People

Detroit's 59ers -- Alaska or bust!

This 1934 moving van was the lead vehicle in the Detroit-Alaska caravan, and lived up to its sign.

On March 5, 1959, a group of 21 adventure-bound Detroit families embarked on a 4,500 mile journey to the Alaskan wilderness. Known as the 59ers, the travelers wanted to trade the rat race of city living for the challenges of pioneer life in the Alaskan wilderness.

The route taken by the caravan.

They planned to homestead the wild Alaskan land and carve out a new life while escaping the hardships in Detroit. These were regular folks raising families and trying to make ends meet in a Detroit where cars were not selling and the unemployment rate had jumped to 15 percent. The group included autoworkers, homemakers, pipefitters and machinists.

Alaska had just become the 49th state and was luring new inhabitants with the promise of a new life on homesteaded land for a $10 filing fee — in effect free land to people who agreed to live on it for a certain length of time.

The hardy group set off in a caravan from the parking lot of a drive-in theater at Telegraph and West Chicago. Their odyssey captured the imagination of other Americans, who piled into house trailers, pickup trucks and cars to join them and seek their fame and fortune.

Many envied the 59ers for having the courage (or recklessness) to quit their jobs, sell their homes, sever lifelong ties and embark on a long journey into the unknown.

Some of the 59ers were better prepared than others for the hardships they would face. They headed north in a caravan consisting of 17 cars, six house trailers and two cargo vans.

The Detroit News sent reporter John Treen with the rag tag caravan to report back on the journey.

Said Mrs. Gerald Donaldson of Treen: “He was the only one who had faith in us. Other people just laughed and said we would never make it.” Mrs. Donaldson told of a comment she heard at one of the Detroit meetings before the 59ers took off: “This man stared at me and said: ‘Whew! Look at that bleached blond, She’ll be back the first week.”!”

The caravan snaked up the Alcan Highway and arrived in south central Alaska after a grueling 53-day journey that should have taken only 18 days. Plagued with flat tires, vehicle breakdowns, bad weather and assorted mishaps, the weary homesteaders finally reached the snow-covered promised land late in April.

Gerald Donaldson, at age 46 the group’s oldest pioneer, recalled the last obstacle – the treacherous crossing of the Susitna River.

“There were no roads or bridges into the valley,” he said. “The only way across the river was the ice. It was late spring and the ice was still there, but it was rotten. One big trailer couldn’t make it.”

Once on the west bank and about four miles up an old mining road, the jubilant settlers began carving out their claims on flatlands studded with tall birch and cottonwood trees. The area included roaming moose, caribou, bear and coyotes.

In the summer when the ice melted, the only way out of the valley was by airplane or boat. Dynamite blasts were the only means of signaling for aid in an emergency. The explosions, heard in Talkeetna, would alert bush pilot Don Sheldon, who had flown several missions for the 59ers.

The Alaskan hardships proved too much for many of the 59ers. Even before they reached Alaska, some turned back. Other families dropped out of the caravan in southern Alaska, where jobs were more plentiful. Some left after the first backbreaking summer, while others stayed longer but eventually drifted back to the “Lower 48.” The returnees claimed health reasons, lack of money or that they simply grew tired of the cold weather and harsh living conditions.

Said James W. Wilson, director of Alaska’s Department of Agriculture, “People with no better than average ability and with limited financial backing can expect to find homesteading a very discouraging enterprise. Farming anywhere is a business requiring a sizable investment. The ‘free’ land costs about $200 an acre to clear.”

Only 12 families made it all the way to their destination – the remote and rugged valley along the Susitna River, where homestead land was available for anyone who would claim and clear it. And only four families ever realized the dream of claiming a homestead.

Relatives, friends and other wellwishers gather to say their farewells to the pioneers as they prepare to leave Detroit for Alaska on March 5, 1959.

      The Susitna 59ers included Mr. and Mrs. Marino Sik, their three children, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Kula and their son, Francis, and his wife and two children, and Bill Orzechowski. These remnant 59ers stuck it out together. Said Sik in a News interview in 1969:

“Sure it was tough the first few years. There were plenty of times that we thought we had to be nuts to stick it out. … But I still get a thrill out of hauling out my 30-30 and bagging a moose on my own property. Or landing a 35-pound king salmon in Trapper Creek, which winds through my land. …When I lived in Detroit, I had everything and it seemed like nothing. Here I have nothing comparatively, but it seems like everything.”

The Siks were the first to file claim to their 160 acre homestead by complying with the terms: living on the land and clearing at least 20 square acres of it within three years.

Detroit News reporter John Treen joined the caravan in his Detroit News staff car.

Nicholas Rubino Jr. spent 10 years in Alaska with his parents and said part of the appeal of living in the wilderness was the luxury of ignoring the rest of the world.

“You are concerned with the problems of daily living and your own survival. You don’t have time to worry about what’s happening elsewhere. Growing up there was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said. “Everyone pitched in to help each other build their houses. If your car broke down, you used someone else’s. It was like being part of one big family.”

“Though the Alaskan lifestyle was desolate,” Gerald Donaldson said, “it wasn’t lonely at all. We’d get a lot of correspondence.” At first, there were few amenities. “We used Coleman lamps and later butane lights” he said.

“We got electricity six years later when the bridge came across. We had gasoline generators, but in the summer you didn’t need it. There’s 22, 23 hours of daylight. In the winter, the moonshine was so bright you could read by it.”

By 1984 only former Detroiter “Wild Bill” Orzechowski remained. His death on March 6, almost the anniversary date of his departure in 1959, sealed forever his choice to be “an Alaskan.” He was buried underneath a huge pine tree in a cemetery near Seward. Orzechowski had staked out an isolated patch near Talkeetna on the slope of Mt. McKinley and scratched out a living on gigantic homegrown vegetables and moose meat. Orzechowski, a carpenter and handy man, built a sturdy Quonset hut. There he lived alone, closer to wildlife–and danger.

Said his son, William, at his funeral: “One time, a big grizzly bear fell asleep on a snow bank near his kitchen window and tumbled through it into the hut. Dad just ran out and let the bear find its own way out. The place was a mess when he got back in.”

Marino Sik and his family leave Detroit in the first truck at 7:20 a.m.

      While most of the families who made the trek north returned home, Orzechowski remained. He made his choice and stuck with it.

“I can’t go back to Michigan because my heart is in Alaska,” he said.

The land that the 59ers once homesteaded is now dotted with sprawling subdivisions. Some of their cleared lands became part of the Alaskan highway system. But the wilderness is still there, and the crackling cold will come again each winter. The 59ers lived the adventure. They knew Alaska in the early days of homesteading. They knew Alaska in the harsh winter months of isolation. But most of all they learned about themselves and what they were capable of achieving.


Ray Kula and his wife, Bernice, in Edmonton, Alberta, beside the moving van Kula drove.

By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News