Project Canterbury

The Alaskan Missions of the Episcopal Church
A brief sketch, historical and descriptive

by Hudson Stuck, D.D.
Archdeacon of the Yukon

New York: Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, 1920.

Chapter V. Expansion and Contraction

AFTER attendance upon the General Convention of 1901, followed by a speaking tour throughout the United States, the Bishop brought back with him in the summer of 1902 a notable company of recruits, both men and women. The Rev. Thomas Jenkins, taking up residence at Ketchikan, began a vigorous work upon the southeastern coast which will long be remembered. The Rev. F. C. Taylor, with headquarters at Valdez, carried his ministrations around the shores of Prince William's Sound and across into the Copper River country and firmly established what Mr. Prevost had founded. The Rev. C. A. Roth went to Juneau, now steadily rising in importance and presently to become the capital of the territory, and included the quartz miners of Douglas Island in his charge. The Rev. John Huhn went to Rampart to relieve Mr. Knapp and the Rev. C. H. Rice to Circle City.

These men illustrate the breadth, and in a proper sense the indifference, of the Bishop's policy as regards Churchmanship: Roth was from the General Seminary, Rice from Nashotah, Huhn from the Virginia Seminary. Already the Seabury Divinity School and the Philadelphia Seminary were represented. The Alaska mission has never been committed to a school in the Church; perhaps there never was an episcopal jurisdiction where earnest men were less interfered with. Indeed in the face of great and crying need, in the utter absence of all religion, the differences not merely between Churchmen but between Christians tend to sink into insignificance, and even extremists recede from their extremes. The Presbyterian Dr. Sheldon Jackson, after long voyaging amidst villages of heathen Eskimo, met a Jesuit priest at St. Michael and "was constrained to hail him as a brother." Many a missionary of the Episcopal Church has had deep joy over the discovery of a devout Methodist or Baptist; has been received with open arms by some loyal Roman Catholic, long disused to any sound of Christian worship. "Sometimes I'm afraid I'm the only person that's praying to God on this creek," said one such; "it's good to see anyone who believes in Jesus Christ and prays to Him." I have known of Roman Catholic priests, who, under such circumstances, while they could not explicitly permit, yet refrained from forbidding, attendance upon other worship than their own.

The work of God in the wilderness tends to soften the asperities of our unhappy divisions.

It is not always so; narrowness and exclusive-ness are in some people proof against all expansive influence, but on the whole it is markedly so, and it may safely be said that no missionary ever spent a term of years in Alaska--or any similar field--without learning greater respect and tolerance for those of other opinions and training. It was a Roman Catholic mine operator who repeated to me with a twinkle in his eye Sir Horace Plunkett's appeal to the Irishmen: "Since we are certain that those who differ from us in religious belief will be properly punished for it in the hereafter, why be so bitter now?"

The new women workers were not less notable. Already, a year before, Miss Annie Cragg Farthing had gone to Anvik, and had narrowly preserved from a fire, which destroyed the girls' dormitory in the depth of winter, a life which was to be heroically laid down elsewhere in the jurisdiction ten years later. With the Bishop came Deaconess Clara M. Carter, a stimulating name to all acquainted with the Alaskan mission, occurring henceforth again and again in its story, and each time with fresh stimulation; Miss Lizzie J. Woods, inseparably connected with the trying times of the diphtheria epidemic on the upper Yukon; Mrs. Evans, for so many years the devoted foster-mother of Indian children at Anvik; Miss Harriet Mason, who lavished her strength and her means at Tanana--all these trained, graduate nurses; and Miss Florence G. Langdon, the capable and useful manager at four or five different stations in the years to come. It was an accession of workers who stayed, and there followed a work that grew and spread.

Arthur Yates Memorial Hospital

Ketchikan on the Tongas Narrows was becoming a centre for outlying quartz mining, and was beginning the shipment of halibut in ice to Seattle for distribution throughout the United States that has now reached such considerable importance. The place was growing steadily and the need of an hospital was oress-ingly felt. Giving up the mission residence for this purpose, Mr. Jenkins moved his family into a rented cabin and the work of caring for the sick, that in so many places fell into our hands because there were no others, began with Miss Isabel Emberley in charge. Two years later the Arthur Yates Memorial Hospital was built.

A gasoline launch provided by Mr. A. A. Low of New York enabled this missionary to visit settlements both white and native on the many waterways of this picturesque fjord region--on Prince of Wales Island, Carter Bay, Thorne Arm, the Annette Islands. The native school, with which the name of Miss Edmond and her revival of native basketry will always be associated, enlarged and developed its work among the Haidahs. Two different congregations used the church, Indian and white, and the accommodation had long been insufficient. So Mr. Jenkins undertook the building of a new place of worship, and, in part under his own hands, an attractive and churchly building arose, costing some $3,000, dedicated to St. John.

Seward and Cordova

On the shores of Prince William's Sound there was a similar growth, together with the starting of quite new work. An ambitious railway project to connect the interior with tidewater was started at the extremity of the Kenai peninsula, and the town of Seward sprung up on Resurrection Bay in 1903. Besides the interest of the stern and sombre majesty of this arm of the sea, hemmed in by peaks of glacier-bearing mountains, the waves of its gorge-like mouth dashing themselves against immense lowering granite precipices so that I know not where in the world may be found more impressive, I will not say more forbidding, scene, this bay has early and keen interest in the history of the country. Into this bay in 1792 came Baranoff, governor of Russian America, on a Sunday (hence the name) and selected it for the site of a shipyard, and here, with the aid of English carpenters from trading vessels, he built the first vessels other than native canoes ever launched into Alaskan waters, the Feme (Phoenix), followed by the Dolphin and the Olga. A few years later the Feme, with the newly-consecrated Bishop Joasaph, a company of priests and monks and many other passengers, was lost with all hands, depriving the Russian settlements at a blow of nearly all their clergy. So soon as the new town was started Mr. Taylor went thither from Valdez and began holding services in a tent, passing back and forth the two hundred miles between the two places repeatedly. The people were attracted and interested and made contributions towards a church building soon begun, dedicated to St. Peter, the basement long serving all purposes of gathering while yet the superstructure delayed. Forty miles of railroad was built and the grading carried much further, but the project was not adequately backed and it was intermitted for years. The feverish period of Seward settlement passed, the languor of hope deferred followed, and though there was a slow, steady development of local trade and enterprise, it was not until the United States government took over the railway project and designated Seward as its ocean terminus and resumed active construction that the town became fixed upon the map and of assured importance. The church is now handsomely finished and an attractive parsonage was built adjoining in 1917 by the Rev. George J. Zinn.

At Cordova, an old centre of the Russian church on Prince William's Sound, the building of a railroad to develop the copper industry led to the opening of a work among white people which is well known throughout the Church. In the summer of 1908 the Rev. E. P. Newton went out from New York to assist Bishop Rowe in southeastern Alaska. He succeeded Mr. Taylor at Valdez, and, reaching out from there as Mr. Taylor had done in the case of Seward, he visited Cordova and was struck by the need of a place where the numbers of young men from the States in the employ of the mining company and the railway might spend their leisure. Bishop Rowe had been early on the ground and had selected one of the best sites in the town, but in the uncertainty which accompanied all new mining developments in Alaska he hesitated about building a church. Mr. Newton solved the problem by putting up the Red Dragon Club House, which not only served as a place of worship on Sunday but was at all times a homelike refuge for those whose tastes did not lead them to the saloon or the gaming house. In the following year Mr. Newton was succeeded by the Rev. E. P. Ziegler, whose continuation of this work will be told in a later chapter.

But if Ketchikan, Juneau and Cordova were growing and the Prince William's Sound country developing and opening up, Skagway was steadily declining. Its fortunes had been the fortunes of the Klondike, and since the building of the railway it had become a transfer and shipping point for the goldfields of the interior--and not much else. Convenient church and parsonage had been built largely through the generosity of Mrs. J. Hull Browning of New York, and the Rev. J. G. Cameron maintained regular services and edited The Crossbearer. Deaconess Carter and Miss Langdon took vigorous charge of the "Bishop Rowe Hospital," but shortly thereafter the all-important influence of the place, the White Pass and Yukon Railway Company, decided to build its own hospital for its employés, according to a very general railroad policy, and when this was accomplished the need for the Church hospital became much less pressing.


In 1904 there was an interesting occurrence at Wrangell which brought about the establishment of a mission at that place. The minister and most of the congregation of another religious body having some long-standing quarrel with their national organization, made application to Bishop Rowe to be received into the Episcopal Church. After due enquiry, and with the advice and consent of his standing committee, the Bishop consented, confirmed and afterwards ordained the minister and confirmed a number of the people. So St. Philip's, Wrangell, sprang into being on our records and the Rev. H. P. Corser still maintains a charge which he has carried for nearly twenty years, having spent a year in study at the General Theological Seminary soon after his accession to the ranks of our clergy.

This old town, named for Baron Wrangell, one of the Russian governors, and in those days a place of much importance, is a mixed white and Indian station, near the mouth of the Stikine River, its activities being chiefly fishing and canning. The native village is adorned with many carved and painted totem poles, into the heraldic lore of which Mr. Corser has delved deeply and about which he has written an explanatory pamphlet much sought after by interested tourists. Mr. Corser has built a gymnasium and clubroom in connection with the church, chiefly used and much appreciated by the Indian youth, and he has the distinction of having organized the first Boy Scout troop in Alaska amongst them.

Beginnings at Fairbanks

The story now passes into the interior again and very soon connects itself with another great gold strike, the last of the really ereat discoveries. In the fall of 1903 Bishop Rowe had found himself in the interior, "freezing-in" at Tanana once more, helping in the completion of the church, and when the snow had come the winter saw the second of his long, arduous sled journeys from mission to mission up the Yukon. From Circle he made his way across country over two difficult mountain passes still traversed by that trail (since there is no way around them) to the new town and the newly-discovered diggings of Fairbanks on the Tanana River, some three hundred miles up that stream.

The gold discoveries in the north, and, one supposes, in any wilderness country, are made in sequences, one dependent on another. The Stewart River bars of the early eighties led to the Sixtymile and the Fortymile, and the Sixtymile and the Fortymile led to the Klondike. The Circle City camp, again, was a direct offshoot from the Fortymile, and the Fairbanks camp could not have come into existence without Circle. Each new camp brings a trader's store, and the new store becomes a base of supplies from which country beyond may be prospected. The prospector wanders widely, yet within limits. The length of his tether is the distance he can haul his flour and bacon.

So soon as the Fortymile store was established Arthur Harper remembered the story of Archdeacon McDonald scooping up gold with a spoon on "Preacher Creek" and sent men to find the spot. So soon as their discovery brought about the Circle City camp, men began to outfit for trips across country to the Tanana. There was another element in the placing of the town of Fairbanks, it is true--the adventure of a trader who, baulked of his purpose to reach the fur-and-Indian country about the uppermost part of the Tanana, and compelled to start business in the unpromising locality where the steamboat dumped him and his stock, upon learning of some minor gold fields in his neighbourhood sent messengers tc, Dawson heralding a great "strike". The production of the Klondike had already begun to decline heavily, the population of Dawson was greater than the output of the creeks required or could maintain. Any rumour of new discovery was enough to start a stampede. The men came flocking and he disposed of his stock at high prices--and narrowly escaped lynching, it is said, when the meagre basis of his message was learned. But the men thus drawn to the Tanana by false pretences started prospecting and themselves discovered the rich creeks which established the camp and made Fairbanks for a decade the largest town in Alaska.

The winter of 1902-3 was the "starving-time" on the Tanana, when the newcomers had eaten up the traders' supplies and no more could be obtained--the usual concomitant of the first winter at a new camp. The next summer brought a multitude of people and abundance of merchandise, and when early in February, 1904, the Bishop reached the place he found a bustling eager throng, anxious to make good the advantage of early arrival at a new camp that promised so largely. Already a townsite had been laid out and the best lots had been staked. The usual flamboyant viciousness of such places was in full swing, naked and unashamed. The Federal judge had already come across from Eagle and had promised the transfer of the court and the building of a courthouse. Yet, with his experiences at Circle and Rampart in his mind, it took some faith on the part of the Bishop to throw himself and the utmost of his efforts into the fortunes of this new camp. So far the wealth was still "on bedrock". Rich discoveries had been made on several creeks, but the diggings were deep and much machinery was necessary to work them, and none knew whether drifting would "develop a pay-streak" or if the few shafts that had been sunk to bedrock and had yielded such rich "pans" had happened to strike "pockets".

The Bishop saw that the prime need of the place was an hospital; there were sick and injured already and no place where they might be cared for. He gathered the leading men at a meeting and organized a committee. Two of them gave up adjoining lots that they had staked and a third was purchased, so that an adequate site for hospital and church along the water front was immediately secured. Then he left $ 1,000 with them to procure material for the hospital and promised to send in nurses and equipment the following summer. There was no money in the camp, but the meeting pledged itself to the labour of building.

A Hazardous Journey

When a week or two had been spent in and around Fairbanks the Bishop decided to reach the coast by a bold overland journey to Valdez. The four hundred miles of exceedingly difficult country between had indeed previously been traversed, but no definite route had been established and there was no trail at all. It involved crossing the great Alaskan range that divides the drainage of the Yukon from the streams tributary to the southwestern coast. His many friends at Fairbanks strongly dissuaded him from the attempt, but he was resolved upon it, and despite deep snow followed by intense cold he started from Fairbanks on the I3th February, with nine dogs and two sleds and his companion of the winter. The Bishop, on snow-shoes, was in the lead, and at the end of the first day's journey, when he had reached a camping place and pitched his tent, presently his companion came up without his team, declaring the dogs too tired to bring the load, and the Bishop had to go back some miles and bring them up; an illustration of how useful that companion was.

Up the Tanana River amidst the many channels and the drift-covered bars of the Bates Rapids, to the Salchaket and the mouth of the Delta, approaching nearer all the time to the lofty, beautiful peaks of the Alaskan range; up the Delta River, the ice in many places covered with overflow water, pent up until it heaved the ice into mounds and at last burst through, which it was difficult and yet imperative to avoid,--for the thermometer stood around 60° below zero and at such temperatures wetting the feet of man or dog meant the certainty of frost-bite,--past places where the tremendous force of the water had broken the ice completely away and rushed in an open black stream overhung by dense mist until it plunged beneath the ice-crust again; crossing and recrossing wherever the ice seemed safe and the surface dry; getting above the timber line at last, where in the summer the river receives the discharge of living glaciers coming down from the mountain snow-basins--they reached the Delta Pass at last and made camp in a storm amidst some scrub alders and willows.

They were now upon the watershed between the Copper River flowing into Prince William's Sound and a tributary of the Tanana flowing into the Yukon and Bering Sea; the watershed between Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean drainage, and they were in the heart of the great Alaskan range, its peaks and precipices and glaciers rising all around them. Eight days out of Fairbanks, the consumption of food had so diminished the load that one sled could now be abandoned. Moreover, dog-food was already so far gone that, reluctantly enough, the Bishop was compelled to shoot three dogs. The mountain pass made the usual contribution of northern mountain passes; they bagged twenty-three ptarmigan, but "grub" already began to be a very serious problem and they limited their eating to a scant ration.

Those who have gone through a similar experience in the crossing of the wide unmapped areas, who have pushed up one stream to its head with the intent of dropping down another to its mouth, will understand the perplexity of the party as they stood upon this watershed. To right and to left and in front gullies descended from the glacier-laden mountain side, the earliest beginnings of streams, the ultimate sources. Not only the success of the journey but the lives of the travellers depended upon selecting the right gulch. The Gulkana, the Gokona and the Chestochina are all tributaries of the Copper River, heading in the same glaciers, but the Gulkana afforded the shortest, most direct route. The Bishop knew that from the postoffice at Valdez on the coast three men had been sent out to attempt to reach Fairbanks by way of the Gulkana and thus avoid a long circuitous route by which a little mail had already been brought in; indeed this knowledge had influenced him in resolving on his journey. He expected to meet these men somewhere about this pass by which they must cross the range--there is no other within an hundred miles--and, despite the shortness of food, he waited two days. But the pioneers of the mail service did not arrive; as it turned out they went up a wrong fork of the Gulkana and two of the three starved and froze to death. So, on the 25th February, the Bishop chose what he believed to be the source of the Gulkana and the descent was begun.

The glacial stream led to a lake many miles long, from which proceeded a river. Their safety depended upon that river being the Gulkana. For three days of long forced marches with starving dogs they followed its sinuous course, uncertain, and then, almost in extremity for subsistence, they reached an Indian camp and found that their decision had been right; they were on the Gulkana and only fifteen miles from the Copper River by an Indian crosscountry trail. A supply of moose meat recruited the failing energies of men and dogs, and they resumed the march after one day's rest. The high tableland along the west bank of the Copper River, with its noble distant views of great snow-covered mountains--Mts. Sanford and Drum and Wrangel and Blackburn--led them along until the crossing of the coast range was necessary, and this, amidst violent storms and with excessive fatigue and exposure, they at last accomplished, reaching Valdez on 7th March, twenty-three days out of Fairbanks. At the foot of the Valdez glacier a thousand men were encamped, waiting for fine weather to attempt its passage, on their way to the new Fairbanks camp.

The whole route is familiar enough now. Until the Copper River railway diverted the travel to Chitina instead of Valdez, stage coaches traversed it regularly two or three times a week for years. At least a million dollars has been expended by the government upon the construction of a highway; automobiles pass back and forth along it--though they do not survive many round trips even today. But in the winter of 1903-4 it was unsurveyed and even unexplored. To the best of my knowledge the Bishop was the first to pass from Fairbanks to Valdez by the Delta-Gulkana route, and I have given the journey some detail and prominence because it was a notable piece of missionary pioneering. The journey over the Chilkoot pass was doubtless more spectacular and impressive and gathered around it much sensational journalistic writing from the mishaps of the multitude who essayed it, but one doubts if it were more arduous or perilous. There is perhaps no country in the world so difficult of access from its own coast-line as Alaska.

Arrayed in tattered garments of the trail, worn threadbare from the labours of the journey, his face weather-beaten and drawn, and disfigured by the scars of frost-bites, the people in Valdez did not recognize their Bishop. Worse than that he was crippled with a neuritis in his shoulder and almost speechless with a swollen throat. After some days' rest he recovered sufficiently to take services on Sunday, when the little church was filled to overflowing with congregations eager to hear of his journey. Two weeks were spent in Valdez, and "a week" in California "to recuperate", and then the Bishop started again for his field. "In spite of all fatigue," he wrote, "I feel that the joy of the work I was able to do amply justified it."

Project Canterbury