Almanac: Would preservative — Manitoba cabin’s existence once on unstable footing

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a multipart story concerning the Manitoba Cabin at about Milepost 50 of the Seward Highway. This week, part one explores the contentiousness between the U.S. Forest Service and the owners of the cabin and its nearby mining claims. Next week, part two will examine the earliest mining history related to the cabin and its likely progression of ownership.

By Clark Fair

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Manitoba Cabin as it appears today. At many times in its history, its continued existence was uncertain.

Redoubt Reporter

Willard Dunham answered the phone, listened for a few moments and immediately boiled over.

It was the early 1970s, and he was working as a longshoreman in Seward when he received a phone call from a gold miner named Ron Newcome, who operated several claims on Canyon Creek near a cabin that Dunham’s family had owned since 1940. Newcome wanted to alert Dunham to the movements of a U.S. Forest Service crew that was planning to destroy Dunham’s cabin.

It wasn’t the first time that the Forest Service had threatened the existence of the cabin, and it wouldn’t be the last. But on this particular occasion, Dunham was determined to meet the threat head on and deal face to face with the federal agents to whom he referred frequently as “bastards” and “sons o’ bitches.” He climbed immediately into his vehicle and sped down the Seward Highway toward his property beyond the northern end of Lower Summit Lake, nearly 50 miles away.

Newcome had explained that “a so-called team of experts out of Anchorage” had approached the Dunham property — located near the southwestern base of Mount Manitoba, just north of the confluence of Mills, Fresno and Canyon creeks — and dug a hole to test the validity of the minerals claim attached to the property. Finding no “color” at their test site, the experts had affixed to a nearby tree a yellow tag reading: AREA CLOSED TO MINING. NO MINERAL CONTENT FOUND.

Dunham arrived at his property just in time to confront these experts as they prepared to ignite his place.

“I told ’em, ‘Yeah, that’s fine,’ and I took pictures of ’em. And I said, ‘When you do it, I’ve got it insured, so I’ll turn you in for arson.’ (The man in charge) looked at me and said, ‘Well, you can’t do this,’ and I said, ‘Watch me.’ And then they bundled up all of their stuff and left.”

Dunham hadn’t been bluffing. The cabin was insured. He said that the Forest Service

Photo courtesy of Theresa Zimmerman. Lenore Robbins, mother of Willard Dunham, holds her bird dog, Judy, near the front porch of her family’s cabin by Mount Manitoba in the 1940s. Behind Robbins is the bolt-action .22-caliber rifle she had recently used to kill the ptarmigan lying on the roof at upper right.

had been trying to destroy all the buildings on the property for 30 years at that point, and buying insurance had been a recent safeguard against government interference. Many years earlier, Forest Service agents had burned down an abandoned mining cabin — one of the oldest — on the same property, and Dunham said that they had been destroying old mining relics throughout the Chugach National Forest.

“Then Newcome took me up and showed me the so-called test hole they’d dug, and it was in the middle of the goddamned highway,” Dunham said. He was referring to a remnant of the old Seward-Hope Highway, part of a connecting route to the historic Iditarod Trail that began in Seward. The roadbed for that old highway sat well above gold-bearing Mills Creek, and Dunham said that a test hole dug down by the creek itself would have yielded plenty of mineral content.

“I still get upset when I think about all the crap the Forest Service pulled,” Dunham said. “My dad said, ‘Those bastards like the Forest Service, you have to train them because they couldn’t possibly be born that way.’”

Shortly after his confrontation with the team of experts, Dunham and his wife, Beverly, decided to sell the property.

“I got tired of fighting with them,” Willard said.

Photo courtesy of Theresa Zimmerman. One of the interior rooms in the Manitoba Cabin, circa 1940s.

“We sold it to a young couple (Whitey and Mickey Van Deusen),” said Beverly. “And I told them, ‘You’re probably not going to be able to keep the cabin. They’re probably going to succeed in getting rid of it at some point.’”

Although the Van Deusens were eventually challenged by the feds, their initial troubles with the place were of a much more personal nature.

“The woman was having her first baby,” Beverly said. “They were going to have it out there (at the cabin). They were going to deliver it. They were going to do all of it themselves. And I told her, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea. Since this is your first baby, you don’t have any idea what this is going to be like. And what if something goes wrong?’ ‘Oh, no, no,’ they said. ‘Everything’s going to be just fine. We’re going to do just great.’

“And so what happened? Things did not go well at all — and they had to snowshoe out (to the highway). And she’s snowshoeing out in labor. And it turned out the baby was breach, and chances are they would have never been able to do what was needed done correctly. And she got Anchorage just in time before something serious happened.”

The Van Deusens later sold out and moved to Seward, where they started a bus service for tourists, Beverly said, and Mickey used to enjoy telling the story of her pregnancy to aghast clientele.

Meanwhile, the property moved into the hands of Ted and Ruth McHenry.

Photo courtesy of Theresa Zimmerman. From the snowy yard near her cabin, Lenore Robbins looks out over Mills Creek and several nearby mining cabins.

According to Mary Barry in her book, “A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska,” Ted McHenry “was a state fish biologist, outdoorsman and occasional miner” who became the new owner of the Manitoba Cabin and its adjoining claims. Barry says that in 1982 the Forest Service “started procedures” to wrest control of the cabin away from the McHenrys.

The Forest Service contended that McHenry had not proven “the validity of his claim regarding its mineral content.” McHenry protested. The Forest Service fought back. The case went to court and bounced to higher and higher authorities. In the end, however, the McHenrys lost.

Since the McHenrys had not removed the cabin from the property, the court awarded control of the structure to the Forest Service, which did not destroy it after all. Instead, it decided to lease the cabin and its remaining outbuildings to the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. For the next 20 years, the denizens of cross-country and telemark skiing employed a special permit to keep the cabin standing.

Thus, its future, while always somewhat shaky — much like the cabin’s sagging foundation — seemed assured.

But its past seemed shrouded in mystery and missing records.

It was a past that included one of the richest payloads of gold on the entire Kenai Peninsula, a most remarkable woman named Polly, and a debate concerning whether the Manitoba Cabin had ever truly been a link in the transportation chain responsible for the delivery of the U.S. mail.

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