Alaska – How High Is the High North?

IN early Dawson days the cost of even the simplest living was almost prohibitive, and only the actual fact of ” grass-root” gold made the first camp really possible. The reason was, of course, the utter lack of adequate transportation.

Bringing in perishables was a riskish business, and even necessities were so scarce they fetched outrageous prices. There were no wharves at first in Skagway, goods and passengers were lightered on scows and often stranded on the tide-flats, horses were pushed off to swim ashore as they could, and supplies piled upon the beach in utter confusion. One big Swede pulled a four-hundred-pound sled over the Pass through snow and wind and slide; but most merely packed as much ahead as they could, piled it up above the snow on a few spruce boughs, and went back for more—in five or six mile stages, ten or twelve trips, forth and back. One woman drove goats to her sled, that held a laundry outfit she planned to set up—when and if she reached Dawson. Thousands of home-made boats were built at Bennett—in shapes and ways that would give any honest shipwright nightmare! Some of them got through but, when they did, the freight they carried often proved to be quite literally worth its weight in gold. Transportation was a gamble, and therefore costs hit the ceiling.

The same thing happened in other early Yukon camps. An item in the Yukon Press, published in Circle City January 15, 1899, reads: ” John Snell of Sausalito, California, arrived at Rampart last fall with a large cargo of eggs. Constant worry over the perishableness of his cargo led him to commit suicide.” During the winter of ’97-’98, L. F. Persons freighted on the Dyea trail to Lake Bennett a shipment of general merchandise and building material. When the spring break-up came he loaded his outfit on a scow and was the first to reach Dawson that season. Before he even landed the goods, he sold his entire cargo on the basis of a dollar a pound (including nails!)—with the exception of eggs, which readily brought a dollar apiece. He cleared up thirty thousand dollars profit from this one scow-load, and cannily invested in Seattle real estate.

The first vegetable man in Dawson charged six dollars a dozen for celery stalks—not bunches—and fifty cents a pound for turnips, carrots, cabbage, beets. Sugar sold for seventy-five dollars a hundred-weight, flour fora dollar a pound; two hundred dollars were paid for, a crate of frozen potatoes, and the winter rate for eggs (even such as disseminated a sulphurated odor of new-born chick) was a dollar and a half apiece. Those were the days, as ” W. F.” says, ” when two bits wouldn’t even buy a postage stamp in Dawson.” In early days Frank Joaquin, a pioneer on the Kuskokwirn, had trouble chartering a boat in San Francisco to bring in his supplies, for owners said, ” The Kuskokwim? There ain’t no such place.” When he did get a schooner, he could secure no marine insurance. In 1910 two thousand miners were caught by early fall in the Georgetown stampede, and Joaquin brought three hundred tons of freight up river in The Quickstep, loaded to her guards with cargo, bow and sides covered with tons of ice. With every miner in camp lending a hand, the cargo was unloaded at double quick. And just in time, for The Quickstep went into winter quarters that grim November morning—in the middle of the Kuskokwim ! No wonder grub came high that winter, or that one miner who had saved a few Chinese matches retailed them ” one block to a man, four bits a throw,” so I’ve been told, and ” to ask a man for a light, that winter, produced the same effect as calling a red-head a liar! ”

In Dawson’s early days, one time when miners’ candles ran short, some local Wallingford conceived a bright idea—and cleaned up nine thousand dollars on the trick, before he was caught and ” jumped the line ” over into Alaska. Having on hand a supply of candle-wick, which was used for caulking the little rough-made prospectors’ boats, and several cases of condensed milk, he first put strips of the wick in candle molds and then poured in milk which almost immediately froze when exposed at forty below. It made a fine-appearing creamy “wax” candle—as long as it was kept outdoors; and he actually sold these at $150 a case, or $1.25 apiece-while the game lasted!

In Nome stampede days a steak cost seven dollars, an apple one, and a bunk five. In early Fairbanks, sandwiches were a dollar, tiny “tin” Yukon stoves fifty dollars, and baking-powder biscuit sold for two dollars a dozen. Nome, even with sea-freight, paid forty dollars a ton for coal in 1921, but when Fair-banks got the railroad and tied up with the Nenana coal beds, coal sold with us for nine dollars screened lump and seven fifty for run-of-mine. The railroad brought the local price of milk down from thirty-seven and a half cents a quart, to twenty-five.

When we first came to Fairbanks we found many pioneer business conditions still in vogue, and gold dust still being taken in open exchange at many of the stores. One of my first shopping questions was to ask about the fine sets of gold scales I saw on many store counters; and the second, I think, about the meaning of the leather cup and dice, then to be found at the cash desk of nearly all shops. So imbued was everybody with the gambling element in trade that, if you made a purchase, you could ” shoot for it,” if you wished to do so. If Lady Luck was agin’ you, the shopkeeper was paid double his original asking price; if with you, then you merely picked up your package and walked out, paying nothing! No Fairbanks child had ever seen a coin smaller than a quarter, the local “two bits” ; and one Sunday, “when the boat was in ” and strangers visited Saint Matthews, a little choir boy watching my treasurer-husband count collection after service, remarked excitedly on seeing a dime, “What’s that? Cheechako money? ”

That cheechako dime nearly brought on a law-suit. When my husband took it to the bank to deposit with the rest of the church money, the teller refused to accept it. It would ” ball up the ac-counts,” you see, for the bank cleared only to the nearest quarter. If some one gave you a cheque for $76.13, the bank would credit your account with $76.25; but if the cheque happened to be for $76.12, you gat only seventy-six dollars flat. Otherwise, it balled up the accounts,” and since the bank took its cue—or seemed to—from the old faro banks and believed that a liberal percentage should accrue to the house, they took–and still do—a two-bit rake-off on all outside cheques. So you can see that, when confronted with that cheechako dime, a matter of high finance was involved.

My disgusted cheechako husband (for we were newcomers that year) said: ” But this goes to the church account. You’ll have to take it. It’s the offering money.” The teller merely grinned, ” No, you pocket it. That’s the way it’s done. You’re entitled to your percentage, too!” Only a stiff re-minder that the dime was legal tender, the bank a U. S. Depository and therefore bound to accept U. S. currency, and other caustic and pertinent remarks, made that teller accept the offending dime. But I think he cordially hated my husband ever after.

This was a hang-over from the early days, of course, and the bank seems to be about the only one of our local business houses which still holds to these primitive ways, all others having changed to meet changing and more modern conditions. With the coming of the railroad, Fairbanks graduated from being a ” two-bits town ” and now ” coast prices” prevail. Before the railroad all goods had to be ordered on a high Outside spring market, shipped in by long expensive water haul in summer, and kept in warm storage through the winter. Goods sold in winter would very likely not be paid for until next year’s cleanup on the creeks. All this made for terrific overhead, but the railroad changed all that. Now a business man can ship direct from Seattle each week of the year, taking advantage of better market prices, and no large stock has now to be kept on hand at high storage cost or with long tie-up of capital. The price of provisions took a tremendous drop when the railroad found its way to our camp.

In the old days, the little commerce that existed was extremely self-important. The storekeeper ” had a cinch ” on what little transportation there was, and he also felt that to keep a store at all, on the last frontier, was to do a favor to the community. It was a monopoly, it was an ” accommodation,” and it was a gamble—and the buyer had not only to pay for the favor, the monopoly and the risk, but he also had to ” stand in” or the storekeeper would refuse to sell to him. Frontier salesmanship was always a type of hold-up. But the railroad changed that, also; for now, if the stores don’t suit us (but they do, for they have changed their attitude completely —or disappeared) we merely send a wire to Seattle and ship in for ourselves all that we need, by next week’s boat and twice-weekly winter train. Fear and favor have been removed from our town’s business, thanks to Uncle Sam’s good parcel post and Uncle Sam’s even better Alaska Railroad. Only the bank clings to the old-fashioned monopoly-accommodation idea of ” stand in with me, or do with-out” ; but, unfortunately, it’s much easier to wire to Seattle for goods than to arrange long-distance credit!

” W. F.” says, ” The banks (of the camp’s early days) were put in one Pot, and then the Banker abated himself. More trouble!” Fairbanks had some very unfortunate experiences with bankers in her early history, which may account for the fact that more than a quarter million is deposited in postal savings here, leading the Territory: and whereas the per capita postal deposit in New York is only $295, in Fairbanks it is $907. Indeed, Fair-banks ranks among the first fifty cities of the U. S. A. in postal savings. Yet our now one and only bank is a good sound bank, even if it does charge two bits on outside cheques and two per cent. a month as ordinary interest—” and you have to sign away your store teeth to get that,” says ” W. F.” I It has resources of over a million and is under government supervision. But Alaska needs small capital in many lines rather than big capital in a few, at its present stage, and small capital is not always easy to secure outside the local bank.

It was just a century after the landing of the Pilgrims that a team was driven from Connecticut to Rhode Island. Here in Alaska, too, before the rail-road came, land travel was as difficult as costly. Here, as there, the coast streams are for the most part so broken by falls that they were useless as a pathway to the Interior, though we had the Yukon and they the Connecticut as early fur routes. Always added to the high cost of ocean freight was the high cost of land carriage, from fifty cents a pound up to unconscionable figures. Sheldon Jack-son tells that in ’95 and ’96, mongrel Indian dogs for hauling freight on the Yukon cost a hundred to two hundred dollars each, and twenty cents a pound was paid for a thirty-mile haul. Such conditions tended to localize and isolate us in our industries and our interests and to restrict the possible area of distribution. The only product which would pay for its own carriage Outside over the winter trail, was solid gold ingots from our mines. Water freight was slow and not always certain. Concerning the opening of navigation for Yukon boats, the News Miner announced one year: ” Here’s dope on boats. The first boat will leave when it does. The first boat will arrive ditto!” When our furniture was shipped in, it came 2,700 miles to Saint Michael by ocean freight and 1,200 more miles up the river—a greater distance and a longer time in passage than for the famous Mayflower load of genuine antiques. And the freight bill! For transportation and costs of living are one and the same thing, apparently.

But the ways of travel are swiftly speeding up and hurrying almost faster now than the historian’s ink can follow. The Aleut bidarka, Eskimo kyak and umiak, the dog sled, shoe pac, river boat and pack-horse are past or passing chapters in the story of Alaskan transportation, yielding now to rail and motor and plane. A broad statement, but one that will, I think, be unchallenged by any open-minded Alaskan or any open-minded national statesman, is this: Anything making for better transportation and communication between colony and mother country, benefits both colony and mother country.’ All students of history know only too well the misunderstanding which can arise out of colonial isolation, and surely no Alaskan wishes to see that chapter repeated here.

But there’s another widely-growing class, removed as far as possible from tundra-plodding sourdough mushers, who also benefit by Alaska’s ever-increasing transportation facilities. I’m told that 30,000 tourists came last year to some part or another of Alaska, and next year another twin-screw steel ship of six thousand tons will be added to the Alaska run, to help accommodate the ever-growing numbers coming up to see the last frontier, take a step out in space and back in time, and see for themselves the wideraftered area of Uncle Sam’s attic. Times have changed, and much of the last frontier can be viewed today in comfort from a steamer chair, an observation coach, or an airplane. At first, Alaskan communities saw only that the tourists bought curios, furs and photographs, spent money at hotels, hired autos, gas boats and guides, and purchased hunting and camping supplies. This revenue is not inconsiderable, but it is quite the smallest item in the real value of tourist travel to Alaska.

The Territory has something more to offer than scenery and splendid summer climate, and those who come with open mind and eye will not be blind to that something more. The business man on a summer junket doesn’t lay aside his habit of trained financial thinking, and he readily grasps the significance of business possibilities latent here; for Alaska as a swiftly-developing colony has much to offer the investing intelligent visitor, which he can’t help but see and will surely ponder. More than this, however—much more—is the fact that seeing really is believing; and those who have actually looked upon Alaska (not only the fringe of coast, but have penetrated into the heart of the country) return as converts and missionaries of the far-away colony, remember its problems of size and distance and newness, and will in time build up a body of understanding political thought, back home in the mother country where it is most needed. While the superficial tourist will see nothing but scenery and beginnings, the keen-minded traveller will vision an actual empire in the making.

For the real Alaskan problem to-day does not lie within Alaska but outside of Alaska—and it lies and lies and lies! Speaking to the Alaskan-Yukon Pioneers, Maurice Leehey once said, ” The Alaska problem is simply this and nothing more: How can Alaska get the same chance the rest of the country had?” We know what priceless wealth Uncle Sam gave away in order to build the western railroads in the states, and so we know how relatively tiny was the sum he spent in building the Alaska Railroad ” to develop the country and the resources thereof for the use of the people of the United States.” Yet every so often pessimistic congressmen arise and with a harsh crake declare that, because the Alaska Railroad hasn’t yet paid thumping dividends, it is therefore a failure; and they seem quite willing-some of them—to turn our Territory ” back to the moose for reclamation.” Have they forgotten, these near-sighted ones, when and how their own western railroads were made to pay dividends?

The only fly in the agricultural ointment in Alaska today is the matter of transportation. A trunk line is not enough, though excellent. Feeders are needed. A farmer must be on a road if his farm is to keep him—a road he can travel year round. Millions of acres are useless in Alaska to-day be-cause they are roadless acres. Until the railroad came, large mining operations were all confined to the coast and open tide-water, so that the mineral wealth of the Interior was almost untouched, except for the richest placers. Now Uncle Sam’s railroad has changed all that, and, as Alaska’s governor recently remarked, ” a very large part of the reindeer country may be made tributary to the Alaska Railroad, and shipments over this line would greatly augment the return from this investment.”

Conditions for agriculture are never ideal in a pioneer country. All first settlers, be they Pilgrims, early Kansas immigrants, or Alaskans, are con-fronted with obstacles and discouragement. Production costs are high because freight and labor are high. The farmer here eliminates labor cost by making his farm a one-man proposition—doing his own work with improved machinery and putting into his own pocket the $125 he would have to pay a ” hand.” Construction expenses are high, $30 to $35 a ton freight on building materials from Seattle: the cost of distribution of farm products is high, for transportation is again a major problem here. The farmer also has to pay a high interest rate on all borrowed money, and high freight on all equipment and groceries. But—that very freight rate is to him the equivalent of a tariff wall, protecting his own products and raising their price locally. To what-ever price hay may be selling for Outside, the farmer here can add nearly the forty-dollar freight rate from Seattle, supply the local market, and cheat no one. And that there is a local market is proved by shipments from the port of Seattle, before the Tanana farms took to supplying local needs (which they do not even yet completely do) ; 982 tons of hay, 1,187 tons of oats, 241 tons of flour, 4,674 cases of eggs, 20,000 pounds of cold-storage poultry, as well as beef, mutton, pork and dairy products. As ” W. F.” was writing not so very long ago:

Men who should know better go before Congressional Committees and break into print to say that Alaska can never amount to anything in an agricultural way, because of this and that; whereas the farmers in Alaska are probably the most prosperous workmen of Alaska. Everything they raise they can sell, and to date they have not raised as much as they can sell in this immediate vicinity. At that, they are raising larger crops every year, clearing and farming more ground and progressing all along the line. Their flouring mill, the only one in Alaska, is grinding every day, and last year the farmers in the Tanana Valley alone cultivated 1,599 acres of land, cleared 141 new acres, summer-f allowed 18o acres and will cultivate 2,000 acres this year, and are adding from 400 to 500 acres to cultivation yearly. Last year they raised and sold at the highest prices the products were ever sold for in the open market :

VEGETABLES—500 tons from 100 acres.

OAT HAY—1,026 tons from 1,036 acres.

GRAIN—Oats and barley, 1,270 bushels from 28 acres.

WHEAT-3,516 bushels from 183 acres.

Their wheat this year averaged 19 bushels per acre and their oats and barley 45 bushels per acre. For the potatoes raised in this Valley of Silent Men they received $40,000, and such prices for other farm produce that we hesitate to give them, as farmers Outside have never received them and would not believe that they could exist anywhere.

“The ability to make a living and get a fair amount of comfort and enjoyment out of life really depends upon equality in the use of the land from which wealth is produced and freedom to move about and trade.” On this frontier, equality of economic opportunity is almost complete, for nowhere else in modern society does real equality of opportunity become so actual. As Jefferson wrote in 1795 of the frontier of his day: ” Labour indeed is dear here, but rents are low, and on the whole a reasonable profit and comfortable subsistence result.” So, too, doughty Captain John Smith recommended the frontier of New England as a good place for ” All they that have Great Spirits & small Meanes! ”

In many ways it seems to me as though a man alone can live here as cheaply and comfortably as any place. Living in a cabin of his own (which he can himself build, with a partner—and nearly half the Territory is forested), the Government gives him a hundred and sixty acres of farming land for a homestead, or a mining claim for the staking, provided only that he lives and works on it for part of the year. By doing his own cooking he can live on less than forty dollars in cash a month. Many live on less, if there are two partners, which is the usual thing. Two-room cabins rented for but ten to fifteen dollars per month when we first went to Fairbanks. We rented a large log cabin on the main street. It had a spacious living and dining room, a room we used as a library, three bedrooms, a generous kitchen, a very roomy pantry, and a bath and cellar and porches—all for forty ‘dollars. The house had a large yard and garden, was located on a corner, and was comfortably furnished—though we brought much of our own.

Average clerk’s wage in Fairbanks is $175 a month, as against $80 to $100 for similar work Out-side. And it is remarkable how closely the person who wishes to do so may and can live literally ” off the country.” Salmon, grayling, many varieties of trout and white fish are to be had for the taking; ducks, geese, snipe, plover, ptarmigan, grouse and partridge provide a seasonal game-bird supply; moose, caribou, and mountain sheep (that real de-light of gastronomes) are to be had for a hunter’s picnic; wild huckleberries, red and black rasp-berries, and currants, gooseberries, high and low-bush cranberries, salmon berries, strawberries, juniper berries and ” Oregon grapes ” grow wild for the taking and by the trillion; wood for fuel is waiting the chopper’s axe; and ” cash money ” on two sure markets is awaiting the man who runs a winter trap line for furs or takes out even a little gold, from land which any one may ” claim.” We found when we went to Fairbanks that any person, over twenty-one, may ” locate, hold or work—or lease, sell, mortgage or otherwise dispose of “-mining claims in the Territory. An alien, however, ” secures no title or right of possession as against the Government, but his rights are paramount as against all persons except the Government of the United States.” Each owner of a claim must keep up the annual assessment work, and in so doing he can usually take out enough gold to pay expenses and make a little cash, even with rather desultory mining. If he secures a patent on his claim, then it is his actual property. But no alien can secure a patent—that’s reserved for Uncle Sam’s own nephews and nieces.

You can readily see that the cost of living here is exactly what you wish to make it. There are many things which Outside peoples are tempted to spend money for, that we are not. There are other things which the city dweller is forced to buy or have done for him, which we can get or do for ourselves. The frontier dweller escapes the psychological dangers of poverty as well as the actual fact of it, for there can be no real poverty where natural resources are so free. That’s why we have no classes and no masses—no degrading, grinding, soul-destroying

. pauperism of the slums—for as there are no very rich on the frontier, so too there are no very poor. Many a sourdough here might find a hundred dollars a large sum to raise in cash on a moment’s notice; but give him a winter’s trapping, a summer’s fish-wheel catch, a good season on his placer claim, and he will meet you with four figures in his roll. With wood, coal, game, fish, fruits, building material and land to be had for the taking, and wonderful gardens to be raised for the planting (and Uncle Sam himself will contribute free seeds from his own attic-window boxes, the agricultural experiment stations), all that the sourdough need provide is the overcoming of gravity and a little sweat and muscle! If he wishes, even his clothes may be made from products of the land, and winter caps and coats of home-grown fur, sleeping bags of mountain sheep, and moose-hide jackets and vests, are often to be met in Fairbanks.

The pioneer is always a sort of Robinson Crusoe, salvaging that which has been cast up to him and always using first what lies closest at hand. A colonist especially is acted upon by and reacts upon his environment, and is molded in habit and thought by the physical circumstances and possibilities of his habitude. Land forms, climate, animal life, vegetation, are all bound to influence him. Not with impunity, not without change and re-shaping, have we ourselves ventured up past the long firths from the open sea and into the enclosed and silent valleys of the North. We in Interior Alaska have not out-grown that Crusoe stage, for we are to-day what the tundra and the spruce forests and those half-guessed and immemorial geological happenings have made us. We are pioneer landsmen, as actually dependent upon the earth in which we send down roots as were our New England ancestors. We have not yet achieved the industrial stage, when subtle and intricate organization will release us from our “definite patch of the earth’s surface, by whose characters all our activities are controlled, to a dreamland, served by the dusky jinns of the coal mines.” The dusky jinns are at hand and potent enough, but we have not as yet exorcised them into our bottle and made them slaves. In that we need more capital, and capital is reaching out to the frontier even now to accomplish this last miracle. But capital will only travel where there is adequate transportation.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoy the pioneer way, because of its very Crusoe challenge; and always, I believe, happy frontiersmen will be those who truly enjoy adjustment to new and shifting environment and look upon it as a test of their own manliness and quality. In this land, geography and economics have real and dramatic parts to play upon the rim of civilization, where, as Isaiah Bowman says :

We find man and nature rather evenly balanced in the struggle. . When standards of living were lower, economics had less to do with life on the frontier, but . . . the economic limits of a frontier enterprise are now sharply drawn. That throws a new light upon geographic conditions on the frontier. We now need to know rather precisely the conditions of soil and rainfall and labor, and even the availability of roadmaking materials, in a region of potential settlement.

The effect has been to place the pioneer lands of the world on a higher plane of scientific study. It is not enough to locate a promising territory where the white man can make a living by agriculture or ranching. He asks questions about it that the old-fashioned pioneer never dreamed of. He is not content to face the wilderness with a sack of flour and an axe and a pair of strong hands. He demands that his enterprises shall pay from the start. He wants to be tied to a railway or a motor road, and, if possible, to a telephone. Accepted standards of living impel him to ask what the government will do for him if he breaks new ground in the pioneer zone. Formerly he asked only that government should leave him alone. But pioneering in our times is so unlike that of the romantic era of western expansion that our ideas of it have to be entirely revised.

Even the outer marches of the occupied lands feel the spell of science in the present age.

When the earlier pioneer left for the wilderness he left an animal-transport community; he now leaves a motor-car community. To ask him to pioneer without motor or rail transport is to ask him to go back to the living not of 1900 but 1700, relatively. The conclusion of the matter is that the remaining pioneer lands of the world—and they are still of enormous extent—must be developed on a wide front, by organized groups, with government aid. Not direct subsidy alone is required but an indirect subsidy, represented by the application of science to the study of frontier regions.

This is the solid economic reason for our various governmental bureaus and their thoroughgoing reports upon Alaskan facts, as well as for a government-built Railroad. Of what use is a farm, unless a road winds past it leading into some town? Of what use is a town, unless a road winds through it leading into some port? Of what use is the veriest golconda of opportunity, unless the necessary freight of material equipment can be unloaded at its portal, making its richness real? Farmers and miners need roads and railroads, and all alike need the steamship lines—and the better that steamship service, the better business for them all. For Alaska is as truly a non-contiguous colony and dependent upon ocean-borne freight, as ever was New England.

The Mayflower passenger list did not include John Milton’s name, and that’s a pity. The Miltons of our little colony, too, are for the most part mute, if not inglorious. Many books about Alaska have been written from the Outside view-point, looking in, too few from intimate understanding and with true out-look. Would that Alaska had an epic voice, a ” chanter of pains and joys, writer of here and hereafter,” to give us our needed strophe of transport, to ring against men’s minds with clangor!

O Pioneers! I sing the far edge of the world’s map, the newly unfurled edge,

To which the sourdough puts his two strong hands, and pushes ever forward:

The crisp and northerly edge of the world’s map, where blind men

In their fear have written down the words: ” Here dwells Chimera!”

Others, in hope, exalted with extended horizons, have written: “Here are the Lost Dreams of Youth Fulfilled ! ”

I sing the snow-mobile. I sing the tractor and the advancing plow turning the heavy loam.

I sing advancing steel, iron horse, the whir of mighty wings over the Last Frontier.

O Pioneers! Build well your epic, create your empire.

Build it with yellow dust of gold, build with your golden wheat, build red with copper.

Weld into it the foot-sore blood stains of old trails. Uplift it to the Arctic sky, where now moose-ptarmigan out-roar the howling husky.

Write a new message of a new land, a new meaning of new dawn, across your new Aurora of The North.