By Clark Fair
In the early morning hours of Monday, Dec. 11, 1967, Alaska State Troopers were alerted to a possible shooting at the Hilltop Bar and Café (current site of Good Time Charlie’s) on the Seward Highway. When they arrived, according to a brief account of the incident in The Cheechako News, they found two wounded men and an odd explanation.
Lying on the floor of the bar was Wilford L. “Bill” Hansen, the Hilltop’s owner and bartender, who had been shot at least twice in the stomach and was in critical condition. Lying on the floor of the dining room was Elbert M. “Marshall” Dorsey, the café cook, who had been shot in the left shoulder. Early reports indicated that Hansen and Dorsey were victims of a gunfight with two other men, who had fled the scene.
On the lam were Harvey D. Hardiway, an employee of the Chemical Construction Company of North Kenai, and T.L. Gintz, whose last known address was at the Port Inn on the North Road. According to the news story, Hardiway and Gintz, who were both also injured, had driven through Soldotna and Kenai and gotten as far as the Wildwood Air Force Station when they realized that their need for medical attention could wait no longer.
They drove onto the base, and from there were taken by an Air Force ambulance crew to the Central Peninsula Clinic in Soldotna. Gintz had a minor head wound, and Hardiway was suffering from unspecified injuries, according to the newspaper.
Back at the Hilltop, the Kenai Volunteer Fire Department readied Hansen and Dorsey for transport to the Soldotna clinic, where they were treated by Dr. Elmer Gaede. Later, the paper said, Hansen, Dorsey and Hardiway were all flown to Providence Hospital in Anchorage for further treatment.
Authorities had been alerted to the scene initially by the Hilltop’s daytime bartender, C.L. “Smiley” Newton, who was living in a trailer behind the bar but had not heard any of the gunplay. In fact, Newton might have slept longer, the Cheechako implied, if he had not been awakened by the “cleanup boy.” When he entered the establishment at 3 a.m., he discovered Hansen and Dorsey, and he then called for law enforcement.
Troopers reported that the gunfight, which started at about 2:30 a.m. and involved three revolvers, was apparently an escalation of an argument concerning hamburgers. The news story contained no further details on the cause of the conflict.
There is, however, more to the story — from Funny River Road resident Eugene Hansen, the son of Bill Hansen.
According to Eugene Hansen, the Cheechako story was fraught with errors. He said recently that there was only one gun involved (not three), that neither of the fleeing suspects were injured, and that the conflict centered not so much on food but on the payment for the food.
Eugene Hansen recalled that when Hardiway and Gintz paid for the food, the payment was made with an inordinate amount of change, which was not appreciated by Dorsey and Bill Hansen. Tempers flared, and a gun appeared.
At the trial several months later, Eugene said, “Marshall (Dorsey) wouldn’t I.D. the shooter. I think they must have gotten to him or something.” Kenai magistrate Jess Nichols said that, without Dorsey’s testimony, there was not enough evidence to continue the trial, so he dismissed the case, and Hardiway and Gintz went free. Bill Hansen, who was still recuperating, did not testify.
Bill Hansen, who had been involved with the Hilltop for years, was 69 at the time of the shooting. In the hospital, said Eugene, his father was “recovering great” from his wounds when he apparently developed a blood clot and suffered a stroke, which robbed him of his ability to speak and left his right side paralyzed until his death in the early 1980s.
Eugene Hansen said that Bill’s family tried to continue running the establishment after the stroke, but finally they sold the place to “Good Time” Charlie Cunningham.
Tucked into the final 1967 edition of The Cheechako News was the pilot issue of a news magazine called Today In Alaska, created and published by North Publications Inc., in College, near Fairbanks. The cover story in this inaugural issue concerned the frenetic growth of the city of Kenai.
The lead story was called “The City Builders,” with a subtitle that read, “Kenai: Riding the Black Gold Boom.” It was a highly optimistic appraisal of the city’s oil-fueled future. Prominent among the paragraphs and photographs of the article was the name Mike Gravel, a staunch Democrat and an Anchorage developer who had recently opened a real estate office in Kenai and was less than a year away from being elected to the U.S. Senate.
Gravel and his real-estate mouthpiece, Jay Lietzke, provided nearly all of the quotes in the article, including this one early on from Lietzke: “Unemployment in Kenai is now almost non-existent. There is work here for everybody if you’re healthy enough to walk through the door and pound a nail. If you want a job, you have one — it’s as simple as that, even during the winter.”
The reason for Lietzke’s grand assessment was statistical. He cited Kenai’s gross property evaluation, which he claimed had been $7 million in Jan. 1965, had risen to nearly $12.5 million by Jan. 1967, and then climbed to $18.5 million by September of that same year.
Kenai homestead lots that had been selling for $200 to $300 per acre in 1966 were now selling for $1,000 per acre, he said.
Lietzke also cited the growth of Kenai’s population, which had climbed from 321 in 1950 to 778 in 1960 (shortly after the 1957 Swanson River oil discovery), and on to approximately 2,500 by 1967. And there was, in his view, no reason to expect a slowing down of the growth.
In fact, in the bold-print teaser to the article, it seemed that virtually exponential growth was likely, although no author is cited for the article, and this bold prediction is not attributed to any individual: “Black Gold is flowing from Cook Inlet and Swanson River, and the city builders are riding the crest of a boom. By 1980, the city will boast 20,000 population, maybe more.
“Development effects will range far and wide across Alaska, but today the word in bustling, dynamic Kenai is BUILD!”
Building was going on — but not just in Kenai. In Nikiski, heavy industry was enlarging its footprint. In Soldotna, a new hospital was under construction. In Cook Inlet, offshore oil strikes were multiplying, and the future looked bright for oil development on the North Slope.
It was easy to see why Mike Gravel — whom the article dubbed “City Builder Number One” — might be wheeling and dealing so heartily. Even as his own company pushed for more subdivisions and more businesses in Kenai, he began what would become a 12-year run in the U.S. Senate.
Unfortunately for Gravel, the wild predictions (and his subdivision sales) fell far short of the mark, and his Senate career hit the skids when he was defeated for re-election in 1980 by Frank Murkowski.