Tag Archives: Chilkoot Pass

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. Link will open a new window to the Alaskan History Magazine page at Northern Light Media.

 

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. 

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.”

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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.

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.

 

Ed S. Orr Stage Co.

Orr Stage leaving Valdez PC

A popular hand-tinted postcard circa 1910 depicting the Orr Stage leaving Valdez for Fairbanks.

The Edward S. Orr Stage Company, also known as the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage Company, was only one of several stage lines which operated along the Valdez-to-Fairbanks and Chitina to Fairbanks Trails in the early years of the twentieth century, but it was uncontestably the most successful. When the Klondike gold rush started, Ed Orr was in the right place and quickly made his way north. He formed a small freighting company with William V. Tukey, of Boise, Idaho.

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Pack train, Chilkoot Trail, 1897.

Their string of packhorses hauled goods for the Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company over the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, at tidewater, to Sheep Camp, where the cargo was transferred from horseback to buckets and sent to the summit via a cable tramway. In 1899, after completing their narrow-guage railroad over White Pass, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad bought out the Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company, effectively ending Orr and Tukey’s freighting company.

In August, 1899, Orr and Tukey loaded 28 horses and 70 mules, along with a dozen people and several tons of goods, into nine scows and sailed them from Lake Bennett down the Yukon River to Dawson City, arriving to great fanfare on August 21st. Orr’s wife Jennie and their young son, Thorold, were among the passengers. Business was brisk in Dawson City, and Orr & Tukey advertised that they would carry “All kinds of freight, to any of the creeks, safely and quickly delivered,” utilizing horses, mules, and dogs, pulling various types of wagons or sleds.

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Orr & Turkey Stage at the Ogilvie Bridge over the Klondike River, Dawson, Yukon Territory.

James Wickersham, en route to his new appointment as territorial judge in Eagle, visited his old friend Ed Orr in Dawson City, and in his book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1938), he described Orr as “six feet tall, handsome and generous.” In 1901 Orr & Tukey merged their freighting business with the Hadley Stage Line and expanded their freighting and stage business to a small mining camp on the Alaskan side of the border named Fairbanks, and it was soon one of the largest freighting companies in the territory.

edward_s_orr_stage_company_wagon_on_the_chitinafairbanks_road_alaska_1906

Orr Stage, circa 1906.

In 1905 Orr’s partner, William Tukey, retired to Idaho. The following year, 1906, Ed Orr moved his family and his freighting company to Valdez, Alaska. The Orr Stage Company was successful from the start, and Ed Orr bought out the rival Kennedy Stage Company, making his the largest such company in Alaska in 1909. The fare from Valdez to Fairbanks was $150, the return trip was $125, on sleighs which could carry ten passengers on four double seats. Horses were changed out every 20-25 miles, and a telegraph station could be found approximately every 40 miles for safety and convenience.

Keystone Stage not used

Orr Stage, Keystone Canyon.

in 1910 Ed. S. Orr began considering a return to Washington state, as the myriad stresses of overseeing the company had resulted in his health declining. Jesse C. Martin, who had managed the company office in Valdez, was appointed General Manager of the stage line, and Ed. S. Orr and his family returned to Washington, where Orr underwent medical treatment and slowly regained his health. Back in Alaska the Orr Stage Company expanded to Chitina, but by the summer of 1911 the trail had been improved enough for wheeled vehicles to travel it during the summer, and  in April, 1914 a meeting was held in San Francisco at which the company directors gave their written consent to dissolve the company. Six months later, in September, 1914, Robert Sheldon drove the first car from Fairbanks to Chitina amidst much fanfare.

In the 1991 National Park Service’s Historic Structures Report on the Superintendent’s cabin at Chitina, a log cabin which had been built for the Orr Stage Company manager in 1910, the legacy of the Ed. S. Orr Stage Company is made clear:

“Although the Ed. S. Orr Stage Company only operated in Chitina for a short time, the company itself traces its roots deep into the development of the transportation industry in Alaska and the Yukon. Mr. Orr was one of the foremost pioneers in building not only a transportation empire, but through his efforts and good management of his company, he greatly impacted the development of the mining industry in and around Dawson City, Fairbanks, and finally along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.”

Orr Stageload Albert Johnson PC

A hand-tinted postcard showing the Orr Stage on the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail, circle 1910.

 

Ezra Meeker in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE KLONDIKE VENTURE.

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

Chilkoot pass

Chilkoot Pass

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

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

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

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Whitehorse Rapids

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

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

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

• Read more about Ezra Meeker’s life

My Busy Life of Eighty Five Years at Gutenberg.org

Meeker Mansion, Puyallup, Washington

Josiah E. Spurr

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

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

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

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

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

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