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   Chapter 3 ST. MICHAEL

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 9901

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

IT is only when one ventures forth upon so large a subject that he realizes how inadequate, how incomplete the result must be even after he has done his best. He may just as well acknowledge his shortcomings in the outset and crave his readers' indulgence. It is the truth that there is no man living who can or has the right to attempt to speak of Alaska as a whole. A man might travel continuously for a whole year, using every means of expedition at his command, not wasting a day anywhere, journeying by land or sea, in winter and summer, taking advantage of the "last ice" and the "first water," and yet he could not begin to cover the country. In the far-distant corners, hidden away from the eyes of man, one will come upon the scattered missions of the various churches to reach which one must journey thousands of miles! So, whenever a man from Nome speaks of Alaska he means that part of it which he himself knows,-the Seward Peninsula. The man from Cordova, or Valdez, talks of the Prince William Sound country and calls it Alaska! The man from Juneau speaks of Alaska, but all that he means is the southeastern coast. This is why so much that is written of the country is contradictory. In fact, Alaska is not one but many countries! And the various parts differ radically from each other. Nature has separated them each from the other by obstacles almost insuperable. They have different interests, different problems. Their climate is not the same, nor their resources, nor their population. Thus what is true of one part of Alaska may be (and often is) absurdly untrue of another part.

Because much of my own experience here has centered about St. Michael and because the little island is so large a part of the country's fragmentary history I am indulging myself in the pleasure of telling her story. When the Russian-American company was under the administration of that able and high-minded official, Baron von Wrangell, Michael Trebenkoff was sent out to establish a trading-post on Norton Sound. In 1833 he built Redoubt St. Michael, putting it under the protection of his patron Archangel. It was the second Russian port on Bering Sea, Nushayak, in Bristol Bay, having been founded in 1818.

It is a quaint, historic little island, about twenty-two miles long and six miles wide. It has one mountain, an extinct volcano, in the center and is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. The latter was utterly useless for shipping, and a few years ago the government spent quite an amount of money widening and improving it in order that, by its use, the worst part of the sea voyage from St. Michael to the Yukon river might be avoided. But it was misdirected effort. The boats do not use it because of its narrowness. The canal, at the mouth of which is a beacon, leads by a wandering course into St. Michael's Bay. I one day asked Captain Polte, an old officer of one of the vessels, why the canal was not used. "Well," he replied laconically, "we can't use it when it's windy and when there's no wind we don't need it!" Reason enough.




Some of the old log buildings on St. Michael still stand, mute reminders of the day when the little island belonged to Russia. On a point of rock one may still see the small octagonal block house inside of which the diminutive but still-defiant rusty cannon arouse the interest of all visitors. In the stormy pioneer days, so we are told, these little six-pounders more than once proved effective when the post was in danger. They were considered sufficiently historic to be exhibited at the Seattle Exposition in 1909.

This is neither the time nor the place to record the story of the Klondike stampede, but that part of it which affected the island may be here related. When almost in the twinkling of an eye the desolate coast of Bering Sea became a veritable highway of nations, when all the available shipping facilities of the Pacific coast were soon exhausted, when ships from the Atlantic began coming around the Horn, when every part of the Pacific began to hum with Alaskan business,-the tide of traffic found it necessary to separate. One part of it sailed through the Inside Passage to Skagway. The other took the Outside Passage and entered through St. Michael. It is not a very convenient port, it is true, but it is the best there is. To St. Michael came all the heavy merchandise, the immense stocks of goods for trading and for individual use. This port thus became the gateway to the fabulously rich gold fields of the Yukon. St. Michael is, therefore, a large part of the history of the Klondike stampede.

The White Pass and Yukon Company is a transportation company which has operated for several years on the Yukon with headquarters at Dawson, Yukon Territory. T

his company believed that the best method of shipping supplies to Alaska would be to bring them in by way of Skagway, then over the White Pass and Yukon Railroad to Dawson, transferring them there to the White Pass boats and barges and floating them thence down the river to points in the interior. The Northern Navigation Company brought its freight to St. Michael by way of the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. It was then loaded on boats and barges and pushed up the river. What was a disadvantage to the White Pass people was a distinct advantage to the Northern Navigation Company. This was the fact that the lower part of the Yukon River below Lake Lebarge was free from ice from a month to six weeks earlier than that part of the river which lay between Lake Lebarge and Dawson. The method of the White Pass and Yukon Company held an unquestionable advantage in the saving of fuel. But as the greater number of the principal mining towns and supply points for the different mining districts lay below Lake Lebarge it was but natural that large shipments of freight for early summer delivery were consigned to the Northern Navigation Company, at St. Michael. A great rivalry sprang up between these two companies. Keen competition followed. But it was soon realized that each was working under difficulties which ought to be and could be remedied. The White Pass and Yukon Company was dependent upon the river transportation for existence. So a merger of the two seemed vital to the interests of both. In June, 1914, the White Pass and Yukon Company bought out the Northern Navigation Company, thus securing a monopoly of the Yukon from source to mouth. The result has been that the greater portion of the freight now shipped into the interior of Alaska is taken over the White Pass road and then floated down the river. This has seriously affected St. Michael, of course, as it has deprived this once busy little city of the greater part of her revenue.

As is the case in all new countries many of the companies organized during this busy period in Alaska's history have now passed out of existence, due, no doubt, to too great haste in the beginning. The Alaska Commercial Company was not slow in realizing the good fortune which had come to her. All the business so suddenly born of the lure of the gold fields was tossed into her lap. She had to build extensive shipyards, install machine shops and build river craft. Stores, warehouses, dwellings and an hotel were built at St. Michael. Rival companies were organized,-the Alaska Exploration Company, the Alaska Development Company, and many others. Only two of these survived for any length of time, however. One was a Chicago concern-the North American Trading and Transportation Company. The other was the Northern Navigation Company. For a while these flourished. The establishment of the former was across the Bay of St. Michael and was a little town in itself. The latter was on the island. To-day, these, too, have passed. The enterprises were not a success in recent years, and the plants are deserted.

St. Michael lies about a hundred and twenty-five miles south of Nome. It is hugged by the sea and therefore gets a certain amount of "damp" cold in winter instead of the "strong" or the "still" cold of the interior. Also, during the winter it is sometimes tragically stormy-terrific high winds with no forests to break them. In summer, however, it is delightful and most picturesque. It is covered by the tundra-Russian moss-always fresh and beautiful, lying over the island like a robe of soft green velvet. Plank sidewalks line the streets, extending to the Army Post, and where the sidewalks end the walking ends also in summer. To step off is to sink ankle deep in the soft green moss.

Under the chapter devoted to the native races the subject of the natives on St. Michael will be more fully dealt with. In other sections of Alaska the natives are largely Indians. Here only the Eskimo is to be seen. The visitor will encounter him everywhere in summer-in the streets, loafing in the stores, beaching or launching his boat on the water front, clad in the native costume, the parka, made of drill in summer and of fur, beautiful in design, in winter, shod in mukluks. At every turn one will find their handiwork for sale-carved ivories from walrus tusks, baskets, fur boots. Should one wish an ivory cribbage board there is no other place, with the possible exception of Nome, where he will find so large a variety from which to choose. As for the Eskimo woman,-well, in the far places of the world where there is little civilization and no pretense whatever on the part of humanity to be other than wholly natural one soon becomes accustomed to the unusual! There is no commoner sight in St. Michael than that of the native mother sitting in the street unconcernedly feeding her baby (sometimes two of them) after Nature's most primitive and wholesome method!

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