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   Chapter 16 SOCIAL LIFE IN ALASKA

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 16004

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


I HAVE more than once been forced to endure the suppressed sympathy of friends who live in the Interior because of my enforced residence on St. Michael. It is a sympathy wholly wasted. St. Michael is a bright, clean little place. There are few mosquitoes,-a fact which in itself is a recommendation. Although the temperature is sometimes very low, and although the Arctic winter sends down some terrific blizzards at times, as a rule the short winter days are bright, still and pleasant. If one wishes sport it is right at hand on the mainland,-wild geese, duck, ptarmigan and caribou. There is also salmon fishing.

As a brilliantly-colored thread is sometimes woven into a piece of embroidery I find one vivid memory running through the years I have lived on St. Michael. To me the most wonderful thing in connection with those years is the transformation which takes place each year on the day that the first ship anchors in the Bay. Like the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy tale St. Michael suddenly wakens from her long winter's sleep. No words can describe that awakening. It must be seen to be appreciated.

When the last boat leaves the island in October almost every one who has been employed there during the summer season returns to the States as there is nothing for them to do here during the long, dark months. When the first boat comes in June, however, laden with tourists, prospectors and business men, they all come back, and the scene which follows their arrival is one that I have never seen equalled elsewhere. I have in mind at this writing two good friends, the men who during the years that I served as United States Commissioner at St. Michael, were responsible for this transformation. When one remembers that fifty thousand people passed through the port of St. Michael during the rush to Nome, it is apparent that theirs was no small task. One of these men was Mr. A. F. Zipf, Traffic Manager of the Northern Navigation Company. The other was S. J. Sanguineti, a splendid son of sunny California. Everything connected with transportation in and out of Alaska was in the hands of Mr. Zipf, while Mr. Sanguineti had charge of the provisioning of hotels and boats, the providing of eating and sleeping accommodations for the many who flocked each summer to the country.

The efficiency displayed by these two men was a thing to create admiration and enthusiasm. Because of Mr. Zipf's capability in managing details, within thirty minutes after the landing every one employed in St. Michael was in his place. The clerk was behind his counter, or back of his desk in an office. The cook was in the kitchen and the laundryman in the laundry. They did not even go first to the rooms which had been engaged for them. Their baggage was placed therein for them and within the hour St. Michael fairly teemed with activity. The men who had just gone to work looked as though they had been there always. In the same deft manner did Mr. Zipf handle the transfer of passengers, baggage and freight (enormous in volume) which passed through the port of St. Michael and went on up the Yukon. Every detail had been carefully worked out before the landing.

In these stirring days of our national life I have thought many times of these two men and wondered that the United States Government has not sought them out for positions of responsibility. Both would be master hands in helping to untangle the complicated mass of detail which now taxes the strength and the ability of our country. Uncle Sam never had greater need for her men of proved efficiency.

Social life is not wanting in St. Michael, or in any other community in Alaska. We have reached a period in our career where we thoroughly resent being pictured as a collection of wild and lawless mining camps where faro banks, drinking joints and vigilance committees abound. The resident of the Outside, unless forewarned, would open his eyes wide if asked to attend a garden party, or a four o'clock tea, in one of the larger Alaskan towns. Evening dress after six o'clock is not at all unusual for both men and women. The women's clubs are very much alive and engaged in the same activities as those of the States. In fact, one finds in the various sections of Alaska most of the normal manifestations of cultured civilization,-the elements which contribute to the upbuilding of an intelligent, law-abiding commonwealth.

"SCOTTY" ALLEN AND BALDY

GENE DOYLE, ONE OF THE OLDEST MAIL CARRIERS ON SEWARD PENINSULA. A HERO OF THE TRAIL!

COMING IN TO ST. MICHAEL WITH OUR THIRTY-THREE-DOG TEAM AFTER GOING OUT TO MEET THE MAIL CARRIER

DUTCH HARBOR

The subject of intemperance in Alaska has been much dwelt upon, and rightly, for it became such a menace to the future development of the country that the Alaskans themselves voluntarily did away with it. It was not forced upon them by any legislation. Formerly liquor played a great part in the life of the country and in this connection, no matter what one's convictions may be, it must be acknowledged that there were extenuating circumstances. The same is true of the men now in the service in the European War. The soldier who, wounded, has lain on the battlefield eight or ten hours in a driving rain, or all during a chill, frosty night, often has to have a stinging hot stimulant if his life is to be saved. It is not a matter of principle. It is a thing of necessity. What man is courageous enough to take upon himself the responsibility of saying that it shall not be given him? He may never have tasted it before in his life. It was just so with these Alaskan pioneers,-were they not soldiers, too, the advance guard, as it were, of a new civilization? They entered into a bleak and practically unknown land where Nature frowned savagely upon them on every hand. The half-starved, half-frozen, not-sufficiently-clad follower of the trail had to keep life in him some way while he made those first long, hard journeys through a practically unpeopled land. It was not always possible to have fire. So his flask was often his salvation. But liquor came to be the curse of Alaska and now the country, of its own volition, has gone "bone-dry." The only business which has now no chance of succeeding in Alaska is the saloon.

Not a great while ago an Alaskan Carrie Nation broke forth from the ranks of patient and long-suffering women and did some effective work. She lived at Mile Twenty-three and a Half, the other name of which village is Roosevelt. It is a station between Seward and Anchorage on the new government railroad. Her real name is Mrs. Dabney and she does not in the least enjoy being regarded as the prototype of her belligerent sister from Kansas, U. S. A. In fact, her method is different from the original Carrie. She does not harangue on the subject, neither does she go forth with an ax and smash saloons. Her way is just to remark quietly that "she won't stand for it!"

Anchorage was a tiny village until they began building the railroad. Then before anyone knew it it became a bustling town of eight thousand. The government made it a prohibition town, announcing that drinking among the employees would not be tolerated and that liquor should not be sold at the road houses. Now, having had some experience in this line, I am convinced that nowhere else in the world (with the possible exception of the Foreign Legion) can so many different types of men be found as in a railroad construction gang or a lumber camp! And there were all kinds at Mile Twenty-three and a Half!

Mrs. Dabney was a fine housekeeper and cook. She saw no reason why she should not make the best of her ability in this line so she established herself in a square log house and often fed from seventy-five to a hundred men a day and gave sleeping quarters to as many as the house would accommodate. As has been said, she let it be known that there would be no drinking because "she just wouldn't stand for it!"

The Fourth of July came along, however,

and about twenty-five of the men decided that they would celebrate the event. They proceeded to collect the ingredients for said celebration, a part of which consisted of a demijohn and several bottles of whisky. While they were in the midst of their hilarity,-enter Mrs. Dabney! She ordered the "boss" (who, by the way, was her employer!) to his room. In fact she escorted him thither and locked him in after telling him to go to bed. Then she went back down stairs, gathered up the bottles and the demijohn and threw them into Lake Kenai. When she returned she said quietly that she had no intention of cleaning up after a lot of drunken men, that the government had forbidden drinking and that not one of them could ever come to her table again. The men departed without argument. The next day, however, headed by the "boss," they returned. They stated in the outset that they had not come to ask her to take them back but merely to express their regret,-that she was quite right in refusing to be bothered with a crowd of men who would not obey the law.

This act is characteristic of Alaskan men. I know no corner of the earth where a good woman is held in higher esteem. The men themselves are often unconscious of this characteristic, but it crops out in their little mannerisms. For instance, there are two ways of addressing a woman in Alaska. As one writer has already expressed it, "We call one kind of woman by her first name and don't know that she has any other. But the other kind of woman,-we call her Mrs.! And we don't know whether she has a first name or not!"

It was so with this woman. Neither miner, traveler, trader, workman nor wayfarer ever thinks of calling her other than Mrs. Dabney. But my experience is that there is no straighter way to a woman's heart than a manly and sincere apology! So, in this case, when she said quietly to the men that she had tried to give them good, clean food to eat and a comfortable place to sleep, that all she asked of them was that they obey the rules and not make her work more difficult or more disagreeable than was necessary, she made friends of those men forever. They respected her because they realized that she herself respected the law and stood for its enforcement. Finally she permitted them to return, but she ended the interview by saying:

"You needn't think you can fool me, either. Any time one of you brings whisky into this house I can find it. More than that," she finished, "B-- says to-morrow is his birthday and he's going to celebrate. But he ain't,-even if he is the Mayor of Roosevelt!"

The men of Alaska, while they admit that the free use of liquor was once almost a necessity in the country, see no reason why it should be so now. Civilization has brought with it other and better means of keeping warm and in good spirits. Like many another thing of this twentieth century it has outlived its usefulness. There are comfortable homes in all the populated sections of Alaska now,-homes where one sees just what he would find anywhere else in the world. Social intercourse and family life are the same here as elsewhere. There is tennis. There is golf. There are music and dancing, and a "chummy" feeling seems to possess all the occupants of the land. There is a general impression that life in a thinly-populated country is not conducive to sociability. I have never found it so. There is a bon camaraderie in Alaska that I have found nowhere else in the world. Perhaps it is of a brand not to be found except in the far spaces of the universe!

There is one Great Day in Alaska,-the day when the ice goes out of the Bay in the spring! There is something about the sight and sound of flowing water which moves one strangely after nine long months of the "still" cold. One relaxes unconsciously from a tenseness which until that moment he has not realized has possessed him and in this connection I would relate a bit of personal experience.

Life here, as elsewhere, seems to take on new meaning in the springtime. Merry boating or sailing parties are one of the favorite amusements of the Alaskan summer. One evening,-it was the day that the ice went out of the Bay,-I made one of a jolly party which went sailing. The presence of an Army Post always adds to the social life of any community, large or small, and stationed at St. Michael at this time was an officer whose heroism and self-control saved the lives of all but two of our party of eight. Captain Peter Lind was in charge of the boat. We had known him long as an able seaman and therefore put ourselves and our ladies into his keeping without the least thought of possible disaster. From the Fort were two officers, Lieutenants Wood and Pickering. The other members of the party were Dr. and Mrs. McMillan, Mr. and Mrs. Bromfield and myself. When we were well out from shore the boat suddenly capsized. Before we realized that anything was happening we were in the water. The water was very cold, but the men were good swimmers, and we managed to get a hold on the capsized boat. We were all clinging to it when without the slightest warning over it went again. The hour that followed was one which no member of that little party will ever forget. Captain Lind disappeared. But the magnificent cool-headedness of Lieutenant Wood caused the rest of us to put up a stiff fight and resolve to die game if we had to. Finally after a battle which reduced the strongest of us to utter exhaustion we had the satisfaction of seeing six of our little party safely ashore. Mrs. Bromfield and Captain Lind were lost. And the getting to land was by no means the least thrilling part of the experience. The Eskimos on the shore heard our calls, and although their little boats had not been used all winter and were in need of repairs, they launched them quickly and came to our aid. The boat in which I came in took water badly. But one sturdy little Eskimo baled industriously while the other rowed.

I once heard an old Frenchman singing a song about the wind in the springtime. It ran like this:

"Le vent que traverse la montagne

M'a rendu fou!"

(The wind which crosses the mountain

Has driven me mad!)

Each member of our little party realized that Captain Lind could not have been himself at the moment of our disaster. The winter had been very severe and I have frequently wondered whether the sight of the Bay which for so long had been solid ice and had then so quickly melted into beautiful, sparkling, moving water,-just as a lovely woman sometimes gives way suddenly to tears,-had not been the strongest element in his sudden mental undoing.

Civilization follows the flag wherever it goes. Army men are splendid the world over, a fact formerly realized by the few but which is now being driven home to the many by the great war. And the Army women--. They are such "good fellows!" They, too, go with the flag to make a home for their soldier husbands. And they care not a whit whether they follow them into the sands of the desert or over the Arctic snows!

I can not leave the story of St. Michael without reference to Gene Doyle, the oldest mail carrier in our part of the country. Have you ever thought what it means to be a mail carrier in Alaska? These men are the real heroes of the trails. Over in the Canadian Yukon they tolerate no such inhumane treatment of men. There no man may take out a horse or a dog if the mercury registers lower than forty-five below zero unless it is a case of life or death and even then one must get permission from the Northwest Mounted Police. But the American mail man must go,-or lose his job! Many a time has Doyle set forth with the temperature at sixty below, and you may rest assured that if he did not show up on schedule time we made ready our sleds and went out to meet him! There is no resident of Alaska who is not in sympathy with the Rev. Hudson Stuck who has more than once expressed an ardent longing to serve as Postmaster General for just one week!

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