Loading

Professor recounts Walter Harper’s short life full of living By Sam Bishop

Above: Mary Frank Ehrlander ’92, ’93, a retired UAF professor of history, wrote the 2017 book “Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son.” UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

Mary Ehrlander shared a sixth-grade classroom at Denali Elementary School with Johanna Harper ’76, an Athabascan girl whose family story she wouldn’t discover until decades later.

When Ehrlander, now a retired UAF history professor, did discover that story, it so captivated her that she wrote a book to tell the tale.

Her book, “Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son,” has helped spark an effort to bring the story of Johanna’s great-uncle increased prominence in Alaska’s history.

The young Mary and Johanna attended the same school because they both lived in nearby Fairbanks neighborhoods — Mary (then with the last name Frank) in Westgate, a neighborhood west of Peger Road, and Johanna on Denali Way, near the downtown power plant.

“We knew each other since at least the sixth grade. It may have been before that, too,” Ehrlander recalled.

Unbeknownst to both schoolgirls back in the mid-1960s, Johanna’s great-uncle, Walter Harper, had been one of the most remarkable young Alaskans of the early 20th century.

“At that point, I didn’t know that she came from a very famous family,” Ehrlander said. “I told her that once, and she said, ‘Well, neither did I.’”

Now decades later, the two women have rekindled their friendship, united by a desire to share the inspiring and tragic story of Walter Harper.

Photo caption: Jenny Harper, pictured here with her second husband, Chief Alexander William, raised Walter Harper in Tanana. Yvonne Mozée Collection, #2002-98-20, Mozée Family Papers, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Great potential cut short

Walter Harper was born in 1892, the last son of a legendary pre-gold rush trader, Arthur Harper, and his Athabascan wife, Jenny. Walter never knew his father because his parents separated a few years after his birth.

His older siblings had all been sent Outside to boarding school. Walter Harper’s mother instead raised him in a traditional Athabascan lifestyle in Tanana and taught him the Koyukon Athabascan language. He didn’t start a Western education until age 16.

That year, Alaska’s Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck asked Walter’s mother if he could come to the mission in Nenana for schooling. With her permission to attend, Walter soon was working for Stuck as a guide, boat mechanic, sled dog driver and translator.

In 1913, Harper became the first person in recorded history to stand on the summit of Denali. He also played a central role in the success of the expedition, nominally led by Stuck.

After climbing Denali, Harper left Alaska to attend Mount Hermon prep school in Northfield, Massachusetts. He returned to Alaska and two years later married a nurse who worked in the Episcopal Church’s Fort Yukon hospital.

In October 1918, the two left for the Lower 48 so Harper could attend medical school and then return as a medical missionary. They died with 351 others in the Princess Sophia shipwreck in Lynn Canal, still Alaska’s worst marine disaster. They were buried in Juneau.

The Princess Sophia, pictured here, sank with Walter and Frances Harper aboard in October 1918. William Norton Photo Collection, p226-747, Alaska State Library, Juneau.

The disaster ended the life of a 25-year-old man who had enormous potential. But his short life itself was so inspiring that Ehrlander wanted to share it with Alaskans in her 2017 book.

“I saw him as a bridge and a peacemaker, and I think the world needs more people like that,” Ehrlander said. “And so my purpose was, as closely as I could, to tell, to capture his experience and sort of allow him the legacy through literature that he might have had in real life.”

“I really wanted the story to be an inspiration for young Alaskans, in particular, because I think we all need heroes,” she added.

Walter Harper holds a fox kit. Yvonne Mozée Collection, #2002-98-11, Mozée Family Papers, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The Walter Harper Project

Johanna Harper said in a recent interview that she’d heard some family stories about their great-uncle while growing up. She learned more when taking a history course at UAF in the early 1970s.

Ehrlander’s book filled in a great deal more about his relationship with Stuck, she said. “I was thinking his part in climbing Denali was just like a job, like working on the river,” she said.

But Walter Harper was far more important than that to Stuck, she learned.

Johanna Harper, who now lives in Anchorage, said she hopes young people who read the book and learn about her great-uncle will see parallels today.

“Mary’s book highlights how interested Walter was in the technology of the time, especially the scientific equipment they used when climbing Denali. There are so many opportunities for the youth of today,” she said. “What would Walter think if he could see our technology now?”

Photo caption: Mike Harper. Photo courtesy of Mike Harper.

She has joined with her cousin, Mike Harper, to help promote the Walter Harper Project. It’s an effort to create a memorial that in part highlights the teamwork displayed by Walter Harper and two other young Athabascans, John Fredson and Esaias George, during the 1913 Denali climb.

Doyon Ltd., the Interior Alaska regional Native corporation, announced in late July that it will host the memorial at its headquarters in downtown Fairbanks.

Mike Harper was an early board member of the corporation when it formed to accept land and cash from Congress under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and he has remained active in Alaska Native organizations since.

He now lives in Anchorage, but he grew up in a Fifth Avenue cabin in Fairbanks. He was raised by his grandmother, Louise, who was the widow of Walter’s older brother, Sam Harper.

Sam and Louise Harper had 10 children, including Mike’s mother, also named Louise, and Johanna’s father, John. Another child of Sam and Louise, Flora Jane ’35, was the University of Alaska’s first Native woman graduate, and the Harper Building is named for her.

Mike Harper said in an interview that he hopes young people will learn his great-uncle’s story “and be proud of it.”

All Alaskans would benefit from knowing the story, he added, so he was happy to see the 2020 Alaska Legislature name June 7 as Walter Harper Day in perpetuity.

“A whole lot of folks in the non-Native community go to work and go home and never see a Native person, and those they do see may not be in the best of shape,” he said. “So this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate something good and to be proud of.”

Discovering Walter Harper

After grade school, Ehrlander and Johanna Harper went on to attend junior high and high school in Fairbanks but didn’t see as much of each other.

Johanna Harper graduated from UAF and shortly thereafter went to work for Doyon. She worked there almost 20 years, then moved to Anchorage and worked for that area’s Native corporation, Cook Inlet Region Inc., for another 20 years.

Ehrlander graduated from Lathrop High School in Fairbanks and worked at the snack bar in the old Foodland on Gaffney Road.

“I met this Swede, who was very handsome and swept me off my feet. And so I married at the ridiculously young age of 18,” she said. Her husband, Lars, had been in the military at Fort Wainwright earlier. After a brief stint in Seattle, they returned to Fairbanks, and he began designing and building homes.

“I met this Swede, who was very handsome and swept me off my feet. And so I married at the ridiculously young age of 18.”

In the late 1980s, when the Ehrlanders’ three sons were in grade school, she began taking university classes. By then, Ehrlander’s family already had a long and close history with UAF.

Her father, Con Frank ’49, graduated with an engineering degree and later served as a regent. Her mother, Helen Frank, was a founding member and violin player with what is today the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra, which partnered with the university within a few years of its creation in 1959. Ehrlander’s stepmother, Helen Atkinson ’36, was the first female civil engineering graduate and served as a regent. Her brother, Steve ’77, and sister, Andrea ’93, ’07, also attended UAF.

Ehrlander earned a bachelor’s and a master’s at UAF, then another master’s and a doctorate at the University of Virginia.

UAF hired her as a history faculty member in 2001, and she became director of the Arctic and Northern studies program. She recently retired, and she and her husband live in Olympia, Washington, where she is in treatment for cancer.

“So I was just always reading literature about the North,” she said.

Mary Ehrlander is surrounded by her students during the 2016 Emil Usibelli Awards reception at the Wood Center ballroom. Ehrlander received the distinguished teaching award.

She came across Stuck’s book “A Winter Circuit of Our Arctic Coast” and wrote an extended review of it for Alaska History magazine.

“This book is really his masterpiece, in my view,” Ehrlander said. “I think that would have to be undisputed by anybody who read all of his works, because it’s just so strong in a literary sense, really beautifully written.”

The book tells of the dogsled journey Walter Harper and Stuck made in the winter of 1917-1918. They started in Fort Yukon and completed a loop through Allakaket, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Barrow and Herschel Island before crossing the Brooks Range and returning to Fort Yukon.

Walter Harper, at right, and Hudson Stuck, center, visit Allakaket. Drane Family Collection, #1991-46-531, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“It was a remarkable odyssey,” Ehrlander said.

But, after writing the review, she found she wasn’t finished.

“I learned enough about Walter in reading that to really, really make me want to know this person and uncover his story, which was so little known,” she said.

She decided to write another article focused on Harper.

“But the more I dug around and the more information I found, I thought this has to be a book,” she said. “This is such a great story.”

Heroic deeds

Walter Harper’s qualities shine in Ehrlander’s telling, and in the quotations she takes from Stuck’s writings.

On a dogsled journey from Eagle to Fort Yukon in April 1912, Stuck fell through the Yukon River’s weakening ice while traveling at night.

“His feet unable to touch the riverbed, he felt the current pulling his legs,” Ehrlander wrote. “Harper, who followed closely behind, seized the collar of Stuck’s parka and pulled him out.”

Photo caption: William Thomas, left, and Walter Harper pause work on the Pelican in summer 1916. Reverend William Thomas Collection, #2010-110-stevet5, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The following summer, an essential bracket in the engine that drove the Episcopal mission’s riverboat, the Pelican, broke while Harper and Stuck traveled the Tanana River upriver from Fairbanks.

“Walter whittled a new bracket from the stock of a shotgun,” Ehrlander wrote. “Soon the engine purred again.”

The next winter, while climbing Denali, the domineering Stuck and the hot-tempered Harry Karstens inevitably agitated one another.

“Harper, on the other hand, was both personally and culturally disinclined toward confrontation,” Ehrlander noted. “Harper’s personal charisma, congeniality, and stoicism de-escalated tension, while his strength and stamina moved the project forward.”

The first successful ascent of Denali likely would never have happened without him, she noted.

In late August 1918, Harper piloted the Pelican at night down the Tanana River from Baker Creek to the hospital at Tanana, transporting a badly burned boy.

“No one, save a man with eyes like an owl and reading water like a book; no one, I think who has not spent his boyhood in a birch-bark canoe and so come to an intuitive feeling of water, could have brought that launch one hundred miles lickety-split down the Tanana River in the pitch dark and the driving rain,” Stuck wrote later.

A young nurse from Philadelphia also came to appreciate Walter Harper — so much so that the two married in September 1918.

Frances Wells. Yvonne Mozée Collection, #2002-98-21, Mozée Family Papers, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I am here alive, very well and happier than I have ever been in my life,” Frances Wells told her father in a letter in summer 1918. “I expect you know by now who is responsible for all this happiness.”

Surprising historical records

Ehrlander found Frances Wells’ letters almost by accident, long after she had begun the book.

“I don’t know if I Googled Walter or if I Googled Frances,” Ehrlander said. “But lo and behold, you know, probably three pages down in Google, I found that website and there were these letters that Frances had written home.”

A Wells family member had created the site. Ehrlander knew almost nothing about the young nurse up to that point.

“I learned so much about who she was and what motivated her, and then about what she saw in Walter,” she said.

Ehrlander also found valuable material in the Yvonne Mozée Collection at the Rasmuson Library. Mozée was Harper’s niece, the daughter of his sister Jessie.

Walter Harper sat for this portrait at Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, where he attended for a few years. Yvonne Mozée Collection, #2002-98-13, Mozée Family Papers, Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Within that, there’s a Walter Harper file. And so there were some family stories in there and some documents about the family tree and some letters, letters that he had written home to his sisters, for instance, when he went to school at Mount Hermon,” Ehrlander said. “Those were just precious because there was almost nothing left in his hand.”

“I had plenty that Hudson Stuck had written. But you know, I couldn’t just have this be a one-sided, one-dimensional portrait,” she said. “That was wonderful, finding those letters and other documents.”

Challenges in the telling

Despite her excitement about the story, Ehrlander did have some trepidation about telling it. She wasn’t sure how members of the Harper family would feel about her taking it on.

“Somewhere along the line, I contacted Johanna,” she said. “I wrote her an email and told her what I was doing.”

Ehrlander thought the family might not be happy about it. “What if they kind of think, ‘Who does she think she is?’ And, you know, it was completely the opposite,” Ehrlander recalled. “They were thrilled that I was doing this.”

“I can’t say enough about how well-written Mary’s book is,” Johanna Harper said recently. “It blends the socio and economic perspectives of those times in with the historical tidbits she was able to extract about Walter’s life. While this could be pretty dry fodder, Mary somehow concocts a very compelling story. I can’t imagine that anyone could have done a better job, and it deserves all the accolades anyone can possibly give.”

Ehrlander had other concerns, though.

“There are other kinds of criticism that I was aware that I might get,” she said. “I didn’t use a theoretical lens to analyze Walter’s life and Walter’s experience. I didn't use some postcolonial theory to explore the way that actually he may have been exploited by Hudson Stuck and the church and so on.”

“I wanted to tell his story in a way that was true to him, that I felt was true to him. I can never know if I got it right, but I tried my best,” she said.

Neither does she believe her work lionizes Walter Harper simply for his success in Western culture.

“I thought this was such a great story not because he, you know, ‘cleaned up well’ or was so handsome, or even because he was the first to summit Denali, but because he had such a strong sense of who he was, an Athabascan man. And he was good at being an Athabascan man. He knew his homeland, and he could survive on the landscape, and yet he had this remarkable ability to navigate in the Western world, too, and was curious about everything and learned things quickly.”

“I thought this was such a great story not because he, you know, ‘cleaned up well’ or was so handsome, or even because he was the first to summit Denali, but because he had such a strong sense of who he was, an Athabascan man. And he was good at being an Athabascan man.”

Ehrlander gave her book manuscript to a few Athabascan friends to review, and they provided valuable insights, she said. For example, she rewrote her assessment of Harper’s contributions to the Denali climb and his distaste for debate class at Mount Hermon based on similar feedback received from both Wally Carlo and the late Phyllis Fast, another of Walter Harper’s great-nieces, who taught anthropology at UAF and the University of Alaska Anchorage. They noted that Harper’s congeniality was not just a personal trait but one highly valued in Athabascan culture.

“Then I understood that I needed to go deeper on that and portray it not just as a unique, unusual quality of Walter’s, but that it was an Athabascan value,” Ehrlander said.

Blessed to know him

Walter Harper’s story received considerable publicity in 2013. That summer, Harper family descendants, including Johanna Harper’s son, Dana Wright, and others re-enacted the first Denali ascent on its 100th anniversary.

Still, Walter Harper remains surprisingly unknown to many Alaskans.

“I guess one of the things must be that he died at such a young age,” Ehrlander said. “In fact, when I first contacted the guy at the University of Nebraska Press who ended up being my senior editor, I laid out my case for why this was really compelling story and he said, ‘Well, biographies usually aren’t written about people who only live to be 25.’ I mean, Alexander the Great might be the only other one.”

Finding the details of Walter Harper’s life also required an enormous amount of work. Ehrlander’s footnotes, bibliography and index occupy 51 pages of the book’s 196.

“To really get to unearth the details and flesh out the portrait of him took quite a bit of archival work,” she said. “Not very many people have the time or maybe the inclination to do that. But, boy, I tell you, I feel just really blessed to have happened upon him.”

Hudson Stuck felt the same way, a sentiment he expressed in a 1917 letter to a friend while searching for a medical school for Harper.

“Have I climbed a mountain? I climbed it largely by his legs. Have I made memorable journeys? I made them largely by his powers,” Stuck wrote. “He has given me his eyes and ears, his hands and feet, his quick intelligence, his coolness and splendid self-reliance in time of stress or danger, his resourcefulness in emergency.”

The first page of Walter Harper’s diary entry on the day he summited Denali in 1913 tells of the physical challenge. UAF photo by JR Ancheta. Diary courtesy of Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The second page of Harper’s June 7, 1913, diary entry notes that he was the first person ever to step on Denali’s summit. UAF photo by JR Ancheta. Diary courtesy of Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Video caption: View Mary Ehrlander’s talk on Sept. 22, 2018, at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building in Juneau, home of the Alaska State Libraries, Archives and Museum. Ehrlander’s talk was preceded by comments from Toni Mallott and Tom Paddock, both relatives of Walter Harper. The presentation was part of a lecture series accompanying the exhibit Titanic of the North: The 1918 Wreck of the S.S. Princess Sophia, created by the Alaska State Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.