Category Archives: Articles

Expanded content for articles in the magazine

March-April Issue

March-April 2020 Cover 600The March-April, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features a wide range of Alaskan history, from some of the first photographs and the earliest settlers at Valdez to an adventuresome lady musher who blazed trails where today’s Alaska Highway crosses the northern landscape. 

Eadweard Muybridge was a man as strange as his oddly-spelled name, but his photographs of southeastern Alaska and Sitka for the Department of the Army provide a fascinating look at the area barely six months after the transferral ceremony of the land purchased from Russia by the U.S. government. The second article explores the contentious disagreement over the geographic boundaries between the southeastern part of the territory of Alaska and the province of British Columbia, whose foreign affairs were still under British authority. 

Wikipedia Bear

U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear

Dr. Gary Stein shares letters penned in 1894 by physician James Taylor White, who wrote them to his mother while serving as surgeon aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, under Captain Michael A. Healy. Dr. White described the journey, the land, and the people, and shared his personal opinions about what he saw on his Arctic travels. 

Dr. Thomas Eley writes of the adventurous Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, an Indian scout from the Old West whose wide travels in Alaska helped write our state’s history. The founding and settling of the gold rush town of Valdez, and the 1,000 mile sled dog journey of Taku Lodge owner Mary Joyce, from Juneau to Fairbanks in the winter of 1936, round out this issue! 


Back Issues pageYou can subscribe to Alaskan History Magazine via PayPal at this link, or order a single issue for yourself or a friend; or order any back issues you may be missing at this page.

Single back issues of Alaskan History Magazine, which carries no advertising in its 48 page 8.5” x 11” full-color format, are available for $10.00 each postpaid (U.S. only). Descriptions are on this page, select the issue or issues you’d like to order and payment can be made via PayPal or with any credit card – but please indicate which back issue(s) you are ordering.

 

Esther Birdsall Darling

Baldy of NomeAn article in the Jan-Feb issue of Alaskan History Magazine focuses on the author of several classic Alaskan books such as Baldy of Nome, Navarre of the North, and Boris, Grandson of Baldy. An avid fan of the sled dog races in Nome, Esther Birdsall Darling was also the kennel partner to the King of the Alaskan Trail, Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan.

Esther Birdsall was born into wealth and privilege, the daughter of a prominent family in the early history of northern California. Born in 1868, Esther grew up in a fine home, tended by three live-in servants, in the state capitol of Sacramento. In 1907, at the relatively late age of 38, Esther married the co-owner of the Darling & Dean Hardware business in far-off Nome, Alaska.

Darling and Dean Steffanson dogs 420

The sled dogs of the Stefansson Expedition had formerly carried the mail to Nome. C. E. Darling, ‘Scotty’ Allan, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson are among the men seen here at Darling & Dean.

Charles Edward ‘Ned’ Darling was born in Ireland in 1871. He was working for a west-coast based paint company in 1900 when he decided to transport a supply of fireproof paint to the Nome gold camp for fire-proofing the miners’ tents. After looking things over he determined that a hardware store could prove profitable, and by 1915 his store, the farthest north hardware store on the American continent, would boast a $150,000 inventory of hardware, ship chandlery, roofing, dredging supplies, and mining and mill supplies. Darling & Dean Hardware outfitted several Arctic expeditions, including explorer and anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who in 1913 purchased $21,000 in supplies for a three-year scientific study of the Arctic. 

Baldy and Scotty Allan

A.A. “Scotty” Allan and Baldy

Charles Darling was also a musher, and in February of 1906 he set a world’s record for long distance mushing when he drove his dog team from Nome to Seattle—via Valdez and ship—in only 42 days. Dog teams were held in high esteem, for a string of strong huskies was the most reliable mode of transportation over winter trails. The secretary of Darling & Dean Hardware, a Scotsman named Allan Alexander Allan, known as “Scotty,” partnered with Charles Darling in a dog kennel, and when the new Mrs. Darling met the furry residents of this kennel it was love at first sight, and that love would blossom into a literary legacy.

Baldy of Nome, published in 1912, was kept it in print by popular demand for more than forty years. It was filled with exciting true stories such as the time during the 60-mile Solomon Derby when Scotty, leaning over his sled to look at a broken runner, hit his head on an iron trail marker and was knocked unconscious. Baldy stopped the team, returned to his injured driver and roused him with nudges and howls, and then led the team to win the race. Stories of Baldy’s descendants followed, including Boris, Grandson of Baldy; Navarre of the North, and collections of prose and poetry about Alaska. 

Esther Darling on steps 420Charles and Esther Darling left Alaska in 1918 and moved to Berkeley, California, and so also did Scotty Allan, taking along his old friend and trail mate Baldy. When Baldy died in 1922 Esther Darling and Scotty Allan obtained a special permit from the city to bury the famous dog in the back yard of the Allan home in Oakland, overlooking San Francisco Bay. A rose bush was planted over his grave, and a lengthy obituary ran in The New York Times. 

Esther Birdsall Darling spent her later years as a popular speaker at civic, charity, and other social events, describing life in Alaska during the heyday of the All Alaska Sweepstakes to her attentive audiences. She was justifiably proud of her partnership with A. A. “Scotty” Allan, who she always described as the best dog man in Alaska, and their champion leader Baldy. Esther passed away June 2, 1965, at the age of 96, in Auburn, California, near her childhood home. She was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery, close to her parents and her husband. ~•~

 

esther

The entire article is in the Jan-Feb issue of Alaskan History Magazine

Ella Higginson

Portrait by Curtis 420

Portrait of Ella Higginson by Asahel Curtis

From the Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, the recipient of several national awards for her short fiction and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, in 1931. In 1863, when Ella was a baby, her family traveled the Oregon Trail, and she was raised near present-day Portland. At 23 she married Russell Higginson, a druggist, and they moved to Bellingham, Washington in 1888, spending the rest of their lives there. Starting in 1904, Ella traveled to Alaska for four summers as part of the research for her book on Alaska.

‘Alaska, the Great Country,’ an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing travelogue of Higginson’s adventures there, was published in 1908, went through several editions, and was quoted by leading authorities of the day. Her observations of territorial Alaska are online to read free at the Project Gutenberg website.

Ellas Book 420A few excerpts from her book are shared here: 

• The spell of Alaska falls upon every lover of beauty who has voyaged along those far northern snow-pearled shores with the violet waves of the North Pacific Ocean breaking splendidly upon them; or who has drifted down the mighty rivers of the interior which flow, bell-toned and lonely, to the sea. I know not how the spell is wrought; nor have I ever met one who could put the miracle of its working into words. No writer has ever described Alaska; no one writer ever will; but each must do his share, according to the spell that the country casts upon him.

Sitka long shot 420

Sitka

• Something gives Sitka a different look and atmosphere from any other town. It may be her whiteness, glistening against the rich green background of forest and hill, with the whiteness of the mountains shining in the higher lights; or it may be the severely white and plain Greek church, rising in the centre of the main street, not more than a block from the water, that gives Sitka her chaste and immaculate appearance. 

Screen Shot 2019-10-08 at 1.50.52 AM• We sailed into the lovely bay of Unalaska on the fourth day of July. The entire village, native and white, had gone on a picnic to the hills. We spent the afternoon loitering about the deserted streets and the green and flowery hills. One could sit contentedly for a week upon the hills,—as the natives used to sit upon the roofs of their barabaras,—doing nothing but looking down upon the idyllic loveliness shimmering in every direction. In the centre of the town rises the Greek-Russian church, green-roofed and bulbous-domed, adding the final touch of mysticism and poetry to this already enchanting scene. At sunset the mists gathered, slowly, delicately, beautifully. They moved in softly through the same strait by which we had entered—little rose-colored masses that drifted up to meet the violet-tinted ones from the other end of the bay. In the centre of the water valley they met and mixed together, and, in their new and more marvellous coloring, pushed up about the town and the lower slopes. Out of them lifted and shone the green roof and domes of the church; more brilliantly above them, napped thick and soft as velvet, glowed the hills; and more lustrously against the saffron sky flashed the pearl of the higher peaks.

RESOURCES

Laffrado book 420Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature is a book about Ella Higginson’s life and writing, by Laura Laffrado, a professor of English at Western Washington University, published in 2015 by the Whatcom County Historical Society. 

Dr. Laura Laffredo, an authority on Ella Higginson’s life   

Alaska, The Great Country, by Ella Higginson at the Gutenberg Project  

 

The Chilkoot Trail

 

From the January-February, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

Packers 1897 LoC 420

Packers on Dyea Trail, 1897. Photo by LaRoche, Seattle, Wash., from the Library of Congress, [www.loc.gov/item/2016653518/].

“The men take up the packs, and this is what happens: They walk to the base of the cliff, with a stout alpenstock in hand. They start to climb a narrow foot-trail that goes up, up, up. The rock and earth are gray. The packers and packs have disappeared. There is nothing but the gray wall of rock and earth. But stop! Look more closely. The eye catches movement. The mountain is alive. See! They are going against the sky! They are human beings, but never did men look so small.” ~Tappan Adney for Harpers Weekly, 1897

Long Wharf HEG117 420

Freight and supplies unloaded near the Long Wharf at Dyea, circa 1898. Photographer Eric A. Hegg. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, [HEG117]

The Dyea Trail, or as it would come to be known, the Chilkoot Pass Trail, began on the broad, flat flood plain delta of the Taiya or Dyea River. The trail ascended gently, following the 17-mile-long river through the mountains. After about 12 miles the trail began to rise sharply, gaining over 1,600 feet in just two and a half miles. Then the steep climb over the pass itself, followed by trails leading down the eastern flanks, where long lakes provided easier travel, whether by canoe or toboggan. The route had been used for travel and trade by the local indigenous groups long before the rest of the world discovered this part of the north.

GOLD GOLD 1897

GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!

On July 14, 1897 the S.S. Excelsior docked in San Francisco and sparked a fevered interest among the veteran California gold miners. Three days later the S.S. Portland arrived at the port of Seattle with its legendary ‘ton of gold,’ and the west coast—indeed the entire nation—went mad for the Klondike diggings. A special edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer desclared in bold headlines “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!” and local outfitting stores began emptying their shelves overnight, as men and women hastily grabbed for whatever supplies they could and caught the next ship north. Where there had been a trickle of hopeful prospectors searching for another El Dorado, there was now unleashed a flood tide of humanity in all its incarnations. Over the next few years an estimated 100,000 stampeders would join the rush to the north, and the bulk of them were headed for Dyea. 

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 7.33.36 PM

Art by Eustace Paul Ziegler

There were other routes, to be sure, such as the White Pass Trail out of nearby Skagway, of which Samuel E. Moffett wrote in 1903, “By the White Pass route you did not have the precipitous ascent of the Chilkoot, but you had to go twice as far, and you struggled through bogs in which you were likely to leave your horse and, perhaps, your entire outfit as well. The whole trail was blazed by the carcasses of dead horses.” That passage would come to be known as The Dead Horse Trail, but when the White Pass and Yukon Railway was completed in August, 1900, it quickly became the route of choice. 

Chilkoot Pass PC

Postcard, Library of Congress

Within a few years, as the rush to the Klondike assumed major proportions, the steps cut into the snow and ice of Chilkoot Pass would become known as the “Golden Stairs,” and men would proceed up in lockstep fashion, a image which might be utterly unbelievable if not for the photographs proving it so. Four miles below the summit, Sheep Camp would become a haphazard tent town of more than a thousand souls, with fifteen hotels, innumerable eating places, and even a hospital to tend those wounded on the trail. 

Far below, at tidewater, the boomtown of Dyea grew up around the Healy & Wilson trading post in the fall of 1897, as word of the Klondike gold strike brought increasing numbers of people north. The National Park Service website describes the growth of Dyea: “As late as September 1897, Dyea was still nothing more than the Wilson & Healy trading post, a few saloons, the Tlingit encampment, and a motley assemblage of tents. In October, speculators mapped out a townsite, but Dyea’s biggest growth did not begin until the Yukon River system began to freeze up and the winter storms slowed traffic on the Chilkoot Trail. Without the ability to dash up the trails, people began spending more time in Dyea and it became more town-like.”

Long Wharf piers 420

Deteriorating pilings are all that remain of the Long Wharf at Dyea. Photographed in 1986  by Jet Lowe for the Historic American Engineering Record (Library of Congress HAER AK-38)

A long wharf, almost two miles in length, was begun in 1897, shortly after the platting of the townsite, by promoter L. D. Kinney. The wharf was 50 feet wide, 4,000 feet long, and extended from low tide to deep water, being 34 feet deep at the shore end and 60 feet deep at the outer end, with pilings driven 25 to 50 feet into solid ground. Completed in May 1898, the great wharf extended almost two miles across the mud flats and into deep water, and connected to Broadway which led directly into town.

Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 4.31.57 PM

From an 1897 book

During the winter of 1897-1898, Dyea grew until the downtown area was about five blocks wide and eight blocks long. At the height of its prosperity the town boasted over 150 businesses, mostly restaurants, hotels, supply houses, and saloons. There were also doctors, a dentist, attorneys, bankers, photographers, realtors, two newspapers, two telephone companies, a volunteer fire department, two hospitals and three undertakers, who were pressed into service when a devastating avalanche roared across the trail on Palm Sunday, April 3, 1898, killing over 70 people. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 7.13.55 PM

NPS map, click to enlarge

The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was created in 1976, a four unit park comprised of the Dyea and Chilkoot, Skagway, and White Pass units in Alaska; and the Seattle unit in Washington state, memorializing the historical period during the Gold Rush. The site of the town of Dyea and the route of the Chilkoot Trail were designated as National Historic Landmarks in 1978, officially recognized by the United States government for their national historical significance.

RESOURCES

The Chilkoot Trail: Cultural Landscape Report for the Chilkoot Trail Historic Corridor, Nat. Park Service PDF, 2011.     

Klondike. The Chicago Record’s Book for Gold Seekers, 1897.

Klondyke facts, by Joseph Ladue, 1897. Library of Congress:

ExploreNorth, A comprehesive online guide      

Klondike Gold Rush National Park

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 8.01.31 PM

Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898. From “The Klondike, a souvenir”, Rufus Bucks Publisher, Seattle, 1900.

The 1915 Tanana Chiefs Conference

Seven Chiefs 420

Group portrait at the first Tanana Chiefs Conference, 1915. Seated front, L to R: Chief Alexander of Tolovana, Chief Thomas of Nenana, Chief Evan of Koschakat, Chief Alexander William of Tanana. Standing at rear, L to R: Chief William of Tanana, Paul Williams of Tanana, and Chief Charlie of Minto. [Albert Johnson Photograph Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks.]

The Jan-Feb issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the 1915 Tanana Chiefs Conference, which brought together Native Athabascan leaders from the Tanana River villages of Crossjacket, Chena, Minto, Nenana, Salchaket, Tanana/Ft. Gibbon, and Tolovana to meet with government officials to discuss the many changes happening in the Territory of Alaska at that time.

Taking place July 5 and 6, 1915, the government officials at the Council included Judge James Wickersham, Thomas Riggs of the Alaska Engineering Commission, C. W. Richie and H. J. Atwell of the U. S. Land Office, and the Reverend Guy Madara from the Episcopal Church. Also present were interpreter Paul Williams of Ft. Gibbon and G. F. Cramer, Special Disbursing Agent of the Alaskan Engineering Commission.

Tanana Chiefs book 420In March, 2018, the University of Alaska Press published The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, edited by UAF Emeritus Professor William Schneider, noting about the meeting, “It was one of the first times that Native voices were part of the official record. They sought education and medical assistance, and they wanted to know what they could expect from the federal government. They hoped for a balance between preserving their way of life with seeking new opportunities under the law.”

Tanana Chiefs Full group 420Schneider explains further in his Introduction: “For Native leaders and students of Native history, the record of this meeting is a baseline for measuring progress in areas such as governmental relations, recognition of legal rights, land claims, health care, social services, and education. The meeting is also important because it demonstrated the leadership of the Native chiefs, who stated their concerns and expressed their desire to work with the federal government, even though they couldn’t agree with all that was asked of them.”

Tanana Chiefs Transcript 420The transcript of the meeting is at the Alaska State Library [ASL-MS-0107-38-001], and it is a compelling read for anyone interested in Alaskan history, clearly showing the simple clarity and intelligence of the Indian words, and the paternalistic assurances of the white men present.

Resources

• The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, William Schneider, UA Press, 2018

1915 Tanana Chiefs Meeting, by William Schneider, at Alaska Historical Society, 2015

Typewritten Transcript, Proceedings of a Council, at the Alaska State Library

Transcript of the meeting, at the Alaska State Library (easier to read)

George C. Thomas Memorial Library in Fairbanks, at Wikipedia

National Register of Historic Places, nomination form for the George C. Thomas Memorial Library in Fairbanks, 1976

George Thompson Library 420

The George C. Thomas Library in July 2011, almost the same as when it was built 102 years ago. 

 

Robert Service

oie_2472830AK5Xg6wJRobert William Service (1874–1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, best known for his colorfully vivid descriptions of the land and the people of the Yukon Territory. Although he did not arrive in Dawson City until ten years after the great gold rush of 1898, his poetry and writings of the era helped shape the romantic ideals of the Klondike. 

The Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article about the life of the great rhyme-maker, and his life was as unusual and adventuresome as the men he penned lines about. Hardbitten, down-on-their-luck, but ever-hopeful and sometimes incredibly fortunate men, and Robert Service had been all of these and more. Opening lines from The Man from Eldorado:

He’s the man from Eldorado, and he’s just arrived in town,
 In moccasins and oily buckskin shirt.
He’s gaunt as any Indian, and pretty nigh as brown;
 He’s greasy, and he smells of sweat and dirt.
He sports a crop of whiskers that would shame a healthy hog;
 Hard work has racked his joints and stooped his back;
He slops along the sidewalk followed by his yellow dog,
 But he’s got a bunch of gold-dust in his sack.

The noted Canadian author and journalist Pierre Berton interviewed Robert Service in 1958 in Monte Carlo—the last interview Service ever gave. Berton had crossed paths with Service since childhood; in his book, Prisoners of the North (Carroll & Graf, 2004), Berton wrote, “My mother knew him when she was a young kindergarten teacher in Dawson City; he even asked her to a dance—the kind of social affair he usually avoided. His original log cabin stood directly across from my childhood home under the hill overlooking the town.”

RWS on cabin porch 1910?

Robert Service at his beloved log cabin on the hill overlooking Dawson City, 1909-1911. 

In the Monte Carlo interview, recently uploaded to YouTube, Robert Service describes writing The Shooting of Dan McGrew after one of the churches asked him to do a bit in a program. Thinking it over on one of his long walks, he decided to take his friend Stroller’s advice and write something original: “….I heard sounds of revelry, and the line just popped into my head, ‘A bunch of the boys was a whoopin’ it up,’ and there I got my start. I felt quite excited about it, I ate scarcely any supper, and after supper I went to my teller’s cage and I started to write. Well, believe it or not, I wrote on almost continuously through that ballad, and finished it, oh, around about two in the morning. I wrote it as it stands now, scarcely a line has been changed, and finally I went to bed, my job was finished. I put it away in a drawer and forgot all about it.”

Pierre Berton asks him, “You didn’t recite it at the church social?”

Robert Service: “Oh no, the cuss words in it was something that they wouldn’t stand for!” 

There are many fine websites dedicated to Robert Service’s life and work, and Pierre Berton’s interview with Robert Service, in Monaco in 1958, can be found on YouTube.

Resources:

• Two extensive websites, with extended biographies, chronologies of his life, and many photos, newsclippings and other material from descendants of Robert Service:

 Robert Service          Robert Service

Prisoners of the North, by Pierre Berton. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004

• Vagabond of Verse: A Biography, by James A. Mackay, Mainstream Pub. Co., 1996

On the Trail of Robert Service, by G. W. Lockhart, Luath Press, 2004

• Biography at Encyclopedia Britannica

• Robert Service Resource Page at ExploreNorth

• Robert Service Facebook Page 

oie_7b6HpOpdIDiF

Monument to the Bard in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

The Davidson Ditch

borderedThe January-February, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine featured an article about the Davidson Ditch, a combination pipeline and actual ditch or channel which winds through the hills northeast of Fairbanks. Built in the 1920s, it begins just below the confluence of Ruby Creek and Sourdough Creek, just north of the Chatanika River, and runs 90 miles to the old FE Gold mining operations, more or less paralleling today’s Steese Highway. Abandoned in the 1960’s, it was the first large-scale pipeline project in Alaska, and lessons learned in its construction were applied to building the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay half a century later. 

The entire system was gravity fed, utilizing no pumps or mechanics. A containment dam fed water into open ditches which gradually descended along ridge lines. Fifteen inverted siphons channeled the water down hillsides, across intersecting streams, and back up to the grade level. A 3,700-foot long tunnel was blasted though a ridge between Chatanika and Goldstream Valley.

DD pipeline 420

Mining engineer Norman C. Stines, an unusual man with an equally unusual history, had worked abroad with some of the preeminent mining engineers in the world. He had observed the success of the huge gold mining dredges near Nome, and he believed the same technique would prove profitable in the Fairbanks area, but the lack of available water presented a problem. 

Dredges, which work from barges, require tremendous amounts of water to float the barges, thaw the permafrost, and remove the overburden, exposing the gold-bearing ground. In their research document The Davidson Ditch, produced for the cultural resource consulting firm Northern Land Use Research, Inc. in 2005, Catherine Williams and Sarah McGowan wrote, “Only by moving millions of cubic yards of the muck overlying gold-bearing gravels …. could the low-grade placer gold deposits be mined profitably.”

Chatanika RiverIn the 1930s the famed musher Leonhard Seppala, who had braved blizzard conditions in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, lived at Chatanika and patrolled the Davidson Ditch with his dogteam, ensuring the steady flow of water to the gold dredges was not interrupted. 

Today the rusty red pipeline is visible from several places along the Steese Highway, and a Davidson Ditch Historical Site at milepost 57.3 tells of the history and construction. Abandoned in the late 1960s, the remains of the conduit are partially protected by its inclusion in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. It is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but to date it has not been listed. 

Resources:

Davidson Ditch: Huge aqueduct boosted Interior Alaska’s gold rush, maybe saved Fairbanks, article by Ned Rozell, Anch. Daily News, Sept. 27, 2013.  

Alaska Mining Hall of Fame  – Biography of James M. Davidson

• Wikipedia – A detailed history of the planning, surveying, construction, technical details, and more.

 Davison Ditch Pipeline Display, Pioneers of Alaska Fairbanks – photos of the pipeline display, related historic photos and history