September 26, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 38

History on tap this weekend

Interested in cattle drives along the historic Dalton Trail? How about the story of Carl Heinmiller and the revival of northern Tlingit art? Or the life of Walter Harper, an Alaska Native who was the first person to summit Mount McKinley?

These and other histories will be shared at the annual joint conference of Museums Alaska and the Alaska Historical Society, where leading historians, archivists, authors, researchers, and museum officials from across the North will meet through Saturday.

Expected to draw more than 150 participants plus families, the conference intermixes presentations of recent historical research and seminars on museum management, and includes business meetings of the two statewide organizations, including board elections.

“We’re so spread out, it’s really a great opportunity for us to be able to come together every year to network, commiserate, cooperate and share ideas,” said Jerrie Clarke, former director of the Sheldon Museum, who’s in town helping with the conference last held in Haines in 2003.

Scheduled speakers include Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians; Steve Henrikson, curator of collections for Alaska State Museums; and Bob King, a researcher and former governor’s press secretary who will speak on “Barons of the Brine.”

King, a former journalist, will present his findings on the lives of Henry Francis Fortmann, Joseph Peter Haller, and Nikola Bezmalinovic, three of the early pioneers of the Alaska salmon canning industry.

“They were there from the beginning years. They built the canneries, and set up the business model, and then they challenged the business model. They were real characters, each one of them,” King said in an interview this week.

Former resident Dan Henry will present on Carl Heinmiller, and resident Anastasia Wiley will speak on “Kaatx’waaltu, the Second Village of Klukwan: At the Crossroads of Archaeology, Ethnology, and History.”

“Cattle Drives on the Dalton Trail” will be presented by Michael Gates, an author and retired Parks Canada curator. His most recent book is “Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail.”

“The whole cattle business was colossal in terms of the Dalton Trail. It was a really big business,” Gates said in an interview. Prospectors bought $3.5 million in beef in 1898, compared to $10 million in gold that came from the Klondike that year, he said. “Almost half the amount of gold recovered was spent on beef. So we’re talking about four-legged gold.”

Five routes brought beef to Dawson City, Y.T., during the Gold Rush, from as far away as Mexico and Manitoba, but in terms of pounds of beef delivered, the Dalton Trail more than doubled the amount moved on all other four, combined.

A relatively easy grade and browse along the way meant that cattle would gain weight along Jack Dalton’s trail. On other trails, cattle lost pounds, diminishing their value. “They were the toughest cattle drives the West ever saw, as well as being the longest,” Gates said.

Gates will sign copies of his book starting 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Sheldon Museum.

Talks on historic research come under the Alaska Historical Society section of the conference. Attendance is $20 per session for those not registered for the conference. Registration will be at the Chilkat Center. The conference schedule can be found at

Other presentations of local interest include “Protecting Historic Landmarks as Part of Economic Development,” a breakfast round-table discussion 7 a.m. Saturday at #3 Officers Row and a meeting of the Cannery Preservation Working Group open to those interested in documenting the history of canneries.

In addition to providing ideas and inspiration for local museums, the conference will produce displays for the Sheldon Museum, Hammer Museum, American Bald Eagle Foundation and Anway Cabin, Clarke said.

Alaska’s top curators and conservators will join forces to create the displays as part of the conference’s “Angel Project,” Clarke said.

The weekend will include a set of historic music performed by the Windy Valley Boys, staring 9 p.m. Friday at the Pioneer Bar. Museum education coordinator and musician Scott Pearce said music will include tunes dating back to 1870. A dedication of totem poles at the American Bald Eagle Foundation was to be held Wednesday at the opening reception of the conference at 7 p.m.

Museums or historical societies around Alaska take turns hosting the conference, which has previously been held in Sitka, Valdez, and Fairbanks. This year’s meeting was initially scheduled for Seward, but when a construction project there ruled that location out, Clarke nominated Haines as the site.

Acting Sheldon Museum director Christina Baskaya said hosting the conference here was “truly a community effort,” utilizing many of the large facilities around town to host various events, such as luncheons, banquets and concurrent sessions.