Biography Laurel Downing Bill
Born in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1951, Laurel Downing Bill moved to Juneau in 1959 after her father, Richard Downing, became the state’s first commissioner of public works. Eight years later, she began traveling when her father took a job with a company building roads and bridges around the world.
Laurel returned to Alaska in 1970, where she eventually met her husband, Don, in Fairbanks. In 1974, the couple moved to King Salmon, a small village about 360 air miles southwest of Anchorage, where they raised their two children, Kim and Ryan. Don worked as area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commercial Fisheries Division and Laurel worked her way up to assistant general manager for the Bristol Bay Telephone Cooperative Inc.
After 24 years, they retired into Anchorage, which is when Laurel received her late historian aunt’s body of work. Phyllis Downing Carlson, who passed in 1993, worked as the Alaska reference librarian for Anchorage’s public library and wrote award-winning stories about the state she loved.
Laurel decided to turn her aunt’s work, as well as her own research into Alaska’s colorful past, into articles for new generations. However, she knew she needed to know about researching, writing and publishing to do the job right, so she returned to college to learn everything she could to make her project successful.
At 52, Laurel graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2003 with a degree in journalism and a minor in history.
She became one of the main reporters for a weekly newspaper, The Anchorage Chronicle, during her junior year and birthed an Alaska history column titled Aunt Phil’s Trunk. The column continues to be printed today in the monthly newspaper, The Senior Voice.
After receiving an enthusiastic response to her column of tales from Alaska’s days gone by, she turned her attention to developing the state’s history from thousands of years ago – when the Native people first arrived in the country – up to the present.
Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4 – released in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 – are flying off shelves of both major and independent bookstores, as well as Amazon.com and gift shops and chain stores across Alaska. She’s currently working on Volume 5.
Her award-winning stories have appeared in newspapers across Alaska, as well as the Alaska Magazine, Mushing magazine and First Alaskans magazine.
Sample of one of the many reader comments:
1. Laurel, I don’t think you realize how many people enjoy this series. Anyone interested in Alaskan history must have these books (I have all four). Every time I’d go into a store (Fred Meyers, Carrs etc,), I go to the book section to see if Volume 5 was out yet. The subjects are short enough to prevent being boring but informative. I can’t wait till No. 5 comes out! – Larry Anderson, BP Exploration Alaska
Alaska History Decoded!
Aunt Phil’s Trunk, volumes 1 and 2, feature Alaska history stories written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late Alaska historian aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The photo-laden books are a delightful journey through Alaska’s rich past.
Released in April 2006, Volume 1 includes stories from early Alaska up to about 1900. Tales include nuns mingling with rough-and-tumble adventurers on the banks of Nome, the last shot of the Civil War booming in the Bering Sea and the scoundrel Soapy Smith serving as an angel of mercy before he became the undisputed king of crime in Skagway.
From grizzled old prospectors to poke-stealing highwaymen to the magic of Alaska Native shamans, this book is a treasure trove of nonfiction short stories about Alaska’s colorful past and is filled with more than 300 rare historical photographs. This volume ends with the famous Klondike Gold Rush.
Volume 2, released May 2007, picks up where Volume 1 ends – right around the Klondike Gold Rush – and ends in 1912. It includes stories about Alaska’s early lawmen, and the criminals they pursued, along with pioneering postmen and rugged adventurers who challenged the Great Land’s highest peaks.
The second collection of stories also shares how towns like Fairbanks, Valdez, Cordova and Seward were born, the Iditarod Trail was blazed and the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. This volume contains close to 350 historical photographs to complement the lively storytelling.
This series of books, suitable for ages 9 to 99, is a labor of love from a niece who wanted to keep the legacy of her aunt alive. When Carlson, a well-known Alaska reference librarian at the ZJ Loussac Library in Anchorage, passed away in 1993, Bill inherited her aunt’s research, award-winning historical articles and rare Alaska books. Bill has spent the past several years organizing and editing the historian’s work and writing her own pieces to dovetail with Carlson’s.
Aunt Phil’s Trunk volumes 1 through 4 are available through http://www.AuntPhilsTrunk.com and Amazon.com.
Volume 1: http://j.mp/SSiIKX
Volume 2: http://j.mp/SSiOT1
Volume 3: http://j.mp/SSjEz2
Volume 4: http://j.mp/SSjR5q
The print versions retail for $19.95. Ebooks sell for $14.95.
Here is one of many reviews on Volume One
Aunt Phil s Trunk: Volume One
Review from Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
David James, Reviewer
June 17, 2007
Aunt Phil’s Trunk: Volume One, published last year, was an unexpected gem. The book was a compilation of historical essays about early Alaska, ranging from Native life in the pre-contact period through the era of Russian possession, and onward to the purchase of the territory by the United States and the gold rushes that ensued a few decades later.
Most of the book’s stories were compiled by the late Phyllis Downing Carlson, a near-lifelong resident of the state who published many of these tales in numerous publications. When she passed away in 1993 at the age of 84, her countless files fell into the hands of her niece, Laurel Downing Bill.
As luck would have it, Downing Bill also has a flair for writing and a passion for Alaskan history. As a memorial to her aunt and a gift to the rest of us, Downing Bill has been organizing these stories, adding her own details, exhaustively illustrating them with period photos, and publishing them in books which deserve to be snatched up by anyone with an interest in our state’s rich past.
Here is just another of the many reviews of Volume Two:
Laurel Downing Bill’s second volume of the fascinating history of Alaska, based on the research and photographs collected over many years by her aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson, is even more exciting and gripping than the first book, and that’s saying a lot! Whether on the grandest or most intimate of scales, these stories, lavishly illustrated with wonderfully preserved vintage photographs, touch the heart and push the imagination nearly to its limit. And yet these stories are true, and they are all the more awe-inspiring for it.
From the prospectors who endured soul-and-body-crushing hardships on the vast Alaska goldfields of the late 19th century, to the explorers of the 20th, who pitted themselves against the overwhelming challenges of the landscape simply for the sake of challenge, all had one thing in common: the determination to prevail against near impossible odds for the chance of fame, fortune, or glory.
One of the things that most astounded me in these accounts was the enormous independence and diversity of people who were drawn to Alaska during these years – not just the miners and adventurers and explorers and townspeople, but writers and artists as well. The vivid words of Jack London and Robert Service (“The Shooting of Dan McGrew”), the vibrant life in Eustace Paul Ziegler’s paintings – these brought the vast, rough, rugged – but also human – scope of Alaska to the rest of America, and eventually, to the world.
I was also amazed at how common it was for the hardy souls who made their way to Alaska to have traveled, and to continue to travel, vast distances. They crossed not only Alaska’s seemingly endless mountain wildernesses, but the length and breadth of the entire continent as well.
They came by boat, on foot, by dogsled, on mules or horses, by any means they could. They left, returned, moved on, and came back in mind-boggling treks. Wyatt Earp came with his wife from Tombstone, near the Mexican border, to Nome, then moved on to Los Angeles. Poet Robert Service traveled from Scotland to Nova Scotia to British Columbia to the Klondike, throwing in side treks up and down the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Alaska along the way – and all before he was in his mid-thirties. And this was but child’s play to those who sought to conquer the glacier-packed, oxygen-starved heights of Mt. St. Elias and Mt. McKinley (Denali).
This is just an amazing series, and author Laurel Downing Bill has related an incredible account in clear, forthright, logical style. She clarifies a chaotic history in a way that grips the imagination and draws the reader in. For all their awe-inspiring backdrops, these fascinating stories speak to us on a deeply human level. Highly recommended!
Contact: Laurel Downing Bill
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