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Talkeetna archaeological dig reveals century-old artifacts, tales of tame bears

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 19, 2015

TALKEETNA -- An archaeological expedition near the heart of Talkeetna this month revealed tantalizing clues of life nearly a century ago.

Exhuming the contents of an almost 100-year-old outhouse, wondering if a large rusted chain once held a tame bear -- the two-week dig at a site just off Main Street defined hands-on science.

For the past two weeks, a half dozen Talkeetna-area high school students with the Youth Conservation Corps led by archaeologists from the University of Alaska Museum of the North have methodically excavated what's believed to be part of the old Nagley homestead next to the Walter Harper Ranger Station just off Talkeetna's main drag. The Nagleys, merchants who owned the local trading post that still bears their name, lived in the area from the 1920s into the 1930s.

The small crew and supervisors removed about 1,500 specimens -- bottles, buttons, rusted tools and stove parts -- from an old building, a burn pit and a trench around a big rusted chain that may or may not have held a bear described in local lore as living somewhere in the vicinity.

They even took on the site of the historic outhouse.

"It was my first time excavating a privy," Sam Coffman, the university museum's research archaeologist, said as he stood next to the deep hole on Wednesday.

Discovered in the deep hole where the outhouse once sat were lots of bottles, some cans, a beam that was probably once part of the wooden structure and layers of newspapers and old catalogs. That was above what you'd expect to find, though by now it's odorless.

"There is good stuff in there," Denali National Park archaeologist Phoebe Gilbert said by phone. "That's where folks throw trash, so you can find some interesting stuff in there. Enough time has gone past that the less savory bits have been composted."

Well, yes and no.

"Everyone was like, 'You have dibs on first shower,'" Coffman said, laughing.

Outhouse jokes aside, the dig has historic and cultural significance for this village that was once a mining and railroad hub and now draws tourists and mountain climbers to the junction of three rivers -- the Talkeetna, Susitna and Chulitna -- in the shadow of Mt. McKinley, North America's tallest peak.

The excavation comes ahead of National Park Service plans to alleviate local parking shortages with several gravel parking strips on sections of the property now thick with cottonwood and birch. The Nagley property is "a very important archaeological site" eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, Gilbert said. So the National Park Service was required to conduct the excavation and remove artifacts before the partial clearing of the property.

"It's also a good way to engage the community and get kids out and learn," she said.

Some of the more significant finds include a carbide miner's lamp, a collection of small glass medicine bottles, scores of buttons and beads, including some made from what look like salmon vertebrae, and a copy of a 1924 Seattle Post newspaper that was apparently used for insulation.

First inhabited by Dena'ina Athabascans, the Talkeetna area at the turn of the 20th century drew miners and prospectors once the lower Susitna yielded gold mined mostly to the west, around Petersville.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson selected Talkeetna as the site for the headquarters of the engineering commission overseeing construction of the Alaska Railroad connecting Seward and Fairbanks, according to local history provided on the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce website. Talkeetna's townsite was established in 1919 when the railroad surveyed and auctioned 80 lots, half already improved.

The site of the archaeological dig and future parking lot once belonged to Horace Willard "H.W." Nagley, a merchant who capitalized on the gold rush and opened a trading post in Talkeetna around 1920, according to a history by Coleen Mielke. Horace Nagley eventually sold the store, renamed the B&K Trading Post but later restored to the original family name, which it holds today: Nagley's General Store, home to Alaska's most famous feline, Stubbs -- the cat known internationally, though erroneously, as the village mayor.

The artifacts removed from the ground will be displayed locally, Gilbert said. The Park Service is talking with the Talkeetna Historical Society, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Talkeetna Community Council about how best to do that. There will probably be some kind of sign at the property noting its history and the excavation that occurred.

Locals who wandered past the site told crews there was an old cabin there until it was torn down maybe 20 years ago. A photo from 1963 shows an already dilapidated structure.

It's not clear what the building was used for, Gilbert said.

The park held a five-day field school at the site in 2013, but this was the first excavation. The dig began July 2 and ended Thursday.

Six students, five from Talkeetna and one from Caswell, worked diligently Wednesday, digging and clipping roots in search of the occasional find -- a marble, a nail, a layer of charcoal probably dumped there. They traded bad jokes and lines from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

The group is spending the summer on conservation projects, said Becca Stenerson, Youth Conservation Corps coordinator for the Upper Susitna Soil and Water Conservation District. They're earning anywhere from $9 to $10.50 an hour.

As the crew finished up Wednesday, they drew little notice from the tourists a block away spilling into Main Street amid the usual gang of town dogs. Planes buzzed overhead, en route to Ruth Glacier or other Denali-area flightseeing attractions.

But one local ambled over for a closer look: Jim Okonek, who first came to Alaska as a U.S. Air Force helicopter rescue pilot in 1964 and came to Talkeetna several years later to coordinate the search for a trio of climbers holed up in a snow cave during the first successful winter ascent of Mt. McKinley.

He later founded K2 Aviation and settled in Talkeetna.

"No bodies so far?" Okonek, 83, joked as he walked up.

He helped Coffman pinpoint the origin of some artifacts -- what was thought to be an old light bulb was probably a vacuum tube from a radio -- but also provided a little historical perspective on the property's former contents. The Park Service once stored canisters filled with human waste flown off the mountain there.

Okonek snapped photos of a mysterious metal object with his phone to show to a friend. He chatted with climbing ranger Roger Robinson, who also ambled over on a day off.

"When they come in here with the bulldozers, somebody ought to be around to watch that," Okonek said.

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