Alaska: “Too Grand for my Weak Pen to Describe”

Keeping with their leisurely traveling habits, Frank and Nell arrive in Skagway and promptly decide to stay here for several weeks taking in the sights and fishing as much as possible. The missionary that Frank befriended rents them a small cottage on the grounds of McCabe College for an entire month. Though Skagway is a very new town (it was settled in 1887 and didn’t have many inhabitants until gold was discovered in 1896), it had already developed a colorful history as a mining boom town and den of lawlessness and home of the infamous “Soapy” Smith. Just a few years later the Felters find Skagway to be “quite respectable” and worthy of a relaxing visit. Though Frank never gives the missionary friend’s name, but I suspect he was Dr. Gordon Lamont, an educator at the college. Sadly, lack of funds and students closed the college just a few months after this letter was written. This portion of the account ends with the Felters taking a train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad towards White Horse and describing the difficulties of prospecting for gold farther north near Nome.

Leaving Juneau we steam 100 miles up the Lynn Canal, (which by the way is a natural one), past islands, glaciers, and scenery too grand for my weak pen to describe, and at about 10-30  at night we are moored to one of the several wharves of Skagway. It is still daylight, and as we get off to take a walk through the town, we are hailed by an acquaintance we made in Portland, who pilots us around and shows us the place to such good advantage that we finally conclude to stop off and rest a few weeks before continuing the trip.

Skagway and the Lynn Canal, as seen from a nearby mountain top c. 1900. Alaska State Library.

It is still light, though nearly midnight, and after securing rooms in a Hotel, I send a man down to get our baggage before the steamer sails off with it. It had been 22 hours since our eyes were closed in sleep and you may imagine we were soon in bed, and that we staid there until we had caught up the back numbers.

Soapy Smith Vigalante Gang
Frank Reid’s gang that took on Soapy Smith and his men in 1898. University of Washington Libraries.

Next day, after a late breakfast, we commence our rest by a walk with our fiend from Portland, who by the way is a traveling salesman, and a good talker. Skagway is but three years old, has a population of 3000 or 3500, and is quite respectable at the present time: a year ago however, it was run by a gang off thieves and cut-throats, but the citizens headed by a Mr. Reid, organized and drove the gang out of town after killing the leaders. Mr. Reid was shot, and lost his life in the scrimmage, and there is now a large monument erected in his honor.

Reid’s Grave/Monument can still be seen in Skagway today. Alaska State Library.

Back of the burial ground is a beautiful cascade, now called Reid’s Falls. We climbed up this delightfully cool canyon one warm afternoon a few days alter, and had a small picnic with the waterfall close by our side.

Skagway boasts of a stone college costing about $10,000.00 nearly completed, and 3 or 4 churches. Our missionary owns a small cottage, all furnished, one the college grounds, and we have rented it for a month. Here we can sit under our shade trees and listen to him preach in the college building, every Sunday, or can wash our fish in the stream which runs through the dooryard. We have some very nice times fishing from the end of one of the wharves. We go down every day when the wind does not blow, and prove our reputation by bringing as many fish as we can conveniently carry.

Mccabe College
McCabe College was the first institution of higher learning in the state. Alaska State Library.

Mackerel of two pounds each, flounders of half that size, are our standbys, though we often get codfish from three to six pounds, and occasionally, salmon trout. Eels are more than plentiful. Fishing one or two hours a day, we supplied three families, beside our own, and the missionary, with more fish than could be eaten. In my youthful days I was called “Jonah”, but the name has been changed to “Mascot”. We have strong lines with three or four hooks on each line, and after baiting with a nice toothsome piece of fresh fish throw the line out as far as possible, and then slowly pull it in until we get the signal, then a quick jerk, and some good strong pulling. Often, two or three fish come in at one haul. The flounders are the most gamey for their size. I would like to make a couple of remarks while on this subject.

Hopefully Frank’s fish were bigger than this… “Man and Two Children on Beach with Fishing Pole, 1909,” University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives.

The great secret of successful fishing is, first, to have sharp hooks of the proper size: second, to bait them with nice delicious morsels that are sure to tempt the fish: third, the last and most important thing of all is to throw your line where the fish are so thick you can’t miss catching one or two every time you pull out. If people would follow these instructions there would be no need to tell large doubtful fishy stores when they return from a day’s outing. They could instead hold up their catch, and let it talk for itself, as we did. The wharf is about twenty feet above the water, a long distance so successfully lift a large fish.

But to change the subject, Skagway is surrounded by snow-capped hills ranging from 4000 to 8000 feet high, and is built on the sand washings of the Skagway River which flows down from White pass. There is now a railroad built through this Pass, and it extends to White Horse 111 miles, connecting there with steamboats for Dawson City, $100.00, one way. The transportation companies are making enormous profits, but let them make it. If the Railroad had been in operation two years ago, how many poor fellows toiling through on foot, and frozen to death, would still be living.

We joined an excursion part at $5.00 each for a trip of Twenty miles up to the Summit and back, on this Railroad. The scenery was grand, and we crossed over the border line into British territory. We did not notice any difference in the atmosphere: it seemed to be the same both sides of the line and exceedingly crisp for July weather. A party of Englishmen came along, and came near being left up there, they were so reluctant to leave, shedding a few departing tears to moisten her Majesty’s Domain they hurridly board the train,- just in time,- as it starts down the grade for home, that is, our home, not theirs. The track is a narrow gauge, and all the cars, engines, etc., are built in Skagway. I learned from some of the Skagway merchants that they are hardly paying expenses now, as the Dawson dealers go down and buy direct from Seattle, where formerly they brought from the Skagway merchants. Dawson itself is rather overdone, and has seen its best days for making quick money. All claims of value are taken up, and there is no chance for any one except he has a mint of money to start a large mill, or is satisfied to work in the mines as a laborer.

As high as $6.00 or $8.00 a day is paid to miners, but it mostly goes out in board and other expenses.

There are lots of young men who have broken down in health, and grown prematurely old in their mad rush for wealth. Only a few are successful and the majority fail. In the same way has the Nome gold field been too highly colored. There were 50,000 men went to Nome last spring and summer, and our Government had to send out vessels to bring back many that were stranded there and without money, or food.

A Million in Gold_Nome.JPG
News of Gold in Nome spread quickly after its discovery in 1899. Guthrie Daily Leader, August 9, 1909.

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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