Alaska's Enduring Sternwheelers

By Wubbold, Martin P. | Sea Classics, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Alaska's Enduring Sternwheelers


Wubbold, Martin P., Sea Classics


Colorful links to its flamboyant Gold Rush Era, small sternwheeled packets still ply Alaska's rivers

Gold. The very mention of the word has put a glazed look in men's eyes and caused events that have changed continents. It has given rise to some empires and the destruction of others. While it is not my intent to discuss gold's influence on world history, it is an astounding tale. In this country, the lure of gold played a great part in the westward expansion of the population and was one reason for the creation of permanent settlements in many of our western States. Such was the case in Alaska.

Prior to the discovery of gold in the northland, the fur trade led to the earliest European exploration of Alaska. The Russians arrived in the mid-170Os and staked claim to what they called Russian America. They quickly exploited the vast number of sea otters that thrived in the seas along the Aleutian Islands and southern coast. In the mid-180Os, for a number of reasons, the Russians decided to sell their possessions in North America and in 1867 Alaska was sold to the United States for $7.2-million. There followed years of discussion and derision over a massive chunk of real estate that no one knew for certain contained much of value, or to what degree. It would take a decade and a half before the American public knew for sure.

The ensuing years saw fortunes made in Alaska. Yankee whaling ships plied their trade off its shores in pursuit of oil and whale bone, traveling into arctic waters during the short summer months, many succumbing to shifting sea ice and early freeze up, and leaving a legacy of disease and distress among the native people they encountered. As the number of sea otters declined attention focused on the fur seal offshore, with fox and beaver contributing to a flourishing trade. Sitka, the Russian capital, remained the predominant town with a few scattered settlements connected by sea lanes being the norm. There were thousands of square miles of unexplored territory in the interior and apart from the trappers and those operating the remote trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company, few whites ventured away from the coast. There were no roads and transportation was limited to the rivers and rudimentary trails, there being no incentive to develop an extensive system of transport. The Alaskan Commercial Company's assets in 1868, did operate a steamboat on the lower Yukon, but there were few others. all that changed when vast gold fields were discovered in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.

The first major strike in Alaska occurred in the juneau area during 1881 and, at a growing pace, the public in the United States would come to think of Alaska as a place where there was money, a lot of money, to be made. Following rich finds along the Forty Mile River and Birch Creek in the interior, people of otherwise normal sanity started to move into the northern wilderness. Interior trading posts such as Circle, on the Yukon, became towns that catered more and more to miners and prospectors, as gold started to preempt furs as the primary source of revenue.

It was the discovery of a great gold field in the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon Territory, in 1896, that really set the stage for the massive rush of people into the northern wilderness. The area was so remote that it took a year for word of the strike to reach the outside world, but when it did, tens of thousands of people, "cheechakos" headed north, drawn by gold and rumors of gold, like lemmings to the sea.

Within a few short months following the arrival of news of the bonanza to be found on the upper Yukon, supplying the rush to the Klondike became a major industry. At first, people left the comfort of family and home with next to nothing in the way of knowledge as to what it would take to survive in the far north, let alone live and work there. The situation became so critical that the Canadian government finally mandated that each person headed to the gold fields take enough supplies to last one year, roughly 2000-lbs of goods valued at about $500 in Seattle. …

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