Johnnie Busia: “Mayor of Kantishna”

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian
man riding on a tramway over a creek
Johnnie Busia and dogs, July 1947

Oscar Dick Collection, DENA

With its success at the 2018 World Cup, Croatia was frequently in the headlines that summer, making it an opportune time to reflect on Denali’s most famous Croatian, Johnnie Busia.[1]

“Little Johnnie” was born in Croatia in 1891 and immigrated to Kantishna in 1918 to join his father in the mining district.[2] In 1922, the cabin that now dons his name was built and then abandoned by the Kantishna Hydraulic Mining Company. In 1922 or 1923, Busia moved into the vacant cabin, and lived there until his death in 1957.

Although many miners came and went, Johnnie and Fannie Quigley became the only two who stayed year-round. He mined, trapped, and hunted to survive but became locally famous because of his hospitality, character, and ability to endure in remote Alaska.

Busia kept a cabin guest log, and the list of famous Alaskan visitors is impressive: artists, authors, politicians, mountaineers, scientists, miners, and curious tourists visited Johnnie and were usually offered a taste of his “Kantishna champagne.”

The guest book reveals that long-time ranger and superintendent Grant Pearson was a frequent visitor, and the final entry shows he was present at Johnnie’s Kantishna funeral in 1957. Pearson and Busia were friends for nearly 30 years and after Johnnie’s death, Pearson convinced the USGS to name the mountain south of Johnnie’s cabin “Busia Mountain.” Pearson’s profile of Johnnie in Alaska Sportsman magazine informs much of what is now known about Johnnie’s life:

“We call Johnnie the Mayor of Kantishna. His cabin is the center of all activity of the Kantishna mining district . . . . His smile, his good nature, his friendliness and good humor are the same. I’ll always think of him as Big-Little Johnnie—big in heart, little in stature.”

[1] The pronunciation of Busia is unresolved. Some say “boo-shay” while others use “boo-see-uh.” People who met Busia in person tend to use the latter, but are not confident about the definitive pronunciation.
[2] Johnnie’s father Marko was originally in Kantishna in 1906 at the tail end of the area’s initial gold rush. He died in 1923. The nickname “Little Johnnie” is attributed to his diminutive stature (5’4” and 120 pounds); 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Kantishna!

Last updated: October 24, 2018