Hiker Linda Kruger reaches Father Brown’s Cross on Mount Roberts in this July 2020 photo. Kruger has organized the annual trail race to the cross for the past ten years. This year’s race is scheduled for Saturday, July 6, although the cross is no longer there. (Photo courtesy Jeff Gnass)

Hiker Linda Kruger reaches Father Brown’s Cross on Mount Roberts in this July 2020 photo. Kruger has organized the annual trail race to the cross for the past ten years. This year’s race is scheduled for Saturday, July 6, although the cross is no longer there. (Photo courtesy Jeff Gnass)

Crossed off: Famous Mount Roberts cross lies flat

Father Brown’s Cross destroyed during winter for reasons not fully known; restoration plans underway.

Winter conditions on Juneau’s peaks can be destructive to power lines, trees and other objects. One casualty this winter appears to be the renowned Father Brown’s Cross on Mount Roberts. The large, plain wooden cross commemorates the work of the Catholic parish priest whose efforts created the hiking trail between 1906 and 1908.

Details on the cross’s current demise are yet to be fully assessed, primarily due to two feet of snow remaining on the popular access trail to the site. But restoration is in the future as soon as weather permits.

Ninety years before the Goldbelt Tram started making trips up Mount Roberts in 1996 with an effortless ten-minute cable car ride, a group of volunteers led by Father Edward Brown started a trail to the peak behind Juneau; it was completed two years later. Trails created by Alaska Native people had been used for a long time to access hunting grounds.

A photo from the diocese’s November 1982 “Inside Passage” newsletter shows volunteers installing a replacement cross they carried up the Mount Roberts Trail. Note the size difference between the hand-carried cross and the present-day cross that was likely hoisted by helicopter. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau Archives)

A photo from the diocese’s November 1982 “Inside Passage” newsletter shows volunteers installing a replacement cross they carried up the Mount Roberts Trail. Note the size difference between the hand-carried cross and the present-day cross that was likely hoisted by helicopter. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau Archives)

The 1906 trail was built for recreation and scenic views. It required some rock blasting and plenty of shovel work to create the switchbacks from Sixth Street for what became known as “Father Brown’s Trail.” This name stuck for decades, even into the next century.

By June of 1921, the Juneau Commercial Association launched a program to rehabilitate the trail, clearing debris and adding “picnic equipment and [construction for] water from a spring” for hikers plus some “guide signs,” according to an article in the Alaska Daily Empire. The group’s advertising committee planned to create a “four-page folder to encourage tourists to hike the trail” and to see other Juneau sites. It would be “distributed on the boats in Wrangell and Ketchikan” so visitors would have the chance “to make their plans before they reach Juneau.”

In a retrospective article on Aug. 3, 1921, 15 years after the trail was started, the Alaska Daily Empire reported Father Brown’s appreciative response that the trail would be rehabilitated. For that article he sent some of his 1906 diary notations to trail enthusiasts relating daily activities from the trail’s origin, naming those who assisted: Elias Ruud, Boyce, Owen Kirk, Gillette, and two McLaughlins who “blasted away the big rock” in the trail.

One of the key trail starters was newly arrived Thomas Parmela Wickes, who had been instrumental in trail building in the eastern U.S. In contrast to the kindly Father Brown, Wickes had a reputation for scurrilous behavior in New York where he served seven months of a year sentence for attempted blackmail. He was forced to leave the state and head to Alaska, according to a New York Times article published on July 10, 1906, as cited on www.amynowak.com. That was a month before Wickes and Father Brown talked in August of 1906 in Juneau about constructing the trail (see “Pardon for Wickes Exiles Him to Alaska” in the New York Times to learn the full scope of his misdemeanors.) No details have been found to indicate that Wickes’s cloudy past was known in Juneau or, if it was, affected his status here.

A portrait of Father Edward Howard Brown, the Jesuit priest who organized volunteers in 1906 to begin constructing the switchback trail up Mount Roberts. The trail was completed in 1908 and for many years was known as Father Brown’s Trail. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau Archives)

A portrait of Father Edward Howard Brown, the Jesuit priest who organized volunteers in 1906 to begin constructing the switchback trail up Mount Roberts. The trail was completed in 1908 and for many years was known as Father Brown’s Trail. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau Archives)

In 1922 the U.S. Forest Service took over the trail and formally named it the Mount Roberts Trail. The trailhead now (since 2008) begins along Basin Road in Last Chance Basin with a roomy parking area for hikers’ vehicles.

The exact date the first cross was erected eludes researchers today. Some recent publications say the cross may have been constructed when the trail was built in 1906 although this writer has found no confirmation of it in early news articles. Others suggest the cross was installed — perhaps after Father Brown’s death in 1925 in Spokane, Washington, at age 65 — to honor the Jesuit priest who lived in Juneau from 1904 until 1913. His legacy includes construction of today’s Cathedral of the Nativity on Fifth and Harris Streets, as well as St. Ann’s Hospital and other church-related buildings.

Anecdotal accounts indicate the wooden cross has been replaced several times. One recent first-person recollection tells of the 1982 effort when Father Everett Trebtoske was the local priest. A replacement cross was hand-carried up the trail by several volunteers who took turns spelling each other as they carried two large pieces of the wooden cross. Father Trebtoske led the hike up the Mount Roberts Trail.

A copy of the church’s November 1982 newsletter includes photos of that volunteer expedition on a sunny day a few months earlier. Noticeable is the size difference between the 1982 cross and the now-collapsed cross which is seen standing in photographer Jeff Gnass’s 2020 image with trail hiker Linda Kruger near the base of the cross for scale. A feature of the 1982 story indicates the date of the cross’s installation was carved into the wood. Perhaps when the pending assessment of the collapsed cross is made this summer observers can examine it for a possible carved installation date.

A photo from the diocese’s November 1982 “Inside Passage” newsletter shows volunteers carving the date of installation onto the replacement cross they carried up the Mount Roberts Trail. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau Archives)

A photo from the diocese’s November 1982 “Inside Passage” newsletter shows volunteers carving the date of installation onto the replacement cross they carried up the Mount Roberts Trail. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau Archives)

A recollection from a longtime helicopter pilot reports that he flew the cross to the mountain when he worked for a local helicopter company. An additional remembrance dates a fly-up venture occurred in 2008. Specialized flying and skilled pilots are needed for this work. Typical heavy sling loads can be seen today as they hang by cables from helicopters ferrying equipment to communications towers, trails and industrial facilities from the Juneau airport.

At present in May of 2024, winter conditions have prevented a thorough assessment of the cross and what is needed to repair it. Jeff Hastings, Goldbelt Tram’s tour development manager, said this week that snow and ice remain on the trail from the tram facilities at 1,800 feet on Mount Roberts to the cross higher on the mountain. It’s unknown if this winter’s strong Taku winds blew down the cross or if heavy snow caused the wooden cross to topple. Rot at the base is possibly responsible, too.

Hastings also spoke about restoring the collapsed icon.

“The operations staff will assess the cross once conditions permit and summer tram operations are up and running,” he said.

Preparing the tram and its many buildings for visitors and locals is a priority. That seasonal work is a bit more daunting than at other sea level tour facilities where snow has already melted. Fresh snow dusted area peaks this week. Meanwhile, Hastings discourages hiking the snowy and icy upper trail for safety reasons until June. Juneau’s nonprofit organization Trail Mix is likely to contribute their time and expertise to resurrecting the heavy wooden cross. Other support groups are also discussing their potential roles in collaboratively restoring the cross.

Maddy McRaven, Kevin Riley and their five-month-old daughter Lily, all visiting from St. Louis, Missouri, stand beside the Mount Roberts Trailhead sign on Basin Road on Wednesday. The couple had arrived 12 hours earlier for a short visit to Juneau. On the recommendation of a fellow airline passenger, they had already hiked the flume trail which easily accommodated Lily’s stroller. (Laurie Craig/Juneau Empire)

Maddy McRaven, Kevin Riley and their five-month-old daughter Lily, all visiting from St. Louis, Missouri, stand beside the Mount Roberts Trailhead sign on Basin Road on Wednesday. The couple had arrived 12 hours earlier for a short visit to Juneau. On the recommendation of a fellow airline passenger, they had already hiked the flume trail which easily accommodated Lily’s stroller. (Laurie Craig/Juneau Empire)

Touching the cross is a significant gesture for more people than faith-based hikers. While early trail users may have felt the same impetus to place their hands on the cross it was the first foot race organizers in 1986 who put it into practice. Scott and Betsy Fischer started the Mount Roberts Trail race that year through their outdoor gear and clothing store Foggy Mountain Shop, then located on Shattuck Way.

In a 2023 letter, Foggy Mountain co-founder Betsy Fischer wrote that the race started at their shop but “it was up to the runners to find the fastest way through downtown to the Mt. Roberts trailhead above Sixth Street. The finish line was ‘touch the cross.’” Fourteen runners competed that year. By 1991 there were 68 participants. The race organizers gave special awards to anyone who could run the trail in fewer minutes than years of their age; thus, a “50-year-old runner needed to complete the run in 50 minutes” or less, which was affirmed by one multi-generational Juneauite in conversation last week at a valley hardware store.

Touching the cross is still the goal for Juneau Trail and Road Runners (formerly Southeast Road Runners), according to race director Linda Kruger who has coordinated the Mount Roberts race for the past ten years. This year’s run is planned for Saturday, July 6, starting at the base of the Goldbelt Tram, running to Basin Road then up the Mount Roberts Trail, skirting behind the tram facilities, then higher on the mountain to touch the wooden cross. There were 43 runners in 2023.

Plans to reinstall the cross are currently developing within agencies and groups of volunteers who want to ensure it rises again on Mount Roberts. As the mountain snow melts, details will emerge like spring flowers. Watch for a follow-up story when history repeats itself and Father Brown’s Cross stands again.

Note: The author deeply appreciates the more than two dozen individuals who contributed memories and details to this story.

• Contact Laurie Craig at laurie.craig@juneauempire.com.

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