It could be phrased poetically: Karl Gurcke has spent a lifetime chasing the unknown. Gurcke has unearthed artifacts lost to time.
Put a little more bluntly, one could say Gurcke has spent part of his career digging in the dirt. Yet all three of these things hold truth, and each statement points toward a man who likes learning and uncovering new things.
“I’ve always been interested in history, I don’t know why,” said Gurcke, the park historian for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. “As a young child, I just was fascinated by historical events and history books.” Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, Gurcke was surrounded by history of the Spanish missions, which are prevalent in the area.
“My parents would take us on vacations, and if we were going through California we would usually stop at several of the missions and walk through them,” Gurcke said. “So it just always fascinated me.”
When he started his college career, Gurcke said he was left wondering what direction to go in. History seemed the likely option, but the first history course he took mostly involved world history, battles and things that didn’t resonate with him.
“And I didn’t do too well on that,” Gurcke said. “Of course I was just from high school, and college is totally different. So I was sort of struggling, and I got turned on by an archeology field school.”
Working outside, doing excavations and still being involved in researching history did resonate with Gurcke.
He went down to San Diego State University, where he took courses in prehistoric and historic archeology, after which he got his masters at the University of Idaho. This last link in the educational chain was what would eventually connect Gurcke to Skagway.
With the university, Gurcke traveled all over the northwest working in his craft.
“I thought it was very fascinating, because you’re exploring, you’re aware that nobody has ever excavated in that particular place and that particular area,” Gurcke said. “Everything turned over, everything you found was new.”
As he finished up his masters degree at Idaho, Gurcke was debating what to do next when the university got a call from the National Park Service’s regional office in Anchorage.
“They said ‘we need somebody to run a project here in Dyea,’” Gurcke said.
Having already done research on the Klondike Gold Rush, and having heard stories from fellow Idaho students who’d come up to the area, when Gurcke found out about the park service’s request, he asked “can it be me?”
“I just decided to go, and they accepted me,” Gurcke said.
Gurcke started in Skagway as a seasonal archaeologist on July 5, 1984, working in the city of Dyea. Using old photos and triangulating with the few existing landmarks, Gurcke and his then-associate Harvey Shields were working to draw a map of the old Dyea town site.
“It’s really a detective story – finding out how what’s out here relates to the photos,” Gurcke was quoted as saying in the 1984 issue of the Skagway Alaskan. “Things have changed a lot out here since then.”
After his first Skagway summer, Gurcke returned in 1985, and again in 1986.
1986 marked the first time Gurcke went up the Chilkoot Trail. He and his group climbed the first five miles, surveying as they went. During this stint in Skagway, Gurcke also worked on an excavation underneath the Mascot Saloon.
“There were a lot of artifacts underneath the Mascot,” Gurcke said. The Mascot had been built in 1898, but many of the historical trinkets Gurcke and his compatriots found predated that. Again, Gurcke was able to rediscover hidden baubles of the past.
Not everyone would have the stomach to dig out some of these either. Most people might not be excited to dig around in a long-abandoned privy, but Gurcke said the ancient latrine they found on the Mascot’s property was quite the find.
“Privies are always wonderful for things that people lose down the privy,” Gurcke said. “We found poker chips, little metal clips for ladies garters, a few coins and tokens, broken bottles. I think it was almost 20,000 artifacts out of that excavation alone.
“And it was all pretty much undisturbed, except for one end of it – but when I mean undisturbed, it hasn’t been disturbed since the gold rush period.”
Following this heady bit of exploration, Gurcke returned to Skagway to claim a full-time position with the National Park Service in 1987. The work since has been highly varied, which is an aspect of the job Gurcke likes.
“You never know what you are going to do when you come to work,” he said.
At first he was the only person filling the cultural resource position in the park, which necessitated Gurcke donning multiple hats.
“I had essentially the duties of an entire division,” Gurcke said. “So I was doing the archeology, I was also doing a little bit of historical architecture dealing with all the historic buildings in town.”
He was placed on the Historic District Commission soon after, and also worked as the park’s museum specialist. As time progressed, however, the park gained more staff and Gurcke was able to streamline his focus, and eventually Gurcke was moved into his current position of park historian in the early 2000s.
“So instead of four or five jobs, I’d have only one job,” Gurcke said.
Gurcke will phase out his involvement with Historic District Commission effective July 2017, ending his part in a long-time partnership between the park and the municipality of Skagway. Assistant Historian Susannah Dowds will begin to shadow Gurcke with the intent of taking his place. While he is turning over that responsibility, Gurcke said he doesn’t plan on retiring quite yet.
Today, Gurcke spends his time working on a number of things for the parks service. He works to ensure that signs and exhibits around the Klondike National Park are historically accurate. Often Gurcke will also work with the descendants of people who traveled through or worked in Skagway in the past.
Tracking down these long-lost relatives means using a wide range of information, from census data to death reports and lists of who spent the night in jail. Piecing together information on people who passed through the area over a century ago has its challenges, however.
“Sometimes they don’t leave any records at all,” Gurcke said.
Gurcke said he’s worked on so many of these cases over the years, it is hard to judge for certain, but he’d estimate about 50 percent of the people asking him for help find the connection they are looking for. Gurcke said when those searching for their forebears’ trail come across it, there’s always a great glee, a great happiness when that connection is made.
Gurcke spends most of his time in the office rather than out in the field these days, though being behind a desk is nice in some regards. Not having to hike the Chilkoot Trail in pouring rain was one example Gurcke threw out.
“But it does allow me to concentrate on one thing: history,” Gurcke said. “Just like the archeology, I’m digging into the past in a different way.”
Recently he has been working on analyzing old photos, where he’ll focus on a specific building in the downtown area.
He’ll go through the park service’s extensive collection of photos of the area.
There are gaps in the park’s photo collection, and to fill in those gaps, he’ll compare pictures and information.
With all the information side-by-side, Gurcke said he begins to see things that he hadn’t before.
“It’s a big puzzle piece,” Gurcke said.
Slotting those pieces of the puzzle into place – or occasionally pounding them into place – he connects the dots and puts a tangle of information together, and still gets that thrill of discovering something new.
“It’s the same type of thing, always exploring, always finding new things that I didn’t know about before,” Gurcke said.