Ezra Meeker in Alaska

oie_2592726OeC5rLmpEzra Manning Meeker (1830–1928) was a pioneer who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852 with his wife, their young son, and his brother, a journey which took them nearly six months. In his late 70s, after making and losing a fortune, he repeatedly re-traveled the route, meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt and working to memorialize the Trail he’d travelled as a young man.

Once known as the “Hop King of the World” for growing the hops used in making beer, Meeker was the first mayor of the town of Puyallup, Washington, in the Puget Sound region. By 1887, his business had made him wealthy, but in 1891 an infestation of hop aphids destroyed his crops and thereby much of his fortune.

oie_259246VQV1PkkbIn 1896, gold was discovered both in Alaska and in Canada, and the Meeker family, seeing the finds as a possible road to financial recovery, turned their attentions north. After a few less than successful ventures, Meeker was certain there was a way to make money from the gold rush. He and his wife spent much of the winter of 1897–1898 drying vegetables, and Ezra Meeker departed for Skagway, Alaska, on March 20, 1898 with 30,000 pounds of dried produce, His son Fred Meeker and his wife Clara were already across the border in what would soon be designated as the Yukon Territory

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Meeker, far right, stands before his first grocery store, Dawson City, November 19, 1898.

The 67-year-old Meeker, with one business associate, climbed the steep Chilkoot Pass, floated down the Yukon River to Dawson City, and once the ice broke up in late May, and sold his vegetables in two weeks. He returned to Puyallup in July, only to set out again with more supplies the following month. This time, he and his son-in-law, Roderick McDonald, opened a store, the Log Cabin Grocery, in Dawson City, and remained through the winter.

Meeker returned to the Yukon twice more, in 1899 and 1900. Most of the money earned through groceries was invested in gold mining and lost. Ezra’s son Fred died of pneumonia in Dawson City on January 30, 1901, and a few weeks later, in April, 1901, Ezra departed the Klondike for the last time. 

In his autobiographical book, The Busy Life of Eighty-Five Years of Ezra Meeker, he wrote about his northland adventures:

THE KLONDIKE VENTURE.

I had lived in the old Oregon country forty-four years and had never seen a mine. Mining had no attraction for me, any more than corner lots in new, embryo cities. I did not understand the value of either, and left both severely alone. But when my accumulations had all been swallowed up, the land I had previously owned gone into other hands, and, in fact, my occupation gone, I concluded to take a chance in a mining country; matters could not well be much worse, and probably could be made better, and so in the spring of 1898 I made my first trip over the Chilcoot Pass, and then down the Yukon River to Dawson in a flatboat, and ran the famous White Horse Rapids with my load of vegetables for the Klondike miners.

Chilkoot pass

Chilkoot Pass

One may read of the Chilcoot Pass the most graphic descriptions written, and yet when he is up against the experience of crossing, he will find the difficulties more formidable than his wildest fancy or expectation had pictured. I started in with fifteen tons of freight, and got through with nine. On one stretch of 2,000 feet I paid forty dollars a ton freight, and I knew of others paying more. The trip for a part of the way reminded me of the scenes on the Plains in 1852—such crowds that they jostled each other on the several parallel trails where there was room for more than one track. At the pass, most of the travel came upon one track, and so steep that the ascent could only be made by cutting steps in the ice and snow—1,500 in all.

Frequently every step would be full, while crowds jostled each other at the foot of the ascent to get into the single file, each man carrying from one hundred (it was said) to two hundred pounds pack on his back. Nevertheless, after all sorts of experiences, I arrived in Dawson, with nine tons of my outfit, sold my fresh potatoes at $36.00 a bushel and other things in like proportionate prices and in two weeks started up the river, homeward bound, with two hundred ounces of Klondike gold in my belt. But four round trips in two years satisfied me that I did not want any more of like experience.

As I have said, the trips to the Klondike became real adventures. Fortunately detained for a couple of days, I escaped the avalanche that buried fifty-two people in the snow, and passed by the morgue the second day after the catastrophe on my way to the summit, and doubtless over the bodies of many unknown dead, imbedded so deeply in the snow that it was utterly impossible to recover them.

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Whitehorse Rapids

I received a good ducking in my first passage through the White Horse Rapids, and vowed I would not go through there again, but I did, the very next trip that same year, and came out of it dry; then when going down the thirty-mile river, it did seem as though we could not escape being dashed upon the rocks, but somehow or another got through safely while the bank of that river was strewed with wrecks, and the waters had swallowed up many victims. When the Yukon proper was reached, the current was not so swift but the shoals were numerous, and more than once we were “hung up” on the bar, and always with an uncertainty as to how we would get off. In all of this experience of the two trips by the scows no damage resulted, except once when a hole was jammed into the scow, and we thought we were “goners” certain, but effected a landing so quickly as to unload our cargo dry. I now blame myself for taking such risks, but curiously enough I must admit that I enjoyed it, sustained, no doubt, with the high hopes of coming out with “my pile.” But fate or something else was against me, for the after mining experience swept all the accumulation away “slick as a mitten,” as the old saying goes, and I came out over the rotten ice of the Yukon in April of 1901 to stay, and to vow I never wanted to see another mine, or visit another mining country.

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First Oregon Trail marker erected by Ezra Meeker, in Tenino, Washington

Small wonder, you may say, when I write, that in two weeks’ time after arriving home I was able to, and did celebrate our golden wedding with the wife of fifty years and enjoyed the joys of a welcome home even if I did not have my pockets filled with gold. I had then passed the seventy-year mark, and thought my “pet project,” as some people call it, of marking the old Oregon Trail, was hung up indefinitely, but the sequel is shown in what followed and is the answer to my foreboding. I am now at this writing past the eighty-fifth year mark, and cannot see but I am as strong as when I floated down the Yukon in a flatboat, or packed my goods over the Chilcoot Pass, or drove my ox team over the summit of the Rocky Mountains on my recent trip to mark the historic Oregon Trail. 

• Read more about Ezra Meeker’s life

My Busy Life of Eighty Five Years at Gutenberg.org

Meeker Mansion, Puyallup, Washington

Nov-Dec Issue

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 1.48.24 PMThe November-December issue, now printing, ranges widely across Alaska, from the early settlements of Tyonek and Knik to the frontier towns of Cordova, Chitina, and Valdez, and from the goldfields of the Fortymile District to the halls of the Territorial legislature in Juneau. Among the articles for this issue:

• A guidebook to territorial Alaska from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s U. S. Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program which created the Federal Writers Project.

• An unusual but little-known earth-moving project, notable for the remote location and for the size of the undertaking. 

Orr Stage ad• The Ed. S. Orr Stage Company, an important part of our past, which proudly claimed “Eight day service between Valdez and Fairbanks, a distance of 364 miles,” and “All stages equipped with abundance of fur robes and carbon-heated foot warmers.”

• The Woodchopper Roadhouse, at one time the oldest and largest log structure on the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle City.

• The story of pioneer Native rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich.

• The 1898 explorations of Capt. Edwin F. Glenn and W. C. Mendenhall through the Matanuska Valley. 

• Pioneering Alaskan artists, color postcards from the turn of the century, a timeline, an index to the 2019 issues, and a few classic Alaskan books worth seeking out make this issue another worthwhile addition to your library shelves.

Click here to go to the orders page for subscriptions or single issues!

 

S. S. Nenana

oie_22193644K9uupFSWFrom the September-October issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

At one period in Alaskan history, there were over 300 flat-bottomed sternwheelers navigating on the Yukon River and its tributaries. These sternwheelers were essential in the development of the history of Alaska. Of all these lifelines of the rivers, only one remains, the Steamer SS Nenana, located in Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. The wooden-hulled, western rivers-style steam sternwheel passenger boat Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers of any kind left in the U.S., and the only large wooden hulled sternwheeler. She is a living museum of history that must be preserved for perpetuity.

oie_22193533uv0oBLYkShe was built and operated by the Alaska Railroad. With the completion of the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks in 1923, a way to haul freight to the villages and towns was needed. On September 16, 1922, the War Department deactivated the steamers General Jeff C. Davis, and General J. Jacobs from the U.S. Army and made them available to the Alaska Railroad free of charge by Executive Order.

The article about the SS Nenana is by Patricia De Nardo Schmidt, who came to Alaska in 1959, growing up in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and living in Fairbanks since 1969. Patricia watched the history of Fairbanks being lost over the years as buildings were being demolished or falling into ruin and collapse, and when she heard the Steamer SS Nenana was closed to the public in March of 2018 and in danger of being demolished she knew she had to take action. Joining with others who had the same interest in saving the Alaskan steamship, the group Friends of SS Nenana was formed.

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SS Nenana being built, 1932. [1968-013-025 Bill Berry Coll. [Property Pioneers of AK Museum of Fairbanks.]

For more information about Friends of SS Nenana or how to get involved, go to their website (friendsofssnenana.com) or their Facebook page: Friends of SS Nenana. Donations to help support the SS Nenana can also be made through these sites or the North Star Community Foundation SS Nenana page (www.nscfundalaska.org/FSSN).

National Historic Landmark  https://www.nps.gov/places/nenana.htm

Sept:Oct cover smallThe Sept-Oct issue of Alaskan History Magazine, which also features articles about Josephine Crumrine’s sled dog menu covers for The Alaska Steamship Company, the unprecedented luxury cruise of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman and his carefully selected passenger list of scientists and artists, the story of sea otters in the Aleutian Islands, the history of Alaska’s flag, and an excerpt from Josiah E. Spurr’s 1896 expedition to map and chart the interior of Alaska for the USGS.  The issue can be ordered from the Alaskan History Magazine website.

 

Alaska’s Flag

Screen Shot 2019-08-02 at 7.20.13 PM“Eight stars of gold on a field of blue…” was the basis of a design submitted by a 13-year-old Aleut boy from Seward in the 1927 contest to design a flag for the territory of Alaska. Benny Benson’s story is told in the Sept-Oct issue of Alaskan History Magazine, and several of the competing designs from the contest are also displayed.

PC Alaska's Flag song words copyAlso included is a bit of related history, the Alaska’s Flag poem by Marie Drake, set to music composed by Elinor Dusenbury, and how it became Alaska’s state song. Benny’s design was adopted by the Alaska Territorial Legislature in May, 1927. He was awarded a gold watch engraved with his flag design, and $1,000, equal to about $15,000 today, to apply to his education. Benny’s description submitted with his design explained: “The blue field is for the Alaska Sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”

The Sept-Oct issue, with this article and many others, can be ordered from the Alaskan History Magazine website.

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Rim of Red Water

oie_2117355x9JBAV1v“Out across those open turbulent waters in the Aleutian Islands, among the last to be explored by Europeans, is where Christopher Columbus, if he could have sailed farther, might have taken his three ships right off the edge of the Earth, somewhere west of Kodiak.”

Writer Tim Jones (The Last Great Race, Race Across Alaska, Keep the Round Side Down) brings a new perspective to Alaskan History Magazine with an excerpt from a book he’s been working on for a few decades, paralleling the life and importance of sea otters with the growth and history of Alaska. Beginning with the first inhabitants of the windswept rocky islands of the Aleutian chain, Jones traces the story over centuries, exploring the lives of the first people, who lived in harmony with the land and the creatures of the sea and honored the friendly, funny sea otters, and then contrasting that harshly with the relentless mayhem wrought by the men who came seeking only the sleek rich fur of the sea otters.

Sea Otter color“But those early explorers and later the merchants, ever restless, ever reaching out, were relentless in their searches for new lands and new riches, and as exploration spread it reached closer to the Aleutian Islands. Many of the early explorations, though not actually touching the islands, had a bearing on their future. And the sea otters became the valued objects that drew the first Europeans to Aleutian and subsequently Alaskan shores.”

Tim Jones has uploaded the entire text of his still-unfinished book – with illustrations – to his blog, Alaska With Attitude, and the history he writes is a fascinating, surprising, and quite enjoyable romp through a part of our past which can be as mysterious and elusive as the fog-shrouded Aleutians where it take place.

The Sept-Oct issue, with this article and many others, including the story of the SS Nenana, the Last Lady of the River, by Fairbanks writer and historian Patricia De Nardo Schmidt, can be ordered from the Alaskan History Magazine website.

Aleut hunters etching

Aleutian Sea Otter Hunters, by Charles Melville Scammon in The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, Described and Illustrated; Together With an Account of the American Whale-Fishery (1874)

Josiah E. Spurr

Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 10.16.25 AMThe Sept-Oct issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an excerpt from Josiah Edward Spurr’s account of the first expedition to map and chart the interior of Alaska for the United States Geological Survey, in 1896. It was the first of two expeditions of historic importance, the second being his 1898 exploration down the length of the Kuskokwim River, naming mountains, mountain ranges, creeks, rivers, lakes and glaciers. At the end of the Kuskokwim expedition he made the first scientific observations of the Mount Katmai volcano, and what later became known as the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.” After charting these regions, Spurr became the world’s leading geological consultant, and was generally regarded as one of the world’s foremost geologists. During the gold rush era his books were considered the definitive work on Alaskan minerals. Mt. Spurr, an active volcano 80 miles southwest of Anchorage, is named for him.

coverIn this excerpt, illustrated with photos from Spurr’s book, Through the Yukon Gold Diggings (Boston: Eastern Publishing Company, 1900), he and his men have traveled over Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River, arriving in Circle City, and setting out to explore the Birch Creek gold mining district: “We landed in front of the Alaska Commercial Company’s store, kept by Jack McQuesten. On jumping ashore, I went up immediately, in search of information, and as I stepped in I heard my name called in a loud voice. I answered promptly ‘Here,’ with no idea of what was wanted, for there was a large crowd in the store; but from the centre of the room something was passed from hand to hand towards me, which proved to be a package of letters from home—the first news I had received for over two months. On inquiry I found that the mail up the river had just arrived, and the storekeeper, who was also postmaster ex officio, had begun calling out the addresses on the letters to the expectant crowd of miners, and had got to my name as I entered the door—a coincidence, I suppose, but surely a pleasant and striking one.

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Customs house at Circle City, where Spurr stayed. From Spurr’s book.

“We obtained lodgings in a log house, large for Circle City, since it contained two rooms. It was already occupied by two customhouse officers, the only representatives of Uncle Sam whom we encountered in the whole region. One room had been used as a storeroom and carpenter-shop, and here, on the shavings, we spread out our blankets and made ourselves at home.

“The building had first been built as a church by missionaries, but as they were absent for some time after its completion, one room was fitted up with a bar by a newly arrived enterprising liquor-dealer, till the officers, armed in their turn with the full sanction of the church, turned the building into a customs house and hoisted the American flag, on a pole fashioned out of a slim spruce by the customs officer himself. The officers, when we came there, were sleeping days and working nights on the trail of some whisky smugglers who were in the habit of bringing liquor down the river from Canadian territory, in defiance of the American laws.”

Sept:Oct cover smallThe entire text of Spurr’s book can be read or downloaded free at Gutenberg.org; the Sept-Oct issue, with this article and many others, including an excerpt from a book in progress by noted Alaskan author Tim Jones, and the story of the SS Nenana, the Last Lady of the River, by Fairbanks writer and historian Patricia De Nardo Schmidt, can be ordered from the Alaskan History Magazine website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Josephine Crumrine

SmokeyThe beautiful pastel paintings of Alaskan huskies by Alaskan artist Josephine Crumrine, reproduced by four-color lithography, graced the menu covers in the dining rooms of the Alaska Steamship Company during the 1940’s and ’50’s. One of these menus, depicting an Army sled dog named ‘Smokey,’ shown here, is on file at the Alaska State Library and available to view on the digital archives.

The Sept-Oct issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article about Josephine Crumrine and the Alaska Steamship Company menus, with several other sled dog portraits for which the artist became well known.  Click here to order a single issue or subscribe, the current issue will be sent postpaid via first class mail.