The Quest to Save Alaskan Artist Vic Sparks’ Legacy

Diane Helentjaris

An irreplaceable viewpoint of twentieth century Alaska hangs in the balance.

Sheila Ralph’s quest began in a setting rivaling Lord of the Rings. Misty, sharp-edged mountains soared five thousand feet above the icy fjord. At their base, on a narrow strip of flatland rimmed by water, perched the tiny hamlet of Skagway, Alaska.

Rather than an ethereal fairy, the beckoning to adventure came, ‘way back in 1987, from Vivian Borkgren, widow of the town banker. Vivian was adamant: the legacy of Vic Sparks had to be saved and, as his grandchild, only Sheila could do it.

Serendipity brought Alaskan artist Vic Sparks (1884–1962) north to Skagway as a teenager when the family reunited there with Vic’s father. Over 100,000 optimists — Vic’s father Winfield among them — had flooded into the nearby Canadian wilds after the 1896 discovery of gold. Like most prospectors, Winfield Sparks’ gold fever had found faint relief. Skagway, the “Gateway to the Yukon,” had been ideally located for Gold Rushers stocking up before their arduous trek over the Coastal Mountains into the Canadian gold fields. The outpost temporarily burgeoned into the largest town in Alaska — and a lawless one, at that. Winfield’s atypical decision to settle in Skagway was emulated by his son. Vic Sparks would spend, except for two brief interludes, the rest of his life in Skagway.

A born artist through-and-through, constantly drawing, doodling and painting, Vic first left Skagway to study art in San Francisco. After surviving the horrific 1906 earthquake which destroyed eighty percent of the city and killed over three thousand people, Vic experienced years of nightmares fueled by the trembler’s devastation. By 1908, Vic was back in Skagway drawing Rube Goldberg-like political cartoons for the newspaper. After marrying a local woman in 1918, he left Skagway for the second time, living on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Life there proved hard: his first child was born in a tent pitched in his in-laws’ backyard. His second child came into the world in a lean-to, also in the in-laws’ yard. The young Sparks family soon fled back to Skagway.

Vic Sparks Studio

The life of an artist is rarely affluent, yet Vic Sparks managed to eke out a livelihood in a town of less than one thousand souls. He did this by using his artistic talent, when possible, and whatever other opportunities came his way. He taught the village children art, cartooned, sold paintings to tourists, painted signage, built folk sculptures, and created commissioned art. But he also worked for the White Pass and Yukon Railway, was a fireman, served as a Customs official and built coffins for fellow townspeople. In 1930, deputized by the Sheriff, he helped capture the Kangaroo Kid, an escaped convict. Given the choice between continued life on the lam in Alaska or time in jail, the half-starved, half-frozen Kangaroo Kid flopped gratefully into Vic’s boat.

Old Fire Hall and Soapy Smith’s Saloon, Skagway by Vic Sparks

Vivian Borkgren took Sheila Ralph aside in 1987, filling her with stories of her grandfather’s colorful life. Vivian showed her a dozen watercolors she and her husband had commissioned. “They were some of the finest paintings he ever did,” recalls Sheila. Dramatic scenery was coupled with cabins, ghost towns and Native Alaskan villages — most since reclaimed by wilderness. Growing up in the “lower forty-eight,” Sheila had not spent much time with her grandfather. With a child’s eyes, she remembered him as “such a jokester.” Now, she became entranced with the notion of preserving his artistic legacy. She realized his work uniquely captured long-gone scenes of southeastern Alaska from the historic era between the Gold Rush and statehood. Although she lived over 3500 miles away in Virginia and worked full-time teaching clinical nursing, Sheila accepted Vivian’s call to action.

https://miro.medium.com/max/625/1*X5KqgOZpDk1EvD44OGTdsA.jpeg Salmon Curing Outside Native Alaskan Cabin by Vic Sparks

 Salmon Curing Outside Native Alaskan Cabin by Vic Sparks

Vivian proved to be a worthy compatriot in the early years of this quest. She introduced Sheila to other Alaskan owners of Sparks paintings and people who remembered him. And so, Sheila began the finicky task of identifying and tracking Vic’s artwork.

In 1923 the travel industry had saved Skagway from oblivion by bringing cruise ships up the Inside Passage of Alaska’s southeastern coastline. Tourism remains the town’s bread and butter with hundreds of cruise ships now bringing thousands to Skagway each summer. Vic enthusiastically embraced tourism. A photogenic man, he posed as a grizzled prospector for promotional ads as well as for National Geographic magazine. He sold his art to sightseers. He joined other townies in entertaining the visitors with their vaudevillian Klondike musical “Days of 98.” This tie to tourism both tantalizes and frustrates Sheila: with a ready market Vic sold many paintings, but their location is untraceable.


Sheila Sparks Ralph holds one of her grandfather’s paintings

Vivian helped Sheila share her grandfather’s story. She authorized the Borkgren watercolors to be reproduced as note cards which were then sold at the local museum. Sheila and her father Peter, in his seventies at the time, formed “Sparks Specialties” for this project.

Sheila next parlayed her experience as an author (her first work was the popular nursing reference book Sparks & Taylor’s Nursing Diagnosis Reference Manual) to coauthor the 1998 booklet Vic Sparks, Skagway’s Sourdough Artist. Coupling Vic’s biographical information with images of his paintings, the little book also is sold at the town museum.

Booklet — Vic Sparks, Skagway’s Sourdough Artist

There are inherent barriers to preserving any artist’s legacy: lack of funding, trouble getting accurate information, and communication. Alaska’s geographic isolation from the other states makes travel expensive, results in relatively low familiarity with Alaskan history, and, in the days before “free” long distance telephone calls, hampered communication. Sheila faced all these as well as the demands placed on her by her late husband’s health struggles in his final years. In 2015, Sheila decided to use the internet to get around many of these impediments. She created her blog dedicated to sharing information about Vic Sparks. The blog showcases selected drawings and paintings, asks for reader input and publishes snippets of Vic’s life story written by Sheila.


Native Alaskan totem carvings by Vic Sparks

Sheila Ralph’s quest continues. As a woman with her own doctoral degree, she understands the value of a meaty yet fresh doctoral subject. She believes Vic Sparks fits the bill and would like to connect with an interested student. Now retired from nursing, she is also exploring options for sharing the information in all the newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, interview notes, paintings and images of paintings that fill her home. Sheila accepts the likelihood that many Vic Sparks paintings were scattered to the four winds, taken home by sightseers who also had the privilege of being greeted by the artist, costumed as a prospector, as they stepped off their cruise ship. Convinced that these mementos of long-ago Alaska continue to decorate walls or hide in attics, Sheila cannot abandon her search.

Adopted from my article first published March 22, 2018 by Live An Artful Life (www.liveanartfullife.com).

Vic and the Felix Dated Paintings

Although most of Alaskan artist Vic Sparks’ work cannot be accurately dated, there are a few exceptions. These works, intended for family, correlate with family birthdays and events. They also reinforce his love of his boat, The Felix. Here are some examples:

In 1939 Vic used the Felix as the model for the cover of a scrapbook made for his son, Peter’s, 18th birthday. Peter loved to sail and had built a 16-foot sailboat in Vic’s workshop.

Peter Sparks’ 18th Birthday Scrapbook Cover featuring The Felix

            I can date another painting with certainty. It shows a boat sitting beside a shed overlooking water with a mountain on the far shore. The boat is named Sheila and was painted by Vic at a family friend’s home in Bremerton, Washington when he and his wife Abbie visited Peter (my father) and mother shortly after I was born in 1947.


It was Vic’s practice to include a sketch in letters sent to my parents. Below are two. The first depicts my father building a boat with me in one arm. The second instructs him to add rockers and shows me riding in the revised boat. 

“Takes Practice”

“By Gum! Could Put Rockers under it”

I have no memories of this visit but was fortunate enough to get to know him better during a visit with us in 1957. He sketched a caricature of himself in my autograph book.

Sheila’s Autograph Book

Read my upcoming blog to learn more about Vic Sparks’ love of painting the small fishing boats of Alaska’s inside passage.

Vic Sparks and The Felix

Vic and The Felix

In this series of blogs I will showcase some of Vic’s depictions of his boat The Felix.

Vic had two major interests; painting and his boat, The Felix. Vic left Skagway in 1905 to study at the Partington School of Design in San Francisco. He survived the devastating earthquake that destroyed eighty percent of the city and killed over three thousand people on April 18, 1906

Distraught, he returned to Skagway to try and earn a living. Around 1924 he got a boat that he named The Felix after the comic strip character Felix the Cat that first appeared in 1919. A likeness of the cartoon is painted on the side of the cabin. Vic built The Felix from a Columbia River gillnetter hull1. He used it as a traveling art studio throughout the inside passage (the area around the Lynn Canal along the coastline of Alaska). 

The Felix on a trailer in front of Sparks home

            In his ledger he noted on Saturday Nov 15, 1924 that he “went to Long Bay, mild rain, fished-no fish.”  He used the boat in a cover of The Midnight Sun, a self-published newsletter done by two teenagers in Skagway2.

The Midnight Sun June 1930


  1. Nord, C. (2012) Skagway Stories. Bainbridge Island: Washington: Self-Published.
  2. Dahl, Robert A. (2005). After the Gold Rush: Growing Up in Skagway. Self-Published.

More about Vic’s adventures with “The Felix” in my next blog.

Man in Boat Painting by Vic Sparks

$_1[1]I am interested in identifying the setting of this painting. It probably is near Skagway, maybe on Long Bay. The mountains in the background may provide some idea as might the rocks in the foreground. If you have an idea please share with me. Thank you, Sheila Sparks Ralph




As promised, the cartoon below shows the outcome of the presidential election of 1908. Miss Democracy tells the bruised and wounded Byran to go back home and sink into oblivion.


About Vic Sparks

Vic Sparks

Victor Leroy Sparks was born August 31, 1884 in Portland, Oregon. His father was Winfield Scott Sparks; his mother was Charrie Marie (Denny) Sparks. Although he states he arrived in Skagway on May 25, 1901 the earliest confirmed date of him being in Skagway, Alaska is the 1903 Alaska and Yukon Gazetteer which lists him as an upholsterer for ER Peoples. In 1906 he attended Art School in San Francisco and was there during the earthquake in April of that year. He may be related to Will Sparks, a noted California artist, who was an Assistant Professor in Perspective and Sketching at the school. His work in cartoons may have been influenced by Rube Goldberg who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.

The earliest examples of his work are found in 1908 in Skagway’s weekly paper, The Interloper. He was a political cartoonist—later blogs will showcase some of these. Vic’s life portrays a mélange of occupations: he worked for the White Pass &Yukon Route (WP&YR) railroad as a Blacksmith Helper, Fireman, and Engineer. He was a general handyman, Customs Agent, fisherman, artist, longshoreman, and headstone maker. In 1930 he was deputized as a US Marshall to help capture an escaped convict (another story). For many years he portrayed the sheriff in “The Days of ′98” review, a popular tourist attraction. He taught painting to many children of Skagway and did paintings and show cards for the Elks, Artic Brotherhood, and various functions. Each time a new person came or left Skagway he did a Rube Goldberg type card; town residents would sign them. He was the face of Skagway in some National Geographic advertisements for tourism.

Blog #2 Searching for Picture of the Princess Louise

Sourdough Artist Blog #2

In this blog I will depict another Parlor Car Painting and ask for your help in obtaining a photograph of the Princess Louise coming in to Dock; this painting was referred to in a letter written to my father in 1946.

WP&YR PARLOR CAR PAINTING: Tent on Lake, Mountains


Tent on Lake with Mountains in Background

My hope is that someone will recognize this scene and be able to tell me the exact location, i.e. name of lake, mountain, and any other description. The next blog will present another query. As promised here is one of Vic’s political cartoons:


The Interloper, October 31, 1908: William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft are running for president; next week’s cartoon will show the winner.

Vic Sparks and the Mystery of the Railroad Parlor Car Paintings


In a quest to memorialize my grandfather, Victor Leroy Sparks, I hope to track down and document as many of his paintings and other works as possible. I have amassed pictures of his artwork but would now like to identify the settings and possible time period for each one. Many of his paintings depict scenes from the Klondike Gold Rush; some of them show sights along the passage that are no longer visible (e.g. City of Dyea). I am starting with his Railroad Parlor Car paintings since I know a little about them

The Mystery of the Railroad Parlor Car Paintings

In 1946 Vic was commissioned by the White Pass and Yukon Route (a narrow gauge railroad built in 1899 to carry prospectors to the Yukon Territory in search of gold) to paint a picture for each of the train’s Parlor Cars; these were used for tourists during their narrow gauge railroad trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. In a series of letters to my father Vic writes: July 1946: Princess Louise coming in to dock, rotary made, steel bridge expect to make; March 1947: “Big one for WP “Bennett Church painting in car”; August 1946 “now in  5 cars, 2 more in shop, starting one of, 3 more to make”. Each painting is 24”x30”.

The first painting was of the Old Church at Lake Bennett, BC; it was built in 1899 under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church.  This orientation looks down Lake Bennett which is the course prospectors used to go to the Klondike Gold Rush. My father, Peter Winfield Sparks took the photograph from which Vic painted it. Most other pictures of the church are viewed from the side-see second picture.

Parlor Car: Church at Lake Bennett

Church at Lake Bennett, from the collection of the White Pass and Yukon Route

Church at Lake Bennett

Collection of Mark and Edie Lee

This painting was done in the 1950’s and is in a private collection. The church still stands and can be seen at the Bennett Stop of the WP&YR railroad trip or as a stop on the Chilkoot Trail hiking path.

I believe there were about 15 parlor car paintings; I have photographs of several of them and am seeking evidence of the others. Six of the Parlor Car Paintings were stolen in 1971. Read my next blog to find out more about the parlor car paintings and see a sample of Vic’s cartoons.