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NMSU student researches history of gold rush, studies to be park ranger in Alaska

Most college students in southern New Mexico prefer their summer break attire to include shorts, flip flops and sunglasses. However, New Mexico State University graduate student and teaching assistant Stephanie Steinhorst didn't mind spending last summer wearing a jacket, hiking boots, park ranger hat - and even the occasional petticoat.

New Mexico State University history graduate student and teacher's assistant Stephanie Steinhorst was an interpretive park ranger at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska for her summer internship. Dressed in her park ranger uniform, she displays an old photograph of the interior of Jeff Smith's Parlor. Smith was a con man during the gold rush years in Skagway. (Photo Provided)

Steinhorst participated in a summer internship with the National Parks Service at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in the Skagway, Alaska.

Skagway is known as the "gateway" to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 - a period of history when gold seekers traveled through Skagway, north to the Klondike River near Dawson City, Yukon, Canada to find and prospect for gold after its discovery there in the 19th century. It was the timeline of the gold rush and facts like this that Steinhorst had to learn quickly to serve in her role as an interpretive park ranger.

"I was learning on the spot because I needed to know the answers to the visitors' questions," Steinhorst said. She admitted to not knowing much about the history of the gold rush prior to being a park intern, but said she learned a lot in a short period of time to accomplish her work. Her responsibilities included leading guided tours of the historic district and ghost town, staffing the visitor center and also leading nature walks in Dyea, a wilderness portion of the park.

On occasion, she and other park rangers dressed in clothing from the time period to portray the attire the townspeople wore and bring park visitors closer to "living history."

Steinhorst said it is important for her to put herself in the shoes of people from history to fully understand the hardships and triumphs these individuals faced. She was able to accomplish this through a research and living history project in which she dressed up and gave presentations to park visitors as Harriet Pullen, a Skagway townsperson. During the heart of the gold rush, "stampeders" such as the character she portrayed came to Skagway, seeking their fortunes with very few possessions often wearing only the clothes on their back, she said.

As part of her graduate research on living history and the National Park Service, she is currently surveying over 120 parks nationwide to learn more about how they utilize living history components in their programs. Steinhorst presented her findings at the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums conference in Tuscon, Ariz. this month.

Steinhorst's adviser Jon Hunner, professor of history at NMSU, said he was impressed with her work and that it reflected well on the university and the department.

"It was a great opportunity for her to put into practice in a real life setting the skills and knowledge that she has acquired in the public history program at NMSU...As a graduate student of NMSU, she represents the commitment to presenting history in an engaging manner to the public while an intern," Hunner said.

Steinhorst previously worked one season as an intern and was hired for a second season as a seasonal park ranger for Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Ore. She also interned through the Student Conservation Association at Big Bend National Park in Big Bend, Texas.

"By interning at a different park, I learned about our history. For me it's all about the experience," she said. "I now know what it's like hiking the Chilkoot Trail and what it's like going for days without seeing the sun truly set." The Chilkoot is a 33-mile route "stampeders" hiked into Canada in search for gold.

Steinhorst plans to achieve her Master's in History in May and is considering the offer to return to Skagway for seasonal work as a park ranger in the spring.