Southeast Sagas: Slide

The disaster started in the saturated ground at the flume of the A-J mill and roared 'like a cloudburst'

Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Rock and dirt slides and snow avalanches are nothing new to Juneau.

All of the city's recorded history tells of disasters of this sort, some of which took lives in addition to damaging nerves and property. Slides are to be expected in territory where there are steep hillsides and mountain slopes that feel the annual impact of hundreds of inches of precipitation, both liquid and solid.

What was at the time called the "worst slide in the history of Juneau" occurred at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, January 2, 1920. As it cascaded down Mount Roberts, the slide made a "noise like a cloudburst," according to reports in the Alaska Daily Empire. Following heavy rain and melting snow, the slide started at the flume of the Alaska-Juneau mill and tore its way down to Front Street for a distance of about 900 feet. It carried several dwellings with it, and left them jammed against the rear of I. Goldstein's store and James Russell's gun shop. The dwellings ran downhill on a skid of roots, rock and mud - all left in a tangle which rescuers attacked with bare hands and axes.

First to be swallowed up in the rush was a three-story boarding house on the upper side of Gastineau Avenue, about 300 feet below the mill. Owned by Peter Koski, the boarding house regularly hosted 10 to 15 men, chiefly miners. The John Larson house was carried along, hitting in turn the Otto Kajander house and several cabins. Some people escaped while the buildings were in motion, eyewitnesses said. The buildings were largely intact until they hit the Goldstein store, at which point they crumpled like houses of cards. Mud and water from the slide penetrated the Goldstein store and oozed their way through to Front Street on the far side.

Eight people were injured. The first casualty was Andrew Wallin, a blacksmith who was in the kitchen of the Koski house at the time. Initially he was diagnosed as badly bruised, with his left leg broken. He died at Dawes Hospital on the following day.

The injured included Peter Koski; Mrs. Koski; Viano Kallia, who had been asleep in the second story of the Larson House; Viano Fajanteri; John Neimi; and Henry Neimi and John Larson, in the Larson house. John Neimi had been asleep in the Larson house and escaped through the roof when it broke up.

Also among the injured was Henry Heionen who had been asleep in the Larson house. He was carried down the hill in the wreckage and wound up hanging by his head, jammed between two timbers, for two hours. He could hear people talking near him, he said afterward, but could not move. He was badly bruised by his ordeal, but had no broken bones.

The first person to see the slide was Lee Rox who broke the glass on the fire-alarm box to summon help. Rox then grabbed an axe and flashlight and rushed to the scene. "At this time cries and groans were issuing from all parts of the splintered mass of wreckage," the Empire reported.

In addition to the Fire Department, 50 men from the Alaska Juneau mine joined the recovery effort about half an hour later. At 4 p.m., men from Thane arrived, and later more men arrived from Alaska Gastineau until a total of 118 were at work. Mayor Latimer Grey and members of the City Council pitched in.

The Jan. 3 issue of the Empire estimated property damage at $3,000 for the Larson house, $8,000 for the Koski house and belongings of boarders; $12,000 for Goldstein's stock plus several cabins and an apartment house he owned; $3,000 for the Kajander house, and $500 for the Frank Oja house.

The Koski family had just finished paying off their boarding house. His wife, Mary, was in the kitchen when the slide hit, preparing lunch. Mrs. Koski was carried down the hill with the house and taken from the wreckage with several broken ribs, the jagged ends of which were threatening her lungs.

Pete Koski was outside at the time of the disaster. The slide picked him up and threw him through the window of a neighbor's house. He was badly bruised and suffered internal injuries. The house into which he was thrown was not hit by the slide. Koski lingered until Jan. 10, when he died of his injuries.

On the day of the slide, it was thought only one resident was unaccounted for. By Jan. 3, however, it was clear that two men were missing: Lowrey Maki, 28, a roomer in the Larson house; and Henry Jaeger, 55. Searching for the men, rescuers used fire hoses to sluice the hillside of gravel and clear wreckage. The bodies were found on Jan. 5. However, fatalities might have been many more if the slide had happened in the evening, when children would have been home from school.

A week after the slide, the Palace Theatre donated its stage for a benefit show. Local talent performing included the Capital City Quartette.

But this was not the end of the story. On August 18, Izzy Goldstein sued the A.J. Mine for slide damage. Mary Koski also sued the Mine, and on Feb. 25, 1921, a jury was picked to hear that case. On March 9, 1921, A.J. Mine defeated Mrs. Koski. But on April 5, the verdict came back in favor of Goldstein. A.J. was ordered to pay Goldstein $18,275 in damages.

By coincidence, on the same day that verdict came in, an avalanche cut the power line to Thane Mill.

• Southeast Sagas is a series that appears in the Juneau Empire every other week. Its aim is to profile people and describe events that help to shed light on the varied history of this region of Alaska.

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