post.
The Royal Café burned down in 1922. The chef mistakenly used gasoline to clean an oven. Sultan rebuilt and reopened as the Anchorage Grill. For a long swath of time, the Anchorage Grill was the only restaurant open on Thanksgiving. In 1935, he married in Athens. One day after their first anniversary, he died in Anchorage.
Longtime Anchorage residents know his wife, Krisula Sultan (1908-1995), better by her nickname and third husband’s last name: Goldie Tsakres. She managed the Anchorage Grill for more than two decades after Sultan’s death before selling it in 1958. She is also buried at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
Minnie McCroskey (1873-1927) was one of many young Americans that caught gold fever in the 1890s. In 1898, she made her way to Dawson and never moved back Outside. From Dawson, she chased gold to Fairbanks, where she instead found a husband. This husband’s work with the Alaska Road Commission dragged her to Anchorage during the summer of 1927, but kidney disease killed her only a few months later.
Weldon Durham (1871-1928), called “Bull” by his many friends, was one of early Anchorage’s most popular residents, a natural storyteller. The Spanish-American War veteran worked for the railroad as a roadmaster. A diagonal crack across the middle mars his gravestone. Vandals broke the headstone circa 1991. This violation was one of several acts of vandalism that prompted the completion of the cemetery fencing.
Robert S. Bragaw Sr.'s white-painted obelisk with metal plate stands out amid the mostly smaller markers. Bragaw (1851-1928) lived a varied life working across the country in local government offices, real estate, and forestry. He moved to Anchorage in 1917 and worked for several years as a deputy clerk for the local court.
Unlike most obituaries, Bragaw’s memorial in the Anchorage Daily Times offered a family history dating back to the 17th century. The Bragaws, then the Brouchards, were French Huguenots, a Protestant branch. The Brouchards abandoned Europe in 1675 for New York, likely fleeing the ongoing Huguenot persecution under Louis XIV, the Sun King of France.
Bragaw Sr. was the Bragaw Street namesake’s father, Robert Bragaw Jr., a homesteader, photographer, and Anchorage’s first Rotary Club president. The Bragaw family left Anchorage in 1944.
One headstone stands out in its simplicity, a round stone like an accent pillow for a couch. This stone marks the grave of A.C. Craig (1862-1928). His first name was Abel, though seemingly everyone, including his wife, called him A.C. He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and by the late 19th century was living a comfortable, well-to-do life in Chicago.
Then the news of the Klondike gold strike began filtering east. Prospector stories filled the newspapers. Jewelers placed gold nuggets on display in their windows. Like Minnie McCroskey, Craig caught “golditis.” In 1897, he and his wife abandoned Chicago for the Yukon. Thus began a pattern for the Craigs, to alternately chase gold and discover disappointment. From the Yukon, the Craigs followed the golditis to Nome, then Abel alone partook of the relatively brief Shushanna strike near Cordova in 1913.
In 1915, the Craigs moved to Anchorage. Abel found steady work with the railroad and soon became one of the upstart town’s more reputable citizens. He was elected to the first city council in 1920. In other words, Anchorage broke the pattern for the Craigs and allowed them to become comfortable again.
His last day, until the end, was like many others. On Oct. 2, 1928, he worked the day as a foreman for a bridge-building gang for the Alaska Railroad. That evening, he saw a movie at the Empress theater. When he finally staggered home, he complained to his wife of fatigue. He ate then retired to the bedroom to read and relax. There, he had a heart attack and died before the doctor arrived.
The cemetery’s master burial list is available online with a convenient mapping application. Anyone can easily identify the location of all graves, including those discussed here. What stories will you discover?
“Albert C. Craig Passes Suddenly; Pioneer Alaskan.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 2, 1928, 5.
“Boys Drown!” Anchorage Daily Times, September 1, 1925, 1.
“Death Summons Popular Matron; Alaska Pioneer.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 9, 1927, 5.
“Death Takes John Sultan Day After First Anniversary.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 21, 1936, 1, 8.
“For Fifty Years, Grill Was Gustatory Landmark.” Anchorage Times, November 19, 1978, F-1, F-6.
“Military Rites Tomorrow for P. M. McMahill.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 25, 1936, 1, 8.
“Popular Citizen of Anchorage is Called by Death.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 23, 1928, 8.
Romig, Emily Craig. A Pioneer Woman in Alaska. N.p.: Barakaldo Books, 2020.
“Sleep of Death Closes Eyes of Robt. S. Bragaw.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 18, 1928, 4.
Stock, Pamela. “Cemetery Crew Seeks to Prevent Grave Vandalism.” Anchorage Times, August 17, 1991, B1, B8.
“Two Local Boys Lose Lives by Drowning in Ship Creek.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 2, 1925, 1, 4.
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