Ella Higginson

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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.

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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:

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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

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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. 

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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.”

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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.

The 1915 Tanana Chiefs Conference

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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

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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 

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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

 

The Alabama Claims

Czar's_Ratification_of_the_Alaska_Purchase_Treaty_-_NARA_-_299810.pdf

Tzar Alexander II’s ratification of the Treaty

There is a wealth of Alaskan history in the old books and documents which are digitized and online, available to read, download, save to your Kindle or other device, or otherwise enjoy in multiple formats. The Library of Congress has an astonishing collection of historic documents, as expected, including Alaska-specific volumes such as the Treaty concerning the cession of the Russian possessions in North America by His Majesty the emperor of all the Russias to the United States of America (1867), a 1967 facsimile of the limited official edition of the original Treaty of Cession. You can read the text-only version over at the Yale Law Library, or in the Harvard Classics at Bartleby, and there’s a transcribed photo version at the Alaska State Library.

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The signing of the Alaska Treaty of Cessation on March 30, 1867. L–R: Robert S. Chew, William H. Seward, William Hunter, Mr. Bodisco, Eduard de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner, and Frederick W. Seward.

The history behind the treaty was reported on the front page of newspapers across the U.S., such as this leading article from The New York Tribune for April 1, 1867 (top of the fifth column). The history is also well explained at Wikipedia: “The Alaska Purchase (Russian: Продажа Аляски, tr. Prodazha Alyaski, Sale of Alaska) was the United States’ acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire. Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867, through a treaty ratified by the United States Senate and signed by President Andrew Johnson.”

The article continues with the history, public opinion about the purchase, the transfer ceremony, the aftermath, and much more, including their always-valuable references, further reading, and external links. While some people dismiss Wikipedia itself as a resource, I find the additional resources Wikipedia freely shares to be of utmost value, and the best reason to keep it among my bookmarked research sources. As an example, a linked reference under See Also led me to the “Alabama Claims, the US demands for British reparations after the Civil War, which Seward thought would lead to the cession of western Canada.”


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Painting of the CSS Alabama

I’d heard the term before, but I didn’t know the history, so I was surprised to learn that our Secretary Seward had higher aims than just Alaska: “The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages sought by the government of the United States from the United Kingdom in 1869, for the attacks upon Union merchant ships by Confederate Navy commerce raiders built in British shipyards during the American Civil War. The claims focused chiefly on the most famous of these raiders, the CSS Alabama, which took more than sixty prizes before she was sunk off the French coast in 1864.”

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Sen. Charles Sumner, MA

“Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, originally wanted to ask for $2 billion in damages, or alternatively, the ceding of Canada to the United States. When American Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the Alaska Purchase in 1867, he intended it as the first step in a comprehensive plan to gain control of the entire northwest Pacific Coast. Seward was a firm believer in “Manifest Destiny”, primarily for its commercial advantages to the United States. Seward expected the West Coast Province of British Columbia to seek annexation to the United States and thought Britain might accept this in exchange for the Alabama claims. Soon other U.S. politicians endorsed annexation, with the goal of annexing British Columbia, the central Canadian Red River Colony (later Manitoba), and eastern Nova Scotia, in exchange for dropping the damage claims.”

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US Secretary of State William H. Seward

It’s all quite fascinating, and if you’ve read this far you should click here and read the entire article to learn why the claim was dropped without our annexing a large part of Canada. There are also many interesting links to references, a bibliography, and external links which lead to books, articles, newspaper accounts, and much more. One link took me to another particularly interesting online book, Great Britain and the American Civil War, and another to a detailed breakdown of the Alabama Claims and their “final and amicable settlement,” written in 1871.

In my opinion the best book about the entire affair is the 1900 book written by Thomas Willing Balch titled simply The Alabama Arbitration. It is available to read or download free at The Internet Archive.

There are also good articles at:

• History.com

•  Office of the Historian for the U.S. Department of State

JSTOR “The arbitration which led to this result has been described as one which, whether measured by the gravity of the questions at issue or by the enlightened statesmanship which conducted them to a peaceful determination, was justly regarded as the greatest the world had ever seen.” -JB Moore, History and Digest of the International Arbitrations to which the United States has been a Party (Washington, 1898)

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Alabama sinks the whaler Virginia

1935 WPA Federal Writers Project

ND Cover 420 resThe November-December issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the WPA Guide to Alaska, which was written as part of the Federal Writers Project, an interesting study of the territory in which the preface sagely advises, “The best way to know Alaska is to spend a lifetime there.”

WPACAThe Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program, to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States (including the territory of Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.). The project was expanded to include local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works.

WPANDThe American Guide Series books were written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of major cities, automobile tours were one of the important attractions, and there was a portfolio of photographs in each book.

m7cEAnxa5C9XwK15ggTnnvwA Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier, was written by Merle Colby, and includes a foreword by John W. Troy, then-Governor of the territory of Alaska. Troy wrote, “Scarcely more than a generation ago, well within the memory of many living Alaskans, the news was flashed in 1897 over telegraph wires that the steamer Portland had arrived in Seattle with ‘a ton of gold.'”

Troy continues: “Even more important, and certainly no less dramatic, is the less-known Alaska of today — the Alaska of graveled automobile roads, of airplanes, used as casually by Alaskans as are taxis in continental United States, of giant gold dredges, of great fishing fleets, of farms with the latest in modern equipment, of homes set in frames of flowers and surrounded with vegetable gardens, of large shops, theaters, churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, and America’s farthest-north university.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 11.52.08 AMThe entire book can be read online, and there are interesting details throughout the 1939 guidebook, such as this curious advice regarding money: “The 5-cent piece is the lowest monetary unit in Alaska; in the remote interior, the 25 cent piece (two bits). In the latter case, this does not mean that the lowest price of any article is 25 cents, but merely that a total purchase must amount to a multiple of 25 cents. Pennies are almost unknown, and in post offices the clerk will usually make change in one-cent stamps. Prices such as 39 cents and $1.98 are unheard of.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.17.01 AMThe guidebook’s description of roads in Alaska is notably brief: “Automobile Highways. The Richardson Highway (open in summer only), 371 miles long, begins at the port of Valdez, on Prince William Sound, and ends at Fairbanks, paralleling the Alaska Railroad. Frequent bus and truck service connect with steamship arrivals; good accommodations are available along the route.”

Note that the Alaska Railroad, which reportedly ‘parallels’ the Richardson Highway, does so at a distance of well over 100 miles.

Delta River, Richardson Hwy circa 1922“The Steese Highway (open in summer only) extends 163 miles from Fairbanks to Circle. Bus and truck service connect with train arrivals; there are accommodations along the route.

“Other major summer highways, all with bus or truck service, are:
• Gulkana to Slate Creek, 60 miles
• Anchorage to Palmer and Matanuska Valley, 50 miles
• Fairbanks to Livengood, 85 miles
• Nome to Council, 57 miles”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.29.37 AMA few local roads between 5 and 39 miles in length are listed, along with the 80-mile Mt. McKinley National Park gravel road from Paxson, now known as the Denali Highway.

A Guide to Alaska is an interesting in-depth look at the territory in the first half of the twentieth century, divided into six distinct regions and described in terms which would do justice to any modern travel guide, such as this depiction of southcentral Alaska: “A number of large rivers, as well as Cook Inlet, break through the mountains fronting the coast and open up inland valleys having a light forest cover, moderate precipitation, short but rather warm summers, and winter temperatures not unlike those found in the northern tier of prairie States. The level and rolling lands afford excellent opportunities for agriculture. The Matanuska agricultural area is located in one of these valleys in the vicinity of Anchorage. Additional and even more extensive tracts of potential farm lands, notably the Kenai Peninsula agricultural area, are found in this same general locality. ”

The entire book can be read online here.

Seppala’s Real Serum Run

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Leonhard Seppala and Togo

The 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy, was a 675 mile dog team relay of diphtheria antitoxin across the U.S. territory of Alaska, accomplished by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs in only five and a half days, saving the community of Nome from a deadly epidemic. The race became both the most famous event in the history of mushing and the last hurrah for a means of transportation which had opened the vast northern territory of Alaska.

The gold rush town of Nome was still the largest town in the northern half of Alaska in 1925, with a population of around 1,500 souls. When the Bering Sea froze over the only link to the rest of the world was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 938 miles from the port of Seward, across several mountain ranges and through the vast Interior of the territory before reaching Nome. Mail and supplies were customarily transported by train to Nenana, and then freighted by dog team 675 miles from Nenana to Nome, a journey which normally took 25 days.

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Nome, Alaska, 1925

In January, 1925, the town’s only doctor, Dr. Curtis Welch, witnessed a series of alarming deaths of his young patients, and on January 22 he sent the following telegram to Governor Bone in Juneau, and to all the major towns in Alaska: “An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP There are about 3000 white natives in the district.”

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“Togo” L. Seppala’s Racing leader – Nome Serum Run

By January 24 there were two more fatalities, and at a meeting of the board of health that same day, superintendent Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields proposed a dogsled relay, using two fast teams. One would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. The trip from Nulato to Nome normally took 30 days, although the record was nine. Welch calculated that the serum would only last six days under the brutal conditions of the trail. Summers’ employee, the Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, was chosen for the 630-mile round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the run from Nome to Nulato in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become something of a legend for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog, the 12-year-old Togo, was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.

Nome Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft, but the only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three vintage biplanes which were dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the aircraft option and voted unanimously for the dogsled relay. Seppala was notified that evening and immediately started preparations for the trip. While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior; the majority of the relay mushers selected were native Athabaskan U.S. mail carriers, widely acknowledged to be the best dog mushers in Alaska. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato.

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Map of the Serum Run from The Cruelest Miles, by Gay and Laney Salisbury (W.W.Norton & Co., 2003)

The mail route from Nenana to Nome followed the Tanana River for 137 miles to the junction with the Yukon River, and then followed the Yukon for 230 miles to Kaltag. The route turned west, 90 miles over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet on the shore of Norton Sound, then continued for 208 miles northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula and 42 harrowing miles across the shifting ice of the Bering Sea.

The serum transfer points were Tolovana, Manley Hot Springs, Fish Lake, Tanana, Kallands, Nine Mile Cabin, Kokrines, Ruby, Whiskey Creek, Galena, Bishop Mountain, Nulato, Kaltag, Old Woman Shelter, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Golovin, Bluff, and Nome. And all along the trail were roadhouses which gave the drivers brief opportunity to warm the serum and themselves: the Tolovana Roadhouse, the Minto roadhouse, the Manley Roadhouse, the Eskimo Roadhouse at Isaac’s Point, Shaktoolik Roadhouse, Dexter’s Roadhouse, the Olson Roadhouse, the Solomon Roadhouse, the Bluff Roadhouse, the Port Safety Roadhouse. Links in a thin chain winding across northwestern Alaska, providing brief intervals of safety and protection to the mushers and their dogs.

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Leonhard Seppala’s racing Siberian Husky team

The story of the 1925 Serum Run was detailed in a bestselling book by cousins Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), but the most compelling recounting was given in a book which had been written 73 years earlier, by the famous Alaskan musher Leonhard Seppala, who carried the serum over the treacherous ice of Norton Sound. This is an excerpt from the final chapter of Seppala: Alaskan Dog Driver, by Elizabeth Ricker (Little, Brown & Co., 1930), which Seppala wrote as a tribute to his intrepid lead dog, Togo:

The Commissioner had asked me to get off without delay. He explained that such serum as they had was several years old, and with the epidemic steadily increasing they were in dire need of a new supply. I singled the dogs out one by one; naturally not one wanted to be left behind. Twenty were chosen. I planned to drop some of them off along the way, to be cared for at Eskimo igloos until the return trip, when we could substitute the fresh dogs for the tired ones. Also, if any of them showed any signs of weakness or sore feet, they would have a chance to rest up and be in good condition for the home stretch. I intended to leave twelve dogs by the way, arriving in Nulato with a team of eight. I should hardly need more, as I was told the package containing the serum was very light. With fresh reinforcement on the way back I should be able to drive day and night. Thus I picked out the twenty best dogs, though at the time all were on their best behavior, raising their paws politely and pleading to be taken. A dog named Fox was left as leader for the cull team, which was to continue hauling supplies during our absence and was composed of dogs too slow to be of much use in a fast run.

The people of Nome gave us a great send-off. They knew it was a long, hazardous trip, and they realized what a word of encouragement would mean. The first day we made about thirty-three miles, and from then on the team warmed up to the work and averaged fifty miles and over every day. We passed two villages where there were government schools for Eskimo children, and I told the teachers about the epidemic, advising them to close the school, to keep the children in quarantine, and away from people passing from Nome.

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Dogteam crossing Norton Sound.

We were lucky in having favorable weather, and the trails were at their best. According to plan, some of the dogs were left along the way to be cared for while the rest of us pushed on. On the third day we arrived at Isaac’s Point, where we stopped with an Eskimo family, having covered a hundred and thirty miles since leaving Nome. The next day we started off for Shaktoolik, a native village on the south side of the Bay. It was late by the time we set out over the ice of Norton Bay. We could see it was blowing hard out on the Bay, and with the north wind at our backs we were sure to make good time. The team would deserve a good rest at the end of the day, and surely I should welcome it as well as the dogs. Having crossed the ice, and being just in sight of our destination for the day, we scented another dog team and struck out with a great spurt. As we came up I could see that the driver was busy refereeing a dog fight. With a word of greeting to the man, I was about to pass by when he called to me. In the wind, and with my parka hood up over my ears, I got only three words” “serum–turn back.”

I thought I must have misunderstood, but when I looked back over my shoulder I saw the other driver waving his arm. I called to Togo to “gee,” but he couldn’t. The other dogs were still on the spurt, and I had to run about a mile further on before I could slow the team down and turn them. We came to a stretch of hard snow, where I was able to get the dogs under control. Though they hated to, they followed Togo. When we reached the other team a package was tossed into my sled and the stranger handed me a paper which proved to be the instructions accompanying the serum. The young dogs in my team began acting disgracefully, wanting to pick a quarrel with the strange team. Their driver explained that after I had passed out of telephone communication the epidemic had increased so alarmingly that the officials had decided to speed the serum by short relays running night and day. Thus I had reached the serum after traveling only a hundred and seventy miles, instead of the three hundred for which I had originally planned.

We had had a hard day, covering forty-three miles with the wind at our backs. But the return was even harder. The gale was in our faces, the temperature was thirty below, and we had the forty-three miles to do over again in the dark. There was nothing for it but to face the music. The dogs did their best, and I drove as if we were in a race. The ice of Norton Sound is notoriously treacherous: it has a habit of shifting and breaking up, so that before travelers know it they have gone for miles on a loose ice-cake with open water on all sides, slowly but surely being blown out into the Bering Sea.

In spite of these unpleasant prospects, we managed to reach Isaac’s Point, and after a drive of nearly ninety miles the team were grateful for a brief rest in a comfortable kennel. They were wild for their rations of salmon and seal blubber. After they were fed I went into the igloo and read over the instructions. They called for the serum to be warmed up at each station. Accordingly I pulled the sled inside, and undid the fur and canvas wrapped around the package. I found the serum was sealed up in paper cartons, and as I saw nothing about breaking the seals I instructed the Eskimo to make the igloo good and hot and left the package exposed to the heat. As I looked it over and felt of it I was convinced that if it was a liquid it must have been frozen in the severe cold, though we had protected it as well as possible. I doubted if the heat could penetrate the paper cartons, but I had taken off the last wrapping which I was authorized to touch.

When I had allowed as much time as we could spare I came out to the dogs and began putting them back on the line. An old Eskimo stood by as we hitched up, and observing the increase in the wind he cautioned me: “Maybe ice not much good. Maybe breaking off and go out. Old trail plenty no good. Maybe you go more closer shore.” I thanked him and followed his suggestion, taking a trail further in. At that, we came within a few feet of open water, as the trail over which we had traveled only the day before had broken off and drifted far out into the Bering Sea.

During the afternoon we pulled into Cheenik Village, where another driver was waiting with his relay team. We had traveled in all three hundred and forty miles in the interest of the serum. No other relay made more than fifty-three miles. After delivering the package to the driver at Cheenik, a tired driver and dogs all had a good rest until the next day, when we drove to Solomon and then on into Nome. When we arrived there the whole town seemed to be out to meet us. It was like the winner’s reception after a Sweepstakes race.

News of the diptheria had found its way to the outside papers, and in the States the teams were being followed from day to day by the press. They had become heroes while they were peacefully going on their way, totally unconscious that they were headliners in the press. The last relay team landed the serum in Nome at six o-clock on the morning of the second of February, 1925.

The Serum Drive was Togo’s last long run. In that drive he had worked the hardest and best. I appreciated this, and tried to take the best possible care of the old dog. Togo, in his sixteenth year, seemed content to rest on his laurels. He even posed without fuss for a photograph with his cups and trophies, perhaps imagining himself as he was in the old days. It seemed best to leave him where he could be pensioned and enjoy a well-earned rest. But it was a sad parting on a cold gray March morning when Togo raised a small paw to my knee as if questioning why he was not going along with me. For the first time in twelve years I hit the trail without Togo.

togo

First published on the site for Northern Light Media, which publishes Alaskan History Magazine.

 

Jan-Feb 2020 Alaskan History Magazine

J:F 2020 CoverLARGEThe Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features a look at the history of Chilkoot Pass and the ages-old trail which crossed it, not only in the Klondike gold rush era, but long before then as a vital trade route for the coastal Tlingit Indians, and later as an access route for the earliest gold prospectors, along with a large number of scientists, military expeditions, explorers and adventurers. 

The cover image is an 1897 theatrical posted titled “Across the Chikoot Pass,” by American playwright Scott Marble, created by The Strobridge Lithograph Co., Cincinnati & New York, part of the theatrical poster collection of the Library of Congress. Scott Marble (1847 – April 5, 1919) also wrote the stage melodrama The Great Train Robbery (1896), which would become a beloved movie classic. 

The first article in this issue is a look at the famous writer, Ella Rhodes Higginson, who became Washington State’s first Poet Laureate. Mrs. Higginson made four trips to Alaska just after the turn of the century,  researching and gathering material for her book titled Alaska, The Great Country, published in 1908. Her flowery detailed descriptions of the land, the people, the towns and villages and much more made her book a popular reference on Alaska for many years.

Tanana Chiefs book 420Also in this issue is a look at the great Davidson Ditch, a 90-mile aqueduct which channeled water from the Chatanika River over hills and across valleys to the rich gold diggings at Fox and Dome Creek, north of Fairbanks. And Fairbanks was the site of another article in this issue, the historic meeting of the Tanana Chiefs in 1915. An excellent book on that gathering was published by the University of Alaska Press in March, 2918: The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, edited by UAF Emeritus Professor William Schneider, who wrote 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.”

Esther B Darling and dogs 420To the north and west, at Nome, an unusual lady was making a place for herself in the history books as one of the great authors of children’s books, writing classics such as Baldy of Nome and Navarre of the North, beloved by not only children, but by anyone thrilling to a well-told tale about sled dogs and life in the north country. But Esther Birdsall Darling was also a high society lady from a wealthy California family, and her husband, Charles Edward ‘Ned’ Darling, not only founded the farthest north hardware store, but in 1906 he set a world’s record for long distance mushing when he drove his dog team from Nome to Seattle.

This issue concludes with an article about the great Bard of the Yukon, Robert Service, who penned the immortal lines of favorite northern ballads such as The Spell of the Yukon, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and The Cremation of Sam McGee. From crossing the Canadian prairies in his Buffalo Bill cowboy outfit to canoeing the dangerous “back door” to the Klondike, Robert Service’s life was filled with adventures which matched anything in his beloved poetry.

Also in this issue: Governors of Alaska 1867-1959, antique maps of Alaska, and classic books on Alaskan history, both old and new!


The Jan-Feb issue can be ordered via PayPal or Amazon (I’ll add links here when the issue is available), or you can subscribe to Alaskan History Magazine at this website.

 

Still More Classic Alaskan Books

Classic Alaskan books from the Sept-Oct and Nov-Dec issues of Alaskan History Magazine:

Conquering the Arctic Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen (1909)

Eijnar MikkelsenIn October 1907 the Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen, co-leader (with Ernest de Koven Leffingwell) of 1906-1908 Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which established that there was no land north of Alaska,  set out on a formidable journey, which would take him west along the Arctic coast from Flaxman Island to Barrow, Nome, Fort Gibbon, Manley Hot Springs, Fairbanks, and then down the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail to Valdez, where he boarded a ship for home.

His trip was detailed in his book, published in London in 1909 by William Heinemann. Available to read online at Google Books.


A Dog Puncher on the Yukon, by Arthur Treadwell Walden (1923)

Arthur T. WaldenArthur Treadwell Walden was a dog driver during the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes. He would become a respected trainer and freighter on Admiral Byrd’s 1928-29 expedition to Antarctica, but thirty years before, in northern Canada, he gained  fame as a sled dog driver and freighter over the northern gold rush trails near Dawson City, Circle City, and Nome. 

After returning to New England Walden began a breeding program which produced the Chinook breed, based on a dog by that name which he knew as a sled dog driver in the North.


Dog Team Doctor, The Story of Dr. Romig, by Eva G. Anderson (1940)

Dr. Joseph RomigIn 1896 Dr. Joseph  H. Romig traveled to Bethel, Alaska, and opened the first doctor’s office and hospital west of Sitka, at a time when there were very few non-native people living in remote southwest Alaska.

 For a time, Dr. Romig was one of the only physicians in Alaska, and he became known as the “dog team doctor” for traveling by dog sled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the course of his work. Four decades later a book would be written about the good doctor’s adventurous and life-saving exploits across the vast northern territory.


Seward’s Icebox, by Archie W. Shiels (1933)

Sewards IceboxArchibald Williamson Shiels, born in Scotland, emigrated to the US in 1893. He became chief of staff to railroad contractor Michael Heney, supervising the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, and was later involved in the construction of the Copper River and North Western Railroad. Shiels joined the Pacific American Fisheries in 1916, the largest salmon cannery in the world, and served as President of the company from 1930-1946.

Shiels collected a vast amount of informational material, from which he researched and wrote many historical manuscripts, books, and speeches. His well-researched Seward’s Icebox begins in 1867 with the transfer of Russia to the United States and continues to the date of publication. 


Tillicums of the Trail, by George C. F. Pringle (1922)

Tillicums of the TrailSubtitled ‘Being Klondike Yarns Told to Canadian Soldiers Overseas by a Sourdough Padre,’ this is a collection of true stories from the Klondike and nearby regions, as told to troops by the Chaplain to the 43rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, at Avion, France, during the First World War. Pringle was a pioneer bush pilot and United Church minister and this book contains some classic northern tales, “….because in every man there is something that stirs responsive to tales of the mystic Northland, vast, white, and silent.” 

Pringle’s true stories to his men included his first trip by dogteam, the legend of the Lost Patrol, the story of Skagway’s notorious “Soapy” Smith, a trip down the Yukon River by scow from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Christmas and wedding celebrations in the Klondike and more. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


Ploughman of the Moon, by Robert W. Service (1945)

Ploughman of the Moon, ServicePloughman of the Moon: An Adventure into Memory is the autobioigraphy of Robert Service, famed Bard of the Yukon whose popular poetry includes The Spell of the Yukon, The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and countless others.

This warmly personal account traces the first half of his life, from his boyhood in Scotland to his emigration to Canada at the age of 21 with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy, drifting around western North America from California to British Columbia, being sent to Whitehorse and later Dawson City by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and gaining fame for his captivating way with words. The book is available to read online at Project Gutenberg 


Alaska Days, by Erastus Howard Scott (1923)

EH Scott book 420 resPublished in 1923 by Scott, Foresman & Co., this slim 100-page volume is the photo-rich recounting of a journey taken by Erastus Howard Scott and his wife as they travelled from Chicago to Seattle and boarded a ship which took them across the Gulf of Alaska to Katalla, Valdez, and finally Seward.

From Seward they rode the newly-built Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, photographing and describing everything along the way, including a memorial stop for the recently departed President Harding. Available to read online at Google Books.


Alaska The Great Country, by Ella Higginson (1908)

Ella Higginson book 420 resElla Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, 1931. Her book ‘Alaska, the Great Country,’ an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing  travelogue of Higginson’s adventures there, was published in 1908 and went through several editions.

Higginson describes her trip with the less than politically correct mores and values of her time, but her keenly written observations of territorial Alaska make this a fascinating account. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


A Summer in Alaska (Along Alaska’s Great River) F. Schwatka (1893)

Schwatka book 420 resPublished by J W Henry, St. Louis, in 1893, ‘A Summer in Alaska, A popular account of an Alaska exploration along the great Yukon River from its source to its mouth,’ by Frederick Schwatka, is the enlarged edition of his ‘Along Alaska’s Great River, published in 1885. 

The book details Schwatka’s explorations along the Yukon River, from its source in northwestern Canada to its mouth on the west coast of Alaska, the first full-length navigation of Alaska’s greatest waterway. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.




 

Trailing and Camping in Alaska

Addison Powell coverTrailing and Camping in Alaska, subtitled Ten Years Spent Exploring, Hunting and Prospecting in Alaska – 1898 to 1909, was written in 1909 by Addison M. Powell, an adventurer, prospector, hunter, and a former guide for Captain William R. Abercrombie’s 1898 Copper River Exploring Expedition, which was one of three military expeditions organized under the direction of the Secretary of War with directives for exploring the interior of the new territory of Alaska. Powell’s familiarity with the land made him a valuable addition to Abercrombie’s efforts over the next several years, and brought him into contact with many men who would help to shape the future of Alaska.

Powell and Co. copper rock

Addison Powell, resting his chin in hand second from the left, with friends and a large nugget of copper found on Nugget Creek, in the Wrangell Mountains, summer of 1902. [Photos are from Addison Powell’s book, Trailing and Camping in Alaska, Wessels & Bissell, 1909]

The May-June 2019 issue of Alaskan History Magazine included selected excerpts from chapter 21 of Powell’s book, on his explorations around the Copper River country and the Wrangell Mountains. In the spring of 1898, Abercrombie was directed to organize his men and supplies at Valdez, on the coast, and to explore northward into the valley of the Copper River and its tributaries, and farther north to the Tanana River, seeking an all-American route from coastal Alaska to the Klondike gold fields.

The Copper River

The banks of the Copper River.

The following year Abercrombie would be responsible for constructing a military road from Prince William Sound at Valdez to Eagle on the Yukon River, a route which became known as the Eagle Trail. Powell, who had been exploring and prospecting in the country, once again joined the effort as a guide and surveyor. The following years are filled with exploration, adventures, and a continuing search for a lost gold strike. 

Addison Monroe Powell was born November 25, 1856, in Clinton County, Indiana; he was 42 years old when he joined Abercrombie’s 1898 expedition. His sub-report, published in Abercrombie’s 1899 Government Report on the Copper River Exploring Expedition, appears as chapters of this book. Powell passed away in Santa Barbara, California, on January 29, 1932, at the age of 75.

Trailing and Camping in Alaska, Ten Years Spent Exploring, Hunting and Prospecting in Alaska – 1898 to 1909, by Addison M. Powell. Originally published in 1909 by Newold Publishing Company, New York, New York. 300 pages, 30 b/w photos, published September, 2018 by Northern Light Media. $24.95 (plus shipping). Click here to order via PayPal.

More Classic Alaskan Books

The books section of the July-August, 2019 issue:

46.

47.


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The entire July-August issue can be read online free at the issuu digital publication site. The May-June and Sept-Oct issues are also available at issuu.