Great Land History: From a Tent City Christmas Album 1916

Anchorage, Alaska: Tent City in the Runup to Christmas 1916

[Moonlight image Anchorage to be replaced]


No other part of the earth known to man surpasses Alaska in imposing and beautiful scenery.–John Muir

The city of Anchorage, located in the Southcentral region of Alaska, lies within a bowl along the Cook Inlet and is overlooked by the Chugach mountains to the east. Although Russians had an established presence in the 19th century, Alaska Geographic notes settlements of the Dena’ina people, possibly as early as 500 AD (Volume 23, Number 1).

[Shem Pete image to be replaced]

The late Dena’ina elder Shem Pete remembered seeing the tents of Anchorage for the first time in 1914 (AG). The white tents had begun to spring up in response to talk–and later confirmation–of a western route selected for construction of a federal railroad from Seward, south of Anchorage on the Kenai (Kee-nigh) Peninsula, to the region of Alaska known as the Interior. This tent city was located under a bluff now known as Government Hill, and rested on land subject to siltation and vulnerable during earthquakes. By June of 1915, according to Michael Carberry quoted in AG, “more than 2,000 souls packed the short-lived settlement.”

[Alaska tent city images to be replaced]

Though it was 1920 before Anchorage became incorporated, men looking for work didn’t wait around to establish lives in their new location. After a short time it was determined that more women and families were needed and indeed they came. Conditions were harsh but life was conducted and the people of Anchorage wasted little time isolating themselves. The Pioneer-News (later Anchorage Daily Times) published its first issue in May of 1915. Perusals of the ADT‘s archives by late 1916 show a people who remembered their origins, but looked forward to the future and where they were then, which included living life as typically as they would anywhere else. Adverts are seen in the issues of the day for bowling alleys, pool parlors, cafes, hotels, barber shops, photo studios, furniture, sweets, banking, cigars, candies and fruits, auto service, lumber, druggists, packing companies, toys, books, periodicals, glassware and more.

They also wished to keep up with goings-on in the world, especially as by this time the Great War was raging around the world. As Christmas 1916 approached the people of Anchorage lived a sort of dual life: attempting to maintain standards and create satisfying lives whilst simultaneously coping with hardship and bad news.

Front page for December 19, 1916
Front page for December 19, 1916

In an article two days following that in the image above, “Dainty female hands are now making shells,” the journalist writes of women in previously male-only industries and presents a cautionary tale of sorts:

Hands are now making
Who knows, oh Tommy Atkins
As you throw that hand grenade
Perhaps it’s one of many
That your wife or sweetheart made

It being in the best interests of pioneers, however, to look for the sweet side of life when they could, they did this, and the business agents of Anchorage took the lead. As Christmas approached and citizens prepared, the business community offered sales and prizes, enticed consumers with the scents of a delicious meal and sought to entertain. Following are images in the days just before Christmas 1916, as Anchoragites looked forward to a joyful Christmas and the end of the war.


Above: At top can be seen “Loussac’s Daily Gossip,” the name coming from Zachariah J. Loussac, a Russian Jew who had fled Czarist Russia, settling in Anchorage after first staying in several other Alaska towns. Loussac later served two terms as mayor and the city’s library was named for him. Below is an ad extolling the virtues of Kodaks–photography was still relatively new at this time–ranging in price from $3.00 to $67.50, a Conklin fountain pen, Victrolas and “some” toys (possibly the first of items to sell out). Perhaps the adman saved best for last: Many Alaskans would own a book of poems by Robert Service.



Colonial women were as eager for silk underwear as any of the spoiled ladies of the French Court. They prized it enough to bequeath it in their wills. What did they have in Silk Underwear? Practically everything that we have. Vests, Bloomers, Corset-Covers, Nightdresses, Envelope Chemise, Petticoats, Hosiery, Negligee and Boudoir Caps. Pink was the prevailing color for them, so it is for us today, and the ladies of Anchorage appreciate the good things as well as the ladies of the Court days. So what is more befitting that you should give my lady at Xmas time than some silk underwear? Our sweaters are the best to be had. Some have caps to match. Purses, vanity cases and fancywork boxes, also children’s purses. Rich novelty ribbons for fancy wear. A full line of art needle work. Beautiful silk and wool dress patterns. A new shipment of gents’ ties just received. All suits and millinery greatly reduced. Come and see for yourself.

VARIOUS_ADSAs can be evidenced by the origins and names of those settling in Anchorage, diversity was a draw from the beginning. Athans & Pappadopolos, left, is one example. (Today over 90 languages are spoken in Anchorage alone.) It is unclear if women in a billiards advert (middle column) was considered unusual or racy, as it would have been back East, but it is so that women advanced in Anchorage (and Alaska in general) faster than their counterparts in the United States. By this time women already were part of universal suffrage in Alaska, the change coming as the Territorial Legislature’s first act, the body of which acknowledged that women had proven their strength and support in the development of Alaska–no small feat given the monumental difficulties of life on this frontier.


The Harmony Theatre as well as the Empress advertised heavily in the Anchorage Daily Times, with a pleasant array of titles for cinema-goers: The Factory Magdalan; Queenie of the Nile; The Vengeance of Wu Fang and Key to Yesterday were but some of the films offered at Harmony.

Empress drew movie buffs with the likes of The Crucible; Best of Enemies; Cross Currents and The Sign of the Cross.

The two theaters wore their pride in advertising when announcing smashed attendance records. In this particular ad: Sapho and late war news from France drew over 1,000 viewers to three shows. Aside from the war news, people were likely very pleased to be entertained after long, cold work days.


The Empress scored a coup, as we say today, by bagging a copy of Civilization, “the picture that amazed, staggered and astounded New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other large cities. Acclaimed by press and public to be the most gigantic and thrilling masterpiece of cinema history.” Empress goes out of its way to communicate the large cost of securing this film. Indeed, even with trains now running goods to and from Seattle and imports coming the rest of the way by boat, everything then, as today, was much more costly.


As with others, the language of this advert running two days before Christmas
absolutely charmed this amateur historian. While fruits and vegetables such as
green peppers, cucumbers, cranberries and pomegranates are common
in present-day ‘muni markets (though still expensive or, “spendy,” as they
say in Anchorage), in wartime 1916 they could be hard to come by and
themselves a source of celebration. Canned or tinned fruit was popular
and fashionable, and some grocers enticed shoppers with boasts of stocking
Del Monte and Libby brands.

December 23, 1916:



We as distant observers recognize the extreme importance of the following two days to people of the era based on what is not there as well as what we have been seeing in our tracking of public life via one contemporary media outlet. In the silence that follows–for the news went unpublished on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as publishers and citizens celebrated with their families the birth of Jesus–there is a sense of solemnity, a somewhat shocking void as they disappear from view for two whole days. Perhaps they experienced a similar withdrawal as they would not have had any news–or at least not as much news–of the war and other events Outside.

What we do know is that they soldiered on, continuing to create what became home for those of Anchorage today as they gave us the ability to look back and see that what drove them impacted and inspired us. This small bit of Anchorage lives presented here is but one snapshot in a much larger album flowing through memories set down in so many places and coursing through our very beings. As we look to the few days ahead counting down to Christmas 2013, nearly 100 years later, this labor of love is offered as a tribute and a thank you to those who broke trail for us.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Many thanks also to librarians Jill, Samantha and Charlotte at the Z.J. Loussac Library’s Alaska Collection for their assistance with documents and navigation.

This post previously appeared at the blog’s alternative location.

Big Cats: How It Was With Dooms (Duma) (Book and DVD Review)

How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa

by Xan Hopcraft and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft


Alexander Michaeltos, Eamonn Walker, Hope Davies and Campbell Scott

See also links at bottom 

[Book cover image to be replaced]

How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa relates the story of Dooms, an orphaned cheetah, as told by his young friend, Xan, born after the big cat had already been living with the Hopcrafts on their Kenyan game ranch. Initiated as a scrapbook put together by seven-year-old Xan and his wildlife photographer mother, Carol, following the death of their beloved friend, How It Was With Dooms was born.

Featuring Xan’s drawings and Carol’s photos, the essays and images journey readers through the years with the family, background provided along the way.

Beginning with “About How Dooms Came to Live With Us,” our first glimpse into the family’s surroundings is a photo of the Hopcrafts’ marula-roofed (papyrus) house, linking later to memories of a playful if perhaps mischievous Dooms and one of his favorite exploits: scrambling across the roof despite the damage his sharp claws can do to it. After a night of hearing the cheetah scramble over the guest roof, one set of visitors marvel, “Wasn’t that a nice rain we had last night?”

Hopcraft gives readers information about cheetahs in general, linking it, too, to details about Dooms’s life and why they care for him in the particular ways they do, such as keeping him away from worms and bugs in the grass owing to the lack of antibodies in the cow’s milk they give him. Playtime, like that of human children, also teaches Dooms how his world works and helps him respond to it appropriately. Guarding a soccer ball is enabled by his cheetah brand of claws which, unlike those of other big cats, do not retract and therefore act like cleats that supply cheetah with greater traction when running. Chasing and playing with the dogs goes towards learning about hunting, which he eventually does begin to do on his own.

Along the way the author–it is Xan’s voice telling the story–provides for readers more intimate details about Dooms and his personality: his willingness to respect but demand for same in return; his fierce hatred of the family cats and intense dislike of water; killing oversize snakes and running away from the ranch. The drawings complement the photos perfectly, in size, placement and study, and Carol Cawthra Hopcraft’s photographs bring us so close to the subjects we feel almost as if we are there. One larger photo, spread over facing pages shows Xan and Dooms walking off, the grasses spread out in front of them, their companionship bonding them together.

Unfortunately, Duma does become ill and endures a difficult car ride to Nairobi for X-rays and a possible operation. Though the family had tried everything they could to help the cheetah recover, “Death came to the door and stole Dooms.” Accompanying that page is a drawing by Xan showing the trees outside, huddled together, perhaps comforting one another as the skies pour tears over them. It is about six months later the family, after having felt as if the cheetah’s restless spirit had been with them all along, finds a way to ease Dooms’s soul and their own mourning.

In 2005 a movie based upon the book was released.

The two biggest surprises I happened upon after watching the movie (and my subsequent reading of the book) were that, one: The movie is absolutely nothing like the book. Certainly, Davies’s character makes a lot of photos, suggesting she is a photographer by trade, given her devotion to it, and Duma (as Dooms is called in the film) does walk across the piano keys as a baby. Xan, however, is 12 before Duma is found in South Africa, where they live, his father dies in the movie and the boy and his cheetah set off on an adventure that never occurs in Hopcraft’s book. While aware that all movie adaptations are different to the books they are based upon, I was slightly in awe of the gulf between the reality of Hopcraft’s experiences and the story as told on the silver screen.

Two: the movie was a commercial failure.

I am no filmmaker, but I do know what I like and none of these details above put me off the movie. I mention them because perhaps what I really am in awe of is how almost from scratch the writers, Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, really began. Also, while it may betray my naiveté when it comes to move making, I remain unsure how this movie could debut as miserably as it did. According to Wikipedia it took a rave review in Variety for Warner Brothers to re-consider its previous decision not to release in the United States; the film eventually opened as a limited release, however, and that may answer my dismay about what went wrong.

This is a movie that needs to be seen.

Filmed in South Africa (with parts in neighboring, landlocked Botswana) the story opens with Xan (Michaeletos) and his father, Peter (Scott), nearly running over a cheetah cub whose mother has been killed by a lion shortly before he crawled through a hole in the fence surrounding the protective reserve. Knowing the critter really has nowhere else to go, they take him home where Xan’s mother, Kristin (Davies), muses, “Glad I’m not his mum; I’d be heartbroken to lose him.” They decide to name him with the Swahili word for “cheetah”: Duma.

As in the book the family embarks on a campaign to help Duma learn to be a wild cheetah as opposed to an orphaned one. They accomplish this with such techniques as racing in Peter’s motorcycle, parallel to the cheetah’s running path, Xan riding in the sidecar. This is a splendid moment for viewers, especially those who may be unfamiliar with the cheetah’s feat of acceleration: the motorcycle is simply no match for a cheetah who, aerodynamically built for speed, can go from standing to sixty MPH in three seconds, reaching top speed of 75 MPH.

Peter and Xan sketch out a weekend trip designed to release the cheetah to the wild, as he is getting older and the window for him to be able to accomplish the acclimation will soon close forever. Though the boy does not wish to lose his beloved friend, his father reminds him, “His wildness is something he knows without even knowing it. It’s in his blood, in his bones, like a memory. Duma has to live the life he was born to or he’ll never be fully alive.” If the opening is missed, he will likely have to remain in captivity, a choice father and son consider as not an option.

These plans are thrown into disarray, however, when Peter falls ill and dies, and Kristin is forced to lease the farm and move the family to Johannesburg where she can work. Xan takes well neither to the shift nor his new school; as for Duma, who temporarily stays in the apartment of Auntie Gwen (who is terrified of him), well, it just doesn’t work out. He makes his way to the street and Xan’s school, causing a ruckus that shuts the school down; subsequently Xan takes matters in to his own hands.

The movie moves at a semi-fast clip, though there are moments when viewers can see the built-in passages of time containing character introspection and changes affecting how they respond to their circumstances. Shortly before shifting to the city, Xan is seen to be sitting in the long grass, staring off into space. He is still only 12, but his appearance is of a boy who has been forced to grow much in just a few days, and the weight of it shows in his countenance. At his new school, however, his ill-fitting uniform (new for him, as he’d been home-schooled) side part and wide-eyed affectation give him a vulnerable aura, and indeed he is bullied by some other boys.

When boy and cheetah meet up they escape an immediate danger but also a long-term one, for there are officials and weapons that threaten their bond. They won’t necessarily kill the cheetah, but they would take him away from Xan, and so the pair run away.

The music (playing in the video above) is another great feature of the movie, though why it isn’t more widely available baffles me. This may again reveal my own inexperience re: the movie and music industry, but with all the other CDs of African music circulating, it remains a mystery why this one seems so scarce.

To the tune of “Kaboyi Kaboyi” Xan and Duma embark on their adventure, taking off in Peter’s motorcycle, this time with Duma squarely in the sidecar. Eventually they must stop and it is here they meet up with Ripkuna (Walker), a drifter Xan doesn’t quite trust but agrees to pair up with in order to carry out the plan he had outlined with his father, that of returning Duma to the wild. Learning of his new partner’s plan, Rip is shocked because Xan appears unintelligent enough to fear the danger he faces.

“So you plan to cross the Okavango?”
“Yeah. So?”
“‘So’. [Sardonic laugh.] That is a place of many teeth, my friend. It is a place to die.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Be smart. Be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Stupid boy. [Walks off, exasperated.] You know nothing. You know nothing.”

Xan does contemplate frequently on his mother who, unbeknownst to him has organized a search, and fears she hates him for leaving her. Rip tells him the traditional Zulu story of how the cheetah get their distinctive tear stains marked onto their faces, traced back to the one heartbroken cheetah mother who has lost her precious cub. “Her face, stained forever, from her crying.” Rip confides in Xan some of his own story and his own people, and we are left to contemplate the idea of connections and loss, and the appeals to self and others in order to reconcile the two.

It is difficult to say which half of the movie is the more appealing because despite the differences, both bring out that ultimately the story of Xan and Duma, which also is the story of many others, is about connections that continue to exist even when separation occurs or someone suffers a loss. It is also about relationships that embody these ideals, and how they occur every day in events routine as well as extraordinary. Duma’s loss has connected Xan to Ripkuna, who has also suffered. Xan embarks on a road following his loss, which in turn re-creates connections in a place and amongst people he never might have crossed paths with otherwise.

The severed ends of these links may or may not ever re-connect at various points, but humans and animals alike instinctively value and seek them, as if they were, as Peter says earlier in the film of Duma, in the blood and bones, “like a memory.” Wound amongst these connections also is the understanding that friendships created along the way aid in the establishment or re-connection of links–or the awareness that the bond never went away at all. This is repeated through the film, oftentimes hidden, as they can be in life.

“There are things you know without knowing. For me it was my dad. Everything he was, everything he believed in is now part of me. I was taking Duma home, but he took me somewhere too. . . That’s how it was with me and Duma.”

Conservation Fund: Cheetah Fact Sheet and How You Can Help

International Society for Endangered Cats: The Asiatic Cheetah

This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternative location.

Note: This post title was updated to reflect its inclusion in the “Big Cats” series.