Alaska – Grapevine and String Talk

WE have asked ” How high is the High North? ” and now let us ask how big it really is. Alaska is more than twice the size of huge Texas—the largest of our confederated states and a republic in itself. Alaska is more than three times the size of California, our second largest state below-stairs, and also, in its time, an independent entity. The present area of the Thirteen Original States is 325,065 square miles while that of Alaska is 590,884. Add to these thirteen states the areas of Maine, Vermont, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan, and you are still far short of Alaska’s tremendous size. Alaska is an empire in the making, as Underwood truly called it, but it is a dozen times the size of the Empire State.

Cutting up the map of Europe is a pastime for warriors and statesmen, but we can tackle it without bloodshed and perhaps gain another notion of size. Take your sharp shears and cut out Norway, Sweden, Finland, England, Scotland and Ireland, and they will all fit easily, and with a wide area to spare, within the boundaries of Alaska. Or try it another way and cut out Germany, France and Spain, and these, too, will fit within the limits of the Great Country with only a few acres over. The Washing-ton representative of the London Times was telling us, recently, that a very great English statesman always advised his bright young men in the British Foreign Office to ” use large maps.” I thought at the time how fitly this applied to Alaska!

Take a map of Alaska and lay it down upon the map of the United States, drawn to the same scale, and what do you see? Point Barrow will touch the Lake of the Woods, the straight part of the Alaska-Yukon boundary will run from Lake Superior down to the Ohio River, Ketchikan will lie over on Georgia, Seward and Cordova will rest out in Missouri, and Attu Island will touch Santa Barbara, California. Or, in terms of travel, from Attu Island in the Aleutians back to Ketchikan is a greater distance in miles than from San Francisco Bay to New York Harbor. Cape Prince of Wales really reaches as far into the Orient as the Samoans, and San Francisco is less than halfway from New York City to the farthest island in the Aleutian chain. As the Texas cowboy said, after riding half across that state, ” If the world is as big the other way as it is the way I’ve rode, she is some size! ”

Do you wonder that all Alaska problems are tied up with distance, or that Alaska’s size makes her the Province of Paradox?

Thanks to cable and to wireless we can sometimes receive messages in Fairbanks before they are sent from Washington! This unconsidered miracle is due, of course, to the inexcusably slow-coach roll of our ancient earth, swinging along the old, worn, stellar trail; for when Fifth Avenue is full of luncheon-hurrying shoppers, alarm clocks in Nome are just buzzing their six-o’clock warning for early risers. We humans translate distance in terms of communication, and colonials have especially at heart all matters of intercourse; for your true colonial hungers and thirsts to keep in touch with the mind and thought of Mother Country, and not to lose that precious contact or let himself be lost to the thought of old friends and old ways. Only when that contact is indeed lost does he know true isolation or any sense of desolation in the new land.

I find in a Chicago paper of 1837 this notice: ” Highly important: by a foot passenger from the South we learn that the long-expected mail may be looked for in a week.” That sounds like the Fair-banks of yesterday, before there was a railroad spread out —a spaced and even path across the great divides, for steam to tread upon. In Fairbanks we have in one decade seen the Frontier push far out beyond us, thanks solely to better means of travel and communication. In the fall of 1918 I sent a Christmas greeting to a friend in Nome. The next August I received this answer, ” The post card reached Nome today (July 1, 1919). Some mail system!” In May, 1920, we read that “the U. S. Coast Guard cutter Bear has sailed for the Arctic today taking 25,000 pounds of mail for Nome, the first mail of the season.” Today we hop over to Nome, with our Christmas greetings and Nome’s mail, and reach there in time for lunch! Planes, which Interior Indians call “moose-ptarmigan” (large-white-bird) are now replacing dog-sleds in mail service.

And ” string talk,” as the Indians call radio, is re-placing ” wire talk” in Alaska. Thirty-five Army radio stations, of which Fairbanks is the center, now serve the Territory, contacting isolated cannery plants and mining camps. Soldiers strung the first telegraph wires along the old Valdez trail, back in the ’90’s, and have maintained them ever since at great cost and privation. But “string talk” is less subject to interruption by storm; and forest fires, snowbanks and rock slides don’t ” put the line out.” So the wire-spell of the telegram is yielding, and a course in radio is offered at the Alaska college. Alaska is definitely on the air, and the deaf villages of the North now listen in to the voice of the world.

A military wireless station was placed last year in the Chandalar district, the most northerly mining camp in Alaska. Referring to the value of the station to the residents of that remote section, a miner from Little Squaw. Creek wrote this letter to one of Uncle Sam’s Senators:

Last winter two of the boys were prospecting on Tobin Creek, which is 12 miles from their nearest neighbors. They had two borrowed dogs. On the night of the 22nd of December, the owner of the dogs was awakened by them. He found a note tied around one of the dogs’ neck. On reading the note, he was informed that the men had been blown up in an explosion. Every one around that section was informed and we rushed over two dog teams and succeeded in bringing those boys over to Little Squaw. Now here is where the value of the wire-less station came in: We were able to wire to Fair-banks and get instruction from the doctor, as well as a flying machine to take them to a hospital, saving their lives.

Now that we have a wireless station and under-stand its value in case of an emergency, we wish to send our thanks for the care taken of us.

This story was given wide publicity by the Associated Press; but of ten who are healed by the virtue of this modern miracle, nine are never heard from, although such instances are daily occurrences in the Far North. All told (which they are not) the combined accomplishments of air-talk and air-travel in Alaska, in the last year, would read like high-colored fiction. Pleasure as well as business and safety are served by radio. Sitting in his cabin on Ester Creek, Joe McDonald takes in a Pittsburgh show via the radio route, and Adolph Muller, down-river at far-away Nulato, picks up his San Francisco, Hollywood and a station in Japan.

But ” grapevine telegraph ” still remains Alaska’s truest source of news, for most real vital news still travels by word of mouth. The local papers publish little or no local gossip, because every one is sup-posed to know already everything that goes on in the immediate region. We read living newspapers, for every one in Alaska is a reporter and a news agent. Wherever you go, here, you know people or soon get to know them; and although Alaska may be a fifth the size of the United States, you either know or know of a large proportion of the white population, and so, when you travel, you pick up all the ” drift ” and relay it. Like all pioneers, Alaskans are hungry for news of people and listen to tales of all sorts of people whom they have never met, but may, on the teasingly converging and diverging trails of this our North. It’s well to know about all sorts, everywhere, for you may be running into them at any time. Nil Alaska alienum mihi is our motto. The people of the North are neighbors as the people of the thirteen colonies were, even although the boundaries of the North are far wider. All whites in Alaska are shareholders in the same big colonial job, and this gives us a similar set of interests even though we live so widely separated in both time and space. And do not think the platform of The Alaska Fisherman (a monthly news organ of the Alaska Native Brotherhood) a strange assortment of ideals, for they are all very real and equally sought: “Alaska for Alaskans, Full Territorial Government, Abolishment of All Fish Traps, Competent Christian Citizenship.”

Out of a wholesome traffic together both in ideas and commodities, one time shall grow a true Alaskan state that shall be a real unit; and added facilities of communication are fast making it possible for all Alaska’s towns to get together in place and time, to think and act together, to know themselves one family working for the common good. In the Interior we are getting away from the day of leisurely slow-moving craft on far-reaching rivers, while on the Coast they are realizing the value of business relations with the hinterland and beginning to wonder what up-country products can be brought out through their doors. Once, long ago, Pennsylvania and New York found it hard to understand one another, in those ” good old days when a coach named The Flying Machine left Pawles Hook for Philadelphia ” every Tuesday and Friday morning at or be-fore sunrise” and reached Penn’s little city at the long end of the second day—after a night’s stop at Princeton! Even these close neighbor colonies could not very well be true neighbors under such conditions of intercommunication, but were actually far apart in heart even though physically touching shoulders. So, too, when the pioneer found the Alleghenies between him and the seaboard, a new set of problems arose as East and West got out of touch with one another’s thought—just as our own Interior Alaska people got out of touch with Juneau and Sitka and Valdez, only a short generation ago, before we had adequate means of speaking to and seeing one another frequently.

Once the only trail to the Interior was the musher’s trail of tundra and niggerhead, and of this way Lieutenant Allen reported (with his consistent soldierly understatement) : ” to walk between them (the hummocky bunch-grass `nigger-heads’) is to walk continually in water of uncertain depth, which consequently is very tiresome.” It is—and was—but now we fly above them and have rolled up space and time within an aviator’s luggage-kit. Massachusetts and Connecticut believed themselves independent of one another and self-sufficient, just so long as there was no good road between them; and we in Alaska have just been passing through that period, too, divided by far greater geographical barriers. Before the Alaska Railroad was completed only a few Fairbanksans had ever been to Anchorage or knew or cared a rap about ” the Anchorage crowd.” Now, with basket ball and baseball teams exchanging frequent friendly games, chambers of commerce visiting back and forth, railroad excursions galore, and planes in constant flight, a different and a most friendly spirit is coming into play. In the early days, the Coast felt quite capable of going it alone, and sometimes wanted to cut loose from the hinterland—as the Atlantic Coast sometimes felt an urge to do in its earlier days. But the years, in both cases, have brought a decided change in attitude among all intelligent people.

The width of ocean hasn’t changed between Plymouth, England, and Plymouth, Massachusetts; but the time factor has, for the new way is the air way, both in talk and travel, and the airways of our North are unlimited.