Ice is Nice if You’re an Alaskan Tourist

Aboard a luxurious steamship called the “Queen,” Frank and Nell are now traveling their way home to Los Angeles. The Queen was a well-known steamship in those parts of Alaska, it was one of the very first to bring stampeders to Skagway in 1897 and had been regularly ferrying travelers and supplies between Skagway and Seattle ever since. Their ship isn’t going directly to Seattle, though, and they are fortunate to pass the famous Muir Glacier. Today, ships can’t sail close to this massive glacier anymore since it has receded more than 31 miles since the 1890s and no longer has a tidewater terminus. But back then it was a favorite tourist destination for those traveling by boat. Frank, always thinking of business, sounds sad that ice companies couldn’t harvest the glaciers and sell their ice back East. Any surprise the glaciers are so much smaller today?

The “Queen” is 340 feet long and carries 250 first class passengers, a much larger and more comfortable vessel than the Cottage City. The state rooms are large and roomy, and the cuisine is elegant,- four meals a day, and fruit any time you want it.

Steamers Topeka and Queen.jpg

Steamers Topeka & Queen at Muir Glacier, Alaska, c. 1895, Alaska State Library.

Shortly after breakfast on the first morning out, our steamer enters Icy strait, and slows down to half speed for safety. We see ahead, what seems to be a bank of ice, but as we approach it, find that it is composed of floating bergs, and there is a passage for us to enter. After awhile the floes get thicker, and the engines are allowed down to the point that we can scarcely see any motion of the vessel, yet move we do, and for hours literally have to push our way through the ice cakes and bergs which fill the Icy strait and Glacier Bay.

Slowly we push on toward the world famous Muir Glacier where all this floating ice comes from. Usually this bay is comparatively free from bergs, and the steamers can go within a few hundred feet of the Glacier, but there have been some heavy earthquakes lately which caused these vast pieces of ice to break off and float down the bay, some of them as far as Juneau, not long after the shake up.

Muir Glacier.jpg

Muir Glacier, at the head of Glacier Bay, c. 1900, Library of Congress.

Numbers of these floating masses of ice are acres in extent, and stick up out of the water 50 to 100 feet. Some are black and covered with soil in places, while others are clear and transparent, and still again we see blue and green ice, while some have three or four tints closely adjoining each other. Continue reading


The Tragedy of Dimmock Hollow: Disaster Strikes at a Crazy 1888 Campaign Rally

On the morning of August 28, 1888 residents of the Dimmock Hollow area woke up knowing that it was going to be a memorable day. They couldn’t have known how right they were.

A political rally had been planned by some local Republicans to support Benjamin Harrison in his presidential campaign against Grover Cleveland. Republicans knew that the race would be close, nowhere more so than here in Cleveland’s home state of New York.

The rally was planned after Democrats raised a liberty pole near the schoolhouse in Dimmock Hollow, a tiny crossroads close to the Ostego-Chenango County border between South New Berlin and Morris. Republicans were determined not to let their rivals have all the fun.

NY State Map

Map of New York State, circa 1876. Dimmock Hollow is in the red circle. Image credit: New York Public Library.

Liberty poles raisings  were important events for local communities; enthusiastic demonstrations of patriotism and unity for like minded neighbors. The very first liberty poles in the United States had been raised during the American Revolution as an act of defiance against the British. Later generations of Americans claimed the symbol for their political parties, making liberty poles a central part of their rallies.


“Raising the Liberty Pole 1776,” Frederick Chapman, c. 1875. Image source: Library of Congress.

As was the custom of the time, Republicans from Dimmock Hollow and other neighboring towns decided to raise their own, taller, liberty pole nearby (theirs was 124 feet tall). It was also custom for pole raisings (sometimes called “jollifications”) to include a full day’s worth of revelry and celebration. It was a time when carousers could give raucous speeches, share a keg of hard cider, and make a lot of noise.

The Republicans planned, as one attendee later remembered, an “elaborate program” for the day. That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.

A picnic and grand campaign speeches for supporters and curious onlookers alike were planned to accompany the pole raising. But here is where it gets interesting:  some of the more “athletic” Republicans thought the day would be more memorable if they fired a cannon during the proceedings.

The hauled an ancient cannon to Dimmock Hollow, said to have been a relic of the Mexican War. It brought by Addison Hill, the son of a local army veteran. Hill stuck around to oversee the loading and firing of the gun, but the actual work was left to some fearless young men. Suffice to say they had no experience with artillery of any kind.

Powder and dry sand were mixed together in equal parts and loaded into the old cannon. The crowd, eager to hear the cannon’s roar, gathered around the gun. After the first discharge, one of the axles shattered from the force of the explosion. Undaunted, the men repaired it and the cannon was reloaded. “The old cannon had a vicious recoil and it didn’t take many shots for the brute to kick itself loose from its carriage,” one witness recalled. Unfazed by the shattered carriage and dire warnings from a Civil War veteran in the crowd, Hill and his assistants balanced the muzzle of the cannon on a log and prepared to fire another Republican salute at noon before lunch. Afterwards they would all return and finally raise their liberty pole.

Vera Cruz

The cannon probably looked like these ones used at the 1846 Battle of Vera Cruz. Currier & Ives, 1847. Image credit: Library of Congress.

As the band began to lead the way to the picnic ground, an extra heavy charge of powder was loaded. Crammed in with paper wadding and tamped down with sand, the charge was packed into the barrel and the fuse lit. It only took a few seconds more for the festivities turn into a horrifying disaster.

An old iron gun.
Of course it was gonna blow.
And then three were dead.

Several jagged pieces of the cannon were hurled into the crowd of onlookers and claimed the lives of John Dixon, Fred Sage, and his cousin Albert Sargent. They were struck in the head and all died instantly. “The spectators stood as though paralyzed for a moment,” one reporter wrote, “and then the entire throng surged toward the three victims of the explosion.” All three men were local, and had been standing in the nearby crowd with their families. They were all 26 or younger.

Onlookers tried in vain to aid their friends. One jumped on a horse and hurried to find a physician. When he arrived at the doctor’s office, he discovered that his “trousers  from the knee to the bottom were bespattered with brains.” But he was too late. They were all one cannonade too late.

No one ever figured out why the cannon exploded that day. Some thought the men loaded the cannon with too much powder. Others thought that it was simply too old and shouldn’t have been fired in the first place. Addison Hill was never able to give a satisfactory explanation.

Oddly enough, none of the men firing the cannon were killed or even harmed, though one man did loose part of his hat and several pieces of the barrel crashed through the wall of the nearby cheese factory several yards from the explosion.

Distraught, the men in charge postponed the liberty pole raising and abandoned the picnic lunch and other activities of the day. The next day local papers reported that “the pole still lies prostrate and it is probably that no further attempt will be made to raise it.

How could this have happened? Were presidential politics really this intense and eventful in 19th century American towns? Yes. Yes they definitely were. Though this particular rally at Dimmock Hollow’s ended on a tragic note, the day’s activities were far from uncommon.

A lot of effort and excitement went into 19th century political rallies like this one. For the citizens of Dimmock Hollow, a presidential election was the perfect opportunity to support your candidate and have a good time…at the same time. There were more connections between small town American life, politics, and entertainment back then than you might expect. Continue reading

Nome Gold Rush: Economics over Adventure


Gold Seekers Breaking Camp, near Dyea, 1898. Alaska State Library.

Many of us may have romantic visions of the gold rush- exciting adventure and striking it rich in the scenic beauty of Alaska. Reality wasn’t even close. It was extremely expensive and difficult to travel that far north. Most of the gold that could be mined by individuals or small groups of miners was all claimed quickly leaving many prospectors with nothing to show for their efforts except for a few stories. Of the 100,000 stampeders, about 30,000 made it to the Klondike and only 4,000 found gold. By the time Frank and Nell meet a few of these guys in Skagway, the only gold left was buried deep in the wilderness and required a (well financed) heavy mining operation to reach. From what Frank writes, it seems like those who didn’t make a fortune were disappointed but looking back didn’t have any regrets. I was surprised they weren’t angrier, I would have been! For a fun (though not 100% accurate) depiction of the Nome gold rush, I recommend the TV movie “Goldrush: A Real Life Alaskan Adventure” (1998)

After writing a little but more about Skagway and the towns nearby, Frank and Nell turn around and begin to head home, three and a half months after their vacation began, on a steamer bound for southern waters.

Camp Nome is 1400 miles from Dawson City by the Yukon  river, and 2700 miles from Seattle. I met and conversed with a man returned from Nome who tole me that in 1899, -$3,000,000.00 was the entire output of gold for for this district. He says the beach gold is fine, and is found in a strip 100 to 150 yards widebeach gold is fine, and is found in a strip 100 to 150 yards wide and running parallel with the shore for 8 or 10 miles. All of this is staked. Back of this strip and extending to the foothills, is the “tundra” some three miles wide. This “tundra” is a black pear land covered with moss and grass. Gold is found eight or ten feet below the surface: also in many of the gulches and river beds of the back district. All of this gold is placer gold washed down from the quartz veins and ledges of the mountains in the back country. Very little of the mountainous region of Alaska has been prospected as yet, and no doubt there are many rich pay streaks to be found, some time in the future.


New gold camp, Nome, 1900. Alaska State Library.

I asked this man why he did not go into the mountains back of Nome and prospect. He said it was too cold up there for him, besides he was out of supplies and wanted to see some friends in California once more.

The water for drinking, also the climate of Nome district is very bad All known gold regions of Alaska in this district and vicinity are staked. There is a chance for a company with large capital and improved machinery to buy up some claims and make money.

But to return to Skagway and its mountains on the top of which are numerous lakes, and one large one, fed by melting glacier, supplies Skagway with an abundance of the purest water. The pressure is so great the water can be thrown farther than any fire engine can force it.

This is a good fire protection and Skagways needs one for the rainfall is light, and the winds blow very hard at times especially in the winter.

The winters are very long here and the mercury goes down some degrees below zero. Along in the last of December there are only two hours of daylight and the electric lights are on all day to use if one likes. Of course during the summer the reverse is the case, and from the top of one of the hills nearby the sun can be seen at midnight during the month of June. We were there during the months of July and August and the days were growing shorter. For some time we puzzled as to the proper hours for sleep. I was told by an egg dealer, that when his chickens first came up from the States, they laid two and three eggs a day, and when his cow was new in the country, she was deceived by the long hours of daylight and allowed herself to be milked four times a day, but this only lasted a month or two.


Photographed at midnight, arrival of Seattle No. 1 at Dawson City, N.W.T. 1898. Alaska State Library.

Hay is worth $35.00 a ton in Skagway, and sweet milk 15 cents a quart. Tomatoes, home grown are worth 25 cents a pound, and fruit generally is high.

About five miles from here is Dyea, at the entrance to Chilcoot Pass. This is a dead town as all the business now goes through Skagway on the White Pass R.R. Formerly Dyea had an elevated wire tramway over the Chilcoot Pass, but that was brought up by the W.P.R.R. which now has the monopoly of all the business to Dawson.


Across the Taiya River from the ghost town, Dyea, 1904. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives.

The Express rate is fourteen cents per pound, Skagway to Dawson. Freight on hay costs $85.00 per ton from Seattle in 500 ton lots. One thing more while we are in Skagway,- sleeping Moses, of the Face Mountain is what its name signifies. The outline of the face is perfect, and we have some photos of it. While staying in Skagway we have had some very pleasant times and made some pleasant acquaintances who seemed to think we ought to stay a month or so longer, but we bade them all good bye, and late in the afternoon of Monday August 13th, take passage on the “Queen” for Seattle, by way of the Muir Glacier and Sitka.


I wonder how much this field of hay near Pedro was worth? c. 1896-1913. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives.

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.


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.

How Do You Pronounce Glacier? And Other Alaska Fun Facts

Frank and Nell are steaming up to Juneau. Almost there! During this part of their five month journey it seems like they have an experience worth writing about to their New York cousins every other minute! I definitely am getting a sense that Frank is taking more notes here than he was during the legs in California and Oregon. In this part their fellow passengers get in an amusing argument over how to pronounce “glacier” right. I didn’t realize there even were different ways! This section finishes out with detailed descriptions of hunting, different Alaskan wildlife, and geology/mining in the Treadwell Mines area. Frank has said that Alaska is a great county, and it looks like the natural resources are what impress him the most. He half-joking says he wants to invest in Alaska fish canning and mining operations, I wonder if he would have ever actually considered it if the opportunity was right?

Passing between islands many thousands feet high, with here and there a narrow rivulet trickling down from above, or a large cataract of water falling from such a distance that ’tis lost in a mist before it reaches the bottom, we listen to an argument between an Englishman and a Chicago girl, as to the proper way to pronounce the word “glacier”.

Heretofore this couple have been on the best of terms, but now they are waxing warm, and presently they separate and are not seen together for an hour or more,- when the ice seems to have melted, and the bets are even, as to whether we can make a match of it. After this some of the passengers have the audacity to speak of them as “Mr. & Mrs. Glacier.”

But speaking of these islands, we could see with our field glasses, on several occasions, what appears to be deer, (or elephants, as a little girl called them) standing near the water’s edge, or sometime in the open. Once I saw a deer swimming across from one island to another, not more than 100 feet from our steamer.


Deer captured by S.S. Dolphin, c. 1896-1913. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Below the snow line, nearly all of these mountains are covered with forests, and we are told that all through the 20,000 islands of Alaska, bear, deer, and all kinds of game are abundant, and that it is veritably a sportsman’s paradise. Continue reading

Tales of Gold and Tlingit Totempoles

The Felters have finally made it to Alaska! After many months of travel, Frank and Nell pass Dixon Entrance, the maritime boundary between the U.S. and Canada. In 1903, a treaty between the two countries made the northern line of this strait the official border. While they’re still on their steamer, the couple hear stories about Frank Dinsmore, a famous prospector who made a fortune in gold up around Bonanza Creek in 1896. Dinsmore’s success was described by Jack London and other travel writers and no doubt encouraged others to come north looking for gold. 

They stop briefly in the small town of Ft. Wrangell, where they admire Tlingit locals and their totem poles. I found it interesting that Frank decides not to describe the Native Americans he observes in Alaska in nearly as much detail as the Chinese immigrants he sees in California. “We did not have time to read any of these family histories, and besides we never believed in prying into other people’s affairs.” If they had asked, they would have learned that they had visited the grave of Chief Shakes (Kaawishté), a local leader who lived in Wrangell between 1840 and 1878. Shakes’ heirs still live in the area today. To learn more about Wrangell, visit their historical society!

After our missionary friend has subsided we listen to a young man who has made his pile, and has just deposited it in a Seattle Bank. Among other things he told of a certain Frank Dinsmore who took out $240000.00 of free gold in a single day at Bonanza Creek. He also spoke of several who came to Alaska with a few thousands in cash and dropped it all in worthless claims, returning home sick and tired of the Golden North. Before the British Government levied 10% royalty on all gold taken out of their territory in the Klondyke region the miners were inclined to boast of their big findings, but now, they keep their mouths shut and only pay royalty when they have to.


Working No. 4 Bonanza, Klondike, sterograph, circa 1900. University of Alaska Anchorage.

In the year 1898 a royalty of $1,200,000.00 was paid to the British Government, and in 1899 over double that amount.

Just before our steamer cuts the Alaskan waters, we have a few ocean swells while passing Dixon’s Entrance, and here we are treated to a sign of 10 or 15 whales swimming among the surface of water, gathering in great mouthfuls of small fish and spouting out the water through the blow holes in the top of their heads. We have noticed a few whales previously, but never so many at one time, as on this occasion.

Killer Whale.jpg

Tlingit Killer Whale Figure, 1962. National Museum of the American Indian.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

“Wild Sublimity and Weird Grandeur:” A Ride Up the Columbia River

Frank and Nell are finally finishing up the Continental US portion of their vacation. In this section, they travel up the Columbia River to Portland, noting the many natural wonders that can be seen along the way. Frank compares the Columbia to the Hudson River, but dares to say that the East Coast river barely compares. I wonder if Frank’s New York cousins thought he was bragging a bit too much in his letter? The Felters mention several other noteworthy items here: the impressive Oregon lumber and produce industries in action, the mighty Cascade Locks, and a funny story about a stubborn pony that just won’t get on their boat. At the turn of the century, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest were still lush and contained many natural resources that would have stood out compared to areas in the East that had been clear cut long ago. We end with the Felters boarding the steamer “Cottage City” finally headed for Alaska!

Now we are passing Multnomah Falls. The stream as it leaves the mountain top above, is Thirty feet wide, yet it seems but a foot or two across, so high is it: the fall being 860 feet perpendicularly.

A little later we are abreast of Cape Horn, which is seemingly a mass of rock and metal fused at some time ages ago, and at a later period the bottom gave way and a portion went down, leaving an almost perpendicular cliff 2500 feet high.

There are numerous points in the upper Columbia that resemble the Hudson River scenery: but in the Columbia’s ocean of waters, its score of cataracts, its rugged crags and towering precipices, its snow capped peaks, its beautiful colorings and changing shadows, its majestic heights and awful depths, and in its wild sublimity and weird grandeur,- the Hudson cannot, -nor can any other river compare favorably with the Columbia.

The Cascade Locks some 40 or 50 miles East of Portland, were built by the U.S. Government at a cost of Twenty Millions, and now the steamers pass through these locks, where formerly a railroad had to be used to transfer passengers and goods around these dangerous rocks to the steamers on the other side.

Cascade Locks

Cascade Locks and Mt. Adams, 1920. Library of Congress.

So rapid is the current here, that to make a few hundred feet progress diagonally across and up the river, requires an hour or two of time when the river is high and to go directly up the stream, through the rapids would be impossible.

It is along here that this mighty river has found its way through and across the Cascade range of Mountains. At this point the average yearly rainfall is Eighty (80) inches, while a mile or so further East it is only Eighteen (18) inches, or less than one-fourth the amount.

We reach our destination The Dalles about eight o’clock in the evening, two hours late from the fact that our boat was stopped 121 times, more or less, to take on or put off freight and passengers, during the trip. Once we saw a man on the bank waving his arms wildly about, and the Captain therefore ran the boat over against the sandy shore, and a gang plank was run out. The man ashore tried to lead a horse up the plank, but the horse didn’t want to come abroad. Then two men pulled while two men pushed: but all to no purpose, the little animal jumped off the side of the plank and swam ashore. This occurred several times, and the Captain, very much disgusted, rang the bell to go ahread, and we left out friend and his obstinate little cayuse on the shore. The man was very much crestfallen, but the cayuse shook himself and winked at us, and seemed very happy to still be on dry land. We lost about 20 minutes by this episode, but were well repaid by the diversion it gave us. Continue reading

Vacationing Among Oregon’s Salmon Canneries

After they’re done visiting the horse canning factory, Frank and Nell explore a salmon canning facility. Apparently they were really interested in the industrial food processing in the Pacific Northwest! In this section Frank goes into detail about the procedure of cutting, canning, and boiling salmon that his New York cousins probably bought and ate. In the late 19th century, Oregon canneries employed thousands of Chinese workers, who worked long and dangerous hours for little pay or respect. Frank does seem to be a little impressed with their efficiency and hard work though. After this, they return to admiring the sights in northern Oregon- they’re most impressed with the Columbia River. The Felters are almost done with the continental U.S., they’ll be in Alaska soon!

Scandanavian Salmon

Columbia River Salmon label (canned in Astoria, Oregon), 1885. Oregon Blue Book.

Passing on by the Horse Cannery, we see between here and Astoria a great many Salmon Canneries, and Salmon wheels, which latter, huge affairs cost come $4000.00 each. The wheels revolve in the water by action of the current and as they turn around lift up and empty into a trough or chute any and all salmon foolish enough to try to pass up stream at this point. The Salmon are also caught in the sein or net, and millions of dollars are invested in this industry of the Columbia. This season is an unprofitable one for the canneries.

Columbia River Salmon

Seining on the Upper Columbia, c. 1906. Library of Congress.

The price demanded for the chinooks 7-1/2 to 10 cents per pound of gross weight, as compared with 4 cents per pound paid by the Canneries last year. We spend a couple of hours in one of these Canneries at Astoria, and was surprised at the cleanliness shown in the process. A large Cannery may employ as many as One Thousand chinamen.

The fish are weighed in huge boxes and then emptied where a man is stationed, who cuts off the head, rips open and tears out the offal, passes the fish along to the next chinaman and commences on another fish, the whole operation taking less than five seconds. Just as rapidly does the next man do his part and pass along to the third who does likewise, until eventually the salmon are canned, nicely wrapped and put in cases ready to ship. A few points were impressed on my mind, so much that I will repeat them.

Chinese Workers in Oregon Cannery.jpg

Chinese Workers in Astoria Cannery, circa 1900. Oregon Historical Society.

First, the fish are thoroughly washed but are never scaled. Second, the cans are soldered by machinery. Third, the fish are not cooked until after being sealed up. Iron trays on wheels holding from 500 to 1000 cans are shoved into a boiler where they are kept two or three hours, in steam sufficiently hot to cook the fish. Fourth, the flat cans are filled with the choicest parts of the fish, and the tall cans are mostly filled with the scraps and small pieces. Fifth, you probably knew all this before, so I will put the subject aside.

Celilo Salmon

Celilo Salmon label, 1890. Oregon Blue Book.

At Astoria, Ten miles above its mouth, the Columbia river is nine (9) miles wide and some distance further ’tis (17) seventeen miles across.

A few days following our trip to Astoria, we started out to travel the upper Columbia as far as the steamers navigate, about 100 miles East of Portland. At 7-45 on this morning, we find ourselves opposite the town of Vancouver, and now we have the beautiful view of Mount Hood, to the right of us, 11,000 feet high: and on our left are Mount Rainier 14,448,- Mount St. Helens 9700: and Mount Adams 12400 feet high, each and all being covered with snow at their summit.

Below its junction with the Williamette, the Columbia is bordered mostly with low lands covered with trees and grasses, while some distance above the junction it is entirely different in character, and the trip is rightly said to be one of surprises, each bend of the river showing up new and wonderful formations.

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.


The Dalles and Mt. Hood from the North Side of the Columbia River, 1912. Library of Congress.

Roast Horse- It’s What’s for Dinner

Frank and Nell have arrived in Portland. Though the path north to Alaska may look straightforward on a map, there are many bumps and surprising turns along the way. In this portion of his letter, Frank describes the terrible condition of Portland streets (you might even call the town Pothole Land…does that count as a pun?) The traveling pair also encounter an unscrupulous travel agent who tries to pass them a plugged quarter, and (my personal favorite) are slightly horrified by a visit to a canning factory that slaughters and processes “Roast Horse.” Turns out this was probably the Western Packing Company’s horse canning factory– the first plant of its kind in the world. Though unsavory it turns out Americans have a long history of dining on our steeds. Yikes! And speaking of unsavory- like his earlier observations on Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, Frank also takes the time to describe American Indians in the area as savage and child-like. Many other Americans writing in the early 20th century had the same superior attitudes in their writings.

Were it not for the fact that the bus is crowded we would be thrown from our seats every two minutes. The pavement has once been asphalt but now is full of holes. Portland is without exception the worst paved city I ever saw. If necessary to repair a sewer or water pipe, the asphalt is cut through, in the usual manner, and when repairs have been completed the excavation is filled with loose dirt which soon settles and leaves a deep hole. No attempt is made to repair this, or to fill it up again, and it is left to add one more bump to the thousands which already make life a misery to the Portland worse, and to those individuals who have the temerity to ride through these streets. I have spoken of this, first because it was the first impression made upon us as we were driven at a rapid pace regardless of bumps, -to the hotel, where we got out and were shown our rooms for the night.

Having cleaned off the dust of travel and partaken of a good dinner we walked around a little and then retired. The morrow finds us up early, for some car rides, which, when taken, demonstrate the fact that the upper and the residential parts of Portland are very beautiful.

Imperial Hotel_Portland

Imperial Hotel, Portland, Oregon, circa 1906. Oregon Historical Society.

So we set out to locate ourselves more pleasantly, and further up the hill among the trees, We succeed so well in this that we spend over five weeks in this city of wonderfully green trees, grass and shrubs, and flowers, all seeming to grow so luxuriantly, because they wanted to, and could not help it. June is the best month of the year to see Portland, -having so little rain and such abundance of flowers at that time. The winters here are extremely wet and rainy, as they are also in Tacoma and Seattle, farther North. Some people seem to have the impression that the North Western part of the United States must be extremely cold in winter, because of its high latitude. This is only true of that part of the Northwest that lies in winter, because of its high latitude. This is only true of that part of the Northwest that lies East of the Cascade range of mountains, while in all that part of Washington and Oregon which lies West of these mountains, and continuing nearly half of these States, the climate is mild the year round, having cool summers and warm winters. The lowest average which the thermometer has recorded here for many winters is 10 degrees above Zero, as compared with 15 and 20 below Zero for the same latitude on the Atlantic Coast.

Wilamette River_portland

Willamette River, Portland, Oregon, 1901. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Portland is situated on the Willamette River a few miles south of its junction with the Columbia. It has a population of perhaps 80,000 and is cut in two by the Willamette, which is perhaps three-fourths of a mile wide at this point, and is crossed by four or five draw-bridges. We are extremely anxious for a steamboat ride on the river, and after a few inquiries learn that the Railroad and Steamship lines are cutting rates, and one can go by rail or water to Astoria, which is about 100 miles down the Columbia river for 25 cents (about one sixth the former price). Surely this would seem cheap enough, four miles for one cent, but when we went down to the wharf at Six o’clock one morning, prepared for the trip, we heard some one inquire of the agent (without a smile and in apparent earnestness) if the twenty-five cent ticket was for the round trip, and did it include a berth and meals? I won’t mention the name of the gentleman in question, but the agent looked at him a moment, turned white, and nearly fainted. So great was the shock that he forgot to give me in change the plugged quarter he had been holding in his hand while waiting for an easy victim to pass it on. At last the boat was off.

We go through the immense draw-bridges and soon cut the water at a rapid pace. These river steamers are all stern wheelers, and some are very speedy. A few miles on our journey and we are told to look to the left at the horses grazing. There seem to be 5000 or 10,000 of them, and the building close by is a cannery where these animals are put into tin cans and sold as “Roast Horse.” The greater amount of the product is shipped to Europe, but some is sold and consumed in the United States. A tenderloin of Horse is said to equal the best cut in a beef. These horses are most of them wild or unbroken, and are periodically driven into the railroad towns in vast herds by the Indians, who catch them wild, and sometimes raise them extensively. Their prices run from $1.00 to $3.00 for the “cayuse,” as they call these horses. The buyers, after picking out the best which sometimes bring them $15.00 or $20.00 each, ship the balance to the cannery by the train load, averaging $3.00 or more delivered.


Blood Indian and Cayuse, Southern Alberta 1882. National Museum of the American Indian.

The Indians usually spend most of their money before leaving town all seeming to have a weakness for fire-water and bright colors.

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.