Tag Archives: Kuskokwim River

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.

 

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.