Alaska Really is a Great Country

It’s early fall, 1900, and Frank and Nell have almost made it to Alaska. Voyaging on the steamer Cottage City, the trip along the British Columbia coast is one of the most treacherous in the world. Hundreds of ships sank along the sharp rocks and strong currents on this very route. Though the journey is perilous, the Felters are not alone. Friendly missionaries and successful gold miners from Dawson fill their heads with stories about the land and its riches. Did you know the word “Alaska” is an Aleut word meaning “great county” or “great land?” As Frank mentions here, the 1867 Alaska Purchase was known as Secretary of State William Seward’s “Folly” at the time, but after gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1896 thousands traveled up to strike it rich. The friends that the Felters make on the Cottage City were probably some of the first fortune hunters to make it to Alaska in the 1890s.

Cottage City, circa 1890-1900. University of Washington Libraries.

The water is perfectly smooth until we cross the straits of Juan De Fuca, to Victoria when the vessel tosses about some, but ’tis near midnight and we are too sleepy to notice the rolling very much and go back to sleep. Next morning the gong wakes us up and we hurry down to breakfast for the cool air coming in the stateroom has given us a good appetite.

As we take our places at the table we all are looking to see who our companions are to be en route. Directly opposite to us is a neat looking young minister from Portland and a middle aged D.D., who is not so neat in appearance, but who bears the title of “Superintendent of the Mission Service, in Alaska.” At the end of the table to the left sits a gentleman with his wife and daughter, one on either side. He wears a watch chain made of Gold nuggets, and with his daughter enjoys the celebrity of having belonged to one of the first parties that passed over the Chilcoot Trail and reached Dawson. The young lady has a rather pretty face and often amuses us with some of her experiences.

Chilkoot Trail.jpg
Heart of the Klondike by Scott Marble, c. 1897. Library of Congress.

Conversation is slow at our first breakfast, and as soon as the meal is over everyone goes out on deck to see where we are.

Vancouver Island some 300 miles long and 50 miles wide is between us and the Ocean on the left. It is covered with forests from the water line to the top of the slops. On the right we see numerous islands of different sizes, nearly covered with trees, while a few are barren of vegetation.

Vancouver Island.jpg
Frank would have enjoyed fishing on Vancouver Island. 1936. Library of Congress.

About 100 miles North of Victoria, which is the capital of British Columbia, we enter Seymour Narrows, where the currents are very fierce and the rocks exceedingly dangerous to craft plying these waters. In 1875 the U.S. Warship Saranac was wrecked here, and many other vessels have been lost in this channel. Our Captain told us it was only safe to go through these narrows at low, or high tide, because at these times the current is at a stand still for a few minutes, and then the ship can be safely steered between the rocks. For this purpose we waited a couple of hours, when we passed through quietly enough and continued our Northwesterly course, enjoying a good night’s rest in the meanwhile.

As we near the Northern end of Vancouver Island there is a very perceptible ocean swell rolling us about, and lasting a few hours. Now we are again shut out from the ocean by innumerable islands all about us from the size of a state to a few feet across, and are to have a ride of nearly 200 miles through several straits and narrow channels where a cross-eyed girl could throw a stone from one to the other side in several places, and yet the waters are so deep that a bottom has never been found.

This is one of the few times when the excursionist can afford to leave the most interesting scenery and take up the occupation of eating. No matter how much you miss on the trip there is a plenty more left, so we never lose the opportunity to eat. At such times, when our missionary friend is not finding fault with the service at the table, he is telling us about Alaska. We absorbed much information from this source, and if you will bear with me I will try and recall some of it.

Secretary Seward Buys Alaska
Secretary Seward Buys Alaska, Warrington Colescott, 1973. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The name Alaska came from an Indian word meaning, “Great Country.” The distance between the Northern and Southern extremities of Alaska is over 1100 miles: and between the Eastern and the Western is nearly 4000 miles. It has a coast line of 26000 miles and its area is over 600,000 square miles. Its greatest river, the Yukon, is navigable for large steamers a distance of nearly 2000 miles. At its mouth the Yukon is sixty miles wide, and its volume of water is so great that 15 miles from shore it is still fresh. Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7,200,000.00. This last I know to be true because I read it myself in the newspapers at the time. I was three years old at the time and I recollect it was a much talked of subject.


Golden Stories of Alaska
Headline from The Times [Washington D.C.], July 16, 1899.
It was spoken of as “The crazy deal in volcanoes and icebergs.”” Well, crazy deal or not,- Alaska has already yielded in furs, gold, salmon, etc., nearly twenty times the purchase price, so we must admit that its name “Great Country”, is quite appropriate.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.


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