Otto W. Geist: A Legend In His Own Lifetime, Part 1

Charles J. Keim, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, and longtime personal friend of Otto Geist, issued this UA News Release on Aug. 6, 1963.
History of Otto Geist
History of Otto Geist

Otto Geist, born on December 27, 1888 in Kircheiselfing, Bavaria, started a trip around the world in May of 1962. Shortly after his arrival in Europe, he became ill and was confined to the hospital for more than a year prior to his death.

He was one of 15 children of Mr. and Mrs. Franz Antone Geist. Two brothers, Sigismund of Munich, and Carl of Louisiana, survive Dr. Geist. Their father was superintendent of the consolidated schools at Eiselfing and a noted antiquarian in that region. He encouraged his son's interest in the fields in which he later would gain international renown.

While still a boy, a collection of his early Roman artifacts was placed in a Bavarian museum. He attended a Benedictine school at Martinsbuhl in the Tyrol region where he learned the mechanics and machinists trade. Later he earned a journeyman's diploma in an art metal works in Mallersdorf in Lower Bavaria. For a time he worked with the Kraus and Company locomotive factory, which was making locomotives for China and South America.

When automobiles began to make an appearance on the German roads, he became a driver and mechanic for a sightseeing bus company. In 1908, when he was 19, he was called into the German army. After serving approximately two years, he was discharged and immediately applied for passage to the United States aboard the George Washington. She was making her maiden voyage from Bremen to New York and was loaded with immigrants of many nationalities who, like Otto, were seeking their fortunes in the New World.

Otto worked for a time in a Chicago hospital, then walked to Kansas where he worked on a farm for $100 a year, plus room, board and clothing. After two years he became tired of his employer's "affection for the jug" and moved to another farm where he worked a year. For two years he worked as a mechanic in Kansas City then became chauffeur and part-time gardener for Sterling Morton, president of Morton Salt Company. In 1916, Otto served as a mechanic and driver under Gen. John J. "Blackjack" Pershing who was leading a punitive expedition into Mexico against Francisco Villa.

After he was discharged from that service, Otto worked for a time in Morton's factory that was manufacturing teletype sets. When the United States entered the war against Germany on April 6, 1917, Otto again entered the service of his adoptive country. He served in France as a trucker and, after World War I ended, was a chauffeur for The American Commission to Negotiate Peace. After his discharge from that service in 1920, he formed his own trucking service in Kansas City, just in time to be wiped out by the depression of 1920-23.

A brother, Josef, who was working in a marble quarry at Tokeen on Prince of Wales Island in the southeastern part of the Territory of Alaska, persuaded him to head north to start a new life. The two brothers laid steel for the Alaska Railroad, then in 1924 Otto accompanied Harper Workman, an old sourdough, to Bettles aboard a precariously loaded riverboat. During the summer of 1924, Otto served as second engineer aboard the sternwheeler Teddy R., owned by trader Sam Dubin. He invested his $1,600 earnings in a mining venture at Lake Creek, which empties into Wild Lake in the Arctic. Otto and his partners helped their dogs eat more than 2,500 snowshoe hares that winter and in the spring cleanup the miners obtained approximately $100 a piece in gold for their efforts, which had included mushing to the mine from Bettles in weather that went down to minus 60 degrees F.


    Part 2

UA Site named after Otto Geist

UA Museum of the North (Geist Building)

Otto Geist is also mentioned in these articles:

Rainey-Skarland Cabin

Skarland Hall Dedication


University of Alaska Museum of the North

University of Alaska Museum: History of the Herbarium

Alaska Native Remains Returned, Arctic Science Journeys (1996) - Radio Script

Rozell, Ned. Permafrost Preserves Clues to Deadly 1918 Flu, Article #1368, Alaska Science Forum (1998)