WITH the building of Fairbanks it became evident that the work of the Church in the territory was grown too large for the constant personal supervision of the Bishop, and in this year (1904) the present writer, then Dean of St. Matthew's Cathedral, Dallas, Texas, responded to an appeal of the Bishop, mainly with a view of relieving him of his winter journeys. He went to Fairbanks that summer with a commission as "Archdeacon of the Yukon and Tanana Valleys and of the Arctic regions to the north of the same"--a sufficiently wide scope for any man's wanderings and charge.
Fairbanks itself was, of course, the first care, and thither the archdeacon bent his way. It has been explained that the hospital at Skagway had almost completed its work. Indeed had it done no more than succour the sick of the great stampede it would have justified itself. After the terribly fatal epidemic of meningitis, the cases were mostly of men brought in from the trail, accident or frost-bite or pneumonia, the last always one of the most common and dangerous diseases of the north. During the building of the railway there was an outbreak of typhoid fever, and at times the capacity of the hospital was taxed to the uttermost. But now that the railway company was taking care of its own sick and the population of the town was steadily declining, there was no longer the great need that the earlier years had known. The institution was maintained for some time longer under Miss Florence Langdon, who had done valiant service at many different stations, but Deaconess Carter was transferred to Fairbanks, and, with a man and his wife designed as domestic help in the new institution, she passed over to Whitehorse by the railway and there the little company loaded their possessions and much hospital equipment on a scow and floated down the Yukon to the mouth of the Tanana River, proceeding thence by steamboat. Miss Farthing was sent from Circle, another nurse came from the outside and the Rev. John Huhn was transferred from Rampart. When the archdeacon joined them a few days later the staff of the mission was constituted and a new centre of Church activity set up in the interior. The Fairbanks district proved second only to Nome and the Klondike in richness and extent; the only really large placer gold camp that the interior has known. Almost immediately the town became the most populous in all Alaska, swollen by drafts from other camps as well as from the outside world; but from the first the predominant strain was the Klondike contingent. Indeed Dawson was largely depopulated in 1904 by the rush to Fairbanks of tradesmen and liquor dealers, caterers and gamblers, and the male and female parasites of the miners, as well as by miners and prospectors themselves. For years, until the religious and decent elements could organize themselves and make their influence felt for law and order, the town was "wide open."
The hospital was complete in only one story and the whole interior was to finish, but the money gathered had all been spent. Money was borrowed, materials purchased on credit, and the building was soon in use; indeed before the carpenters left there were already two or three patients within it, so pressing was the need Then a small log church was built, a picturesque structure amidst the wilderness of "frame" houses and stores, "the only building in Fairbanks worth making a picture of" as a visiting artist said.
It was an exceedingly expensive little church, for carpenters received a dollar and a half an hour, labourers a dollar an hour; raw, wet, native lumber cost $100 a thousand feet and nails cost twenty-five cents a pound; but it was an exceedingly useful one. Although only 40x25 feet in dimensions, built of rough, unhewn logs with the bark on, and devoid of any interior lining, it cost upwards of $3,000, much of it gathered in the town. It had the distinction of constant usefulness outside its primary purpose of worship. Every day in the week and every night in the week, almost all night as well as all day, it was in use as a reading room, the little chancel screened by a curtain. Fifteen hundred books lined the shelves across the back, a good supply of periodicals was piled upon the tables down the middle, a writing desk and stationery were provided, the pews became benches, and there were few hours of the twenty-four that men might not be found availing themselves of the only place of common resort in the town that was not a liquor shop.
There was still, however, exceedingly little money in the camp, rich as the diggings were now known to be. Of actual metallic money it was estimated that there was only a few thousand dollars and that mostly in the hands of the gamblers who ran public tables in all the saloons. The paper money was chiefly Canadian, brought by the people from Dawson, and there was not much of it. The main currency was gold dust. Every shop of every kind had its pair of gold scales and received the dust that was presented at a flat rate of sixteen dollars an ounce, usually making a dollar or two an ounce upon the transaction. A twenty-five cent piece was then, and is now, the smallest current coin in the interior of Alaska. But in those early days even gold dust was scarce, though the creeks were now known to be very rich, and most trading was on credit.
The hospital, that first winter of its activities, took care of more than an hundred men suffering from all sorts of injuries and serious complaints, and sixty of them had nothing wherewith to meet the expenses of their care. To anyone who knows the work of St. Matthew's Hospital during those early years when it was the only hospital in the camp, there is no reason to sing its praises. The devoted labours of Miss Carter and her colleagues saved many lives that would otherwise have been sacrificed And the camp at large so appreciated these ministrations that it was not necessary to appeal to the Church for funds, although, of course, the Church paid the stipends of the workers and many contributions were received.
A beginning was early made of that free distribution of periodical literature amongst the miners and prospectors that afterwards grew to such great proportions, and that constitutes, indeed, no small part of the benefit which the Alaskan Mission has brought to the white men of the country. That most admirable organization, the Church Periodical Club, lent its aid; Church people generally throughout the United States were brought into line, and a stream of weekly and monthly publications began to pour into Fairbanks, and to go out again to the remotest corners of the country, until the number handled annually rose above twenty thousand. Many an isolated prospector depends to this day for his winter reading upon packages supplied from the Fairbanks mission, and in the first year of the Iditarod stampede almost the only reading matter in the whole camp of a couple of thousand men, was thus supplied. It was impossible for the steamboats to get enough food into that camp for the winter; they had no space for magazines. So the Pelican carried in a cargo of five hundred monthly magazines and a number of sacks of weeklies, and upon this meagre diet the camp lived, intellectually, for the whole winter. I have often thought that the percentage of insanity in Alaska, abnormally high as it is, would have been much higher had we not been able to alleviate the loneliness and isolation of the miner's lot by the gift of reading matter. It is a man's own fault, now, if he go out into the hills for the winter without a plentiful supply of reading. And into each bundle there is slipped a copy of one of the Gospels, or a Prayer Book or other religious reading. Every mission in Alaska is a point of such distribution, but Fairbanks is still the centre from which the greatest quantity is sent, to the remotest parts. The Alaskan mission, and the Alaskan population, are enormously indebted to the Church Periodical Club, and I will add, what cannot be said of all our helpful agencies, have never been made to feel the weight of the obligation. The heart of every Alaskan missionary warms towards the Church Periodical Club.
The establishment of the new centre at Fairbanks and the appointment of an archdeacon of the interior--in effect a general missionary with a roving commission and a sort of indefinite supervision (the need for the denning of which has never arisen)--gave opportunity for the further extension of the work of the Church and permitted the regular visitation, not only of our mission stations, but also of places where white men or natives were congregated, far from any such. The coming of the Rev. Charles Eugene Betticher to Fairbanks in 1905 relieved the archdeacon of any local charge and left him free for his general work. It did many other things also that will find their reference as the narrative proceeds, for Mr. Betticher's ten years' service looms large in the recent history of the Alaskan mission.
There began in 1904 a series of archdiaconal winter journeys with a dog sled, each covering from 1,500 to 2,000 miles, in which the populated parts of the whole Yukon basin were reached and the whole Arctic coast was visited; twelve winters having been so spent at this writing. Since full accounts of the more interesting of these journeys are elsewhere available it is not necessary to refer to them in detail here. The starting of the Koyukuk mission, however--on the northerly part of the chief northern tributary of the Yukon; and of the mission at the Tanana Crossing,--on the southerly part of its chief tributary, were outcomes of these journeys, the former being built by the archdeacon himself in 1907, and the latter carried out under the direction of the Rev. Charles E. Betticher.
On the Koyukuk River, nearly 500 miles above its confluence with the Yukon, there lives a band of some two hundred Indians, and 150 miles further up the river is the most northerly of Alaska's gold camps, perhaps also the most northerly in the world. The Indians had not escaped the almost inevitable contamination that comes from contact with the whites, and nothing whatever had been done in the way of school or mission for their benefit. Some few had been across country to Tanana years before and had received elementary instruction at that mission, of which only fragments remained. One old woman had learned what she supposed was a hymn, and every Sunday sang it religiously.
When she was asked to sing it she did so with much pride--and it turned out to be the alphabet set to music! I do not doubt that the faithful repetition of this unintelligible chant, as it was prompted by pure devotion and a desire to do God service, so was accepted by Our Father in Heaven for what it was meant to be. I am of opinion that many a Te Deum that swells through long-drawn aisle and fretted vault has less real devotion behind it; and for that matter, I have often heard chanting in imposing churches that was no whit more intelligible. Only this past winter I listened to a choral service in a great metropolitan church and never did discover whether the choir sang the Magnificat or the Cantate Domino. Anyway I am sorry for those who can see only something funny in this poor old Indian woman singing the English alphabet as an offering of praise and thanksgiving. I think it was as much this incident as anything else that stirred me to the resolve that the full gospel should be brought to these people of the arctic wilderness and a mission and school established. So the journey of 1906-7 was ended on the Koyukuk River at the spot previously selected,--where the Alatna River joins the Koyukuk, just north of the arctic circle--to which spot had been sent by steamboat the previous summer such building material as the country could not furnish, and with the help locally procurable the mission buildings were erected, and the church named for St. John-in-the-Wilderness.
The first steamboat of the summer brought Deaconess Carter, who having spent four years in hospital work amongst white people was at last able to satisfy the desire with which she had come to Alaska, of working amongst the natives, and her companion, Miss Clara Heinz of California. It was most fortunate for the success of this new venture that so capable and experienced and devoted a woman as Deaconess Carter was available. The work at the Allakaket (meaning "mouth of the Alatna" since it is situated at that confluence) has always borne the impress that she gave it during her five years' charge, and has been blessed with a succession of discreet and zealous women who have carried on her plans and maintained her policy.
In its degree, there are few mission stations anywhere that have more thoroughly justified themselves by results than that at the Allakaket. It has one unique distinction: it is the only mission in Alaska that serves two distinct races, the Indians and the Eskimos. For the enterprising Eskimos had pushed up the Kobuk River from their natural habitat on the Arctic coast, crossed the divide to the Alatna and descended that river to its mouth before the mission was built, and are established at a village on one bank of the Koyukuk, while the Indians are established on the other, in a new village built when the mission was started. The language complication thus introduced into the work has been difficult; two interpreters are always necessary in church. But the influence exerted on both races has been very marked and beneficial; far down the Kobuk River, as well as far up the Koyukuk, that influence has penetrated. White men have been succoured again and again by the trained nurse always maintained there, as well as natives, and the thirteen years' work at this place has changed the nature of the neighbourhood.
If it were one of the archdeacon's long journeys that revealed the need of undertaking work amongst the Indians of the upper Tanana River (the chief southern tributary of the Yukon) it fell to the lot of the Rev. Charles E. Betticher to take the necessary steps to build St. Timothy's mission at the Tanana Crossing.
No sooner was this young and enthusiastic missionary priest settled at Fairbanks than he began to stretch out for work amongst the Indians inhabiting the Tanana River both above and below (for Fairbanks is situated about midway of its length). The care of the church and the hospital (this latter in itself engrossing), the organizing of the extensive magazine distribution already spoken of, the periodic visitation of the adjacent creeks where thousands of miners were labouring, these did not suffice his appetite for work, and, little by little, one at a time, during those memorable ten years of his Alaskan residence, the string of missions that are now grouped under the head of "Tanana Valley" sprang into being--Nenana, Chena, the Salchachet, the Tanana Crossing. And that most effective advertisement and agency of the work, the quarterly Alaskan Churchman, was founded and soon grew to a subscription list of nearly three thousand. Of late years the Alaskan Mission has had no more valuable member than this slight, youthful-looking and delicate, but energetic and resourceful man.
In the list of missions started by Mr. Bet-ticher, that at Nenana was mentioned. It has grown into one of the most important enterprises of the Church in Alaska, and brings on the scene one of the most notable of the many notable women who have been connected with the Alaskan mission, Miss Annie Cragg Farthing, sister of the present Bishop of Montreal.
Her first quinquennium of service was divided amongst different stations; she took the place of a worker at Anvik out on furlough; she was colleague of Miss Lizzie Woods at Circle City; when the Fairbanks hospital was started she became housekeeper there. But upon returning to Alaska for another period she was given charge of the newly-established mission at Nenana. It was under this opportunity of sole charge that the really remarkable qualities of this most competent and cultivated gentlewoman appeared. Five years in lesser responsibilities had given her experience and confidence; she had learned to know and to love the Indians. She lived to give only three years to this new work, but those three years served to stamp the impress of her lofty character indelibly upon it and to leave a decided and most unusual influence upon the native people. For a long time there had been need of a native boarding school situated in the central part of the interior of Alaska. The school at Anvik was too far away, and the language there spoken differed widely from the language of the middle Yukon; parents were loath to send their children so far. Miss Farthing began such a school in a log cabin on the bank of the Tanana River, just above its confluence with the Nenana, in the fall of 1907. With five thousand dollars secured from the Men's Thankoffering made at the General Convention of 1907 a large house was built to serve as a dormitory during the next summer, and St. Mark's mission tract was laid out and outbuildings constructed. Thus there came into being an institution which has had a powerful effect upon numbers of young Indians, both male and female.
It would be easy to give striking instances of the potency and stretch of this remarkable woman's influence amongst the native people, an influence--strange as it may sound to those who deem any half-educated, underbred white woman competent to take charge of an Indian school--due as much to her wide culture, her perfect dignity and self-possession, her high breeding, as to the love and consecrated enthusiasm of her character. It is no exaggeration to say that Miss Farthing's work has left a mark broad and deep upon the Indian race of this whole region that will never be wiped out. The writer on his journeys among the Indian missions found that a visit to Nenana was a cure for the discouragement that must sometimes come to all those who are committed heart and soul to the cause of the Alaskan native. To see tall, upstanding fellows of sixteen and seventeen, clean-limbed and broad-shouldered, wild-run all their lives, unaccustomed to any restraint at all and prone to chafe at the slightest; unaccustomed to any respect for women, to any of the courtesies of life--to see them fly at a word, a look, to do her bidding, to see them jump up and hold open the door if she moved to pass out of a room, to see the eager devotion that would have served her upon bended knee had they thought it would please her, was wonderful. One sees in the mind's eye such boys, returned to their homes here and there on the Yukon and Ta-nana, after their two or three years at this school, carrying with them some better ideal of human life than they could ever get from those with whom they would be thrown, something of the keen sense of truth and honour, of the nobility of service, which they had learned of her whom they all revered.
When early in the school's history an old medicine man at Nenana had been roused to animosity by her refusal to countenance an offensive Indian custom touching the adolescent girls, and had defiantly announced his intention to make medicine against her, she resolutely, staff in hand, attended by two or three of her devoted youths, invaded the midnight pavilion of the conjurer in the very midst of his conjurations, tossing his paraphernalia outside, laying her staff smartly across the shoulders of the trembling shaman, and driving the gaping crew helter-skelter before her, their awe of the witchcraft overawed by her commanding presence. It gave a shrewder blow to the lingering tyrannical superstition of the medicine man than decades of preaching and reasoning would have done. No man living could have done the thing with like effect, nor any woman save one of her complete self-possession and natural authority. The younger villagers chuckle over the jest of it to this day, and the old witch-doctor himself was crouching at her feet and, as one may say, eating out of her hand, within the year.
Once, on returning from a journey, the writer spent the night at a roadhouse kept by a white man married to an Indian woman. There was excellent yeast bread on the table, and good bread is a rare thing in Alaska. "Where did you learn to make such good bread?" I inquired of the woman. The answer was "Miss Farthing". Yet it was nine years ago, lorig before the school at Nenana was started, that this Indian girl had been under Miss Farthing's teaching at Circle City. The training there received was lasting.
They tell us there is no longer much place or use for gentility in the world, for men and women nurtured and refined above the common level; tell us in particular that woman is only now emancipating herself from centuries of ineffectual nonage, only now entering upon her active career. Yet I am of opinion, from such opportunities to observe and compare as my constant travel has given me, that the quiet work of this gracious woman of the old school. with her dignity that nothing ever invaded and her poise that nothing ever disturbed, is perhaps the most powerful single influence that has come into the lives of the natives of interior Alaska.
Miss Farthing's death was in keeping with her self-sacrificing resolute life. There was a Canadian half-breed of those parts who was determined to secure one of Miss Farthing's Indian girls in marriage; Miss Farthing was determined that he should not secure her, as much because of the girl's tender age as of the wild drunken character of the man, who procured clandestine liquor continually from an unscrupulous trader near by. One dark cold night in November, 1910, Miss Farthing was awakened by a thundering beating on the door. Arising and opening, she was confronted by this man, flown with drink and with a gun in his hand, who told her he had come to kill her because she would not let him have the girl. "You may kill me if you like, but you shan't have that girl," she replied. Her wits about her, the dauntless lady succeeded in pacifying him somewhat and in taking his gun away from him, and then, because the night was bitterly cold and she thought he might freeze to death in his intoxicated condition, she let him stay in the hallway and gave him some blankets to lie upon--by this time maudlin in his regrets. The children, some of whom had been awakened by the noise, were sent back to bed, and the man passed the night in the hall, and in the morning, thoroughly abashed and ashamed, was given some breakfast. When she was remonstrated with for refusing to prefer a criminal charge against him she replied, "I will never allow it to be said that I am afraid of any native; he won't come again."
On the heels of this incident there followed a period of double labour and intense anxiety. Because a nurse who had volunteered for the hospital at Fairbanks had drawn back and failed when it was too late to procure another, it was deemed necessary to withdraw the nurse from Nenana to take her place. That left only Miss Farthing and the teacher at the mission. A child fell sick and grew rapidly worse. Miss Farthing attended to her domestic duties all day and sat up nursing the child most of the night for the best part of a week, refusing in her masterful way, to let the teacher share her vigil. "I won't have you sleepy in the schoolroom," she said. One night as it grew towards morning she made her way heavily upstairs and awoke one of the larger boys, bidding him come down as she felt ill. He jumped up and dressed hastily, noticing with what difficulty she went down again. When he was with her she asked him to open the door and help her out on the porch. It was a mild morning and just at the earliest dawn. Here she sat down on the steps and he beside her. She told him that she was praying to God to send someone to look after her children, and with that her head fell on the boy's shoulder and she became unconscious. It was her last utterance. Telegrams were sent at once to Fairbanks, nurse and doctor started without delay and made the journey of seventy-five miles without stopping, but when they arrived Miss Farthing was gone--and the little sick child was gone too. An autopsy revealed a clot of blood on the brain, and the doctor said she must have had some severe shock. The midnight ruffian with his gun and his threats was doubtless shock enough, and the intense strain that followed had, no doubt, its part in the fatal issue.
We begged her body from her brother (who had telegraphed instructions for its shipment to Canada), knowing her expressed soldier's wish to lie where she might fall, and we buried her high up on the bluff overlooking the mission, the little child beside her, within sight on a clear day of that Mt. Denali (or McKinley) upon which she loved to gaze; and we reared a Celtic cross of concrete on the spot.
On that November day God took to himself a very noble gentlewoman and a great missionary. The Alaskan mission has not, I think, a dollar of endowment, but in the life and death of Annie Cragg Farthing has nobler riches than any amount of money can represent. Her spirit has impressed itself upon the school, has, in large measure, entered into each of her successors, and although at this writing ten years have passed since her death, she yet lives powerfully in memory and influence.
This school is supported largely by scholarships given by individuals and societies in many parts of the United States. It has been hard hit, in common with other institutions similarly supported, by the great increase in the cost of all supplies. For a number of years it proved possible to feed a child at this school for $100; last year the actual cost was $187. In some cases the donors of scholarships were able and willing to increase them from $100 to $200, but in many the original sum is all that can be given.
The removal of this school and village has become a pressing necessity, pressing more sharply every year, by the building of the railway town of Nenana within a mile of the school-house. To hope for its continued success in the presence of a considerable white town is to ignore all the lessons of the past in Alaska. We have hoped, and some are still hoping, that the Government will make compensation for the buildings that must be abandoned; will take them over, together with the mission site, and enable village and mission and school to move to a site that has been selected some seventy-five miles away.
I could tell stirring stories in connection with the starting of St. Timothy's mission at the Tanana Crossing--made possible by a gift of $5,000 from the alumnae of St. Timothy's School near Baltimore. St. Timothy's has the distinction of being much the most expensive mission to maintain in all Alaska, owing to its difficulty of access. The upper Tanana is a bad river, winter or summer, owing to its numerous glacial affluents, and its navigation is fraught with difficulties and dangers in which our missionaries, men and women, have fully shared. Shipwreck is a common adventure on the upper Tanana. I once counted no less than seven steamboats, large and small, lying wrecked along the three hundred miles from Fairbanks to the Tanana Crossing.
I could tell of privations endured by those who have conducted that work. There was a period of several months when Miss Margaret Graves (now Mrs. Betticher) and her companion, were reduced to a diet of "rabbits straight" (it happened to be a good rabbit year) owing to the failure of repeated attempts to get supplies to the mission.
But I must not make this book a rechauffé of articles from The Spirit of Missions, nor would I in any case be able to render the files of that periodical other than indispensable to one who would form a full view of the Alaskan enterprise.
Some of those who have given their services to God and His Indians in the interior of Alaska may take to themselves no small part of St. Paul's catalogue of endurances and adventures, and those who have served at St. Timothy's perhaps in fullest measure. Miss Mabel Pick and Miss Celia Wright on their way thither in 1914 had really sensational experiences that would have afforded thrills to the most hardened moving-picture habitué, could they have been put upon a film.
The very remoteness and difficulty of access of this place render it one of our most hopeful stations. The natives have had comparatively little intercourse with whites; there are comparatively few influences to counteract the influence of the mission; what may be done with them is limited only by the degree in which the missionary may be fit vehicle for the operation of the grace of God. At the present writing Mr. and Mrs. McConnell (she was Mrs. Evans until she married a colleague at Anvik), he a teacher and she a trained nurse, are carrying on the work of native improvement and development at this outpost.
St. Andrew's Mission at Stephen's Village on the Yukon River between Fort Yukon and Rampart, deserves a special word because its actual starting was the result of a really clamorous importunity on the part of the Indians themselves. So long as the white man's town of Rampart was large enough to warrant a resident missionary, Stephen's Village, with its native catechist, was visited from that post, eighty miles away. It was on a Christmas journey thither that the Rev. John Huhn, our last resident clergyman at Rampart, contracted the illness from which he died, in 1906. He is buried on the hill above the old native village near Rampart, in the burying ground of the Indians whom he loved.
As Rampart decayed many of the natives who had flocked thither when it was prosperous (to their demoralization and general detriment) returned to the more eligible Indian residence at Stephen's Village, situate just on the edge of the Yukon Flats, ten or twelve miles above the abrupt beginning of the Lower Ramparts of the Yukon. The village thus grew by accretions until it numbered nearly an hundred souls. There had been a Government school there for a few years, but it burned down and was not rebuilt (for lack of funds) and the teacher was withdrawn. Every time that the Bishop stopped there on his visitations there were eager demands for a mission of their own. At length the Bishop told them that if they would build a church themselves (so far as the log structure was concerned) he would send a missionary, and the next summer the church was built and the missionary demanded.
So Miss Effie Jackson was sent and for two years taught school and held service in the church, and a convenient cabin was built for her. She was followed by Miss Harriet Bedell, of long experience in Indian work, who for three years past has lived all alone in the village, exercising all the functions of a woman missionary and swaying almost undisputed influence over the native mind. Off the steamboat track in summer--for the steamboats do not like to cross the river amidst sandbars and make the turn necessary to reach the place unless they have freight to discharge--entirely cut off from communication in the winter, for there is now no mail route down the Yukon and the nearest postoffice is eighty miles away, this is one of the most isolated spots in interior Alaska, although it is situated on the main Yukon. And again this very isolation makes for more intensive educational and religious work. Such a post requires a missionary entirely absorbed and happy in the work, and such an one is Miss Bedell.
Of all aids in the direction and supervision of enterprises now widely scattered throughout the interior, the launch Pelican, built and brought to the Yukon in 1908, at an expense of nearly $5,000, has been the greatest; indeed without some such craft the visiting of all these stations in any one summer would be an impossibility. The Pelican at this writing has made twelve seasons' cruises, ranging from i,800 to 5,200 miles each summer, and has travelled an aggregate distance of upwards of 30,000 miles on the Yukon and its tributaries. She is a comfortable "glass cabin cruiser" with a draught of sixteen inches and a speed of about nine miles an hour, has accommodations for sleeping and cooking and a gasoline capacity of 250 gallons, depots of gasoline being maintained at several central points so that prolonged cruises lasting most of the summer can be made in her. The only mission in the interior that she does not visit is the Tanana Crossing, her one attempt to reach that point having been defeated by a violent sudden freshet which filled the river with driftwood. She has never had professional pilot or engineer, but has been handled altogether by native help. An appropriation of $500 per annum, which about pays for her gasoline and lubricating oil, is made by the Department of Missions; chiefly contributed by the boys at several well-known preparatory schools in New England.
This craft enables the Bishop and the archdeacon to visit, not only the mission stations but the scattered camps of natives all along the rivers, engaged in their summer salmon fishing; to stay at any place as long as may be necessary, to leave when it is convenient. The traveller dependent upon steamboats who should break his journey at mission stations would spend most of the short season waiting for boats, and would not be able to visit the camps and riverside cabins at all. She has again and again been useful in conveying desperately injured persons to speedy medical aid, in taking children to the schools at Nenana and Anvik, and regularly transports quantities of reading matter for distribution.
In the roughly chronological order which has been observed in this narrative, this is the place to speak of the Iditarod, and since the history of the Church in that camp is in all probability a closed chapter, the complete incident may illustrate the difficulties in the way of undertaking religious work in a placer mining camp.
It is true of every such camp that, besides yielding up its own gold, it acts as a base of supplies for prospecting further afield; since the limit of the prospector's wanderings is the distance to which he can transport supplies by his dog-team. The region between the Yukon and the Kuskokwim rivers was late in being examined for minerals because there was no base of supplies save on the Yukon itself--too far away to be practicable. It was the discovery of gold on the Innoko, one of the southern tributaries of the Yukon, the establishment of the small town of Ophir near its headwaters, and the navigation of that river by steamboats, that led to the gold discovery on the Iditarod River, one of the tributaries of the Innoko, and the great stampede that took place in the summer of 1910.
It was the last of the great stampedes. Word had been coming out all the winter of the richness of Flat Creek. Before the Yukon was open to through traffic from the United States, there was a constant stream of voyagers from all the upper river camps, and so soon as the through steamboats ran the gold seekers from the outside crowded them from stem to stern.
We took the Pelican up to Iditarod City in August with the Bishop aboard, and at that time I suppose Iditarod City had more population than any other town in Alaska. Great drafts had been made on all the towns of the interior. Many of the tradesmen of Dawson and Fairbanks had removed bodily with all their stocks of merchandise; some of the lesser camps had been quite depopulated; several thousand of people had come from the coast towns and from the States. Tents were already largely replaced by frame structures which rose from the glacial muck upon which the town was built with magical rapidity. A tramway was already constructing from Iditarod City to the creek ten miles away where the gold had been found.
The writer visited the place again in the winter, going in by the Kuskokwim, and spent a week there, and left, having doubts about the wisdom of undertaking any building. But that winter a consignment of gold was sent overland by dog-team to Seward on the coast, in rather a spectacular way, and was shipped to Seattle with much trumpeting by the newspapers. One always suspects the transportation companies of doing all they can to increase any excitement that promises to be profitable to them. The sensational New York magazines were printing articles about "The Incalculable Riches of Alaska" all that winter, and much adventurous cupidity was stirred up.
At the opening of navigation in 1911 the archdeacon received a telegram from the Bishop, directing him to go into the Iditarod immediately, raise the necessary funds and build an hospital--nurses and equipment for which would come in on the first boat; which task was forthwith undertaken and that summer executed. The need of an hospital was certainly great, as is always the case in such large gatherings of men, but the task of securing the $3,000 that was raised locally was no small one. However the money was obtained, a building that had been erected for an hotel was purchased and partly paid for, the nurses and equipment arrived and the hospital was opened.
Flat Creek was not only rich, it was shallow; and that is unfavourable nowadays to the fortune of a placer mining camp, because it is such deposits that are most suitable for dredging. The Guggenheims sent an agent that summer who bought "options" on all the claims on Flat Creek and spent considerable sums in prospecting them with drills and pretty accurately estimating their value. At the conclusion of his operations all the options were thrown up, as being held at prices which their gold-content did not justify. But early in the next season the owners proved willing to sell at what the Guggenheims considered a fair valuation--and the whole of Flat Creek passed into their hands.
Now it may seem at first sight that it does not matter by what means the gold is extracted from the ground, so that it is extracted in sufficient quantity, but it makes a great deal of difference to the community. If fifty separate claims are working, each with a crew of men, there is much employment and much business catering to the miners. But two or three dredges will do the work that kept that whole population busy--and dredges do not eat, or wear clothes, or drink whiskey--or get sick and go to the hospital. Very little gold had been discovered save on Flat Creek itself; prospecting of the numerous neighbouring creeks had been unsuccessful. The dreams of a wide auriferous region of which Flat Creek was only a beginning, proved a delusion.
The dredges killed Iditarod City. Presently there was almost as great an exodus of people as there had been influx. The little town on Flat Creek itself was town enough for the reduced population; one by one the large buildings of Iditarod City were vacated, and the place began to assume the familiar melancholy aspect of so many decayed settlements in the interior.
The hospital at Iditarod City had to be closed. For awhile one nurse and part of the equipment were moved over to Flat City and sufficed for the reduced needs of the camp. Then some largely fictitious claim for services was made by an attendant, suit was brought in the local court, and before it was possible to enter plea in answer judgment was given and the equipment was sold at auction. There was legal redress had it been worth while resorting to it, but the people were gone and with them the need for the hospital, while to have removed the equipment at the freight rates prevailing in the Iditarod would have cost more than it was worth.
So Iditarod City stands, with our empty hospital, an empty Roman Catholic Church, an empty Presbyterian reading and club room; one more example (though perhaps the most striking, since Iditarod City lasted such a short while) of the unsubstantial and precarious nature of a placer gold mining town. At Fairbanks Bishop Rowe took the chance--and it proved abundantly worth while. And it must be remembered that hundreds of others--merchants and tradesmen of every kind, long used to the country--also thought the Iditarod chance worth taking.
It was, I think, the upshot of the Iditarod venture that decided the Bishop not to embark the Church's money on any more hospitals in placer mining camps. For the medical needs of the natives had been pressing a long time upon the hearts of those concerned with the Yukon country. White men, where they congregate in sufficient numbers to require hospital service, are commonly able to pay for it, and, therefore, able to procure it. It is true that it is often the last thing thought of. It is true that the intense and universal preoccupation with getting, the feverish excitement of the early days of a new gold camp, leave no leisure for the contemplation of inevitable sickness and injury and the proper provision therefor; that what is everyone's business in general is likely to be no one's business in particular, and that the Church has served community after community in this matter very valuably and beneficially because she was the only present agency sufficiently detached and disinterested to foresee the need and take the necessary steps to meet it. I do not feel that there is any need to defend or excuse the undertakings of this kind to which we have set our hands from time to time in Alaska.
But our white population is an exceedingly fluid quantity, as those who have read these pages will understand. A new "strike" anywhere draws the men away from all the older camps. The white men come and go; they rush in to new diggings, overwhelming the town, stripping its stores of everything, and then subsisting on half rations eked out with rabbits and ptarmigan until the reopening of navigation allows supply to catch up once more with demand. Sooner or later they depart, not usually with the rush that depopulated the Iditarod in 1912-13, but in driblets, until the population will no longer support the stores and the institutions and they close their doors and cease; while another town grows up, perhaps a thousand miles away, with the same pressing immediate needs--and the same temporary prospects.