Henceforth Mother always referred to it as “Ash Thursday”. It began like most other summer days. At age 11, Jack and I claimed our independence by staying away from the house as long as was possible, or as long as we could get away with it, coming in only to forage for food or some other necessity. I’m not entirely sure what we had on our agenda that day. It was a fine, warm summer day and I may have had plans on walking over to my cousins’ house. Probably after I dutifully, if not reluctantly, did my chores.
Dad’s sister and husband and four cousins had arrived from California in the middle of June, ushering in an era of family get-togethers, picnics, and television. Jack and I took our responsibilities seriously in showing our younger cousins the neighborhood: our friends, our spinning wheel, Sugget’s dump, the magical woods and creek behind our house. Those woods were the perfect place to play cowboys and Indians.
After arriving in Anchorage, my aunt and uncle almost immediately found a basement house nearby and moved in with their belongings and a television set. It was the first television I had ever come in contact with, and I was immediately intrigued, which may have been my motivation for visiting on that fine July day.
But Mother had her own plans for us. After lunch she and Linda, Susan’s mom, planned to run an errand. I needed to stay home. I could play with Susan instead of going to my cousins’.
As the morning wore on, sunlight went from normal to practically non-existent. Like a malicious monster, a dark, menacing cloud moved in, blanketing the city. Unnerved, we turned on the radio, and finally were told that Mt. Spurr, some 70+ miles across the inlet from Anchorage had erupted. Contrary to normal wind patterns, the ash cloud that day was carried directly over the Anchorage bowl. Oh how exciting, we thought! Jack and I immediately rushed outside to try to catch some of the now gently falling ash.
By noon it was dark and by every minute getting darker still. Mother and Linda left on their errand, only to return in a few minutes, realizing the futility of driving anywhere. Eventually there was no sky to be seen at all. And was it ever black! I vividly remember looking out our window towards Susan’s house across the street and only just barely being able to make out the light on their front porch. This was exciting, but scary, too!
Reports of the ash-fall varied. Some said less than ¼ inch, some said more than ½ inch of ash had fallen. Nevertheless, in a few short hours, Anchorage became a gray city, no longer enjoying the green of summer. Everything was gray; grass, streets, houses, cars, gardens, nothing had escaped.
The headlines roared: “City blacked out by 3 volcanoes!” But the paper was wrong. Only one, Mt. Spurr, had ruined our summer.
Of course, we kids didn’t think our summer was ruined. No, this was definitely unusual, but really fun! Fun to play in, fun to collect in jars, fun at least until we had to go inside the house. There, on the front porch, we had to strip to our birthday suits, leaving ash covered clothing in a pile, and come inside to wash and put on clean clothes. Of course, the exponential rise in housework this act of nature caused for mother never occurred to us. We had a washing machine, but clothes were either hung to dry outside or on a rack inside the kitchen. Now everything was covered in ash. Ash was tramped inside with shoes, and sent flying when the cat scratched. Ash coated the sink when we washed our faces or hair, and somehow seemed to accompany us to bed or church. There was no escape. And there wasn’t any for years. Some still attribute the dust problem in Anchorage to the layer of ash that took years to slip down a few inches beneath the topsoil. And one can only marvel that our respiratory systems never seemed impaired by those small gray flakes.
In a letter written to family on July 22, 1953, Mom wrote:
The morning of “Ash Thursday” I had started to do a wash. When I had the first load ready to hang, I decided to wait as it looked so dark I thought it might rain. It seemed an odd cloud, and we watched it and commented on it. I told the children if we were in Idaho I would expect a good thunderstorm. The sky had the same dark, heavy look, however we don’t have thunderstorms here so we wondered. Also, it kept closing in until the light was but a slit in the western horizon, then none at all. By then we had been advised by radio of what it was. When the ash first started falling, it was still fairly light, with an eerie look. The children were so excited; they were out spreading paper to catch it and were thrilled when they had collected all of a tablespoonful in a bottle. Little did they know! It became steadily darker as the ash fell more heavily. By noon it was absolutely dark. Darker than normal dark, as there seemed to be no reflection from lights. It was just black. The ash literally poured down.
A neighbor and I had lined up an errand, so after lunch we started out in her car. The first car we met kicked up ash dust that was worse than any dust or fog. After the second meeting of a car, we decided no appointment was that important and came back home. This dust remained quite a problem on the roads for several days.
More suddenly than the darkness descended upon us, it started getting light. The ashes were all down instead of in the air. We watch it rain and know it goes into the ground. We watch snow pile up and live with it. As we watched the ash fall, it never occurred to me that we would have a problem. It was an interesting and exciting experience. We were too busy with that to think of the future.
The children had a wonderful time throughout it all. They were out almost constantly except during the total darkness. They looked like little gremlins from another land, wearing caps with bills pulled low. They were most interested in collecting it. I guess they thought it would disappear.
We wondered if our garden would survive the ash. It was a sorry looking sight. Potato and strawberry vines were weighted to the ground with their load of ash. But they seem none the worse for it. Scientists say that actually the minerals in the ash will be good for the soil as it becomes mixed into the ground.
It’s a depressing looking world after something like that. The trees were so loaded with ash that when a child stood under one and shook it, the child would be completely enveloped by ash. For days our world was gray … roofs, trees, earth, everything! We have liked our place because of the lovely trees. It was really depressing to look out at such a drab world. Any gust of wind would blow it off the trees and stir it around.
The ash is sort of an abrasive, I understand. It is very fine and powdery. Our floor has a continual coating of fine dust; furniture never looks dusted. I finally covered a couple of our dark wood pieces rather than look at dust so thick you could write your name on them.
We can see the mountain from here on a real clear day. It is so far away that all we see is a white mountain with a little patch of smoke above it. One can fly over for $20. There are no roads that would get us much closer than we are right here.
Along with the past winter being our mildest, this summer has been the nicest one we have spent here. We have not had the usual amount of cloudy days or rain. Lots of sunshine until this ash affair.
If only then we would have known that chinchillas bathe in volcanic ash … we would have all made a fortune!
About Jana Ariane Nelson
Jana Ariane Nelson (nee Janet Griffith) moved to Anchorage in 1948 with her parents, Donald and Denney Griffith, and her twin brother, Jack.
Jana worked in the legal field in Anchorage before moving to Oregon. She retired from Lane Community College in Eugene where she was the Mathematics Division Coordinator.
Her daughter, Naomi Sweetman, is the Alaska DARE Coordinator and her son, John Nelson, is a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Anchorage. Jana has 4 grandchildren and one great grandchild in the Anchorage area. Her brother, Jack, runs the Griffith Lab at the University of North Carolina.
For more stories of early Anchorage, visit growingupanchorage.com.