People nowadays can drive in comfort alongside Turnagain Arm as they motor over the Seward Highway.
Jets leave contrails in the sky as behemoth flying machines carry 300 or so passengers high above, heading from distant points to other far-away spots around the globe. A bunch of them land at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. They bring visitors who pay a lot of money to see the place we call home—and where we get to enjoy Alaska’s wonders for free year-round.
We now can carry on conversations with folks anywhere just by pushing a few buttons, or turn on the television to see a baseball game as it takes place in a stadium across the continent. At night we lie down on a soft bed, snug in a house where we keep the temperature set at a comfortable point on the thermometer. Our refrigerators and cupboards hold food we paid for with a credit card swiped through a device at the supermarket located just a few minutes away.
It’s hard to imagine what it was like here more than a century ago.
The area where we live was still a wilderness when William Seward negotiated the deal to buy Russian America for $7.2 million. Many Americans thought it a waste of money, even though it was only two cents an acre. It was populated by “heathen” Natives and a smattering of traders. Those in cities to the south didn’t realize that those “savages” had learned to survive under harsh conditions, living off the land and sharing their harvests with each other. They experienced territorial differences between themselves but welcomed the newcomers, even coming to the aid of stricken chechakoes.
When the transfer was made in Sitka in 1867, the Army was put in charge of the new possession. Expeditions were sent to study and map the area. The officers in charge of those explorers made their mark on Alaska. Among them were Capt. Edwin Glenn and Lt. Henry Allen, both of whom are memorialized in a town bearing their combined names and the captain by highways New and Old.
Some Americans knew that gold had been found on the Kenai Peninsula by a Russian mining engineer. In 1849 Petr Doroshin reported that he had found trace amounts of the yellow stuff but felt coal to be an even better prospect. He asked to be allowed another year to prospect, only to be denied. It turned out to be a costly decision which voided a chance to remedy the czar’s financial difficulties. It was to prove very fortunate for the United States.
Early adventurers looked to the new frontier as a place ripe for exploration.
The existence of fur-bearing animals was widely known. There were rumors that gold could be found. Ed Schieffelin, who made a fortune mining silver in Nevada, had a notion that a mineralized belt circled the globe. In 1882 he and his brother Al traveled to the Yukon and prospected, but failed to prove his theory.
Among those who came to explore and remained was George Palmer, who tried his hand with a gold pan in streams along the Yukon; he also was disappointed at not finding good pay dirt. He then turned his sights to Cook Inlet where discoveries had been reported in 1884 and 1886 on Cooper and Bear creeks.
Crossing the glacier after arriving at a Prince William Sound port near present-day Whittier, Palmer made a discovery on a tributary of Resurrection Creek that flows into Turnagain Arm. He named it for himself. Joseph Cooper’s discovery was on a creek he named for himself near today’s Cooper Landing on the Sterling Highway.
At Crow Creek, Ralph Oldham, Dante Barton, Charles J. Brooks, Thomas “Fritz” Fenstermacher and others formed the Crow Creek Mining Co. on Jan. 1, 1898. That became one of the largest mines in what was to be known as the Sunrise Mining District. It is located off the road that now leads to Girdwood. Today it continues as a tourist attraction, its payoff coming not from gold but visitors who pan the creek, visit the museum and enjoy a meal and entertainment.
The town of Sunrise, with a wharf on the shores of Turnagain Arm, sprang up as the supply center for miners whose claims were on branches of Canyon and Resurrection creeks and Six Mile River.
Most were placers, but there were several lode claims on ledges above those streams. There were three stores, a hotel, three saloons and, before long, a community hall to serve their needs. Another town, Hope, was established eight miles to the south as the crow flies. Hope survives as a popular destination for a day’s drive and boasts a museum displaying artifacts from its past.
First sheltering themselves in tents, the men who settled the widespread community built log cabins. Rough whipsawed lumber, costing $1.25 per board foot, was used for the larger buildings on what became the main street. As in most Gold Rush settlements, the male population by far outnumbered those of the fairer sex. Fairer, but certainly not weaker.
Present-day residents would be hard-pressed to live under conditions faced by those pioneers.
Yukon stoves—metal boxes standing on legs, with a flat top and a stovepipe allowing the smoke to escape—were used for heating and cooking. Its fuel was wood from trees felled with an ax, chopped to size and split by hand. Several cords were needed to get through a winter.
Food was stored in cupboards made from boxes that had contained goods shipped up from Outside. With no refrigeration, most of it was canned or dried. Vegetables were grown in home gardens. Potatoes were good crops that kept well. In the store, they sold for two cents a pound. Sourdough, made from flour stirred in water and allowed to stand at room temperature, served to make pancakes as well as bread.
Furniture mostly was hand-made. Nail kegs and barrels served as chairs. Beds were made as comfortable as possible with blankets on top of planks with storage underneath. Illumination came from candles or lanterns. Water was hauled from the creeks. Clothes were washed by hand in a tub with buckets of water heated over an open fire in summer and on the kitchen stove in winter. Clothing for men and women was sturdy, made to stand up under rough conditions. When venturing out in town, men generally wore neckties and jackets rather than work clothes. Ladies wore dresses, but while assisting at the mines often wore men’s trousers and plaid shirts.
A good look at life in those days can be found in books prepared by descendants of Sunrise residents “Jack” Morgan and Nellie Frost.
“Gold Rush Wife” by Dorothy M. Frost is based on her mother’s recollections. “Memories of Old Sunrise” is the autobiography of Albert Weldon Morgan and, coincidentally, proofread by Dorothy Frost. Both books were edited by Rolfe G.Buzzell, PhD and distributed by Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm (KMTA) National Heritage Area and the Cook Inlet Historical Society. The books are available from KMTA or Amazon.
Frost and Morgan, both of whom shared the nickname “Jack,” ventured to Upper Cook Inlet to prospect for gold in 1895. Both acquired claims on creeks in the camp called Sunrise. That name was given because the morning sun was visible when it rose from behind one peak, then disappeared and rose again behind another.
Frost, who had been a grocer, went back Outside in the fall to bring his wife with him the following spring. Hired to run Wheeler’s store in the winter, they were to live at Sunrise year-round. They left on April 25 and arrived May 28 after an arduous voyage with several stops. Their steamship arrived at Kodiak where they transferred to another that took them to Tyonek where the L. J. Perry ferried them to their final destination.
Frost warned his wife about conditions, including mosquitoes.
“During the summer months you have to go about with your head in a bag, and even then the pests crawl up your trouser legs and down your boots and try to eat you alive,” he cautioned.
Based on his experience, they provisioned well before leaving Seattle. Unlike many novices who made the trip, they had proper clothing and appropriate gear.
One treasure Nellie Frost brought with her was a clock that is mentioned throughout the book—her connection to the home she left behind. An accomplished cook, one convenience she especially missed was a cast-iron kitchen range. Her husband later surprised her with one, a 138-pound monster that had to be wrestled up a mountainside to their cabin. Freight at the time cost $175 per ton.
Unlike many of her neighbors, Nellie Frost knitted a close relationship with Kenaitze Indians. Her story gives a unique insight into Native culture and customs of that era.
The pioneers were tough indeed.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.