The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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On King’s Island, fifty miles south of Cape Prince of Wales, there is a tribe of veritable cave-dwellers. The island is a great mass of rock, with almost perpendicular sides rising seven hundred feet above the sea. On one side, where the angle is nearly forty-five degrees, the Eskimos have excavated homes in the rock, about half a hundred of which are two hundred feet above the sea. These people openly defy the revenue laws, and are the known distributers of contraband articles, especially of intoxicants.
Behring Sea, where it washes the shores of Alaska, from Norton Sound to Bristol Bay, is slowly growing more shallow, having but fifteen fathoms depth, in some places, forty miles off the west shore of the mainland, and growing shallower as it approaches the continent. This has caused a speculative writer to suggest the possible joining of Asia and America, at some future period, by the gradual filling up of Behring Sea. The reason of this is obvious. The Yukon River brings down from its course of two thousand miles and more many hundred tons of soil daily which it deposits along the coast, while the Kuskoquin River, second only to the Yukon in volume, is engaged in the same work about a hundred and fifty miles south of where the greater river empties into Norton Sound. These large water-ways carry, like the Mississippi, immense deposits to the sea, and the process has been going on night and day for no human being knows how long.
One hundred and fifty miles from the mouth of this Kuskoquin River the Moravians of Bethlehem, Pa., support a missionary establishment. The station is named Bethel, one of the most isolated points in Alaska, receiving a mail but once a year! Truly, nothing save fulfilling a conscientious sense of duty could compensate intelligent people for thus separating themselves from home and friends.
We have spoken of a peninsula making out at the north towards Asia, but this comparatively insignificant projection from the mainland should not be permitted to confuse the reader’s mind as regards the Alaska Peninsula, properly so called, which extends from the southern part of the Territory, ending in the islands which form the Aleutian group. This peninsula is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable in the world, being fifty miles broad and three hundred long, literally piled with mountains, some of which are but partially extinct volcanoes, emitting at the present time more or less smoke and ashes, sometimes accompanied by blazing gases discernible at night far away over land and sea, appearing to the midnight watch on board ship like a raging conflagration in the heavens. The principal islands of the group of which we have been speaking, and which stretch far away from the southwestern corner of the Alaska Peninsula towards Kamschatka, as though extending a cordial hand from the Occident to the Orient, are as follows: Unimak, with a volcanic peak nine thousand feet high; Unalaska, whose peak is five thousand seven hundred feet high; Atka, with a height of four thousand eight hundred feet; Kyska, which is crowned by an elevation of three thousand seven hundred feet; and Attoo, whose tallest peak is over three thousand feet.This island is just about four hundred miles from the Asiatic coast. Unimak has a large lake of sulphur within its borders, and all of these islands have more or less hot springs. From those in Unalaska loud reports issue at intervals, like the boom of cannon, recalling our late similar experience in the Yellowstone Park.
Alaska constitutes the northwestern portion of the American continent, and has a coast line exceeding eleven thousand miles. The extreme length of the Territory, north and south, is eleven hundred miles, and its breadth is eight hundred. It is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean, on the east by British Columbia, on the south by the Pacific Ocean, and on the west by Behring Strait and the North Pacific. Our geographies and encyclop?dias help us to little more than the boundaries of this great Territory, which contains nearly six hundred thousand square miles. The latest published estimates give the aggregate number of square miles as nineteen thousand less than the amount we have named, but Governor Swineford and other residents of the Territory believe it to be an underestimate. As there is no actual survey extant, the figures given can only be a reasonable approximation to the true number. The boundary dividing Alaska and British Columbia was settled by treaty between England and Russia in 1825, and the same line is recognized to-day as separating our possessions in this quarter from those of Great Britain. Alaska is as large as all of the New England and Middle States, with Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee combined. So far as size is concerned, the Territory is, therefore, an empire in itself, being equal in area to seventy-one States like Massachusetts, and containing as many square miles as England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and Belgium united. It has been estimated by competent judges that, with its islands, it has a coast line equal to the circumference of the globe. Very few of our people, even among the educated class, have an adequate idea of the immensity of this northwestern Territory, two thirds of which abounds in available resources, only awaiting development. Were Alaska situated on our Atlantic coast it would extend from Maine to Florida.
Miss Kate Field, in a comprehensive article already quoted from, published in the “North American Review,” justly censuring Congress for its supineness and ignorance in relation to Alaska, says: “American citizens, living comfortably on the Atlantic seaboard, knowing their own wants and dictating terms to their submissive representatives, take little heed of those new additions to the United States which are destined to be the crowning glory of the Republic. When a nation is so big as to render portions of it a terra incognita to those who make the laws, there’s something rotten this side of Denmark!.. The march of empire goes on in spite of human fallibility, and now the land of the midnight sun knocks at the door of Congress. She is twenty-three years old, and asks to be treated as though she were of age. The big-wigs at Washington rub their eyes, put on their spectacles, and wonder what this Hyperborean hubbub means?”
In examining the geographical characteristics of Alaska, we observe a peculiarity in its outlying islands which is also found in the construction of the continents. They all have east of their southern points series of islands. Thus, Alaska has the Sitkan or Alexander group; Africa has Madagascar; Asia has Ceylon; Australia has the two large islands of New Zealand; and America has the Falkland Islands. Alaska is the great island region of the United States.
It is not for us to enter into the brief history of the country, that is, brief as known to us, but it is well to fix in the mind the fact that Russia’s title was derived from prior discovery. Behring first saw the continent in this region of North America, July 18, 1741, in latitude 58° 28?, and two days later anchored in a bay near a point which he called St. Elias, a name which he also gave to the great mountain overshadowing the neighboring shore. It is sufficient for our purpose that we know this Territory was purchased from Russia by our government in 1867, after that country had occupied it a little more than a century, paying therefor the sum of seven million two hundred thousand dollars. It has been truly said that it was practically giving away the country on the part of Russia; but doubtless diplomatic reasons influenced the Tzar, who would much rather have presented it outright to the United States than to have it, by conquest or otherwise, fall into the hands of England, who was known to crave its possession as connected with her Pacific coast interests. So when the first Napoleon sold us Louisiana, he did so not alone in consideration of the money, which was doubtless much needed by his treasury, – amounting to sixty million francs, – but because he was not willing to leave this distant territory a prey to Great Britain in the event of hostilities between France and England, which were then imminent. He was glad, as he remarked, “to establish forever the power of the United States, and give to England a maritime rival destined to humble her pride;” adding, “It is for the interest of France that America should be great and strong.”
Alaska was a white elephant to Russia, but in our hands it has already proved a bonanza.
Any one can now see that the sum named as an equivalent for this colossal territory was a trifling value to place upon it, when its great extent is realized, together with its vast mineral wealth and inexhaustible supply of fish, fur, and timber. It is in fact the only great game and fur preserve left in the Western world, inviting the trapper and hunter to reap a rich return for their industry. Nowhere else on this continent do wild animals more abound, or enjoy such immunity from harm, as is afforded them in the dense, half-impenetrable forests of Alaska, where Nature herself becomes our gamekeeper, preventing the too rapid extinction of animal life.
From a lease in favor of the Alaska Commercial Company of San Francisco, giving them the exclusive right to take seals on the Prybiloff group of islands, our government has received four and one half per cent. interest, annually, during the last nineteen years, on the entire purchase-money paid to Russia. This same company, whose term is just about to expire, would gladly renew the lease with our government at a considerable advance upon the amount heretofore paid; but it is an open question whether the continuance of this great monopoly is for the best interest of Alaska, when considered in all its bearings.
Undoubtedly this contract is a real benefit in one way. The company, through its agents, will take good care to see that no outside interest interferes with their rights so as to permit any indiscriminate slaughter of the seals. Whereas, were the capture of these peltries not guarded, an end of the product would be brought about in a very short time. There is a manifest injustice in all monopolies, as we view them; but of two evils, in this instance we should perhaps feel inclined to choose the least by selling the privilege to a responsible company. It must be admitted that the high-handed course of the present company, their arbitrary assumptions, and their treatment of the natives generally, are represented in a very bad light by many residents of Alaska; but little else, however, could be expected of so great a monopoly. One thing is certain, and that is, the company has realized a great fortune by its contract.
There were plenty of people who ridiculed the acquisition of this Territory at the time when it was brought about; but there were also some far-seeing statesmen, influenced by no selfish motives, who felt very different about the matter, among whom was Mr. Seward, then Secretary of State, and to whom the credit is mostly due for consummating the important purchase. That able diplomat considered the transaction to have been the most important act of his official career, and put himself on record to that effect. He remarked, in discussing the matter at a public meeting, “It may take two generations before the purchase is properly appreciated.” Mr. Seward was right. It was a crowning glory for him to have added a new empire to his country’s domain, though in 1867 its great commercial importance was hardly known, even to himself. Its valuable gold deposits were then thought possibly to exist; but subsequent developments have already far outstripped anticipations in that direction, and the large yield of the precious metal is annually increasing.
“I thought when Alaska was purchased, in 1867,” says that keen observer and clever writer, Captain John Codman, “that it might answer for a great skating park; but now I know, from merely coasting along its southeastern shores and landing at a few of its outposts, that the seven million two hundred thousand dollars paid for it is less than the interest of the sum that it is worth. A great part of it is yet unexplored, for its whole area is three times greater than the republic of France; but what has been discovered is invaluable, and what has not been discovered may be valuable beyond calculation.”
So little did we, as a people, appreciate the new acquisition that it was almost entirely neglected for seventeen years. Not until 1884 was it granted a territorial government, Hon. John H. Kinkead, ex-governor of Nevada, being the first governor appointed for Alaska. “Twenty years ago,” says Governor Swineford of Alaska, “I made political capital out of Seward’s purchase. I called it the refrigerator of the United States. I heaped obloquy on William H. Seward. I shall spend the rest of my life in making reparation to what I have so foully wronged.” Such has been the general testimony of all who speak from personal observation, and uninfluenced by sinister motives.
The subject of the addition of Alaska to the United States suggests the fact that our territorial acquisitions from time to time form certain decided and interesting landmarks in the history of the country. Thus, in 1803 we acquired Louisiana from France by the payment of fifteen million dollars. In 1845 Texas was annexed and her debt assumed, amounting to the sum of seven million five hundred thousand dollars. In 1848 California, New Mexico, and Utah were acquired from Mexico, partly through war, and by the payment of fifteen million dollars. In 1854 Arizona was purchased from Mexico for ten million dollars. And last, but by no means least, Alaska, as has been stated, was obtained from Russia in 1867 for seven million two hundred thousand dollars. “By this purchase,” said Charles Summer in his able speech before Congress, “we dismiss one more monarch from this continent. One by one they have retired; first France; then Spain; then France again; and now Russia; all give way to the absorbing Unity which is declared in the national motto, E Pluribus Unum.”
At the time of the transfer of Alaska, the native population, Russians, half-breeds and all, did not probably exceed forty thousand; indeed, careful inquiry seems to indicate that this is an overestimate. Since that period the native population has steadily decreased, but the white population has increased, it is believed, sufficiently to make good the estimated aggregate of twenty-two years ago. In 1867 the commerce of Alaska was officially reported as being two million five hundred thousand dollars for the current year. The published estimate for the last year made it a fraction less than seven million dollars, of which about a million five hundred thousand dollars was in gold bullion. Certainly this shows a very steady if not rapid commercial growth. Competent individuals estimate that the commerce of the Territory for the year 1889 will reach ten million dollars in amount. The increase in the number of fish-canning establishments alone will add two millions to last year’s aggregate. The shipment of preserved salmon exported in tins and barrels is increasing annually.
The available timber now standing in the Territory might alone meet the ordinary demand of this continent for half a century. Though the extreme northern part of Alaska is treeless, its southern shores, both of the islands and mainland, are covered with a dense forest growth, the Aleutian group excepted. It is the visible wealth of the country, and a source of admiration to all appreciative visitors.
Fort Tongas is very near the southeast point of Alaska, and about ten miles north of Fort Simpson; the former American, the latter English territory. When the ground was cleared to establish the American fort, “yellow cedar-trees,” says W. H. Dall, “eight feet in diameter were cut down. The flanks of all the islands of this archipelago bear a magnificent growth of the finest timber, from the water’s edge to fifteen hundred feet above the sea.” It must be a cedar of magnificent proportions out of which the natives can hew and construct a canoe seventy feet long capable of carrying one hundred men. This the Haidas do, producing models both swift and seaworthy, the prows extending in a peak not unlike the ancient galleys of Greece, decorated with totemic designs. These magnificent forests, having never felt the stroke of the axe, present a growth naturally very dense and peculiar, the branches of the tall trees being often draped with long black and white moss, dry and fine as hair, which it resembles. This characteristic recalled the same effect observed upon the thickly wooded shores of the St. John River in Florida, and the Lake Pontchartrain district of Louisiana. The fallen trees and stumps are cushioned by a growth of green, velvety moss, nearly ten inches in thickness, and are also decked with creeping vines in the most picturesque manner; among which is seen here and there deep red clusters of the bunch-berry. The timber is pronounced by good judges to be as valuable as that of Oregon and Washington, compared with which our forests in Maine are hardly more than tall undergrowth. A very large percentage of the Alaska timber grows at the most convenient points for shipment, making it especially available. The white spruce, called the Sitka pine, rises to a height of from a hundred and fifty to a hundred and eighty feet, and measures from three to six feet in diameter. When this growth is cut into dimension lumber it very much resembles our southern pitch-pine. There is also found in these forests the usual variety of cedar, fir, ash, maple, and birch trees, mingled with the others of loftier growth. The yellow cedar of this region grows nowhere else of such size and quality. It is much prized, and best adapted for shipbuilding, having been found to be unequaled for durability, and also because it is impervious to the troublesome teredo, or boring worm, which destroys the ordinary piles under the wharves at Puget Sound, as well as at Sitka, so rapidly as to render it necessary to renew them every three or four years. Southern latitudes, in the neighborhood of the Gulf of Mexico, suffer equally from the depredations of this active marine pest. The Alaska cedar is also a choice cabinet wood, possessing a very agreeable odor, considerable quantities of it being shipped for select use in San Francisco and elsewhere. The coast of the Alexander Archipelago comprises nearly eight thousand miles of shore line, forming long straight avenues of calm deep water many miles in length, sprinkled with islands densely wooded from the water’s edge, while the number of good harbors is almost countless, in which vessels may lay alongside the land and receive their cargoes of timber or lumber in the most convenient manner.
When the woods of Maine and Michigan cease to yield satisfactorily, as they must do by and by, we have here a ready source of supply which no ordinary demand can exhaust in many years. One enthusiastic writer upon this subject predicts that this part of the North Pacific coast will eventually become the ship-yard of the American continent. One is hardly prepared to indorse so sweeping a prediction, but that there is a nearly inexhaustible supply of the necessary timber for such a purpose even an inexperienced visitor cannot fail to realize. It is gratifying to know that these forests are free from all danger by fire, which often proves so destructive in the State of Washington and elsewhere. This immunity from a much dreaded exigency is owing to the frequent rains, which keep the undergrowth in Alaska so moist that the flames cannot spread.
Speaking of Fort Tongas, we should not forget to mention that a native couple, educated by the missionaries, are here teaching a school of young natives numbering fifty pupils, for which our government pays them five hundred dollars per annum. The success attained by these instructors in teaching the ordinary branches of an English education is surprising. Tongas, it will be remembered, is the most southerly point of our Alaska possessions.
The country teems with animal life. The sea which laves its shores and the outlying islands is so full of excellent fish as to have been a wonder in this respect since the days of the earliest navigators. The same may be said of its rivers, inlets, and lakes, the former being famous for the abundance, size, and excellence of the salmon which they produce, and which are annually packed for exportation in such large quantities to various parts of the world. We were told by the overseer of the canning factory at Pyramid Harbor that the entire product of the establishment was already – the season but just commencing – engaged by a Liverpool house. To secure the delivery the foreign merchant had cheerfully advanced five hundred pounds sterling.
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