JOHN SCHNABEL When we came here, people didn't have much. We didn't have much either, but we ... were able to cut lumber that they needed to build houses and things that they wanted.
I was born in 1920 in New Almeno, Kan. I grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore. In 1937, my father, Frank Schnabel, returned from Alaska, where he had sought work during the Great Depression. He told me and my brothers about an old burned-out sawmill boiler, engine and carriage that could be bought for $500 and thought that this could be an opportunity to lift ourselves out of the manual laboring class. I had no idea of the sweat, blood, tears and conflict that lay ahead.
I graduated from high school in 1938 and went to work for Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. to earn travel money and to get some idea of what running a sawmill entailed. My father and brother James traveled to Haines to purchase the sawmill and move it to a leased site on Jones Point. There they built a 12-by-16-foot cabin, which was our home until 1947.
In March 1939, I boarded the Alaska steamship SS Yukon as a steerage passenger headed for Haines. I took a set of tools and had $38 in my pocket. I learned that the ship was loaded with spring supplies for the various canneries in Southeast, and I could work in each port handling cargo. When I arrived, I had to spend the money to lift a C.O.D. out of the post office. We were broke. The cabin had no running water or electricity.
The Jones Point Mill had one steam engine to run the saw. All the logs and lumber were either rolled or hand-carried. My first assignment was to turn a crank attached to a windlass that pulled a cable attached to the carriage. A log was placed on the carriage and cranked into the saw. The engine for the saw was so small that I had to crank slowly or the belt would slip and fly off the pulley.
The boiler had several leaking tubes, which made it difficult to provide the steam to keep the engine at a constant speed. This would cause the saw to slow down, lose rim tension and run off line. To correct this, my father would signal me to reverse the carriage direction, and he would throw a bucket of cold water on the saw in an effort to get it to stand up straight. On a good day we could cut 2,000 board feet in eight hours.
My father and Uncle Tony worked days building the new school gym. At night they ran the mill to produce the lumber that would be used the next day. I applied for a job, but the construction foreman questioned my qualifications. When I told him I had a full set of carpenter tools that included an adze, I was hired. In late September I went back to work for Weyerhaeuser for the winter to earn money to carry me through the next year. This became my annual pattern until the winter of '41 when World War II broke out. I enlisted in the Naval Air Corps in '42.
In March 1946, my brother George and I headed back to Alaska, determined to make a success of the mill venture. During the war, a road had been built connecting Haines to the Alaska Highway, and this opened a vast area for our product. Heavy snows had collapsed the mill building at Jones Point, and the place was a shambles. Mr. Benson, the man who had leased his 20-acre Native allotment to my father, had died, and there was no one to renew the lease with.
I went to Juneau and contacted the solicitor for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He assured me that within six months, the heirs would be determined. A year later the search for heirs was still on; eventually, 42 people were identified. I spent over $10,000 in attorneys' fees to bring all the heirs to an agreement to purchase the property. We then discovered that no Native allotment could be transferred without the approval of Congress. Since Alaska was still a territory, there was only a delegate to represent us in Washington. Delegate Bob Bartlett persuaded a member of Congress to attach a rider on a bill, but the deed languished on the desk of the Secretary of the Interior for over three years until he signed it. Meanwhile, we had rebuilt the site.
In 1946, Haines was a town of about 200 people, four blocks by six blocks. There were no sidewalks, streetlights, sewer system or adequate water system. The streets were mud in the spring and fall and dust in the summer. There wasn't a doctor or dentist. We relied on the weekly mail boat to take us to Juneau or Skagway. There was a monthly freight boat.
But the Army was enlarging Fort Richardson in Anchorage and needed lumber. For two summers they sent barges to Jones Point to pick up all the lumber that was available at the mill.
In '47 we bought an old truck and began hauling lumber over the Haines Highway. T.C. Richards was building the Whitehorse Inn, and we began supplying the material. Then Canada placed an embargo on all imported lumber. So George and I decided to supply Fairbanks. The 670-mile trip was rough on the unmaintained road. The luxury accommodations had a wood stove and a bucket of water in the room.
My father passed away in 1959. My brother George had married and bought into the Haines Light and Power Co. I was running the mill now on my own and went to the bank and borrowed $100,000 to upgrade the mill. I was supplying Fairbanks with hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber.
Unfortunately, I neglected to buy fire insurance. The day before startup, a worker lit a torch and unintentionally burned the mill to the ground. I sold the Fairbanks inventory and paid off the bank, but I was broke. Forest Young offered to loan me $2,000, and with this as a down payment, plus my reputation, I was able to buy enough equipment to build a small portable mill, which I put in the woods, and I began cutting cants for the Japanese market. This was extremely profitable, and within a year I was free of debt. I sold the Jones Point Mill site, which was then sold to Dante & Russell of Portland, Ore. They put up a mill with a production of over 150,000 board feet a shift.
Dante & Russell bid up the timber sales and began pushing me out of the valley. They persuaded the commissioner of natural resources to shut me down on the basis that I did not have a waste-wood burner in the woods.
I built a new mill in Lutak Inlet and began logging in the Tongass forest near Petersburg. Within six months, I had it in operation and was loading oceangoing ships to Japan from my own dock. Dante & Russell eventually went bankrupt.
The mill employed over 120 people, and I was the largest employer in Haines. In 1982, I had been in the logging business longer than anyone alive in Alaska. I was a director of the Alaska Logging Association for over 15 years. In the 1970s, a series of events from environmental regulations, declining timber sales, increased operating costs and other factors eventually shut down the logging industry in Southeast Alaska.
I retired from logging and bought a mine in Porcupine and now spend my time developing the mine as a tourist attraction and RV park. I'm 86 and get up at 5:30 every morning to work at the mine; I'm building an eight-mile, two-lane road.
I look upon myself with a certain amount of approval. When we came here, people didn't have much. We didn't have much either, but we built a mill and were able to cut lumber that they needed to build houses and things that they wanted. People wanted jobs, so we were able to expand the mill and we employed people so they felt comfortable with living here. In other words they could make enough money to enjoy life and live in a place that was more satisfying to them.
So many young kids out of school would come to the mill and we'd give them jobs so they could make money to do whatever they wanted to do with it. I don't pat myself on the back, but I feel comfortable with the way I've lived.
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