The White City by Kate Partridge



Game: rest a square of lumber on the round exterior of a log and swing at it.

The boy throws the axe forward with his whole weight. His friend squats too close to the action and offers advice.

A man, maybe 8 feet away, faces the other direction, nailing something together.


Of course, the new town must be divided with money. The auctioneer stands on a raised platform, around which hundreds of people have gathered.

He records their bids in tight, controlled script in a ledger, prepared in advance in a different color of ink.

For instance, of the 359 lots available, he has reserved about six for “Indians.”


When I was very young, I had a friend with a train brother—tracks all around the playroom and birthdays.

The train pulling into Anchorage has a low trestle. Like it won’t topple if the dog walks into it.


See below—the little wobbly grasses tousled this way and that?

The train runs in with a burst of steam from its hat, tall, volcanic, and dark—heavy haul warmed in its lungs. Heavy stop.


In the infamous “Four Cubs” photo, two cubs are chained to a wooden post. One licks its paw; another seems startled by the camera.

Two cute children are standing alongside, smiling with their arms propped on an upturned crate.


The auctioneer has the lots plotted behind him on a large board. He gestures with a pen at the crowd, in his coat and tie, with a great professorial air.


The men crouch on each other’s shoulders for a better view.


The museum is about a ten-block walk from my house, cutting across the Park Strip at 9th. When the weather dips into the teens, I wheeze a little.

I rarely feel more conscious of myself as a mammal than when I walk across the stiffened grass, the sun beginning to brighten at around ten.


Sydney Laurence takes up his own studio with a large sign (PHOTOGRAPHERS) extending over the new wooden walk, two doors down from the meat market.

A couple walks hand in hand across the planks, dodging a sandwich board, a napping dog, piles of snow and lumber.


From inside the sandwich board, a little boy in a knit cap is nudging the dog with his foot.


“A GOOD START” records Laurence, as a team of 12 horses ferries a large tent to its new site above the hill.

A woman crosses the street before the horses, looking into her hands at a large, blocky camera.


The woman with the camera appears again on a postcard from Laurence’s studio—amused, but not unkind; closed-lipped in a fur parka with a patterned hem.


The postcard series includes the Alaska Fur-Bearing Trout, an image manipulated into a furry fish. A photo has a message is preserved on the back.
Workman to his mother: What do you think of my children?


The plot map was drawn by the U.S. Geological Survey in the summer of 1915. Streets are marked with letters East to West, numbers North to South. The western edge is cut at a diagonal along Knik Arm.

Each block is precisely 300’ by 300’, 50’ lots separated by an alley. Streets are marked at 60’ width—even where this means that the roads dive sharply toward the river.


I live just outside the boundary of the original city, in a hodge-podge of cottages and cabins oddly framed in the skyline against the oil company skyscrapers and hotels.

To be clear—this is all within 15 blocks.



In a second studio portrait, the woman sits beside a small wooden table with bulbed legs.

In both versions of this photo, she wears a silk scarf bound at the neck and dangling like a necktie.


In one version, “Mrs. Sydney Laurence” is written in white across the collar of her dress.


She is not, in fact, Mrs. Laurence.


On 3rd between B and A, the AEC constructs a 3-story hospital and a web of cottages. The hospital has little shades jutting out over the windows; the houses, valance curtains.

In the singular source of disorder, fences of cabbage wander into the open space.


The auction records were kept in a brown leather book, 4 by 6 inches, with “Mining Transit Book 422” pressed into the cover. It bears charts for the calculation of railroad figures within the front cover: excavation and embankments, slopes for cross-sectioning, and so forth.


Men and women have names in the ledger, with bids ranging from $25 into the $900s.


Alberta or Augusta Pyatt has a case of unclear identity, but becomes progressively easier to identify in photos.


She certainly marries Joe Pyatt, a laborer on the railroad. Joseph was the fifth most popular name in the U.S. in the decade of their marriage; just Joe, thirty-fifth.


Alberta was one hundred and nineteenth. Augusta safely evades ranking, altogether.


Here is another little child playing with an axe. Actually, he is attempting to chop off the handle of one axe with another axe.

It appears that he has already dismantled a chair, the remnants of which are laying about him.


I tend to run for exercise when people are looking, and for efficiency when they are not.

The tangents cleared for the rails offer slightly curved lines, like a lateral bend—and I want to run down them as fast as possible.

I am unclear whether the impulse is to be doing it, or to be done with it.


There is some suggestion that Pyatt may have been Canadian.


This suggestion is not based on the possibility that she shares the name of a province, but on her maiden name Bouthillier.


Little else is known of Pyatt’s life.

Her employer, however, went on to become an accomplished landscape painter. The Sydney Laurence painting of Denali, frequently described as iconic, is one of the Anchorage Museum’s most cherished holdings.


Pyatt’s name marks quite a few of the 1915 photos. She photographs the 4th of July baseball games and field races, buildings rising, men with axes at beside the track, views across the mudflats—the quintessential scenes.
It is Pyatt who captures the town strolling away from the baseball field in the artfully-titled work “The Fans Home-ward Plod their Weary Way.”


A boy stands on a sled with a delighted smirk, overalls tucked into thigh-high boots. All of these activities have questionable consequences.


My little league career was short for two reasons: an innate lack of skill and my undiagnosed double vision. As you can imagine, a child who can’t catch one ball certainly can’t catch two.

Characteristically, I continued for six years regardless.


Cottage No. 7 “same as No. 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.”



What Laurence’s company labels “INDIAN SHACKS-SELDOVIA” are actually quite large wooden houses—larger and more shapely than many of the structures tossed up in camps along the route.


“Vaulting,” says Pyatt. Specifically, a man is leaping sideways like a top between two poles. I assume a rope runs between them to mark height, although it’s not visible here.

The crowd marks off a narrow landing area on the dirt—enough to catch him if something goes awry, but no cushion between his shoulders and the ground but his thin shirt and vest.


1915-19 ONLY


In many Alaskan villages, missionaries forbade dancing.
In my own school, we practiced the Virginia reel down the sidelines of the basketball court. It is easy for a child to view this as subjugation rather than privilege.

In the photo of the A.E.C. hospital from 1919, the name of the city appears in quotes as “Anchorage.”


The ladies race a corridor between men and ropes, holding up their long skirts just enough to run.

The ladies are six in number. The hat with ribbon is winning the contest, running with the longest strides and loosest skirt.

Close to the camera, a girl with a bob and a low hem is watching.


My mother and the optometrist commenced a study of family photos, including one in which I appear in a sweater with thick horizontal lines and one eye very distinctly not aligned with the other.


Outside Skookum Johnson Restaurant and Lodging, the men stand in circles, kicking at the snow with their boots. Nearby, a boy is in possession of three things: a snowball, a rifle, and a hat that appears to be just a pile of fur splayed on his head. Another child, on a man’s shoulders, stares with wonder at the fur-pile hat.


Skookum traveled up with the prospectors from Washington—a term for something large, or trustworthy, or (in an alternative usage) a Sasquatch. The word originally hails from Chinook Jargon, a pidgin language parsed from the various roots of indigenous people, trappers, and pioneers.
It is perhaps ironic that Pyatt’s original glass plate negatives of Anchorage as “The White City” were taken in July 1915—the only hint of white is in the peaks of the Chugach, and in the spread of white tents against the cleared pastures, the forest, the fireweed that appears, in this photo, as gray ornament against the hillside.


Both Alberta and Augusta are feminine versions of much more popular men’s names, kings and emperors.


Beyond that, they have very limited possibilities for diminutive forms.


At some point, the auction ledger changed hands. The front cover has a card bearing the owner’s name pasted in, and travel figures for a drive from Chitina to Copper Center are written in the back. Highlight of this trip: “Geo. Kennedy + Peggy saw a moose.”


The U.S. Post Office named the city Anchorage, perhaps after a hardware store housed in a dry-docked ship. The land it sat on was known by the Dena’ina as Tikahtnu for generations.


Tikahtnu is now best known as the name of a shopping center with a movie theatre and restaurants on the far east side, near the military base.


Pyatt wears a bun low and loose on her neck, the style shifting a little in response to her natural wave. She’s quite striking—a thin, direct face.

In the horse team photo, she walks from the dirt street toward the plank sidewalk where a man sits watching. She is 20 yards or so in front of the huge white tent reading “Yukon Rooms.”


Pyatt has one leg raised a few inches. She is adjusting something on the camera, oblivious; her mouth slightly open in a look of concentration.


I try sketching this photo while sitting in the archives, but soon abandon any semblance of maintaining perspective.




Kate Partridge received her MFA from George Mason University, and her poems and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Blackbird, Arts & Letters, cream city review, and Better. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska and co-edits Gazing Grain Press.