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Coal Creek

A new opera in development by Dawn Sonntag


Fynes Hall, Baldwin Wallace Conservatory

Saturday, January 18, 2:00pm

Year 2 of the multi-year development features a workshop discussion

about this new opera based on actual events in Coal Creek Alaska.


Don't miss your opportunity to help shape

the development of this new work!

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About the Composer

Dawn Sonntag is a composer of opera, art song, vocal chamber music, and works for chorus, winds, orchestra, ballet and film. Her works have been performed by the Fairbanks Arts Festival String Orchestra and String Quartet, the Almeda Trio, the Amphion Quartet, the Orchid Ensemble, and by community, college and university choirs and doctoral voice candidates across the country and in Europe. Self-taught as a pianist until her studies with  Armand Basile at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, at age 19 Sonntag began working as a pianist for the Milwaukee Ballet. While pursuing a free-lance career in Frankfurt and Heidelberg from 1991–2000, she studied philosophy and German at the University of Heidelberg before transferring to the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik, Heidelberg, where she was awarded the Inge Pitler Prize for lied performance both as a pianist and a vocalist. Sonntag has been a guest performer-composer in the Youngstown State University’s New Music series and composer-in-residence at the International Centre for Composers in Visby Sweden.  She was the 2010 Musical Teachers National Association-Ohio’s Distinguished Composer of the Year and a finalist in the American Composers Forum Faith Partners competition.  Dr. Sonntag holds a DMA in voice and composition with a minor in choral conducting from the University of Minnesota, where she studied composition with Alex Lubet, an MM in choral conducting from the Ohio State University, and a BM in voice performance from the University of Texas at El Paso. She is Associate Professor of Music and chair of the Music Department at Hiram College.

About the Opera

Coal Creek was inspired by my visits to this old gold mining camp in remote east-central Alaska, near the Yukon River, as a three-time participant in the Alaska Geographic field course, Composing in the Wilderness, which was created and is led by Steven Lias, Professor of Composition at Stephen F. Austin University.

After spending four days hiking in Denali National Park, together with Steve Lias, Greg Dudgeon, Superintendent of the Yukon Charley Preserve, and eight other composers, I flew in a small bush plane to Coal Creek, which was a gold mining camp that ran from the early 1900’s through the late 1970’s.  After the camp closed, it sat abandoned for several years until Greg worked to have the cabins cleaned and restored by the National Park Service for use as a retreat and education center. The gigantic dredge till sits about two miles down the road from the cabins, which were built on tires and could move as the dredge moved along the swampy creek area digging for gold. For four days, the composers intensely composed new chamber works inspired by our hikes in Denali, after which we flew back to Fairbanks, printed out our parts, distributed them to instrumentalists who learned nine new pieces in a matter of days and performed them at the Fairbanks Arts Festival.

During our stay at Coal Creek, we had the opportunity to visit Slaven’s Roadhouse, now a National Park Service public access house for hikers and kayakers traveling through the wilderness. It provides free lodging on a first-come, first-serve basis. During the first of my three visits to Slaven’s houses during each year I participated, Pat, a surly, weathered National Park Ranger who lived in the tiny village of Eagle, about 60 miles upstream, and came to stay at Coal Creek to oversee the camp while I group was there, told us about Frank Slaven, one of the first miners to discover gold at Coal Creek, who had built the Roadhouse, and Mary Bissell, the young woman who shared a room with him there.  Although a curtain hung between their beds, the fact that they shared a room led to rumors to that Mary was a prostitute. She was at least twenty years younger than Frank and had come to Alaska as a contract bride but had refused to marry her suitor, and she ended up staying with Frank at the Roadhouse till he became ill, when they left together and moved to Seattle.

Ranger Pat also shared with me a CD of photos of families, including children, who had resided at Coal Creek during the 1940’s, as well as a fascinating history of the Coal Creek mine and Slaven’s Roadhouse entitled A World Turned Upside Down, written by NPS historian Douglas Beckstead (d. 2012),  who wrote in detail about the individuals who lived and worked at Coal Creek and Slavens. According to Beckstead’s history, after arriving in Alaska, Slaven had married a childhood sweetheart from his hometown in Missouri who was living alone in Dawson City, having lost her first husband, but she died of tuberculosis six months after their wedding. Beckstead surmised that Mary Bissell was perhaps Frank’s stepdaughter, as his wife had had a daughter from a first marriage. But that idea struck me as implausible.  I decided to try to locate Frank and Mary’s genealogy records on Through birth and death records and census reports, I discovered that Mary was born to landowning farmers in Connecticut, orphaned at 18, educated to be a math teacher at Harvard College, and taught school in Utah before she appeared in Alaska. After that, she did indeed live in Seattle, finally marrying ten years after Slaven’s death. She shares a common family ancestor from Connecticut with Bissell’s from Ohio. Mary is buried in her family’s lot in a cemetery in Connecticut. Frank Slaven was born in Canton, Ohio, moving to Missouri during his childhood. After striking gold, his mother and sisters moved to California, and Frank set up claims for them at Coal Creek. I also found travel records for both Frank and Mary to and from California, where they were apparently visiting Frank’s family.

Another couple whom Beckstead describes in his history, Kate and Jack Welch, had taken over the Woodchopper Roadhouse located some ways between Coal Creek and Eagle. Kate and Jack also shared the task of postal service; Kate was officially postmistress, distributing mail to the mine. Jack would travel by boat or skis to the post office in Eagle to fetch the mail and bring it back to Coal Creek. Kate was reputed to have frequently peeked inside the letters as she sorted the mail.   As Beckstead relates in his history, this coupled experienced extreme hardship and sadness at the end of their lives. Jack was a World War I veteran who seemed to suffer from PTSD. During World War II especially during the winter, most people living around Coal Creek and Eagle moved to Fairbanks, but Kate and Jack, who were by now elderly, stayed in their roadhouse. One spring when the ice on the Yukon broke, the ice pushing up onto the land nearly destroyed the roadhouse. Kate and Jack were forced to flee to the roof; they were eventually evacuated with a rowboat. Kate was injured and never fully recovered physically. Jack’s mental health was never the same. One evening sometime after this accident, he started hallucinating that German soldiers were marching down the river. His hallucinations drove him to attempt suicide, but he only injured himself. Kate, a semi-invalid, walked two miles in the frigid Alaska spring weather to find help. Jack was flown to a hospital. While he was in the hospital, Kate, who had been severely stressed by this incident, died. Jack’s mental health deteriorated further after losing Kate. One day he wandered into the mining camp, asking the workers where Kate was.   Later, he set out in his boat on the Yukon and was last seen by two Native Alaskans at the mouth of the Bering Strait. They said he was standing in his boat. Although this story actually took a few years after Frank and Mary had left Coal Creek, I decided to include in the opera.


As I read Beckstead’s account, it occurred to me that I knew little about the native population there.  While I found quite a bit of information online about the Han language and some customs, I had no idea how the Han native Alaskans felt about the Coal Creek mine and how they interacted with the American and European miners.  Not knowing where to begin searching, I found an Athabascan author and former University of Washington literature professor who was from Anchorage and wrote to her asking if she could direct me to any resources. She responded immediately, sending me several names, among them two anthropology professors who were experts in Athabascan history from the University of Fairbanks as well as the name of a former student of hers who was married to a native of Eagle, Shyanne.  Shyanne is a powerhouse of energy, talent, and ties to Slaven’s Roadhouse. Not only did she grow up in Eagle, but her great-grandfather and grandfather worked at the Coal Creek mine, and her father, who was born in Berea, Ohio, became the first superintendent of the Yukon-Charley Preserve. She has been an advocated of preserving Native Alaskan languages and culture, hosting the first and only national PBS radio show dedicated to Native American music. Her aunt, who lives in Eagle, is one of a handful of people who still know the Han language. Shyanne offered to send her aunt any questions I might have, and so I drew up a list that her aunt answered in detail.  One of the most important things I learned from her was that the Han natives appreciated and profited from the work in the mine. Intermarriage was not uncommon.

One of the most important names in Alaskan mining history is Ernst Patty, an engineer who served as the administrator/manager of the Coal Creek mine before becoming president of the University of Fairbanks.  He and his wife, Katharine, raised two sons while living at Coal Creek. In fact, Katharine started a school that was attended by both Han children and children of miners from the lower forty-eight and from Europe.   One summer when Stanley Patty was an adult, he returned with his young wife to Coal Creek to show her where he had lived. Shyanne was spending the summer at Slaven’s Roadhouse with her parents. Patty wrote a moving account of his meeting with Shyanne, recounting their conversation.  I have used lines from this account in the opening scene of the opera, where Stan Patty arrives to visit and speaks with Shyanne, who is playing outside. From there, the opera segues to Stan’s childhood memories of the people who lived in Coal Creek when he was a child. Although he actually would have been too young to remember Frank and Mary, he did know of Frank, of course.  Stan was living in Vancouver, Washington prior to his death in 2016. In addition to this article, an NPS historian also recorded an interview with him in which he talks about life in Coal Creek.


Naturally, since I was composing an opera, I was also interested in Han native music. I was happy to find a few recording of Han chants that are part of a collection made by anthropology professor.  Most interesting was learning how the Han adopted Scottish folk music styles from the Scots who had come to missionize the Han and work in the mine. Thus one can find videos of Han natives singing in Han to fiddle and guitar country music. Some of the Han chants also clearly carry this influence and include English words mixed in with the native Han.  I have used some of these chants in the opera – for example, the trumpet introduction when the steamboat arrives is based on the “Steamboat Song,” and in the scene where Sven, the Swedish miner, and Kaia, a young Han woman, meet on the banks of the Yukon, I have used a Han melody that is set to a love song text. The research that has been done in recording Han phrases and transcribing them phonetically has also made it possible for me to include a few native Han phrases in the libretto.

As I have delved into the history of this remote and beautiful place that is so rich with not only culture and mining history but also moving stories of the individuals who lived there, the opera has begun to take shape.  The fact that I have landed in a Bush plane on the small gravel runway at Coal Creek that was similar to the one near the Woodchopper Roadhouse during the 1930’s, walked the five miles down the gravel path from Coal Creek to Slaven’s, toured the dredge and seen what it did to the land, experienced the midnight sun on the Yukon and slept in a bunk in Slaven’s Roadhouse has given me at least a taste of the aura of this special place.  To imagine it alive and buzzing with people who actually worked there has been a very satisfying journey and one I hope to complete by the end of next summer.

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