News from the Alaska State Legislature, the Office of Senator Bishop
For Immediate Release: June 05, 2020
Alaskans to Celebrate First Walter Harper Day on Sunday, June 7
FAIRBANKS – On Sunday, June 7, Alaska will celebrate the first annual Walter Harper Day in recognition of the Athabascan-Irish man who, on June 7, 1913 became the first person to stand atop Denali – North America’s tallest mountain.
Senate Bill 144, sponsored by Senator Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, established June 7 of each year as Walter Harper Day. Alaska’s Senate and House of Representatives both passed the bill unanimously, and Governor Mike Dunleavy signed the bill into law on April 29.
The act recognizes not only Harper’s critical role in the success of the pioneer summit of Denali, but his “superb subsistence skills, his integrity, his strong sense of identity and purpose, and his ability to navigate comfortably in both the Athabascan culture and other cultures of the United States,” in the words of Sen. Bishop.
“In the church that Darlene and I attend, and were married in, there is a framed copy of the front page of the Fairbanks Daily Times from 1913 reporting the success of this group of amazing people reaching the highest pinnacle of Denali,” said Sen. Bishop in recognition of this special day. “It is a constant reminder to me of this incredible feat that was accomplished over 100 years ago, long before flights to Base Camp, how-to books, high tech gear and the modern technology of today. This young man, Walter Harper, was the first to reach the top of the summit and I think I can safely say that his stamina, his fortitude, his knowledge and his survival skills living in the interior of Alaska, that were passed down from his Koyukon ancestors, greatly contributed to the success of this climb. Walter Harper is not only a role model to the Alaska native youth, but a role model to us all. I am honored to have sponsored this bill and see it to fruition, declaring June 7 of each year as Walter Harper Day.”
Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck and the rugged outdoorsman Harry Karstens co-led the 1913 Denali expedition. The Koyukon-Athabascan Harper, along with Tennessean Robert Tatum, completed the four-member ascent team. Athabascan youths John Fredson and Esaias George provided vital support, including transporting supplies and equipment to the base camp.
On summit day, Harper, the team member in the best condition, took the lead position and thus reached the peak first. Hudson Stuck later wrote of him: “Twenty-one years old and six feet tall, he took gleefully to high mountaineering, while his kindliness and invincible amiability endeared him to every member of the party.”
For several years, Harper served as Archdeacon Stuck’s trail guide, riverboat pilot, interpreter, and right-hand man, as they traveled among the Episcopal missions, Native communities, and mining camps of Alaska’s northern Interior. Along with providing religious services, Stuck and Harper carried vital news, shared health and sanitation information, transported injured and critically ill people to medical facilities, and facilitated vaccination campaigns, for instance, against smallpox.
Wherever they stopped, Harper’s subsistence skillset, integrity, magnetic personality, and ability to navigate in both his Athabascan culture and in mainstream American society won him admirers. He planned to become a medical missionary to Interior Alaska Natives. Tragically, when he was just 25 years old, he and his wife of seven weeks, Frances Wells Harper, drowned in the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia.
To learn more about the fascinating life of Walter Harper, Sen. Bishop recommends reading Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son by Mary Ehrlander.
Alaskans representing the Walter Harper Project have launched a drive that will culminate in a life-size bronze statue of Walter Harper. The statue will be placed in Fairbanks, where the 1913 expedition began, with the specific location to be determined.
More information on the Walter Harper Project and how individuals, organizations, and corporations can contribute to support the effort to honor this great Alaskan will be released this summer.
Members of the media may contact Mike Harper at 907-952-2124 or Mary Ehrlander at 360-463-3445 for more information about the Walter Harper Project.
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For more information, contact Senate Majority Communications Director Daniel McDonald at (907) 465-4066.
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