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The life and times of Jim Edwards, the can-do genius of Alaska's lost decades

  • Author: Tom Kizzia
  • Updated: October 15, 2016
  • Published September 4, 2016

McCARTHY — When he was still in his 20s and new to the Wrangell Mountains, Jim Edwards decided to walk the few hundred miles from his home in McCarthy to the port of Cordova. This was the mid-1950s and much of the railroad track that had opened the country 40 years earlier was still in place. Following the Copper River canyon south from Chitina, he crossed the glacial side streams on the ruins of trestles.

But he came to one creek where he had to wade, lost his footing and was swept into the icy murk of the big river. He had heard how the glacial silt can drag you down. He managed to loosen the shoulder straps on his pack and hold his rifle high, and realized he was bobbing along pleasantly enough atop his pack, with buoyant plastic bags inside keeping his gear dry. After awhile, he found himself looking at the scenery. Eventually the current pushed him into an eddy, on the far side of the river. Nobody was on that side of the river for hundreds of miles. So he pushed back into the cold current and bobbed a few miles farther to the Cordova side, where he resumed following the tracks of the lost civilization.

Jim Edwards was always one to put the past to good use. The Chitina River valley had once boomed with industry, home to the mines and mills of the Kennecott Copper Corp. Now it was abandoned, rapacious capitalism yielding to unforgiving wilderness. But the country was left littered with machinery and parts that would be very useful to a certain kind of checked-flannel engineering artist.

During a July memorial at his Swift Creek homestead, Jim Edwards was remembered not just as McCarthy's longest-living resident — he was 85 when he died in May — but as its foremost recycling genius.

Dozens of friends and neighbors sat in chairs on his homestead lawn to reminisce. Many were longtime locals themselves, saying goodbye to an era in Alaska history, those lost decades between the first boom and the modern age. There were six people living between Chitina and the Canada border when Edwards moved to the Wrangells. McCarthy really was a ghost town. He had raised a family and befriended the young back-to-the-land settlers and suffered terrible loss in the town's infamous mail-day massacre. He had watched things change, seen the coming of the McCarthy Road and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and the summer tourists. His home valley is a different place these days, bustling with guided adventure tourists and the tinpot dramas of reality television.

The weekend of the memorial, the new McCarthy was on full display, with several hundred young people camped on the river bars for a packraft race and a rock concert complete with soundstage, wristbands and an aerial gymnast hanging from silks.

No one spoke of the murders at the memorial, in keeping with customary local reticence on the subject. Instead, friends told of epic cross-country bulldozer treks, quick flights across the river to pick up mail and his legendary iron pile.

"He was a jack of all trades. There was almost nothing he couldn't do," said Kenny Smith, who first knew Edwards as his Boy Scout troop leader in Cordova. Smith's father, the pioneer aviator Mudhole Smith, later employed Edwards to fly the mail plane from Cordova.

In a town with no road access, Edwards assembled a work truck named Rigor Mortis from the ill-fitting parts of 1930s-era cars left behind when the last train departed. He built his own grass airstrip and a plane that he flew to Seattle in two days. With salvaged leather belts and skis and an auto frame, he spent months building a snowtrack vehicle, a decade before the first Ski-Doos were available commercially. Not every invention was a success: the snowmachine was so heavy, it never traveled more than 100 yards.

Some of his tools and inventions were on display at the memorial. These included a waterwheel for generating free electricity and a pressure-fed water line that, in the event of a forest fire, would send sheets of water pouring off the roof. Another series of switches and levers would pump water to a sprinkler shield, an array of nozzles mounted atop 20-foot spruce stumps in the woods. His engineering method, like his approach to backcountry adventure, often consisted of solving problems as they arose. The result could be an ungainly concatenation. He worried nobody could run his water system if he were gone when a wildfire struck.

"He wrote up an instruction manual and tried to get me to read it," recalled Kenny Smith. "It was like 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Bent nails and junk mail

The question posed at the memorial but never answered: What motivated him? Was Jim Edwards so good at what he did because he was exceptionally inventive? Or because he was exceptionally cheap?

He was known for his coffee cans of bent nails, straightened by his family over the quiet winter months and the used tea bags good for one more cup. In his later years, his critique of modern civilization focused on the junk mail piling up in McCarthy's mail plane shack, and he set about building a storage shed whose thick walls were stacks of magazines, phone books and catalogs mortared with leftover latex paint.

I first got to know Jim Edwards in the summer of 1983, when I spent a week in McCarthy to write about the community's resilience in the aftermath of tragedy. The only way to get into town in those days was on a hand-pulled tram suspended from a cable over the Kennicott River. The local people were working together building a new, easier-to-use tram out of cable salvaged from the mines. In my journal, I noted Edwards' shambling and soft-spoken demeanor, and the deference his impressive self-sufficient neighbors showed him. He was still a kind of Boy Scout troop leader.

He explained to me they were hoping to forestall construction of a bridge — and keep out the conventional ideas of progress that would come with full road access.

"McCarthy has tremendous charm for the casual visitor as well as the person who lives here. Put a road in here and all that will be gone," he said. That summer, it felt like he was trying to engineer a way to stop time itself.

Days without access

Occasionally his inventiveness got him into trouble — never worse than the fall he walked 60 miles out the old railroad grade with a toothache too deep-seated for his usual dental technique, involving a file from his toolbox. He planned to cross the Copper River to Chitina in a canoe, but found the river already full of fast-moving slush ice. The railroad bridge, taken out by ice every year and then rebuilt, was long gone. But the cables of a mechanized tram used for bridge construction still sagged across the half-mile expanse.

Edwards climbed the tram tower, found a heavy chain, looped it over a cable and rigged a board for a seat. He made sure he could grab the cable and lift his weight with one hand while pushing the chain forward with the other. Halfway across, where the sag was deepest, he realized how badly he had underestimated the challenge. Pushing uphill, he could only move a few inches at a time. It was growing dark and freezing and his strength was gone. He did not want a story to end with some dead fool dangling above the Copper River. When he reached the opposite tower at last, he collapsed on a platform, his jacket shredded, his body covered in bruises. He woke up hours later and staggered into town looking for the dentist.

Edwards discovered McCarthy in 1953, after he learned to fly in Cordova and asked about a good place to explore from the air. Something about the big glacial country emptied of people captivated him. He picked a house and settled in. Sometimes he found work with the last miners knocking about the Wrangells. One summer, he led visiting engineers out a ledge above a half-mile precipice to a copper deposit known as the "Binocular Prospect" because Kennecott experts said binoculars were the only way anyone was ever going to see it. A glacier lip several hundred feet above dropped ice toward the ledge, Edwards once told me, "whistling like bombs and they'd break into dust when they hit the trail."

More often, he had to leave the Kennicott country to find summer work to sustain him through the lonely winters. It was on a plane home from Nome, in 1957, when he spotted Maxine, a classy-looking tourist from California. He was smitten, but too shy to say anything. At the airport they went their separate ways, to separate hotels. In their separate rooms they undressed and went to bed, but neither could sleep. Restless, each dressed and went out to walk the city streets. Jim decided he wanted an ice cream cone, and there at the ice cream parlor he saw Maxine again. This time he was braver. The next day he planned to fly to McCarthy in his small plane and asked if she wanted to come along. She said yes.

He proved to be a doting husband. He promised Maxine two buckets of water a day, hauled up from the creek for her bath. In the winter of 1961, after the birth of their first child, he flew off to deliver a present, her 1949 Chevy Deluxe sedan.

There was no road past the Copper River yet. But Edwards had a used D-4 cable-blade dozer waiting in Chitina. He salvaged log decking from the railroad bridge and built a sled, on which he loaded the pale-green Chevy and drums of extra fuel. He crossed the frozen river easily but spent a whole day cutting a half-mile sidehill trail up the bluff with pick and shovel. Once he gained the old railroad trestle, he had just enough room to drive his Cat between the rails. Where the railbed was washed out he had to stop and build a ramp of chainsawed trees to climb out of the tracks and make a detour. Sometimes this happened every few hundred yards. Where broken rails stopped him, he found that half a stick of dynamite would shatter the iron so he could proceed. He teetered across wobbling trestles or built his own snowbridges. His canned food was frozen hard as glass. At Chokosna his front axle broke. He walked 25 miles back to Chitina, passing a week of campsites in a day's hike. He flew his plane to Anchorage and found a replacement part, which he airdropped near the bulldozer.

Finally, he crossed the frozen Kennicott River, stopped at his house and presented Maxine her freshly dented Chevy. It took him 30 days to travel 60 miles.

Two years later, with Maxine and two small children along, he made that winter trip in reverse. By this time most of the rails had been pulled out for scrap, leaving a pioneer road. He assembled a bulldozer wagon train and tucked his family in the Chevy, a wood stove in the back seat, stovepipe out the window. By the end of the three-day journey, the D-4 Cat, the Chevy, a truck, an airplane body and several sleds were scattered along the route. But the family made it safely to Anchorage. Edwards drolly recounted the successful journey in an article for the December, 1964 Alaska Sportsman magazine titled "A Christmas Shopping Trip."

Edwards built his homestead house across the river from McCarthy, using iron salvaged from a bridge to hold up mighty roof beams cut with a ship's adze. Their two kids, Steve and Shelly, had grown up and moved away by the morning of March 1, 1983, when Maxine set out along the snowy trail to meet the weekly mail plane, pulling behind her an empty red sled.

Nights without exit

My first visit to McCarthy was the next morning, on a charter flight direct from Anchorage. I was the police reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. State troopers said six McCarthy residents had been killed the day before, ambushed and shot when they gathered to meet the mail plane. The killer, a depressed and suicidal newcomer to the valley, was in custody.

I found a young couple in a cabin who had skipped mail and didn't find out about the murders until nightfall, listening to the radio from Glennallen. They told me the murder victims had been the best kind of hardy pioneer Alaskans. They told me Maxine could run a bulldozer all afternoon and serve a dinner on linen and crystal at night.

Back by the frozen runway, where the charter pilot waited, I met Jim Edwards. The troopers were still gathering evidence. Bright orange body bags lay in the snow. There were no phones in those days. Edwards asked a favor. He hadn't been able to get word to his son, who worked at Merrill Field in Anchorage. Would I bring him a note when I landed?

Flying home over the mountains in the fading light, I was more torn than I had ever been in my short newspaper career: thrilled, in that detached journalist's way, that I would soon get to tell the world an amazing tale, and nauseated that I had to tell Jim Edwards' son his mother was dead.

The king of Kennecrap

After Maxine's death, Edwards had no interest in reverting to backwoods bachelorhood. He got right on it by advertising in the singles section of the Anchorage Daily News classifieds. His second wife, Pat, a Florida nurse, lived on the homestead for 10 years before succumbing to cancer. During her illness, to keep from moving to town, he built a centrifuge out of a high-speed drill press for preparing blood samples to ship to Anchorage.

He got back in touch with the advertising department. He first met Audrey, his surviving third wife, for a polite cup of coffee the day before she was scheduled for surgery. When she woke up in the hospital, he was sitting at the foot of her bed. They were married for 21 years.

"I have to admit I threw a lot of good tea away," Audrey Edwards told me. "He was not really stingy, just conservative. You would do something for yourself if you could." She recalled how he ran cold creek water through a car radiator in their house wall to provide her a refrigerator.

Over the years, Jim Edwards avoided the political and religious flare-ups that periodically swept McCarthy. He did not like all the rules imposed after Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was established by Congress in 1980 — especially ones that pushed him off his placer-mining gold claim. But he did not join the handful of property-rights activists who waged a battle against the new park, perhaps because, as he once told me, the best description of his own religion was nature worshiper.

By 1998, when the National Park Service took over ownership of the Kennecott ruins, most of the "cultural resources" from the buildings were gone. Pipe fittings and stoves, furniture and plates had been hauled away for sale as antiques or piled in sheds filled with what some locals called "Kennecrap." Anything that remained was cataloged by the Park Service and hidden away in storage, leaving the restored buildings empty.

The park, focusing on the historic Kennecott period (1911-1938), continues to struggle with how to address those years after the mines closed, a period that is now itself fading into history. Former Park Service historian Katie Ringsmuth, writing after Edwards' death, recalled how she first thought of him as a "cranky old looter" — only to learn to appreciate how he lived and breathed the special history and ethics of the place. Those in-between years had opened a space for a profoundly American experience. He told her: "This is my home in every sense of the word."

Steve Edwards, Jim and Maxine's son, now 55 and a recently retired airplane mechanic living in Wasilla, joined Audrey to host the memorial. He said he plans to keep the 80-acre homestead for his two sons, who have picked up their grandfather's mechanical aptitude and scientific curiosity.

He told me that the story of his father's monthlong bulldozer ride to deliver his mother's Chevy had never made much of an impression when he was a boy in McCarthy.

"I grew up with these stories, and I thought a lot of people do that," Steve Edwards said. "Later, I realized — no, other people don't do that."

Tom Kizzia, a long-time reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, has a cabin in the Wrangell Mountains. His non-fiction bestseller, "Pilgrim's Wilderness," is set in McCarthy.

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