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“My Dear Mother”: Dr. James T. White

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“My Dear Mother”: Dr. James Taylor White

Edited by Gary C. Stein, from the March-April, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine

In February 1894 Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle authorized Captain Michael A. Healy to employ Seattle physician James Taylor White as surgeon for the upcoming Arctic cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. This was White’s third cruise to Alaska for the department’s Revenue-Cutter Service, a predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1894 White participated in missionary Sheldon Jackson’s three-year-old project transporting domesticated Siberian reindeer to Alaska to prevent supposed starvation among Alaska’s Native population.

Bear

Iconic shot of the USRC Bear

White was an astute observer. Not only a physician, he was an avid naturalist and amateur ethnographer. Everything he saw interested him. While his 1894 diary thoroughly describes people and places he encountered, there is a briefer source offering another perspective of that summer on the Bear. His personal correspondence is in the Alaska and Polar Regions Collection and Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He wrote extensively to his mother, Ione Taylor White, throughout his 1894 cruise describing not only what he saw but his personal opinions as well, some of which material never entered his diary.

White boarded the Bear at San Francisco in mid-April. At the end of that month the cutter sailed to Seattle for coal and then stood north for Sitka, arriving at Alaska’s capital on May 11. By early June the Bear had cruised along Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island.

Kodiak circa 1900

Kodiak circa 1900

My dear Mother:

We left St. Paul [harbor], Kadiak Island yesterday. … After having been in smooth water so long it rather upsets one to be suddenly plunging into a rough sea. Strange to say it affects me very little and I have noticed, as well as others, that it has little or no effect on my appetite. 

The trip has been delightful and peaceable. On the whole we have a nice set of officers and no trouble has been experienced, though it is rather too early to talk much. If all is as well when we get through the Arctic part of the trip as now I will be thankful, for that is when it tries one to the utmost. Mrs. H— [Mary Jane Healy, the Captain’s wife] is very pleasant to all and I think influences the Capt. more than he or anyone else imagines.

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The Bear in Dutch Harbor, 1897-98

Dutch Harbor Alaska. June 11th ‘94

My dear Mother:

Dutch Harbor is the headquarters of the new trading company [North American Transportation and Trading Company], and as it is their interests we are to look after we stay here. It is only a couple of miles from Unalaska, so we spend most of our time there. I went over yesterday to attend some of the school children, and I am going in today to patch up a broken head.

Just when we leave here for the Arctic I don’t know but presume it will be about the 16th inst. We have received no mail so far and if the mail steamer is not on time, we will not receive any until next September. Not knowing how things are there I can but hope and wish that all of you are well and that my letters when received will speak of good and happy times.

Today is beautiful, bright and warm. We are taking on coal and everything is dirty and upset. To be continued in my next—-

I remain, well and contented, your affectionate Son

James.

For More Information:

• Gary C. Stein “‘A Desperate and Dangerous Man’: Captain Michael A. Healy’s Arctic Cruise of 1900.” The Alaska Journal, 15 (Spring 1985): 39-45. 

• Gary C. Stein “‘The Old Man is Good and Drunk Now’: Captain Michael A. Healy and the Cruise of 1889.” Alaska History, 24 (Spring 2009): 16-43.

• Gary C. Stein “‘Their Feast of Death’: The Wreck of the Whaler James Allen.” Coriolis, 7 (No. 2, 2017): 21-48.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Dept. of Botany Collections.

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March-April 2020 Cover 600Alaskan History Magazine is an independently produced magazine dedicated to portraying the colorful and important past of the Last Frontier as an interesting and exciting journey of exploration. The style is conversational, yet confident and informative, thoroughly researched to bring the true stories of the people, places and events which shaped Alaskan history to a wide readership.

Published bimonthly by Northern Light Media. Full color, no advertising. Subscribe, order all the back issues, or just order a single issue at this link.

The Early Settlement of Valdez

valdezFrom the March-April issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

The Pathfinder is the official publication of the Pioneers of Alaska, a fraternal group which traces its history to the Yukon Order of Pioneers, organized at Fortymile in 1898. The following article on the early settlement of Valdez is from The Pathfinder, February, 1920. The issue is available to read or download at Google Books.

On the 22nd day of September, 1897, the schooner Laninfa sailed from San Francisco with 33 passengers aboard enroute to the mouth of the Copper River in Alaska. They had been told that they could navigate this river with small power boats and were fully equipped to make a trip up that turbulent stream. On their arrival at Orca they learned that it was impossible for them to ascend the Copper River with any kind of boat, so about 20 of the men in the party chartered a cannery craft and came on up to Valdez Bay having been told that men had gone to the Copper River by that route thus landing above the glaciers and rapids of that river. The cannery boat carrying 22 men came into Valdez Bay on the 10th day of November, 1897 and landed its passengers at the place now known as Swanport, just below where Fort Liscum now is built. This was the first settlement on the shores of Valdez Bay.

Sch. Moonlight on Valdes Bay

Schooner Moonlight in Valdez Bay, March, 1898. Neal Benedict [ASL Neal D. Benedict Collection P201-009]

Sometime in December, about a month after the landing of the Swanport party, the schooner Bering Sea hove into port with a large number of passengers bound for the Klondike by way of the Copper River.  In February, 1898, the steamer Valencia arrived in the Bay with 600 passengers, and crafts of all kinds then came thick and fast until there were over 4,000 men climbing over the glacier bound for the Copper River enroute to the Klondike. In 1898 Capt. Abercrombie arrived in Valdez Bay for the purpose of opening a road from the Bay to the Interior. 

In the winter of 1898 a group of gold seekers traveled to Alaska aboard the schooner Moonlight, bound for Valdez and the Copper River country beyond its great glacier. Among these prospectors were Charles Margeson, who would write a book of their adventures (Experiences of Gold Hunters in Alaska, 1899), and Neal D. Benedict, who took many photographs. 

Arriving in Valdez Bay in March, 1898, Margeson was dismayed to find not the wharf they’d expected, but a large shelf of ice extending a long ways out into the bay. He described their landing and unloading, and what they found when going ashore: 

“About a mile from where the schooner was anchored was a piece of timber containing two or three hundred acres, and running down through this was a clear stream of pure water. In the edge of this timber, and near this little stream, were about one hundred tents, clustered together, and others were being set up. This unique camp—for it was about that—presented a scene of unusual activity. Some were tramping down the snow, preparing a place to put up their tents; some were cutting tent poles, and others were cutting firewood, while others were getting their dog teams ready for hauling their goods up to the foot of the glacier, which was five miles away.”

Learn more about early Valdez

Valdez Museum & Historical Archives  

Experiences of Gold Hunters in Alaska, Charles Margeson 

History of the Valdez Trail National Park Service 

History of Valdez 


March-April 2020 Cover 600You can subscribe to Alaskan History Magazine via PayPal at this link, you can also order a single issue for yourself or a friend, or order any back issues you may be missing.

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.

 

Early Alaskan Trails

oie_102620WSyIUI9hFrom the March-April issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

The first trails in Alaska were made by animals, those which came after that showed where the earliest men and women traveled. Then came the explorers, the missionaries, the scientists, the prospectors….

The Yukon, Tanana, & Kuskokwim Rivers

The earliest trails in Alaska were generally those which relied on the frozen rivers, lakes, and streams which crossed the land, the largest rivers being the main thoroughfares, with smaller streams branching off toward destinations, and lakes and ponds providing easy access across sometimes rough country. Most early maps of Alaska include the notations for Winter Trails; in the other three seasons these trails simply did not exist, or they were traveled by rafts, boats or canoes. Still today many trails rely on frozen waterways for part of their length, i.e. the Iditarod Trail on the Yukon River between Ruby and Kaltag. Yukon River mail team

The Native Trails

Native groups traditionally created their own transportation networks, utilizing local paths for subsistence activities, while longer trails were used for hunting, intertribal trade, and occasional raiding trips. These routes usually followed the contours of the land, tracing natural corridors. Exploring Keystone Canyon north of Valdez in 1884, Lt. Abercrombie reported “a deep and well-worn trail up the canyon and across to the Tiekel River in the Copper River valley.” 

Copper River packdogs

Glacier Trails

In the late 1880’s prospectors objecting to foreign control of the Chilkoot and White Pass transportation corridors began seeking an All American route to the Klondike goldfields, but they found only one way across the mighty Chugach mountain range: an exceptionally difficult and dangerous path over the Valdez and Klutina glaciers. In 1898, the army sent Abercrombie back to locate a safer way. Spotting the remains of a Chugach trail leading to the north toward Keystone Canyon, he proceeded to the interior via the Valdez Glacier, and found an Ahtna path leading up the right (or western) bank of the Copper River. Both were eventually utilized by the Valdez Trail. 

Packtrain crossing Russell Glacier

Read more about the early trails in Alaska in the March-April issue of Alaskan History 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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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

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