HOPE, ALASKA

Having just spent some energy researching some memories about the history of the Hope Retreat Center, it seems appropriate to share some of this information. I was fortunate enough to have it as part of my life for a total of 14 1/3 years out of my 33 1/3 years in Alaska. Wish it could have been more.

I was the summer furlough pastor for the Moose Pass Circuit in 1961. I preached in Moose Pass on Sunday, in Girdwood on Monday, in Cooper Landing on Tuesday and in Hope on Wednesday. When possible, I would stay in Hope for a day or two, organizing others to finish the 1945 building construction. For example, the roof had not been stained on the back side of the building. Some children from Jesse Lee Home in Seward helped me accomplish that feat. Keith Specking, a local hunting guide and later a State Representative, helped me either redo or finish the front porch, so that entry was no longer a dangerous challenge.

If my memory is correct, the highest attendance at services was two (2). Many Wednesdays none would show up, but the Keith Specking family would invite me over for a meal. The regular pastor, Benjamin A. Laird, was highly regarded in the community, but it didn’t translate into participation. Benjamin had an extensive relationship through personal contact in cabins along the road from Moose Pass to Hope, as he took literally our training to visit from house to house, or in this case, cabin to cabin.

Recently I was reminded of my first wedding. A couple called me from Anchorage to be married in the Hope church. She was a wee bit older than he and they didn’t want to deal with comments from friends. I agreed to meet them in Hope on the date selected. I did not realize that two witnesses were needed, so when that issue came up, we had to find some one. They got Dr. Nearhouse and I recruited David Nutter, a seventeen year old boy who had befriended me. I was so proud of him. When Dr. Nearhouse got to the chapel, it was obvious that he had worn a very old suit and put on a tie not worn for a long, long time. He turned to David and asked if he had put his tie on correctly. David didn’t miss a beat. He looked at the tie that was on backwards and declared: “it looks fine”. And so it did on July 1, 1961, the date of my first wedding.

Flash forward to 2013 and an obituary appeared in the Stanwood-Camano News for one David Nutter. As I read it, I realized that it was the same person. Back in the 1960’s his family home had burned, along with all of their possessions. (Fire is not good in rural Alaska) So David’s wife didn’t have any photograph of her husband as a teenager. I was able to supply her with a photograph of the wedding, created from the slides I had of the occasion. It would have been wonderful to talk with David, if I had only known he was nearby.

Dr. Iver Nearhouse was 79 at this time. He died the next year. He was an institution. He had been a medic in some capacity and the name Dr. stuck. He operated a café and store, with nuts and bolts that probably dated back to the Hope Gold Mining days. Many people have heard of the Klondike in the Yukon, few have heard of the gold mining at Hope and Sunrise. The difference: authors. The Klondike had Robert Service and Jack London, among others. Hope didn’t have anyone.

There were characters over the years. One more recently was Tom Williams in 1987, who built a tourist center (I will not call it a trap) a few miles up the Resurrection Creek. It was called Paystreke and it was built in the form of an 1880’s mining town and it thrived for awhile. Tom came up with the idea of advertising for brides for himself and some of his employees. He had 15 minutes of fame. Some one paid for his marriage in Japan and he was on a series of talk shows. His marriage lasted six weeks according to one account. The lodge burned down in 1993 and the lease was cancelled by the owners. Tom died in 1993 or so in Idaho. Tom had built a reputation that ended in a court order than he could no longer carry a gun. He then carried a very big knife.

In researching this story, I came across a quote by one of the mail order brides that is very inaccurate, but colorful: “Everyone I met in Hope was strange. There was Wild Bill and Hippie John (Note: it was not me) and Cracker Jack – he was the town chiropractor. Hope is where everyone who can’t make it anywhere else in the world ends up. Everyone is a gold miner there.” (dated Dec. 13, 1987)

There were many residents who did not fit this description. Dr. Richard and Averill Gay, retired college professor, would be a case in point. Though it was strange to see him walking in his suit and tie in Hope, Alaska. He sat at our dining room table in Kenai in the 1960’s, in town to speak to our Methodist Men’s Club. He had been reading one of my books and he noted that I had underlined some items and he wondered why. I couldn’t remember what I had underlined. He then quoted what I had underlined from memory. Then I was able to tell him why. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. He had a distinguished career as a professor, preacher and school board member in Anchorage, among other things.

I had a lot of interaction with E. G. Barrett over the years. He was a fixture at local dances, having played in some Detroit musical groups, he shared his talent in Hope. He might fit the description as strange, but he liked me, so he regaled me with lots of stories. He didn’t like fundamentalists and I was NOT a fundamentalist. He claimed that he had gotten to the point of not talking to some people, so I really felt accepted. He spent his winters reading the Bible and perhaps other literature and had really thought through a lot of issues that a careful reading of the Bible reveals. In person, it was hard to get a word in. In writing, I have a twelve page letter (typed and single-spaced) that I still treasure.

Here are a few lines: “Now I am NOT antagonistic toward preachers, except those arrogant, self-appointed sort, who suddenly think they ought to take charge of OUR “SPIRITUAL” development AS A MEANS OF IMPROVING THEIR OWN TEMPORAL AND FINANCIAL SITUATION!

“SOME of these people never went to a theological seminary, nor in fact every really STUDIED anything much — they assume a top-lofty and superior attitude, and begin telling ME that I should get a Bible and read it — even though I have read it from cover to cover 6 or more times.” Great memories.

What really impressed me about Mr. Barrett is that he had read a great deal about the early church fathers and I learned more from him about that period of history than I did in seminary. And I continue to realize that the first five centuries need even more study and I am grateful that some scholars are providing us even more information about what happened to Christianity during that era. We may never recover.

Some Methodist preacher had offended one matriarch in the town (Mrs. Emma Clark) with his views on baptism and the end result was the creation of an alternative church in a town of 100 souls. It is my belief that this is why Methodism couldn’t get a foot hold with some one actively badmouthing Methodism.

I utilized the building for youth retreats starting that summer of 1961. Youth came from Girdwood and Moose Pass for a first and probably only parish youth retreat. I don’t recall when the church was ended and the Hope Retreat Center was created, but I was all for the creation of a retreat center and I did my part to utilize the facility with youth groups from the Kenai Parish (1962-1965), the UMC of Chugiak (1965-1969) and then as the pastor at East Anchorage UMC (1981-1988). It was during this time that I campaigned for the position of Chair of the Hope Retreat Center. During the time I was at East Anchorage I could announce that I was going to Hope and my members thought I was working. As one of my brothers said: “Our mother didn’t raise any dummies.” At least not in this case. Only once I took a book with me and in the course of 3 days, it was read and digested. The title was “It’s A Different World!” by Lyle E. Schaller and it explained the changes I had experienced in ministry: “From Doorbell to Mailbox” and “From Mainline to Nondenominational” would be two illustrations. I would read until sleepy, sleep, and then read again, taking time out to enjoy the wonderful food at Tito’s, operated by Tito Kagimoto. My idea of paradise. Not to be duplicated again.

In 1964, the vital youth group at Ninilchik planned to take a bus trip to Denali, but the Great Alaska Earthquake got in the way and knocked out some bridges, so we went to the Hope Retreat Center. We had 30 youth. Rule #1: Respect local property. We had to have projects. Stain the logs seemed to be a good one. It was finished in one hour. Things started going downhill fast. The next year I took less than 10 and I took youth that had some respect for my authority. It wasn’t personal. I don’t think some had respect for anyone’s authority. But we had a big youth group!

Everywhere I was assigned as the pastor in South Central Alaska, most of the youth fell in love with Hope, but it took awhile for this love to spread. Eventually Turnagain United Methodist and some work teams upgraded the facility and it is much more utilized today. I think it will survive for awhile as a Retreat Center. They even have heat today. Once I offered to buy it, if it was ever “for sale”. Offer still holds!

While there with a group from Chugiak, a youth put some cardboard in the fireplace and it rose and we had a chimney fire with flames shooting out the top several feet. I then learned about the fire alarm. Three shots fired into the air. A truck came with a barrel of water and the fire was put out without any permanent damage, as far as I know.

In the 1960’s, several of us hiked what would become the Resurrection Trail from Hope to Cooper Landing, a distance of 37 miles. It was formally established in 1966. Awesome experience. Leo C. Cramer and Walter L. Hays, Jr. were part of that experience. I was very impressed by the sight of a patch of snow that started two rivers: Resurrection to the north and Juneau to the south. I did some skinny dipping in Juneau Lake and Walter thought it would be fun to take my picture. I convinced him that his camera would no longer be able to take pictures if he did not cease and desist. He finally believed me.

A family retreat sponsored by the East Anchorage Church was held at Hope and I got the idea of collecting red berries in little baggies, including one (baneberry) that is very dangerous. For children’s sermon the next week I emphasized how dangerous this berry was and that they children should not eat red berries without checking with their parents. One girl stood up with her hands on her hips and she proclaimed: “If it is so dangerous, why did you pick it?!” The congregation roared with laughter and I don’t think her psyche was damaged. Don’t know about mine!

There is lots to do in Hope. Once we climbed Porcupine Mountain, which is reached from the area where we used to have a church camp, but now is a public camping area. Also beyond that area is an easy hike to Gull Rock with great views of Turnagain Arm. We kept returning to the end of the Palmer Creek Road and then hiked to the remains of the Swetmann Gold Mining Camp. Over the years we have seen porcupines, wolverine (awesome), moose and bears. The Palmer Creek Road is maintained only six miles to the Coeur d’Alene Campground. Don’t take a vehicle you love beyond that point. After seeing the wolverine, I gave up trying to walk to the end of the road or trail. It is five more miles to the end of the road. High-clearance or four-wheel drive vehicles are essential. If this motivates anyone to rent the Hope Retreat Center and then enjoying the area, take me along. I would be an inexpensive guide.

This brain drain started when a historian in 2015 asked me for some photographs. At one point there was a Methodist Camp in Hope about two miles west of town. I have had personal conversation with a member of the 1954 work team (Graham Hutchins) that built a building there.  But David Blackburn closed it out of fear for some children going out on the tidal flats and then drowning. A real possibility, but a fear that I believe was unfounded, in the sense that tragedy could happen anywhere. The lease was cancelled and the land reverted back to the Forest Service and is now a public campground (Porcupine), one enjoyed by many people. This decision pre-dated my involvement, so I am only Monday Morning quarterbacking. When I came in 1961, there was a pile of lumber from the tear down activities on the front lawn of the church. I remember some controversy in its disposal, but I don’t remember the details.

All camping energy was switched from Hope to Birchwood Camp north of Anchorage. When Birchwood Camp celebrated its 50th anniversary, I realized I had participated in the first camp held at Birchwood. The first week I was a counselor and the second week I was the Dean. That was the way Alaska worked back in those days.

I have mentioned Keith Specking. He was a big game guide and summer was a busy time for him. At least once Ben Laird went on a hunt with Keith on the Denali Highway. I never did. Ben went as a worker, not as a client. Billy Miller and Dave Nutter were employees of Keith Specking. In 1994, Billy was instrumental in establishing a museum in Hope. It is the Hope and Sunrise Historical Society Museum. If you meet him, tell him hello for me.

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4 thoughts on “HOPE, ALASKA

  1. Tom Williams died of a heart attack while fishing in 2004. He lived in Clark Fork Idaho which is ironically 12 miles away from Hope Idaho. I know because I was “the mail order bride” who went through the wedding ceremony with him in Japan. I also lived in Clark Fork at the time, not with him but we were still good friends and actually neighbors at the time.

    • Thanks for telling me some of the “rest of the story”. Glad you remained friends after sharing some unique experiences together. Have not been to Clark Fork, but I understand it is a very beautiful area, not unlike the beauty of Hope, Alaska.

  2. He did carry his Bowie Knife (in AK but not (Indiana or Idaho) Tom Williams court order of not being able to carry a gun was put in place years and years ago. He was a convicted felon and served time in federal prison outside of Alaska before I even met him in 1986. . There is so much more.. His run ins with the Fed’s etc… over mining claims on Ressurection Creek, that ended him in the pen, guns drawn on the claim, guns drawn from both sides–Crazy stuff, and they sent him out of AK to serve his time and that is where he studied and researched mining laws and he came out knowing everything about anything and everything about mining gold claims. Extremely smart man. So much I could say about him and the buisines he owned and operated for years after his mining days but will refrain for now

  3. Alaska Magazine (May 2017) has an article that mentions Hope, Alaska. (page 69) and shares another person’s experience of failing in love with the place. Quoting from page 69 “Cruising slowly down the packed dirt road, I looked at the Seaview on my right, the glistening bay and towering mountains up ahead and I just knew. I need to spend a few nights here.” I treasure the many nights I was privileged to spend there. If medical service had been closer, we might have retired there, but alas, all we can do now is visit. The Hope Retreat Center is available, reservations through the state United Methodist office in Anchorage. (Alaska United Methodist Conference of The United Methodist Church)

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