Remains of Elijah and Moses swooped up by secret sect, spread around Skagway gardens
By JEFF BRADY
And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down. [1 Kings 18:30]
I got the call – actually a Facebook message – on a Friday night. I had been waiting for this calling for almost a year.
The remnants of Skagway’s once-powerful Garden Club mafia would be pulling off a major heist the next day. It brought back memories of their heyday, when a call to action would take members into City Hall and things would just happen.
Bring the governor to town to rededicate the Garden City of Alaska: done. Plant a row of mountain ash trees along Ferry Way and get sponsors to pay for them: done. Plant more trees at the north end of town and along the river dike for a windbreak: done (until the FAA made them move a few for air safety). Set aside the corner on the other side of the school ball field fence for a community garden: done (with the clever play of the kid card by giving the school kinder-gardeners a plot).
And then there were some ideas that were not so great, such as tearing down a few decrepit historic buildings under the guise of beautification in the 1960s: misguided, but it made the town aware of the value of other historic properties, leading to the establishment of the Skagway Historic District.
And don’t forget the Rabbit Ranch Wars. Skagway old-timer Chris Rohlf loved rabbits and started raising them downtown on Eighth Avenue next to his massive woodpile. The rabbits were protected behind his ramshackle fence, but Rohlf, a well-known hoarder, allowed the rabbits to do what rabbits do. Their numbers increased and a few of them escaped, sneaking into several nearby gardens. This happened about the time the governor was coming to town. Something had to be done.
The gardeners stormed City Hall demanding action. Rohlf, who had been on City Council, could not stand the public pressure. He took all the rabbits to the Dyea Flats and let them loose. For a while they invaded Dyea gardens, but eventually their numbers were reduced by other wildlife. A sad, cold-hearted ending indeed.
In the old days, the Garden Club was ruled by two of the late grand dames of Skagway, Edie Lee and Charlotte Jewell. Each knew how to wield power and get things done. But as with all mafia leaders, they could not control everyone. Factions emerged like the “Dyea Hippies” and even a Catholic sect that acted on their own.
This is where the latest caper begins, but we have to go back even further.
Back in the early 1960s, Arthur Garrett, the owner of Alaska Power & Telephone, was returning from the Holy Land and learned that a number of religious statues were being removed from the Witherspoon Building in downtown Philadelphia. These included nine prophets who had graced columns on the outside of the building’s eighth floor, as seen in historic photos. The prophets were sculpted from terracotta by Thomas Eakins and Samuel Murray in 1897-1898. In 1961, the Presbyterian Church, which owned the building, was concerned about pedestrian safety and moved some of the figures on a lower floor to a garden there, but the 10.5-foot-tall prophets that had been erected closer to the heavens were to be sold off for reasons still unexplained. Garrett, a religious man, jumped at the chance to buy two of them, Elijah and Moses, for just $319 – the cost of crating and shipping them, according to the Presbyterian Historical Society. Garrett’s vision, he told me in a 1985 phone interview from his retirement home in New Zealand, was to see them placed on the eastern Skagway hillside by the lighted cross as a tribute to the late Monsignor Edgar Gallant, founder of the Pius X Mission School, which had recently closed.
Old photos of the Witherspoon Building reside in the historical society’s digital archives and can be viewed online. Moses stands tall in full beard in front of two tablets showing the 10 Commandments in Hebrew. He reportedly was modeled after Walt Whitman. Elijah, is quite different, naked from the waist up, clothed below with a cloak. He is holding a staff in one hand and gesturing with the other. He reportedly was modeled after one of the sculptors. The sculptures were taken apart with instructions for how to reassemble the pieces.
Those pieces arrived in Skagway in several crates and were taken to the Mission School grounds for storage. Garrett moved on a few years later and left the statues’ fate to the Diocese of Juneau and local Catholics. And there they sat for two decades.
I first caught up to the story in June 1985, three months after a mysterious fire had burned down the old mission. The crates were on the edge of the property and were not damaged by fire, but some of them had been broken into. Moses’ head had been propped up on the street corner, and there was a concern locally about vandalism. Parts of Elijah had gone missing, said local artist Bill Sidmore, who had seen a local kid pounding on one of the pieces with a rock. He had asked for written permission from the Diocese to save what was left of the statues. That’s what prompted my call to Garrett, who said he would help pay for the restoration. He said the Diocese should have the instructions on how to put them back together. But the permission never came, Garrett passed away, and Sidmore moved on.
More of the pieces, meanwhile, started to go missing. Well, sort of: it’s hard to hide anything in Skagway. For a time, Moses ended up in the garden of former Dyea resident Nancy Berland (see photo). Skip Elliott, a neighbor and the new city manager at the time, knew about it and decided that something needed to be done to save the other pieces. He had the city’s Public Works crew take the rest of the crates and statue pieces over to the Skagway Museum grounds by City Hall for safekeeping. They remained the property of the Diocese, but would be watched over by the city.
And there they sat, for another 20 years. At some point, Elijah’s head went missing, but other pieces remained on pallets open to the weather.
Then, two years ago, the pieces were awakened in the spring. The base of Elijah, with one of his feet still intact, was moved to a spot under the crab apple tree behind St. Therese’s Catholic Church. It now holds up a birdbath. Lynne Cameron, who helps tend the garden, said the church wanted to try and put them back together. Two more pieces were used to support the bench under the big tree in front of the church, a tree incidentally that had been moved there after the Pius X fire by former “mission kids” Andy and Fred Mahle.
Later that year, on Dec. 20, 2015, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about the history of the Witherspoon Building sculptures and a new effort to conserve six pieces in the care of the Presbyterian Church. It also had learned about a search for the “Lost Prophets,” and that trail of course led right to Skagway. Some years earlier, a Philadelphia resident had seen the pieces in the tall grass by City Hall while visiting the Skagway on a cruise and alerted church historians. They had contacted the city and learned that not much was left of the once grand sculptures.
I contacted Fred Tangeman of the Presbyterian Historical Society and told him what history I knew about Garrett and the pieces. He appreciated the update and held out hope that the heads would turn up someday.
What remained of Moses and Elijah lay in pieces on pallets in the tall grass and weeds by City Hall, unimpressive by Garden City of Alaska standards – until last weekend.
Judy Mallory, a member of the local Catholic Church, told me about a year ago that she and fellow members wanted to do something with the statue pieces. Their idea was to spread them around town in local gardens. I mentioned the interest from Philadelphia in possibly retrieving them, but she scoffed. There wasn’t much left to retrieve, and they belonged here, she intoned.
Somehow, I knew the gardeners would have their way. Mallory said she’d let me know when they got around to “doing something.”
The message came Friday night, Oct. 13. Mallory said they would be outside City Hall at 11 a.m. the next morning. I was a little late arriving from Dyea, and by 11:15 a.m. the pieces – all but one section of torso – were gone. I drove around looking for Mallory and caught up to her outside the Mermaid Garden on Congress Way. With a borrowed forklift, two men had just unloaded two pallets of statue pieces off a flatbed truck. It was their last stop.
I told Mallory that she had worked faster than a secret sect in a Dan Brown novel.
She laughed and told me that their locations weren’t secret. She had informed Museum Director Judy Munns of her intention to take the pieces, and would record where they ended up.
Moses’ base and a section of his 10 Commandments were outside the Mermaid Garden, and she told me where to find the others: part of Elijah’s cloak was now by the northeast corner of the church; Moses’ breastplate section was behind the White House B&B; and Elijah’s torso and arms were in the backyard of the Remedy Shoppe behind the tall fence (it will make a fine conversation piece if the state ever allows marijuana smoking back there). The remaining torso piece from Moses is destined for the community garden, she added.
Mallory said she told a friend that morning, “Well, I’m going to hell today,” and the friend responded, “No, you’re going to Catholic heaven!”
Still unknown to me were the whereabouts of the heads of the two prophets. Berland, who now lives outside Haines, said she didn’t take Moses with her. A check of the Dyea property that she rented years ago turned up nothing in the weeds last winter. I still held out hope that some day, the waters will part, and he’ll turn up again, perhaps on a street corner.
As for Elijah, the journeyman prophet who challenged Ahab and the false gods of Baal, rebuilt the altar on Mount Carmel, and summoned a miracle of fire and water upon it from the God of Israel, perhaps his terracotta tribute suffered the same fate as the prophet after a life of service. After God parted waters for Elijah to cross the river Jordan, the prophet was carried up to heaven in a whirlwind by chariots of fire, and the mantle of his spirit was passed on.
I was ready to succumb to Elijah’s spirit and write him off to the heavens, but just this week I received another call.
Munns informed me that the head of Elijah and a piece with Moses’ hands over the top of the tablets were moved to a storage container a decade ago. These were the most detailed art pieces remaining, and it was decided to have them stored, in trust, for preservation purposes. She stressed that these pieces, as well as the others that were recently moved by Mallory, remained the property of the church.
If it ever comes to pass that Elijah turns up as an altar in a church garden, I shall not be surprised. And I hope Moses will be reunited with his hands nearby.