After twenty three years in a remote village in Southwest Alaska, I moved into the state’s largest city in 1997 to enjoy lazy
days of golf, eating at great restaurants, and
experiencing all that Anchorage had to
offer a newly retired telephone company
executive. But life has a way of laughing at
the best-laid plans.
Before passing away in 1993, my paternal aunt told my sister that she wanted me
to have her life’s work: a few dozen short
stories about Alaska’s colorful past. Phyllis
Downing Carlson, a longtime schoolteacher,
later in life worked as the Alaska reference
librarian at the Anchorage Public Library.
She loved researching Alaska’s history.
I adored my Aunt Phil, but I honestly
never knew how involved she had become
in Alaska’s past—until I opened that trunk.
As I sifted through her stories, research and
notes, and saw the numerous awards she
had won for her work, I realized what a gift
she had left behind. Her stories had graced
the pages of publications like the Seattle
Post Intelligencer, San Francisco Chronicle,
and the Alaska Sportsman, which is better
known today as the Alaska Magazine.
I knew I had to do something with this
treasure. So I told my husband that our
plans for travel and a life of leisure “were
going to be tweaked a little bit.”
My life prior to moving into Anchorage
had revolved around Bristol Bay Telephone
Cooperative in the town of King Salmon.
I helped bring telephone service, cable
television, and cell phones (back in the day
when they were the size of small suitcases)
to a few villages in the area.
That job taught me to write great business
letters. But I knew that talent would not
translate into sharing Alaska’s history
through short stories. I needed some more
So I enrolled at the University of Alaska
Anchorage and spent four years learning
how to research and craft sentences that
people would want to read. I graduated
in 2003 with a degree in journalism and a
minor in history.
Then I set to work putting all the stories
my aunt had written into chronological
order. That’s when I saw some holes. Aunt
Phil had never written about Juneau, for
instance. Since Juneau is our state capital,
I thought perhaps the people of Southeast
Alaska (where Juneau is located) might be
a bit miffed if their city was not included in
the state’s rich history.
As I came across holes, I researched and
wrote stories of people, places and events
about which Aunt Phil had not written. I
emulated her writing style so readers would
not be jarred with a different style of writing. And when my research unearthed
something that added another dimension
to her stories, I wove those interesting tidbits into the fabric of her tales. Sometimes
research to verify one fact led me down the
path to another story to share.
This immersion into Alaska’s past also
led me to museum, university, and library
archives as I searched through thousands of
historical photographs to find just the right
ones to complement the short stories.
When I began this project, I never
dreamed that Aunt Phil’s Trunk would
turn into a five-book series. The first volume, which shares stories from the settlement of Alaska’s Native people up to the
year 1900, debuted in May 2006. The next
four books, each featuring a different time
period, hit store shelves in 2007, 2008,
2009 and 2016.
Strange Inheritance Leads to Award-
I knew I had to do something with this treasure.
Winning Alaska History Series
by Laurel Downing Bill
I had no idea
I would fall in
love with sharing
along the way.