Column No. 69

Jack’s Great Alaskan Adventure - II

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

This is Part II of the story of Jack Fraser’s great Alaskan adventure. Jack was one of over 100,000 optimistic “stampeders” participating in the Alaskan Klondike gold rush that started in 1897. We tell his tale as a composite of several of Jack’s letters to his brother Al and his sister Annie, written between the fall of 1897 and the spring of 1898.

Dear Al and Annie,

Dawson, the Mecca of the gold hunter, is located in a big swamp just below, the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. As the ground is now all frozen hard, the location is good as any, but in summer a more unwholesome spot could hardly be found. But it is the only place for a town and the prospect that it will prove a death trap in the spring does not interfere with the high prices asked and paid for lots. The main street has the distinction of being the dirtiest I ever saw in a mining camp, being very skimpy and boggy. In the summer when the days are hot as hell, it must smell to heaven.

Dawson is quite a town. The houses are strung along two or three streets. The main thoroughfare is along the river bank, the larger buildings being all on one side of this avenue and facing the river. The appearance, at first sight, is rather imposing. The North American Trading and Transportation Company and the Alaska Commercial Company have large stores and warehouses here, as well as at all points of importance on the river, and the other business houses consist of about 15 saloons with two “opera houses” and dance halls and half a dozen restaurants and meat markets. The hospital is on higher ground at the lower end of the town and is full all the time ($15 a day) and the police headquarters is located at the other end. So the sisters of charity and the un-mounted police have the town between them. All the buildings excepting two or three are built of logs, chinked with moss, the logs coming from several miles up the Yukon as none now exist within easy reach of town. A little old log cabin 12 x 14 feet with one door and window and pole and dirt covered roof is worth a thousand dollars in Dawson. And no camp in the world can show up anyways near the amount of gold-dust that is floating around this town and nowhere are big fat sacks so common.

Unfortunately, I arrived in Dawson just a week too late to get provisions. Six steamer loads should have been landed there but only two had arrived, and half their cargo was whiskey. News came up the river that it was impossible that any more steamers would be able to reach the Klondike on account of the extremely low stage of water in the Yukon. About 600 prospectors had gone downriver to Circle and Fort Yukon in search of grub and provisions.

The agent of the North American Trading and Transportation Company at Seattle had assured everyone that there were 5,000 tons of provisions in their store alone at Dawson. Why such a confounded lie was circulated I am at a loss to understand, as both companies together I found out do not have that amount on the whole river. The name of the Yukon should be changed to the Holdup for it seems as if all business connected with it is more or less of a “hold-up your hands!”

There did not appear to be anything else to do so I left Dawson for Circle City on September 28th in a small boat with three others. The weather was raw and cold, a strong head wind and all signs betokening the near approach of winter. It was 300 miles to Circle City or 400 to Fort Yukon and we had no map, nor chart, nor guide. But the current was good and strong and we figured on making 60 miles a day. The second day out the weather grew colder and snow began to fall, driven by a cutting north wind. Winter with all his retinue had arrived. Then, lo and behold, two steamers passed us, slowly breaking the current, on their way to Dawson, at the sight of which I felt very foolish and as if I had been buncoed. We afterwards learned that during a temporary rise in the river these two steamers had managed to worry over the sand bars at Yukon Flats but on stopping at Circle were forcibly taken possession of by the miners and relieved of a great part of their cargo.

We arrived in Circle City on October 2nd. Fortunately, we have managed to secure enough “grub” here. And it’s a good thing I have warm accommodations because the temperature was sixty five degrees below zero this morning! During the cold it is hard to keep the nose from freezing, it being the most exposed part. I’ve had mine nipped several times as well as my cheeks. One must keep continually moving and exercising or become chilled through in no time.

Circle City - so called because of its nearness to the Artic Circle - is situated similarly to Dawson, on the banks of the Yukon below where the Yukon Flats begin. The country all around for miles is low and flat, the river loses the high banks characteristic of its upper courses and widens with many islands and channels. This low land has a “soupy” bottom, very much like a swamp, good enough to travel over in winter when frozen, but abominable in summer. As in Dawson the principal street runs along the river bank and the town having about 400 cabins and other buildings to make quite a respectable mining camp.

The two supply companies have stores and warehouses here also and, having a monopoly of trade and transportation, business is so managed that pretty near all the gold taken from the miners finds its way into their pockets.

The saloons get up dances twice a week, the ladies being recruited from the ranks of the unsophisticated aboriginal maidens, whose dusky maternal relative, besides acting as chaperone, lends a hand and foot to the entertainment. The complexion of the company is somewhat lightened by the presence of a few ladies of the street from Dawson, whom dire lack of grub has driven from the land of gold.

All about us lay vast, unexplored regions, empires in extent from whose un-hunted solitudes no tidings ever come, worthless, maybe, but possibly rich in the yellow metal. The next few years will see great changes and much that is now unknown will be made to tell its story. If what we hear be true, there will be many thousands come into this country next spring and summer, unless the Canadian government forcibly prevents them.

Looking at this business from the inside, from behind the scenes, it strikes me as a great misfortune that Klondike has been found. So many men will be utterly ruined by coming here and so much more money will be squandered than will ever come out of the ground. But that happens with every mining boom and I suppose the craze will have it run its course.

For my part I am not sorry I came. I am in better health than I ever was and perhaps I may make a stake before going out. I don’t know how long or how short a time I will spend here - be sure I am not in love with the country, it is the dreariest under the sun, excepting Siberia, - but I suppose in trying to get back what money I have already squandered I will be kept longer than I have any idea of now.

The mines of Circle City are on Birch Creek tributaries from 50 to 100 miles away (this is truly a land of magnificent distances). There is a lot of gold scattered through the many gulches but “pay” is about as hard to find as in other mining countries. This Yukon region is the most exasperating to prospect of any on the planet. A man cannot have any idea of the peculiar difficulties to be encountered until after he comes here and sees for himself. Among other things almost too numerous to mention, eight months of cold winds, followed by tropical heat and swarms of mosquitoes and impassible swamps, make life not exactly one continual round of pleasure.

Dawson’s population peaked at 30,000 during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. (Courtesy of National Park System, 1898)

(Sources: Fraser family records, courtesy of Connie Fraser Kiely)

Next Time: Jack’s Great Alaskan Adventure - III
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