“Do You Know Who I Am?” That Time Tolstoy’s Grandson Worked in the Park

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian
portrait style photo of a middle age man in a suit
Ilya Tolstoy

Courtesy of the Explorer's Club

As each year's long winter approaches and many Alaskan residents make plans to read War & Peace (again), we might be compelled to actually open the book this year after discovering that there is a loose Denali connection to its author.

Beginning in the summer of 1930, Count Ilya Tolstoy (1903-1970), grandson of famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy, worked at least two seasons in Mount McKinley National Park. Tolstoy’s presence in the park was reported in the news and created a stir among park employees and visitors. Lena Howard, who worked at the Savage Camp for most of the 1930s, recalled Tolstoy’s popularity:

We had Count Tolstoy working in the camp for two summers, he was a great attraction. He was off on a trip one time and some people came and this one woman said, “I came to see your two chief attractions, Mount McKinley and Count Tolstoy. And I haven’t seen either one.” And Mr. Sheldon said, “Don’t you mean Count Tolstoy and Mount McKinley?” And she laughed and said, “Well, perhaps.”[1]

What did Tolstoy do? An excerpt of a thank you letter from NPS Director Horace Albright provides some insight:

You are doing great work there and it was easy to see that you are an ideal man for national park activities, particularly in the execution of those tasks which involve dealings with tourists. Your tact, patience and unfailing good nature command the admiration of all the National Park Service officers.[2]

It is likely that Tolstoy worked at Savage Camp for the concessioner (MMT&TC) as a guide. Tolstoy was connected to explorer-naturalist William Douglas Burden and conservationist Madison Grant, and eventually became a member of the Explorers Club, Boone & Crockett Club, and the New York Zoological Society. Later he served in World War II (for the Americans), helped Tibetan refugees, and was involved in motion picture production.

[1] Mr. Sheldon (Bobby Sheldon) served as General Manager of Mt. McKinley Tourist & Transportation Company.
[2] Albright met Tolstoy during his visit to the park in 1931 (Albright suffered appendicitis during this trip and had to be rushed to a Fairbanks hospital). Tolstoy also received a thank you note from Secretary of Interior Ray Wilbur.

Last updated: October 24, 2018