Elton hears voices from the past

Posted: Friday, September 23, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

I'm going to take the advice of Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets, who wrote in "Song of Myself:" "I think I will do nothing now but listen."

With the light rain falling in early September I listen to the sounds on the vacant lot next to the city's garage and library. This is the ground where the Juneau Cold Storage and dock once were located.

I hear the thunder of sea-planes taking off and the scream of circling gulls. But I try also to listen to the whisper-sounds of those who were here long ago.

I hear their voices.

I hear Wallace George, the founder of the Baranof Hotel and owner of the cold storage. I hear Howard Simmons who worked in the office and fish buyer Ed Johnson.

I hear the voices of the marvelous fish house crew who I knew in the 1950s and '60s. Don Hanebury and Puggy Nelson are heading halibut and grading salmon and putting up 1,000 pound tierces of mild cure.

Danny Montero and Marcello Quinto are laying salmon in the freezers. Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Helen Sarabia with Basilio Untalasco are washing black cod in the big fresh water tank.

Ivan Jurjev is at the hoist. He spoke of a female companion coming north to live with him, that he was expecting his "warm winter blanket."

I hear Alphonse Hundt, trained as a mining engineer in Freiburg, Germany, as he breaks loose the frozen halibut from the plates at minus 30 degrees, while I pitch fresh salmon to Vincent Yadao in the adjoining freezer.

I hear John Heueisen and my dad in the tiny office over the Victory Bar where they participate with the fishermen in doing "business in great waters."

I hear Walter Soboleff as he climbs the stairs to my dad's office on a Friday evening to say hello. My dad gives a contribution to the Memorial Church without being asked, a story Walter has told me.

My friend Ralph Swap worked at the cold storage for a few days then. A memorable experience he likes to relate was being hit on the head with a big halibut, and going over to the City Café for a coffee break, unconscious of a large frozen bloodcicle on his forehead.

I believe that today Ralph is the leading stamp and rare book collector in Alaska. He acquired many of Seely Hall's stamps and covers before Seely passed away. Seely wanted Ralph to have them.

Ralph has the earliest Harrisburg cover dated Dec. 17, 1881. Only one other is in existence. Harrisburg was an early name for Juneau. He also has the third earliest Juneau of Sept. 8, 1884 and a Douglas of May 28, 1893. Of all the tiny mining camps of northern Southeastern, he only lacks one from Jualin. He has postmarks and covers of Thane, Amalga, Snetisham, Speel River, St. Therese, Sumdum, Taku Harbor, and two especially rare Comets. The postmaster at the Comet became a celebrated lawyer in later years. His name was Norman Banfield.

I hear all their voices in the misty rain of a September afternoon.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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