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Helen Van Campen

(1880-1960)

portrait of Helen Van Campen

Helen Van Campen, undated
Alaska Polar Regions Collections & Archives #74-27-500

Helen Van Campen had an amazingly diverse career that included mining. She was oft-married, once to Frank Rumsey Van Campen who at that time was a mining engineer at the Beatson Copper Mine on Latouche Island, Prince William Sound. Helen documented her life there with text and photographs and at the same time, produced a steady stream of short stories published in national periodicals including Colliers and Saturday Evening Post. By the time that she died in 1960, she was widely recognized as an outstanding journalist and photographer that was quite active in both Canada and throughout Alaska. After her death, the Helen Van Campen Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks was set up by the Late Bill Stroeker of Fairbanks. In 2013, the Marion G. Weeks Charitable Foundation added a significant contribution to the Helen Van Campen Scholarship fund.

Helen was born and spent the first few years of an idyllic childhood on a Louisiana plantation. Helen's parents from the aristocratic Tabour family traveled widely. Before she was a teenager, Helen had seen the pyramids at Luxor in Egypt and the Hermitage at St. Petersburg in Russia. These early experiences surely influenced her desire to see the world by boat, on foot or on horseback later in her life. Unfortunately, the family wealth disappeared during the Panic of 1893, and Helen was soon on her own.

Helen was petite, athletic, and fearless, attributes which allowed her to make her way on the steeplechase circuit in Ireland and on the European Continent. She raced and bred horses in Brazil and the USA. There are many photographic images of her on horseback in both Canada the Lower48 States, and in Alaska.

From 1897-1901 Helen monitored gold rushes in the Far North. She made the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898 and made three trips to Nome where even a "poor man" could find a fortune in the rich beach sands. In 1905 Helen temporarily abandoned a wilderness life. She began writing features for the New York Telegraph. She also sponged up on New York theatrical life, gathering up enough material sufficient for two book-length collections of short stories. Reviewers of her short stories wondered how a mere woman could find so much on New York back water lives. One sources of information was Bert Green, one of her first husbands. Bert was Broadway pianist and composer, who among others collaborators included Oscar Hammerstein II.

In 1910, Helen made another career and life change. She married Frank Rumsey Van Campen and moved to Latouche Island, Prince William Sound where Frank was working as chief mining engineer for the Alaska Syndicate's Beatson Copper Mine. Frank Van Campen had a challenging job at the Beatson. From 1900-1930, the Beatson Copper mine was Alaska's largest copper mine—at least in tons of ore extracted from underground stopes—more than 6 million tons were processed at Beatson compared to about 4.5 million tons mined and milled from the mines near McCarthy, Alaska's second largest copper mine by ore tonnage. For most of it's history, the Beatson was operated by the Kennecott Copper Corporation, a company that also mined copper ores in the Wrangell Mountains near McCarthy. Kennecott mixed the lower grade sulfide copper concentrates from the Beatson Mine with the much higher grade copper sulfide concentrates from the McCarthy area to provide an appropriate metallurgical feed for smelters. Because the ore deposit being mined raked well below sea level, it was a major engineering challenge to keep the underground workings from being flooded with sea water. A sophisticated coffer dam system was built to prevent this from happening. By the time that low copper prices closed the Beatson mine, the grade and composition of the main ores near McCarthy had sufficiently changed so that the metallurgical obstacles no longer existed.

Beatson Mine Complex

The Beatson Mine complex on Latouche Island, Prince William Sound in 1917.
Photograph by Helen Van Campen. Source: Alaska Polar Regions Collections & Archives #74-27-313

During her time on Latouche Island, Helen wrote many short stories, some with Alaska themes and some not. One story with a strong Alaska theme was titled "Betsy's Holiday Mush." Helen made fun of the Roosevelt-Pinchot coal policy, a policy that gave rise to the Cordova coal party where Cordova citizen's dumped Canadian coal in the harbor. Like the Boston citizens who dumped tea in the Boston Harbor, Cordovans were disguised as Indians. Helen wrote her prose from a little cabin that the miners had built for her on a small island in Latouche Bay. The Van Campens lived on Latouche Island until about 1918 when Van Campen resigned from his position with Kennecott.

Van Campen in Seward

Helen Van Campen in Seward, Alaska circa 1919 or 1920.
Source: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives #74-27-89

The Van Campens divorced in 1919 and in June 1920, Helen married George Cotter, contractor and big game guide and moved her headquarters to Seward, Alaska. During this time, Helen's journalistic career bloomed. She traveled throughout the Alaska Territory by boat, railroad and dogsled and on horseback. She looked at reindeer herds near Teller, visited with hard rock miners at Nebesna Gold Mine, hunted moose on the Kenai Peninsula, and visited placer miners in the Chisana district. For nearly two years, Helen operated a small placer gold mine on Cooper Creek, near Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. Much of Helen's work was hand-mining, but she could still make payroll with her crew of four-to-six.

Van Campen in chaps on hunt, and on horseback

Helen Van Campen testing a placer gold paystreak on Cooper Creek, Kenai Peninsula, circa 1920.
Source: Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and & Archives #74-27-57

In January 1921 George and Helen left Seward and their US residence for Argentina where George had a contract. After the Argentina job, the Cotters returned to the US, and George entered the oil business in Texas. Cotter unexpectedly died on the road in 1924.

In the fall of 1924, Helen decided to return to the east coast, moving back to New York where she began again to write for the Morning Telegraph. During this time, Helen spent a lot of time in western Canada and was especially interested in Alberta's Banff National Park. She also took photos of a many Native American tribes and won acclaim for her artistic photos hi-lighting their way of life.

In another career that dates from about 1915, Helen wrote screen scripts for movies. She returned to Hollywood several times to work on films. From 1935 to 1938 Helen moved back to Seward, but returned numerous to Hollywood for filming. From 1935 to 1938 Helen's main occupation seems to have been calling on the sick and needy in the Seward area.

Feeling the need to resume writing, she moved to Fairbanks in 1939 or 1940. In 1941, as the drums of war beat louder, Helen took a job as director of personnel services at the U.S. Army Air Force Base at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, where thousands of military aircraft were being ferried to the Eastern Front of WWII. Many of her activities with the war-time job were reported by another outstanding journalist, Kay Kennedy, a young Fairbanks reporter who idolized Helen. Van Campen had sufficient experience in northern ways that she could fit job applicants appropriately with a minimum of interview time.

After WWII ended, Helen made a few more trips to New York and Hollywood, but retained her Fairbanks residence.

After a long and diverse career, Helen Van Campen died August 13, 1960. At her death, she was honored throughout literary America. None of her ex-husbands, including Bert Green--musician, Frank Van Campen—mining engineer, George Cotter-- Alaska guide and contractor, and Edwin C. Hill—radio celebrity, begrudged her for sharing her life and career.

After her death, the well-known Philanthropist and Fairbanks banker Bill Stroeker established the Helen Van Campen Memorial Scholarship Fund at the Journalism Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2013, the Marion G. Weeks Charitable Foundation made a substantial contribution to the Van Campen scholarship fund, insuring that journalism majors in Alaska can contin ue to be reach out and expand their careers.

Compiled by Charles C. Hawley, March 15, 2014

SOURCES

Note
The AMHF greatly appreciates the assistance of Rose Speranza of the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, for guidance I securing photographs used in this biography.

References:

Letter from George A. Thompson, Jr. NEW Y0RK University, Library, to Dan Fleming, Curator, Alaska collections, Anchorage Libraries(now Loussac Library May) 1991.

Three Helen Van Campen photographic albums available at the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections and Archives in the E.E. Rasmuson Library was an invaluable reference for this biographic sketch.

Barry, Mary, J. "Seward, Alaska: A History of the Gateway City. VII. 1914-1923. The Railroad Construction Years." Anchorage Mary Barry. Esp 86-87, 123.

Helen Van Campen, Book Length, At the Actor's Boarding House, Nevada Publishing House 1906

Helen Van Campen, Book Length, The Maison de Shine. B.W. Dodge, 1908. Helen Van Campen, Book Length, Mr. Jackson, also B.W. Dodge, 1908.

Helen Van Campen Selected Short Stories:

"The Vaudevillians," Collier's, 44.20, Oct. 23, 1909.

Brett," Everybody, 26.66-76, Jan. 1912

"Making A Prince into a Good Sport," Golden Book, 1.420-425, 1925.

"Domino of Behring Beach," McClures, 32.93-98. 1908. "Betsy's Holiday Mush," Saturday Evening Post, 189.5-8, 69-74, July 1916.

Other material

Kennedy, Kay, "Helen Van Campen", Alaska Life, 1940, 20-21.

Women's Who's Who of America: A biographical Dictionary of contemporary women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915.

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