Alaska – Fishers Of Ice

KETCHIKAN is our first Alaskan ” white man’s town,” but it appears more like a bit of Norway. The mountains hereabouts are high and jagged, saw-toothed, grim, their heads among the clouds, their feet lapped by the summer sea; and countless fishing schooners darting in and out of bays and inlets, straits and sounds, tell every one that we are nearing fishing ground, for Ketchikan is headquarters of the North Pacific fishing fleet.

The whole business part of town is water-front, built out on piles of hemlock. Houses, wharves the streets and sidewalks reaching back and up are all but built out of wood, cut from the Sitka spruce and red and-yellow shaggy cedar forests, which crowd in high dense phalanx about the clustering busy town. Ketchikan seems just a wedge of man cut wood driven into the mountain, and jealously the great trees push upon it from all sides in constant witness to surrounding forest. As our boat swings to dock, the houses seem piled one upon another, so sheer they climb, rising in steep toe-holds upon the planked irregular streets as though they might slide any moment down into Tongass Narrows. The white-railed porches of the wooden cabins look off across a vista of blue water and tight-wooded islands of dark thick-set spruce and hemlock. Pearly patches of high snows flash sun-caught from the pockets of the peaks, and little breezes dusk and shiver the nearer finer green of willows and of birch.

You climb long stairs of logs, moss-carpeted, to reach the perched-up tiny houses that grip to the steep hill. Each house is set in a luxuriant garden, fairly a-drip with with flowers. A passionate little mountain stream dashes from hilltops through the heart of town, sputtering and boiling over rocks as a good salmon stream should do. For this is capital of Salmon Land, and the brave home-returning fish of silver ‘red is king here, and canneries are legion where the salmon turn home to spawn in their original waters, and flash and leap and climb to reach that far-sought home again—and die. The air is full of moisture as a tropic sponge, for the warm Kuro Shiwo `sweeps in from the wide Pacific along all this coast, and Ketchikan, though tucked inside Alaska’s southmost tip, is neither so cold nor yet so hot as Washington, D. C.! The full extremes of temperature here are 94° to 27° Fahrenheit; and I, who have lived many a raw winter and a scalding summer in our great white capital on the Potomac, recommend Ketchikan! I have been here in June and August, and again in October and late February, and found it ever mild and moist and pleasant.

Strong and long sunlight—what time the breath of Japan Current does not catch the hills in drifting rain-makes for a tropic growth of color riotous in flowers, of lichens and of moss that spread a patina of many hues upon the woody surfaces, and ferns and timber richly grow unstunted. The green banks of the stream mass thick with tapestry of overgrowing bushes—enormous pale-pink salmonberry, raspberry and wild black—while the ground dogwood mats the hill.

Down in the heart of business Ketchikan are a concrete department store, porcelain drinking fountains, apartment houses, movie houses, fur shops, several hotels, and even a ” Poodle Dog Restaurant ” —which sounds so very French to find in this Alaskan Ketchikan! With so much water power at its back door, the town is brilliantly well lighted, in that short hour of summer night through which our steamer tarries here.

This, then, is colonial Alaska!

Beyond Ketchikan, more mountains, higher and wilder mountains, mountains of six to ten thousand feet, rear their stiff sides straight up from narrow sea lanes through the eleven hundred islands of the Alexander Archipelago, where wild cascades are tumbled from the lower hills. The waterway is serpentine, constricted, and you seem headed straight, full tilt, for a good f rush into some green-grown mountain side—when suddenly and somehow, as though a great scene-shifter moved a merely painted hill, the silver path reopens. You hope the Captain knows his way! It seems an unclued labyrinth to one who threads it. How must it seem from air? The pilgrims of to-morrow will peer down from their bird-ships here on dots of darkening green set in a cobalt sea, and, from their godlike swift advantage, may miss some of the mystery, if not the beauty, of this slow-weaving panorama.

Your friendly Captain says: ” You’d have a heap sight better sailing, here, if you could lay this crooked channel over on her beam! She’s a deal deeper than she’s wide, let me tell you!”

Next port is Wrangell, with a name that reeks of olden Russian past. It lies at the wide mouth of gold-famed, turgid Stikine River where in old days, as some still do, the miners outfitted for Tesiin Lake and Pelly River headwaters, and so on to the Yukon. This was the older route and longer, before White Pass and Chilkoot were adventured—a hard way—but all ways were hard, and there was no thought then of turning back. One of the earliest of colonial Alaskan settlements, a stockaded post founded back in 1834 as Redoubt St. Dionysius to resist Hudson Bay encroachments, the town beside the fort was named by Russians after their most eminent and distinguished Admiral Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell. But the site had been before that time an even older town of Stikine Indians, and is famous now for its old totem poles, fine Indian bead and basket work, a harbor view of lovely crescent-curving sea, neat houses set on level land in a most fertile valley, and everywhere the gardens, flowers. This Wrangell is the well-remembered old-time gate to the Canadian interior, long the old Hudson Bay route; and later, across these grassy Stikine River meadows, clover grown and scattered with wild roses—up from the sea into the canyons and the glacier-covered hills—gold hunters found a way to Cassiar.

We know that we are surely drawing north, for now we read at night till after ten, the soft day lingering noticeably longer. Why should we ever go to bed? There seems no end to twilight. From Wrangell on to Petersburg our way is past Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands, and it is at the head of Wrangell Narrows that we see our first Alaska glacier, a blue ice-river spilling down from its top-lofty home to break in little bergs that tumble off like pup seals out to play. Here’s ice for packing fish—and, in old days before cold-storage plants were built, fishermen caught ice here, in the selfsame waters where they caught the fish! ‘Twas handy, that.

Petersburg, just within the north entrance of Wrangell Narrows, spells halibut. Quite likely that good halibut steak you ordered yesterday in some eastern hotel was packed in Petersburg in ice self-broken from near-by Le Conte glacier, and so shipped on to Prince Rupert. Petersburg is another very busy American colonial town of the North. It began back in the nineties when good old Peter Bushman set up his Norwegian fish cannery here. It is still Peter’s Burg, Port of Prosperity, and thrives lustily to-day on herring, shrimp, salmon, halibut and crab—a ” shore dinner” town!

For long the leading merchant here was one Sing Lee who, when a great fire swept the town in 1910, so the old sourdoughs tell, stood in the open street and cried—” Jesus Clist fiend to me! He now no burn me down!” The wind changed and the fire stopped dead at Sing Lee’s store.

Near by is the long-sought ” Lost Locker” placer claim, for which prospectors searched for thirty years. Old-timers grouped around Jim Brennan’s ” cold stove “—an old-fashioned battery of spittoons within easy speaking distance, the gentle pat of rain outside, a mahogany bar of prehistoric times shining dimly in solemn background splendor—recall that forty years ago a white man was found drifting out in Frederick Sound in a leaky Indian canoe. He was half starved and very nearly crazed, but had with him two fat pokes of a coarse red-yellow gold. Taken to town and cared for, finally he told that he and two others had been a-mining by the margin of a half-moon lake, where they had built a dam of yellow cedar, a crude old-style gold rocker, and a cabin out of stone. Returning to the camp one day, this man had found his two companions cruelly butchered, presumably by Indians. He took the hidden gold that they had washed together, and fled across the mountains. He came at last on tide-water at a small Indian village where, waiting for the dark, he took an old canoe and drifted out he knew not where or how. He never could be urged by any fear or favor to return, or to attempt return, to the deserted cabin by that half-moon lake, where he had looked too full on mutilated horror. But since that time men ceaselessly have searched the hills for The Lost Rocker claim, and now at last it has been rediscovered.

Along these shores, too, glided years and years ago, in yet another Indian canoe, another white man on a -water journey of at least eight hundred miles—looking for glaciers, not gold. This was the famous naturalist, John Muir, who wrote his Scotch-American name upon one of the giants of them, a Goliath among glaciers. With him was S. Hall Young, the veteran Alaskan missionary. I can see myself, a leggy silent child, sitting in my father’s study and listening star-eyed to Dr. Young describing the wonders of Alaska and that trip with Muir. He was the first Alaskan I had ever seen, and all he told made pictures. I was to sit again and watch him-an old man now and I a woman grown—while he played countless silent games of chess with my husband before the red hearth of our own Alaskan home.

John Muir had brought with him a geologic eye. And though he spent no time prospecting gold, he wrote on his return that indications about Gastineau Channel, or on the near-by mainland, were favorable to gold deposits. While Captain Beardslee of the U. S. N. was stationed at Old Sitka, in the early days when Uncle Sam’s Navy was the government of Alaska, some roving Indians brought to him several chunks of rich gold quartz. Questioned as to whence these specimens had come, they had replied, From the long water, between the Auke and Taku. Even before this time, however, the half-breed Frenchman Joe Juneau, and his partner Dick Harris, had camped along this channel; and on the tripod facts oftheir good report of prospects, the Indians’ actual quartz, and Muir’s keen-sighted scientific prophecy, two men of Sitka grubstaked Juneau and Harris to return to Gastineau and prospect.

On the uppers reaches Gold Creek, three miles from the sethey found Quartz Gulch, the floor of which was actually paved with glinting flecks and stringers of the virgin gold. Loading themselves with packs of ore, all the could stagger under, they returned to shore; and there, October 4 in 1880,, Dick Harris and Joe Juneau sat themselves down one the rocks and laid out upon paper what they called, at first, the Harris Mining District. They also drew up miners laws to rule what soon they knew would be—when news of this rich strike got out —a wild stampede of prospectors. For although the United States had bought Alaska in ’67, it had not as yet extended benefit of any law tot the new Territory, and except for the lone naval officer stationed there at Sitka, the land was lawless.

As soon as miners wintering in Sitka and Wrangell heard the good news, every craft in harbor was requisitioned fort is new gold rush—nearly twenty years before the tide of fortune seekers streamed into the Klondike. Even the ” government,” in person of the warship Jamestown, hove up anchor and joined in the mad stampede. There being no civil government at all, Commander Rockwell himself administered the oaths of citizenship; and on those early Navy records are to be read today the names of many a man well known in later Alaskan history. The pay-roll of the Navy helped to sink the first shafts and tunnels in the flanks of rocky Juneau mountain.

The Auke tribe of Indians, from their settlement ten miles to northward, flocked like crows on the new diggings, to make trade and barter, and camped right down beside the miners’ tents and ” booze joints ” that lined the beach and water-front. On their heels came all the Taku tribe from down the channel! Old miners tell that the combined odor of these two tribes did not commingle in a pleasant Coty nose-tickling bouquet. Indeed, it proved too much for even the not-so-sensitive nostrils of the tough old sourdoughs. So the Indians were persuaded and subsidized, by gifts of blankets and perhaps by hints of other matters, to move an elbow-room away—the Auke on one side and the Taku on the other!

Rough elements of the raw Territory gathered to these new lode mines, and others came to fatten on their profits, as always happens in new camps, until in 1881 the commander of the Jamestown landed his marines and proclaimed martial law. The name of Juneau came later (after the town had been called successively Harrisburg, Rockwell, Fliptown, Plitzburg) when in ’82 the present name was officially adopted. But with old Joe Juneau, as with many another lucky prospector, it was ” easy come and easy go.” The fortune he had won was swiftly spent, and he was last heard of as running a poor eating-house at Dawson, feeding the lucky strikers of another day and camp.

After the marines withdrew, the lawless element got out of hand and a vigilance committee had to be formed, which held control until a partial territorial form of government was given to ” The District of Alaska,” in May of ’84, and courts and a civil and criminal code were at last provided for, the laws of the state of Oregon being cut down and made over to fit the raw and growing youngster, Alaska. To-day this once so lawless Juneau, where marines and miners “mixed it” on the water-front (engaging in the rough sport of seeing how many of the opposite element of camp could nightly be pitched out upon the tide flats!) is the clean and dignified capitoline Juno of all Alaska, sedate and prim as a Swiss village-where all Alaska’s laws are made.

Perhaps because most politicians must forever live under a potential landslide, Juneau the capital city lies beneath the great and towering bulk of a tremendous mountain that rears steep-sided seven thousand feet up from the sea; and sometimes hair-poised masses of white snow that cap and streak it, rush in swift menace of death-giving avalanche down the deep cuts of almost perpendicular gulches, and whelm some house or cluster of her men. But human beings seem to thrive on menace, and Juneau is second only to Ketchikan, the king of all Alaska towns; and both in size and wealth she can queen it over other sections of the Territory. Nearly half the white population of Alaska lives in this First Division, the southern narrow strip of territory through which we’ve so far passed, although it is but five per cent. of Alaska’s total land area. Mills metal and mills political both grind out their work here, for on Gastineau Channel, as I remember well first seeing and hearing it, were located a group of great gold-quartz mills that roared and hammered deafeningly, both day and night, in a monotony of continuous thunder.

On May 24, 1881, Pete Erussard, another typical adventurous Frenchman, filed a claim on ” Parris Creek ” just across the channel on Douglas Island. Handsome, well known, and equally well liked, the grilling labor of the mine was not for him, however; and he sold his claim to carpenter John Treadwell for a song, according to a quit-claim deed recorded September 13 of that very same year. September 13 was a most unlucky day for happy-hearted ” French Pete,” though; for the great Treadwell mine (which began important output the next year and afterwards extended from the original Glory Hole, ran out in tunnels as deep as half a mile down underneath the channel, and developed into one of the richest lode mines in all the world) produced in its day more than nine times as much gold as Uncle Sam had paid to Russia for the whole territory of Alaska! Once this single mine employed two thousand men and ran the second largest stamp-mill in the world, until flooded in a swift disaster in 1917, when the waters broke through from above and the Pacific claimed again its deep floor of golden rock.

But though the Treadwell has been swallowed by the jealous sea, there is no end to Juneau’s rich prosperity. The Alaska-Juneau mine penetrates more than two miles back into the mountain looming in threat over the tidy city, and every four years this mine alone more than pays the original price of Uncle Sam’s attic. When President Harding came to Alaska, members of his party rode up an incline railroad pitched at a grade of thirty-seven degrees, and then on an electric train into the depths of rock-hewn mountain tunnel. The ore comes out in ten-ton cars and dumps into the giant tipples, where by gravity it is worked down through the crushers and concentrators until it comes to light again at last in bars that weigh some hundred and sixty pounds of solid gleaming gold. And it is estimated that there are yet a hundred million tons of ore left to mill–enough to operate as now, three shifts, for fifty years to come.

With fish and forests too at her front door and back—forests for trap piles, wharf piles, box shooks, railroad ties, news pulp, commercial lumber—Juneau can rest content under her mountain, smiling at fate. She has her fifteen miles of steep planked city streets some of them spacious. Not all the tricks of chance end in misfortune, by a deal. The Ice King has played fair with this brave city and supplies her power and light. Fourteen miles of granite-surfaced automobile road—bordered by fluffs of white ” Alaska cotton,” frostings of blue tipped spruce—run out to the receding foot of Mendenhall glacier, which once, men say, had licked its tongue of ice to tide-water. From out and under this great ice mass are forced the melting, swift, and powerful streams that feed the dynamos of Nugget Creek, which run the massive engines and the wheels of mines and mills in Juneau.

For even frost and snow must be enmeshed and geared, in our mechanical day of engineering giants.