An interesting map, showing the two routes into the “Klondyke” Gold Fields of “British America” and the “40 Mile” Region in Alaska. One could go overland via the Chilkoot Trail, or by water using the “Youkon” River.
The only established community marked on the map along the Yukon River within Interior Alaska was Fort Yukon, which started as a trading post under the Hudson Bay Company.
Circle City was a mining town that popped up with the discovery of gold in Birch Creek, which is a great float, by the way. Circle, was so named, because the miners thought they were on the Arctic Circle, but they were actually about 50 miles south. Circle City was a major jumping off point for both miners and supplies that had come up the Yukon and were heading out to the gold camps.
Intriguing that Dyea makes the map, but Skagway is left off. Dyea was the start of the Chilkoot Trail, and at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, was a thriving community with a large wharf. Today, only a few pilings are left of the wharf, and minimal signs of any structures, although it is home to the “Slide Cemetery”. Regardless, “Soapy” Smith would not be impressed with Skagway being MIA. Stampeders would hike the trail over the pass into Canada from Dyea to Lake Bennett. Most would then build boats to carry them to the famed Lake Lebarge and finally the Yukon River. All for the lure of gold.
Felice Pedroni left his small mountain village of Trignano, Italy in 1881. Upon landing in New York City, as a fresh immigrant, he changed his name to Felix Pedro. Pedro was 23 years old at the time.
From New York, he worked his way across the United States, eventually finding himself in Washington state. From there, Pedro migrated to the Yukon Territory. By 1898, Pedro was working the Forty-Mile Mining District in Alaska. He supposedly struck it big on Lost Creek with his partner, Tom Gilmore. Unfortunately, the creek retained the name “Lost Creek” for a reason. Gilmore & Pedro had to abandon the claim after its discovery, due to running out of provisions. They did mark the spot, but spent the next three years trying to find it again. They never did.
Felice Pedroni, aka Felix Pedro
As it often happens throughout history, the city of Fairbanks got its start due to happenstance, coincidence and a dose of pure luck.
Two things happened that drove the city’s founding. First: The banker, swindler and first mayor of Fairbanks, Elbridge Truman Barnette, booked passage on the sternwheeler Lavelle Young from St Michael, AK in August 1901. After hitting the shallows of Bates Rapids on the Tanana River, E.T. Barnette convince the Lavelle Young’s Captain Adams to try a shortcut up the Chena River. Well, everyone knows what they say about shortcuts. The sternwheeler ran into sandbars only 6 miles from the mouth of the Chena, and the Captain refused to go any further. Barnette, his wife Isabelle, his employees and all his cargo, were unceremoniously dropped off on the south bank of the river.
Captain Adams later was quoted as saying, “We left Barnette furious. His wife was weeping on the bank.”
Looking downstream on Pedro Creek
Second: Re-enter Felix Pedro and Tom Gilmore. The two miners were prospecting in the area, when they saw the smoke rising from what turned out to be the Lavelle Young. They came across Barnette and his predicament and promptly bought a year’s worth of supplies. Barnette could do little with winter closing in on him, so he built a log building that he named “Barnette’s Cache” and decided to stick it out until spring breakup.
On 22 July 1902, Pedro & Gilmore discovered gold in a small, unnamed creek north of Barnette’s Cache. The Fairbanks Gold Rush was on.
Barnette promptly gave up any idea of leaving the area. He named the new community “Chena City”, and by autumn, he was elected the recorder for the new mining district. Judge Wickersham, who had been appointed to the territory by President William McKinley, suggested renaming the community Fairbanks, after the up & coming Senator Charles Fairbanks of Indiana. Barnette agreed to do so, thinking it could gain favor for the town.
During the winter of 1902-03, as many as 1000 new miners came to Fairbanks from all over the globe. They were quickly disappointed to find that one could not mine the frozen creeks during an Interior Alaskan winter. Temperatures were regularly recorded in the -50F range that winter. Barnette made a fortune with his trading post monopoly, and by 1908, Fairbanks was the largest city in Alaska.
Felix Pedro Monument; Steese Hwy, Alaska
Felix Pedro died of what was believed to be a heart attack in 1910. He was 52. His partner at the time doubted the cause of death, believing that Pedro’s wife had poisoned him. Pedro’s body was shipped to San Francisco, and buried there. In 1972, Italy wanted Pedro back, so his body was exhumed, and reburied in Fanano. Before reburial however, an autopsy was performed, and hair samples concluded that Pedro, had indeed, been poisoned.
This past weekend, the city of Fairbanks celebrated Golden Days, the annual event recognizing Fairbanks’ golden start. The celebration is marked by parades, street fairs, a Felix Pedro look a like contest, and the running of the historic steam locomotive No.1. It fact, this year was No.1’s 120th birthday.
Today, a monument to Felix Pedro can be found along the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks. Across the highway is Pedro’s original mining claim on the creek that now carries his name. The claim is owned & operated by the Pioneers of Alaska, Igloos #4 & 8. It is open to the public; anyone can pan for gold in Pedro Creek.
On 17 July 1897, word spread like wildfire through the streets of Seattle over the cargo in the hold of the S.S. Portland. The S.S. Excelsior had already docked in San Francisco, bringing news from the Yukon.
“A ton of gold!” The arrival of the S.S. Portland was about to cause a mad rush to the Klondike.
68 miners and over a ton of gold had boarded the Portland in St Michael, Alaska. Fresh from the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the gold was packed in anything the miners could find: coffee cans, socks, sacks, and boxes. Anything that could get the gold dust to Seattle. The estimates were off: The Portland carried two tons of gold in her hold that day.
At the time, the country was in a recession. Over 5000 people were waiting for the Portland at the dock, when she arrived. The streets were so crowded, the streetcars had to stop running. Reporters, longshoremen and others immediately quit their jobs and booked passage to Alaska. The mayor of Seattle was in San Francisco at the time; he wired his resignation via telegraph, and hopped on the first steamer heading north towards the Klondike. Seattle merchants sold out of mining gear and equipment within hours of the Portland’s arrival.
Plaque dedicated to the S.S. Portland, Photo credit: CtoC
Today, there is a historical marker near the place where the S.S. Portland docked. The plaque is located between Piers 57 and 59, along the sidewalk that runs beside the road, Alaskan Way. The plaque is mounted on an anchor, and looks down on the boardwalk that runs along the water.
The S.S. Portland served between 1885 and 1910. The above picture shows the Portland in the Bering Sea in 1901. Seamen are out cutting the ice in front of the ship.
The wreck of the Portland near the Katalla River, Alaska 1910
The Portland spent much of its life going from the west coast of the United States to the Alaska Territory. In 1910, the ship was caught on a shoal in rough seas. The waves pounded the old vessel, smashing her to pieces. The S.S. Portland remains at the mouth of the Katalla River. The ship was the subject of an episode of the PBS show History Detectives in 2004: Series 2, episode 9.
Historic photos come courtesy of the Alaska State Library Archives
Back in 2004, I drove down to Skagway to hike the historic Chilkoot Trail. A buddy of mine was suppose to join me, but the day before we were to hit the road, he backed out due to romantic issues of some sort. I was somewhat disgusted, but I loaded my backpack into the truck anyway, and drove to Skagway. It’s a 700 mile trip from Fairbanks, and I still had the 1974 Bronco at the time. I’m sure this was its last long trip. The Bronco was a great truck, but by ’04 the Interior Winters had taken its toll: The original doors had disintegrated by then, and I was running with a set of canvas doors by this point.
2004 was a record year for wildfires in Alaska. Over 6.6 million acres had burned that summer, and the woods were tinder dry. I don’t think Fairbanks had more than a handful of clear days that summer, as we were surrounded by fires.
The Chilkoot Trail starts near the old Ghost Town of Dyea, which sat less than 10 miles from Skagway. Dyea had a very shallow port, so the wharfs stretched well out into the inlet. Some of the pilings are still visible today, protruding up from the water.
Dyea during its gold rush peak.
There is very little left of the gold rush town today. A few old store fronts are propped up, the lumber from an old warehouse is well on its way to returning to the Earth, and one can still see the outlines of the town layout among the trees.
Dyea store front today. Great specials in the back.
Prior to hiking the Chilkoot, I spent a couple of days exploring the area. One of the more fascinating things was the Slide Cemetery. On 3 April 1898, five snow slides took place between Sheep Camp and The Scales on the trail. At least 65 stampeders died in the avalanches, although many believe the number was closer to 100.
The Slide Cemetery, with the same date, “April 3 1898” etched into all of the grave markers, is an eerie place. Many of the markers have no name, only an “Unknown” and the date. I remember one that said something like: “He Was From Minnesota, April 3 1898”. I was taking photos of the cemetery with an old Kodak Autographic camera, that was loaded with 120 B&W. Even the camera came a good 20-25 years after the disaster, but I felt it was somehow appropriate. After going through a roll, and loading up a second, I was looking down into the viewfinder, when a massive gust of wind swept through the stand of trees, and a large branch creaked from above and then fell to the ground. I jumped out of the way, and the branch landed right where I had been standing.
I decided to take the hint and left the cemetery.
The Slide Cemetery
The photo below shows the view from the Stone House in 1898 – the approximate location of the Palm Sunday Avalanche is at the lowest part of the valley.