This is part four of a four part series on Allen Hasselborg, The Bear Man of Admiralty Island. Parts one through three can be found in the previous three Sundays’ Neighbors sections, starting Sunday, Feb. 10.
As director of the New York Zoological Society’s Alaska Bear Committee, John Holzworth soon became a relentlessly loud, often irresponsible, gadfly who deluged elected officials with letters, convinced dozens of newspapers to run editorials, and encouraged 30 influential organizations to pass resolutions condemning Alaska’s new regulations and boosting Admiralty Island as a sanctuary for bears. In nine talks broadcast over NBC radio, and in impassioned testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Wildlife Resources, he frequently referred to Allen Hasselborg, “a self-educated scientist and intrepid hunter,” who had introduced him to the bears of Alaska.
In the early 30s, mainly because of the Save-the-Bear Campaign, Hasselborg was more in demand as a guide than ever before. One of his last clients was George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera. Although guiding had been a good way to make money, it had proven to be much more trouble than it was worth; so in 1935 he quit.
Because Admiralty Island was almost all federal land, it was ripe for the New Deal make work programs. By the late 1930s hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruits were busy building tourist facilities up at the lakes. Cabins, camp sites, and a large tourist lodge were built along Lake Alexander by 1937.
Hasselborg had gone back to trapping and hunting for furs. He had an ongoing feud with the people of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau. In 1949 he decided to sell his Homestead. He called it a “beaver farm” with an annual income of $2,000 per year. Though the news that Old Man Hasselborg was selling his place caused something of a stir in Juneau, nobody rushed to buy it. The following winters were extremely bad and Hasselborg had a hard time with a combination of old age, poor gardens because of bad weather and a lack of animals to eat and skin for furs. Finally, in the fall of 1953, a building contractor from Georgia named H.G. Smith purchased the 132-acre homestead for $3,500. Although Smith now owned the homestead, he offered to let Hasselborg stay as long as he liked. He stayed through one last winter and then, on May 24, 1954, he made his last trip to Juneau.
He caught a plane (his first plane ride) and went to live with relatives in Florida. The fast pace of civilization and the hot weather was too much, so he returned to Alaska. On July 7, 1955, he was admitted to the Sitka Pioneer home. By January, he was already looking forward to another Alaska spring, although he knew he was dying of cancer. Hasselborg was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 19, 1956 and, four days later, at the age of 79, he died.
If you walk up through a small grove of trees in the Sitka graveyard, past fancy monuments to the town’s more prominent former residents, you will come to a gently sloping hillside inlaid with rows of small, flat, gravestones. Many are overgrown by grass and too weathered to read, but if you look closely you’ll find one with Hasselborg’s name on it.
While his homestead at Mole Harbor is still privately owned, the land for many miles around it — about 90 percent of Admiralty Island — is now within The Admiralty Island National Monument. President Jimmy Carter established the monument in 1978, ending a long, intermittent political battle that began with the Save-the-bear Campaign in the 1930s. Congress has since added it to the National Wilderness Preservation System. As the bear man who instructed and inspired the leaders of the campaign, Hasselborg played an important early role in the preservation of more than 900,000 acres of Alaska wilderness.
1. Bear Man of Admiralty island by John R. Howe
2. Expeditions: In fortress of the Bear by Terry Wieland
3. Papers of Allen E. Hasselborg, 1899-1955 by Alaska State Library, Historical Collections
4. The Wild Grizzlies of Admiralty Island by John Holzworth