Ethel Riley and Bette Gilliland used toothbrushes and elbow grease to put the shine back into the old brass chandelier their father brought home from work. They were little girls back then, but they can both recall the sulfur smell of the solution they used and how long it took to clean.
“We hated it,” Gilliland said. “We spent hours scrubbing the thing with a toothbrush.”
Though the two girls couldn’t see the sense in scrubbing dirt and grime off of something so old, this chandelier witnessed an important piece of Alaska history, and would have been gone forever were it not for their father, Henry Ferguson, who worked in the railroad’s sand yard.
Back in 1923, two chandeliers hung in the railroad car that brought President Harding to Fairbanks where he drove the golden spike marking the completion of the Alaska Railroad.
“The historical significance is pretty paramount for Alaska and that time in Alaska,” said Tim Thompson, manager of external affairs for the Alaska Railroad. “Harding came up here and then two weeks later died. The golden spike pretty much opened and started the Alaska Railroad”
Because its centennial is fast approaching, Thompson said a huge effort is under way to collect, catalogue and eventually display any railroad memorabilia out there.
“There’s a lot of Alaska Railroad memorabilia strewn out across the world,” he said. Warehouses in Barstow, Calif., Washington state and the federal building in Anchorage all house bits of Alaska Railroad history.
When Ferguson worked for the railroad, the railroad’s attitude toward its history was nonexistent. They had neglected Harding’s railroad car, parked it in a lot and left it at the mercy of vandals. Nancy Ferguson, Henry’s wife, said the sofa was torn away from the wall and its red velvet upholstery ripped. Vandals also bent the chandelier’s twin out of shape, straining the gas line.
“The kids had been chinning themselves on (the second chandelier),” said Nancy Ferguson, who now lives in Palmer. “(The car) was just sitting there.”
To save the other chandelier from a similar fate, Henry took it, brought it home and eventually hung it in the living room of his new home in Anchorage.
“Alaska wasn’t ready to know what they had,” Gilliland said.
Henry Ferguson knew what he had and also recognized that he could get into real trouble if the railroad knew he had it. That’s why when Riley wanted to tell her friends about it, he said: “Don’t do that. You’ll get me tossed in jail.”
“I thought it was cool that nobody did anything about it and my dad stepped up and took charge,” Riley, of Kasilof, said. “I loved that chandelier.”
In 2005, Ferguson’s secret came out when the family decided to give their chandelier back to the Alaska Railroad. Gilliland had hung it above the dining room table of her Sterling home, but when she built a new one in 2005 it was too big for her ceiling.
“It’s three feet high,” Gilliland said. “It needed a large ceiling, and we couldn’t decide what to do with it.”
After all these years, Henry Ferguson was still worried about being accused of theft, but the railroad put him at ease.
“I would hate to condone anyone taking something that’s unlawful in any unlawful way,” Thompson said. “In this instance, he wanted to see history preserved.”
Though he’s not yet sure what the railroad plans to do with the chandelier, Thompson said it might travel the rail belt or go on display at one of the depots or the Anchorage museum. Any official or unofficial appraisal to determine the chandelier’s value will be done through the museum, he said.
For the Fergusons, giving it away or selling it wasn’t an option.
“We couldn’t just put it on eBay or take it to the Antiques Road Show,” Gilliland said. “We didn’t want to give it to just anybody. It didn’t seem right.”
Henry Ferguson gave the chandelier back to the railroad just two months before his death, Gilliland said. On May 9, 2007 he died of emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“I think it helped him,” Gilliland said. “It was a full circle for him.”
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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