Southeast Alaska

1873-1900 Developing Southeast Alaska

Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • The impact of gold strikes in Canada
  • The first recognition of parts of Alaska as wilderness worth preserving
  • Gold mining
  • Fisheries

New Stikine River stampede begins

In the summer of 1873 word spread of a new gold strike in Canada. Henry Thibert and a man known only as McCullough brought out a poke of gold from the Cassiar district north of the Stikine River. Many people returned to Fort Wrangell with gold.

Among them was Captain Moore, who had ferried miners up the Stikine River after the gold strike of 1861. Moore believed he could make more money transporting and supplying gold seekers than mining. He took stampeders by steamboat from the mouth of the Stikine River to the head of navigable water at Telegraph Creek. The 150-mile trip took only three days by steamboat, but nine days by canoe. From Telegraph Creek, Moore built a pack trail to the Cassiar. An estimated 3,000 persons used Moore's route in 1874.

Fort Wrangell had been ordered closed early in the 1870, along with other army outposts except the one at Sitka. When many of the prospectors who passed through on their way to the Cassiar gold fields returned to spend the winter at Wrangell the army decided to reopen the garrison in 1876.

The concern of one soldier brought the first mission teacher to Wrangell. Dismayed that no school nor Christian education was available for the Stikine Tlingits, an army private wrote in 1877 to the commanding officer at Sitka. He forwarded the letter to Presbyterian leader Sheldon Jackson. In August 1877, Amanda McFarland arrived in Wrangell to establish a mission school. Jackson accompanied her. Affected by the plight of the Natives, Jackson launched a national campaign for a mission effort in Alaska.

Muir writes about Alaska

In 1879 the famous naturalist John Muir landed at Wrangell to begin a study of Alaskan glaciers. He felt that Wrangell was a most desolate place.

There was nothing like a tavern or lodging-house, nor could I find any place in the stumpy, rocky, boggy ground about it that looked dry enough to camp on .... Every place within a mile or two of the town seemed strangely shelterless . . . for all the trees had long ago been felled for building-timberand firewood.

Muir's disappointment with Wrangell gave way to joy as he continued his journey. On a stormy day in October, Muir, Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young, and their Indian guides canoed into Glacier Bay. Muir was awed. He later wrote of lofty blue cliffs looming through the draggled skirts of the clouds." Muir sketched six of the glaciers "while the roar of the newborn icebergs thickened."The party continued up Lynn Canal to Chilkat Tlingit country. During a meeting with Native chiefs near present-day Haines, Young arranged to send a missionary teacher to the Chilkat Tlingits. They in turn presented him with a piece of land for his church school.The travelers journeyed south to Sitka, where Muir boarded a steamer to return to California for the winter. Over the next decade he made many visits to Alaska. He explored by canoe and on foot, often accompanied by Young. Muir's descriptions of Southeast Alaska's scenery attracted tourists to Alaska.

Inside Passage attracts tour ships

Two years after John Muir first paddled into Glacier Bay, steamship companies began summer tours up the Inside Passage. First to arrive in the bay was the steamer Idaho. A 27-year-old, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, was aboard. Her vivid descriptions of Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide. They were later published in a guidebook to Alaska. Scidmore was invited to be a charter member of the National Geographic Society. A peak near Mount St. Elias was named Mount Ruhamah in her honor.

The navy replaces the army

By 1879 a federal customs collector was the only government authority at Sitka. The army had pulled completely out of Alaska in 1877. Russians and Creoles who had remained at Sitka after 1867 and more recently arrived Americans became alarmed at increasing signs of Tlingit hostility. Their appeals for help finally resulted in a British warship being sent to their rescue from Esquimault, British Columbia. The British ship was soon relieved by the U.S.S. Alaska. In June of 1879, the U.S.S. Jamestown under Commander Lester Beardslee replaced the Alaska. This began a five-year period during which the navy administered the district.

Beardslee was faced with a difficult problem. Naval regulations legally applied only to naval personnel. Yet they were his only tools for governing an area with no formal code of laws and that contained "very few respectable people worth saving." Beardslee tried to help residents reestablish a local civil government, but the attempts were not successful.

Killisnoo was built on a small island offshore of Admiralty Island where the ancient Tlingit village of Angoon was located. The community began as a trading post and whaling station established by the Northwest Trading Company in 1880. The company employed Angoon Natives to hunt whales.

The whaling led to one of the few open conflicts between Natives and non-Natives in Southeast Alaska when a dispute arose over compensation for Native lives lost in an accident at sea. Fearing an uprising, the whaling station superintendent requested aid from the U.S. Navy. The revenue cutter Corwin shelled and burned Angoon after the Natives had been evacuated. Almost 100 years passed before Angoon Natives were reimbursed for the loss of their village. The U.S. Government awarded them $90,000 in 1973.

Juneau mining initiated

Gold mining was already underway a few miles from Sitka. Mining engineer George Pilz had come from San Francisco to take charge of lode claims being developed by the Alaska Gold and Silver Mining Company of Portland, Oregon. Pilz encouraged Indians to help search for gold. Among those who brought samples was Chief Kowee of the Auk Indians, who lived on Gastineau Channel to the northeast. Pilz and Sitka merchant N.A. Fuller grubstaked prospectors Richard Harris and Joe Juneau, and sent them to check the source of Kowee's sample.

In October of 1880 the men found the area which Kowee had described. It was on the Alaska mainland, midway up Gastineau Channel. They staked placer locations in Gold Creek Valley and Gastineau Channel gold strikes. Richard Harris and Joe Juneau found gold along Gold Creek and in Silver Bow Basin in 1880. They staked a town-site that was later named Juneau. Gold was also found across from Juneau on Douglas Island. Silver Bow Basin, lode claims for themselves and their backers, and mill sites. Before they returned to Sitka, they also staked a 160-acre town-site on the beach which they named Harrisburg. News of the discovery spread and prospectors rushed to the area.

Billy Meehan was one of a party of five who left Sitka December 1, 1880 in a 25-foot canoe, bound for the new strike at Harrisburg. On the way the group camped near the southern end of Douglas Island on the west side of Gastineau Channel. On December 16, Meehan found placer gold at the mouth of a stream later named Bullion Creek. By spring, the "Ready Bullion Boys," as the five were nicknamed, had recovered placer gold worth $1,200.

Across Gastineau Channel, 40 miners had reached Harrisburg. They spent the winter whipsawing spruce for cabins, flumes, and sluice boxes. At night they rolled themselves in blankets and slept around a fire in the town's largest building, which they called "The Flag of All Nations." During a meeting in the Flag of All Nations the miners voted to change the town's name to Rockwell.

Pierre "French Pete" Erussard opened a makeshift store in his cabin. All he had to sell were the trinkets and beads he had intended to trade with Indians. Supplies were very short. Miners were said to have subsisted that winter on "snowballs and pepper."

Above the town-site in the glacier-eroded gulches of Gold Creek Valley and Silver Bow Basin were rich gold-bearing quartz outcroppings and placer streams. When the snow melted, the miners hired Tlingit packers to carry their whipsawed planks to their claims.

Fearing trouble, Commander Henry Glass, who had succeeded Beardslee on the Jamestown, ordered his crew to build a post at the new camp. He was prepared to suppress any disturbance among the miners and to prevent conflicts between miners and the Natives.

In May of 1881 French Pete moved to Douglas Island and staked the Paris lode claim. He sold the claim later that year to John Treadwell. San Francisco investors had sent Treadwell to Alaska to scout the new strike. Ore samples were so promising that the investors organized the Alaska Mill and Mining Company. The new company bought more claims and moved in machinery for a five-stamp mill in 1882.

Miners seek civil government

One concern of the miners was civil government for Alaska. Delegates from Sitka, Wrangell, Killisnoo, Klawock, and Shakan were invited to join Rockwell delegates in August, 1881, to nominate a representative to present their views to Congress. The following month, former customs collector M. D. Ball of Sitka, was elected to travel to Washington, D.C. He took with him a petition asking for formal recognition as Alaska's representative. Congress agreed to pay for Ball's travel expenses, but refused to seat him. No action was taken on his plea for Alaskan self-government.

By early winter, the navy's presence in Rockwell had proved unnecessary and the post was closed. The town residents called a meeting to draw up a code of laws for local self-government. Their first action was to rename the camp once more. This time they called it Juneau.

The first canneries in Alaska open

The first salmon canneries in Alaska had been built in 1878 at Klawock and Sitka. The North Pacific Trading and Packing Company's Klawock cannery operated for 51 years. The Sitka cannery closed after two seasons and its machinery was moved north to Southcentral Alaska.

Many more canneries were built over the next decade. A salmon saltery was started in Naha Bay on Revillagigedo Island, where Tlingits had shared a summer fishing ground. Alaska Salmon Packing and Fur Company built a warehouse near a waterfall where salmon congregated. The salmon were heavily salted and packed in barrels by Native workers. The camp was later named Loring and turned into a cannery. Some seasons, Loring led all Alaska in canned salmon production.

Not far from Loring, a new trading post and saltery had been established on the site of another summer fishing camp. The Tlingits called the place Kitschkhim, meaning "thundering wings of an eagle." The packing companies knew it as Ketchikan. Wrangell, which had faded after the excitement of the Cassiar days, got a cannery at the mouth of the Stikine River in 1887. Another opened there two years later. Three canneries were built near Haines, although none was successful for long.

Although the value of the salmon pack increased every year, the profits did not benefit many Alaskans. Many of the canneries were owned by nonresident corporations that hired non-Alaskans.

Tlingit Indians were anxious to share in the profits of the salmon fisheries. At the Klawock cannery almost all of the work was carried out by Tlingit and Haida crews. Natives also caught most of the fish for the operations. They knew the coastal waters, the fish migrations, and harvesting methods.

At other canneries, Natives were hired only when no other laborers were available. Cannery superintendents wanted employees who would work long hours, day or night. The workers had to be willing to carry out jobs that were "tiring, dirty, smelly and wet." They had to stay for the entire fishing season and work for low wages. Cannery owners found a solution in the Chinese.

Chinese immigrants began arriving on the west coast in large numbers during the 1860s. Cannery operators considered them to be "meek, yielding and dependable" just the kind of workers they wanted.

Although housing for cannery workers was poor by modern standards, cannery operators tried to provide the kind of food the Chinese liked. A "China boss" contracted with the operators to feed the "China crew." A list of provisions for the canning season published in an 1890 report included Chinese salted eggs, bean cakes, bamboo shoots, sugar cane, and 453 pounds of green ginger. The same employer also provided opium, gin, tobacco, and "China wine" for the cannery crew.

Chinese laborers were also employed in the rapidly expanding Treadwell mines on Douglas Island. In the western United States, resentment against Chinese immigrants had resulted in riots and bombings. Related outbreaks took place in Juneau in 1886. Mobs gathered to protest the hiring of Chinese laborers at Treadwell. The outnumbered Chinese asked for arms to defend themselves, but were exiled instead.

Native trade trails serve prospectors and miners

As the Southeast Alaska economy expanded in the late 1800s, the Tlingit and Haida Indians had a growing need for cash wages. They found other employment more accommodating and profitable than working at the Treadwell mines or in a cannery. Transporting freight and guiding was one way to make money. After gold was discovered in the Fortymile River region in 1886, miners sought ways to cross the mountains that separated the coast from the gold fields of the Interior. Many hired Chilkats, and later Sitkans, to pack their equipment over the passes.

In the 1890s, John "Jack" Dalton became convinced that there was an easier way through the coastal mountains than the Chilkoot Pass. His idea was to follow another Chilkat trade route which began at Chilkat Inlet near Haines. Dalton bargained with the Chilkats to use their trail. The following year he used this route to take pack horses up to the Yukon River headwaters. Dalton bridged swamps and streams to make the trail passable for pack trains. Cattle were driven over the trail, too. They provided meat for miners at Fortymile and other mining camps in Interior Alaska. Dalton charged a toll of two dollars a head for cows, and two dollars and fifty cents for horses.

Word reached Seattle in 1897 that a big gold strike had been made on the Klondike River. The 1898 gold rush began. Ships raced up the Inside Passage. Their decks were loaded with stampeders, cattle, horses, and mining equipment. The Queen was the first large steamer to reach Skagway. Moore convinced the captain to land passengers and freight at his homestead dock. A boom town stood by fall.

Other stampeders chose to land at Dyea, a few miles from Skagway. There they started out on the Chilkoot Trail, an historic Tlingit route, across the mountains. Dyea, like Skagway, was soon a bustling town. The trail from Dyea, although steeper, was shorter than the White Pass route from Skagway. The majority of gold seekers who crossed the mountains in 1897 used it. When the White Pass and Yukon Railway was completed in 1900, traffic over the Chilkoot Trail declined. Troops at an army camp between Dyea and Skagway helped to keep order on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border, while NorthWest Mounted Police did the same on the Canadian side. By 1902 Dyea was abandoned and most of its buildings were moved to Skagway. Skagway survived because it was the terminus of the White Pass and Yukon Railway.

Use of the White Pass and Chilkoot trails to Interior Alaska ended when the White Pass and Yukon Railway was completed. The 111-mile narrow-gauge railway connected Skagway and Whitehorse. The railway was begun in July of 1898. By late the following winter, tracks reached White Pass summit. The last rail was laid on July 29, 1900. Completion of the rail link was regarded as little short of a miracle. Every piece of track, every tie and bridge timber, and tons of explosives had to be brought to Alaska. That would have been difficult under any conditions, but the United States was at war with Spain. Most seaworthy ships had been commandeered by military forces.

The railway was built over mountains described as "too steep for a billy goat and too cold for a polar bear." Contractor Michael J. Heney directed the operation. The railway began in Alaska, crossed through British Columbia, and ended in Yukon Territory. It was financed with British capital. The completed White Pass and Yukon Railway was humorously referred to as "Wait Patiently and You'll Ride."

Summary questions

  1. What Southeast Alaska city was most affected by gold rushes to the upper Stikine River?
  2. Whose writings about Alaska attracted people to visit the territory as tourists?
  3. Two towns, Dyea and Skagway, were at the beginnings of gold rush trails to the Klondike. Why did Skagway survive and not Dyea?

Many Nations Challenge Tlingit Claims
1873-1900 Developing Southeast Alaska
1900-1922 Some Needs Are Met
1922-1942 Between Two Wars
1945-1980 The "Old Alaska"' Vanishes
Suggested Readings