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Stormy girlhood


(Published: October 26, 2003)

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My father came to Alaska during the Gold Rush of 1898 and ended up in Valdez. In 1905, he and my mother were married in Seattle. They came back to Valdez for two years, then moved to Cordova, where Dad was the chief of police for several years.

The population of Cordova then was about the same as it is now. Most of the men were fishermen. Some were miners. Some stayed year-round, some didn't.

Some worked for the Copper River Railroad, which of course was a year-round operation. There were seven children in our family. I had the distinction of being born on Halloween. We did all the usual things: skating and skiing and swimming. In such a small town, you couldn't get away with the slightest thing because everyone knew everyone else, but I really think Cordova was an ideal place to grow up.

The Alaska Steamship Company brought food and supplies once a week. The boats usually stopped both northbound and southbound because we had lots of copper being shipped out. It was a busy little port.

I was one of those children who absolutely couldn't wait to go to school. The cutoff date was November 1, and there seemed to be some question in our family whether I was mature enough to start school. But I raised such Cain that they finally agreed that I could go. The school building was too small for the kindergarten, so it was held in the fire station on Second Avenue. The fire station was fine, but I was really looking forward to first grade, when I got to go up the hill to the school building; that was a big deal to me.

As it turned out, there were too many students when I started first grade, so we had to stay in the fire station for another year. I absolutely was not going to stand for that. I was certain that they were keeping me in kindergarten another year. I got two or three other kids, and we all refused to go to the fire station. Instead, we went to sit on the bench near the top of the hill. While we were there, along came old Harry Steele, and he wanted to know what we were doing. When we told him, he laughed so hard.

Everybody walked pretty much wherever they went. There were very few cars. All the roads were gravel. In the winter they pushed the snow into the middle of the road on First Avenue. There was traffic on both sides of the street, and eventually the snow would be piled so high you couldn't see across.

My father died when I was 8 years old. We had a very happy life until then; after that, it was a matter of existence. My mother started a little gift and curio shop in the lower area of the building we lived in. Eventually she moved into the Lathrop Building and added a clothing store.

The thing about Cordova was, it rained almost every day. Many times we went to Easter Mass in rubber boots because of the rain. But that didn't keep us inside; we were outdoors and in the woods. There was a vacant lot across the street from us, and we loved going in there to play.

We had lots of storms, and some of them were really scary. You could hear them building and building; the winds that came from Lake Eyak were extremely severe. I think we were right in the path of the storms.

In a big storm, the electricity would always go out, and Mother would get the three kerosene lanterns down from the top of our cupboard. We often left the house and spent the night at the store. Lots of other people left their homes too.

We had wooden sidewalks, and during one storm, as we were leaving for the store, just as Mother was going to step outside, the wind picked the sidewalk up 20 feet into the air. She would have dropped that far if she had stepped on it.

Most homes were well-built, but they still got wracked pretty badly. Ours was a two-story home. When we sold the building, the man who bought it had a terrible time tearing it down because it was so wracked that they couldn't get things apart.

I was absolutely fascinated by business and downtown and all the activity. By the time I was a freshman, I was working summer evenings downtown in Roswold's, a small drugstore with a soda fountain. It was a store for tourists and sort of a hangout for the local kids.

The gift shop had grown into a ladies dress shop by then. When I was in high school, my older sister developed tuberculosis and had to go to a sanatorium in Seattle. Our mother went to be with her, so I took over the store. My brother George was still living at home then. He worked at a grocery store and also played drums for local dances. I went to school and ran the shop, and the younger kids took care of the house.

I recall some pretty good skating parties when I was in high school, but once I started working I didn't have much time to play. I had close friends, though, some that I still keep in touch with today. There were only seven of us in our graduating class.

My husband, Al Swalling, worked one summer in a cannery, then came to Cordova as a boy of 18 or 19. He was a carpenter, and he found a job with the Copper River Railroad. That was a pretty good job for such a young man. I knew Al for six or seven years, and we married in 1938.

He was sent to Whittier in 1941 to build the temporary dock. That's where he was when Pearl Harbor was attacked, as was I, along with four other women. One was the mother of a fellow who worked there, and the others were wives, all from out of the territory. A plane was immediately dispatched from Anchorage to pick them up. They wanted me to go too, but Al told them, "You can't take my wife to Seattle. She's an Alaskan."

I was in Whittier for over a month before I got on a southbound boat and went back to Cordova. Mother had moved to Seattle, so I was getting ready to be there by myself, finding an apartment, looking for a job. One day I saw a ship coming into the harbor and I thought: Gee, that looks like Al. And pretty soon there he was at the door. He had gotten permission for me to come back. So I stayed all of '42 and part of '43 in Whittier. We lived in a little 12- by 24-foot cabin that Al had built. We were right on the water; we could look five miles down the beach. It was very small but cozy, and I was quite content to beachcomb and pick berries.

Al was eventually transferred to Shemya, so I moved to Anchorage. He was able to come back and forth every few months. We wrote lots of letters, and people were coming and going all the time, so I could send things out to him.

Al returned to Anchorage when the war ended, and we built a house in Turnagain. During the '64 earthquake, our bedroom wing dropped about 6 inches and we lost our basement, but the house was hardly damaged. We evacuated, of course. When we came back, we had a heck of a time getting in here; there were soldiers stationed out on the road. But we finally convinced them we lived here, and they let us in.

There was so much to salvage, but when we came down to pack everything up, we saw a demolition sign on our house; we were slated to be number one for demolition. I was so angry that I ripped it off the building. Instead of letting them destroy our house, we moved it back to its current location.

When I was 60, Al and I were in Hawaii and he announced that I was soon to be a golf widow because he was going to learn to play golf. I thought: In a pig's eye! When we came home, I found a very nice English lady to give me golf lessons. I learned to play so fast that I never learned to play well, but we've a lot of fun. Wherever we travel now, we always play golf. We have three children and 10 grandchildren, most of them in Alaska.

Whenever I tell anyone that I was born here, their eyes pop open wide. Most everybody has come from someplace else, so it's quite a feather in my cap.

Sharon Bushell lives and writes in Homer. Her books, "We Alaskans" and "We Alaskans II," feature her stories about Alaska pioneers that have appeared in the Daily News. For more information, visit her Web site at

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