Heidi Zemach for Seward City News –
Some view history as events shaped by war, politics, and presidents, and view common people’s experiences as simply the byproducts of those events. Not Seward historian Doug Capra, who has a new book coming out on the stories about some of the most interesting pioneers to grace the region, and other things like the origins of the Mount Marathon Race, Seward’s Red-Light District, and the creation of Alaska Nellie.
“I start with people. They’re the real movers and shakers,” Capra explained, during an interview over coffee at the Resurrect Arts Coffee House & Gallery, where he often likes to write. He will be giving a talk and book signing at Seward Community Library Museum August 18th, beginning at 6:30 p.m., hosted by the Friends of the Library.
His new book; The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, contains 23 chapters, each a different story, many of which were printed in the local newspaper, and which contain some never before published historical photographs.
“Stories are so universal in human culture. I think anthropologists will tell you that they’ve never found a culture that didn’t have stories as part of their religion, part of their mythology, culture,” Capra said. “Stories are used to transfer all sorts of information to future generations. It’s just part of who we are. I like to think we are stories, I mean we have a beginning, a middle and an end, right? We have all the elements that we associate with stories, characters, protagonists, antagonists, conflict. We are basically stories, and that’s why we identify with stories.”
Capra has spent years researching and writing these rich historical articles for local newspapers including the Seward Phoenix Log and more recently The Seward Journal, and also some historical plays and books. He’s writing a play about artist Rockwell Kent’s experiences on Fox Island, a shorter version of which will be performed at the Alaska Historical Society Conference in Seward this fall. So Capra is perhaps the perfect author to kick off a new series of original books to be published by the National Heritage Association, whose largest town is Seward. Others include Moose Pass, Cooper Landing, Hope, Whittier, Girdwood, Indian and Bird. Capra’s also been a Seward high school teacher, and National Park Service interpreter for the Kenai Fjords National Park, so he’s skilled at trying to make history come alive.
The stories Capra tells often focus on the perspective of interesting pioneering women, perhaps because they were the ones still alive when he arrived in Seward in 1971, and were willing to be interviewed about their lives and times. Many were shockingly honest in what they were willing to impart, but Capra also found their perspective refreshing, interesting, and definitely underrepresented.
One woman he interviewed was Hazel Ray, Pat Williams’ mother, who had come Resurrection Bay on a steamship before the town of Seward had even been founded. Ray told Capra about the rather phony prim and proper decorum displayed among the wives of bankers and businessmen while playing bridge in the early 1900’s. She also hosted a tea for President Harding when he visited Seward in 1923 to commemorate the founding of the Alaska Railway. Williams, now 104, was a child, but remembers the visit, and has helped considerably with his research over the years. The Spaces Between includes chapters on Stella Fuller: A Public Health Nurse’s Adventures in Alaska Territory: Mrs. Herring Pete: The Tale of Josephine Sather; “A Magnificent Bedlam of Hollywood and Alaska”: The Creation of Alaska Nellie; A Bear Named Carrie Nation- Alaska’s Most Famous Prohibitionist; Alaska Pioneer Photographer, Sylvia Sexton; and Seward’s Good Time Girls.
The type of women who came to Alaska, and left their stamp here, were very strong, independent, assertive women, and many tended to be socially intelligent, he said, meaning that they could function well in diverse, difficult situations. Alaska Nellie could work well with the railway gang, and with the toughest of men. She also traveled to Hollywood and dined with movie stars, and could function just as well in those rarefied social circles. They were often very adaptable, and had a certain practicality, Capra said. They knew what needed to get done, and were able to do it.
The details are the gems that makes the stories memorable—such as public health nurse Stella Fuller’s description of the major rabbit infestation in Seward upon her arrival in the area, and how everyone ran around trying to hunt the rabbits out.
The book also contains the origins of the famed Seward Mount Marathon Race; War Comes to Alaska: One soldier’s Story; and The Saga of Alaska State Trooper Mike Murphy.
“I think he has a great story telling voice, both on and off the page,” said Kaylene Johnson, Kenai Mountains -Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area program manager, “He’s a great storyteller, but he backs it up with historical research.” It’s the first original title for a series of publications they plan to print or reprint. Other books they have begun issuing include “Memories of Old Sunrise, by Albert Morgan; and Mary Barry’s book; “A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula.” The national heritage association hopes their publications will bring to light more of the history of the region.
For those who have enjoyed reading Capra’s articles over the years, Johnson notes they’re now available and handier contained in a single book, and many of the older articles have been added to with new information that Capra has discovered since.
She found the chapter about U.S. Warren President Harding’s 1923 visit to Seward particularly interesting as it gave an honest look at, and insight into the personal aspects of the U.S. president—and the hospitality that Seward residents showed their most honored, but ailing guest. Pat Williams, who Capra interviewed liberally for parts of the book, still remembered the fondness that the community felt for their president, and their collective grief when he died mysteriously on the train in San Francisco, shortly after leaving Alaska.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter, however—at least to Capra as he’s been uncovering more even after the book went to print—is, “A Satanic Brain and the Degenerate Mind: One of Alaska’s Worst Criminals.” William Dempsey, one of the murderer’s aliases, murders a prostitute in Anchorage in 1919, and then runs away to Seward and gets a job on a construction gang. He later kills the U.S. Deputy Marshall who arrives to arrest him. Following two major show trials, much followed by Alaskans, he is sentenced to death by hanging, but later has his death sentence commuted to life by the Wilson Administration, much to Alaskan’s disappointment.
Later, Dempsey begins writing bizarre letters to the governor and the judge threatening to kill everyone involved in the case, but during a transfer to McNeil Island, he escapes from prison in 1940, to the great unease of those threatened, but is apparently is never heard from again.
The murderer’s letters led Capra into the twisted labyrinth of the murder’s mind. As explained in a lengthy footnote to the chapter, the author recently learned that Dempsey’s first victim, rather than being the poor prostitute reported in the public accounts, had actually been a wealthy woman of French ancestry, who had successfully invested in mines during the Alaska gold rush, and owned thousands of dollars of jewelry.
“Since then I’ve gone to probate records of the people he murdered…This is going to be a whole new story,” Capra said. “The point is how dynamic history is in general. You never get the whole story.”