The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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Interesting stories are told of the grand hospitality – characteristic of the Russians – which was so liberally dispensed within this castle, in entertaining celebrated voyagers of various countries, and especially those of the United States. It has always been the policy of the Tzars to cultivate kindly feelings with our government, and Russia is still our constant friend. The upper part of the old castle was arranged for theatrical representations, while in the other apartments the nights were rendered merry with cards, dancing, and music. Rich furniture, valuable paintings, and costly plate had been brought all the way from Russia to equip this grand household among a savage race. The toilets of the ladies were perhaps a twelvemonth behind those of St. Petersburg, but their diamonds and laces were never out of fashion. Elegant chandeliers were left by these former masters of the castle, which show what the rest of the furniture must have been to have harmonized with such gorgeous ornaments. The visitor is shown the apartment occupied by the venerable Lady Franklin at eighty years of age, who came hither in search for her lost husband, the Arctic explorer.
The quaint old Greek Church with the sharp peak of Vestova as a background is a prominent and interesting edifice. Its emerald-green dome and Byzantine spire, after the home fashion of the Russians, together with its elaborately embellished interior and its ancient chime of bells, strongly individualize the structure. Some pictures of more than ordinary merit are to be seen within its walls. One representing the Madonna and Child is pronounced to be very valuable. It is kept in perfect condition by the government of St. Petersburg, which is the sole owner of all the churches of the empire, at home and abroad. The Tzar expends more money for church and missionary purposes in Alaska to-day than all the Christian sects of our country combined. For the three churches in Sitka, Kodiak, and Unalaska the sum of fifty thousand dollars annually is set aside and appropriated. Nevertheless, we believe the Training School at Sitka exercises a much higher civilizing influence, where the simplest Christian principles are taught, combined with common school studies, and where instruction is given in the daily industries of life. All concede that education and general intelligence are the mainsprings of our system of government, and that the perpetuity of its institutions depends thereon. In view of these indisputable facts let our rulers at Washington bestow liberally from out the plethoric national treasury for educational purposes in Alaska.
Most of the houses of Sitka are heavy log dwellings, some of which are clapboarded outside and smoothly finished within. In the winter season about a thousand Indians live here, the white population being composed of the usual government officials and agents, with a few storekeepers engaged in the fur traffic and general trade with the aborigines. Four or five hundred miners and prospectors gather here also in the winter, when it becomes too cold to prosecute their calling far inland, where the thermometer often falls to 20° below zero.Even this occasional extreme could be easily endured, and the work be little retarded, were suitable quarters provided. In midwinter daylight continues at Sitka for only six hours in the twenty-four, though by the first of June there is virtually no night at all; the stars take a vacation, while the evening and the morning twilight merge into day.
The author had thought, heretofore, that the rainfall at Bergen, on the coast of Norway, exceeded that of any other spot he had visited, but here at Sitka “the rain, it raineth every day.” We have seen it rain harder in the tropics, but not often. The brief downpour, however, is so quickly followed by a flood of delicious sunshine that the contrast is a charming revelation. Still another effect is observable that, as rainy as it is, at certain seasons the atmosphere is still peculiarly dry. The writer was told that clothes would quickly dry under a shed during the heaviest rains. The fair weather is most likely to occur during the excursion season, so that the stranger is not apt to meet much annoyance in this respect while at the capital. The annual rainfall is recorded as being ninety inches upon this island, a degree of humidity which is attributed to the heated waters of the equatorial regions, which warm the whole coast-line of southern Alaska, insuring the mild winters it enjoys.
Scientists tell us that the effect of this warm current is equivalent to twenty degrees of latitude, that is to say, the same products which are found in latitude 40° north on the Atlantic coast thrive in this region at 60° north, which is a little higher than the latitude of Sitka. This beneficent stream, arising off the coast of southern California, crosses the Pacific south of the Sandwich Islands, and on the coast of Asia turns northward in a grand sweep, striking the shores of America, and returning finally to its starting-point. “It is this,” says H. H. Bancroft, in his “History of the Pacific States,” “that clothes temperate isles in tropical verdure, makes the silkworm flourish far north of its rightful home, and sends joy to the heart of the hyperborean, even to him upon the Strait of Behring, and almost to the Arctic Sea.”
The abundant moisture causes all vegetation to grow most luxuriantly. “The enemies of this region, some of whom,” said an official to us, “have been paid for sinister purposes to write it down, declare that it cannot be made to support a population, as vegetables will not grow here, but vegetables have been successfully grown all about us for more than fifty years.” There are a plenty of domestic cattle at Sitka, where we partook of as sweet and rich milk as can be produced on our choice dairy farms at the East. The southern portions of the Territory, both the islands and the mainland, are better adapted to support a civilized white population than are the larger portions of Norway and Sweden. It may be doubted if there is anything finer in color than the June greenery of Sitka. Our first day at this unique capital had been varied by alternate rain and sunshine, but the closing hours of the day were clear and beautiful, emphasized by such a grand and brilliant sunset as is rarely excelled, the afterglow and mellow twilight lasting until nearly midnight, causing the turban of snow upon the head of Mount Edgecombe to look like Etruscan gold.
John G. Brady, United States commissioner at Sitka, writes from there as follows: “Though Alaska is no agricultural country, yet there is plenty of land for growing vegetables for a vast population which can be easily cleared and cultivated. The food of this coast is assured unless the Pacific current changes and rain ceases. Perhaps there is not another spot on the globe where the same number of people do so little manual labor and are so well fed as in Sitka.” The capacity of the island to produce a large variety of garden vegetables, and of good quality, is abundantly demonstrated by a resident who gains a successful livelihood through the use of these products grown on his own land.
The bay is very lovely and naturally recalls that of Naples, with its neighboring Vestova and its beautiful islands. Though Mount Edgecombe with its great truncated cone, situated fifteen miles away upon Kruzoff Island, is not now in active condition, a century ago, more or less, it poured forth lava, fire, and smoke enough to rival the Italian volcano which buried Pompeii in its fatal d?bris nearly two thousand years ago. We were told that smoke and sulphurous vapor occasionally issue from the old crater of Edgecombe, but saw no distinct evidence of the fact. As we looked at the sleeping giant we wondered if it will one day awake in its Plutonic power. The bay is said to contain over one hundred islands, which are mostly covered with a noble growth of trees, rendered picturesque and lovely by green sloping banks and shores fringed with golden-russet sea-weed, bearing long, banana-like leaves. Many of these islands are occupied, some by whites, some by Indians. Japan Island, so-called, is the largest in the bay, and is situated just opposite the town. It was once improved by the Russians as an observatory, and now contains some fine gardens cultivated both by whites and natives, from whence the citizens obtain their supply of fresh vegetables. Baranoff Island itself is mountainous and thickly wooded, though there are large arable spots distributed here and there near to Sitka, dotted with wild flowers in white and gold, – Flora’s favorite colors in this latitude. Never, save in equatorial regions, has the author seen vegetation more luxuriant than it is in its native condition in these islands of southern Alaska.
The Sitka of to-day contains about two thousand inhabitants, but is a very different place from that which the Russians made of it. The subjects of the Tzar carried on shipbuilding, manufactured wooden and iron ware, erected an iron furnace and smelted native ore, made steel knives and agricultural tools, axes, hatches, and carpenters’ tools generally. They established a bell foundry here at which many bells and chimes were cast, and shipped the products all along the Pacific coast, especially to Mexico. The Greek Church was kept up to the highest standard as regarded the national forms, and employed nearly a score of priests, which, together with some forty or fifty civil officers attached to the governor’s household staff, made a considerable community of white citizens, which was a constant scene of business activity. The capital has, in some respects at least, been greatly improved since it came into our possession, but it bears unmistakable evidences of antiquity. It has been made neat and clean, which was certainly not a characteristic under its former management, the streets have been regularly laid out, and good sidewalks have taken the place of muddy pathways, while some well-constructed roads leading through the neighborhood have been perfected. Though there is not seemingly so much of local business going on as there used to be, still it is a far more wholesome and pleasant place to live in than it was in the days of Muscovite possession. In Mrs. E. S. Willard’s published letters from Alaska we learn how an officer of our navy, namely, Captain Henry Glass of the United States steamer Jamestown, in 1881, proved to be the right sort of missionary to send on special duty to Sitka.
“His first move,” says this lady, “was to abolish hoochinoo. He made it a crime to sell, buy, or drink it, or any intoxicating drinks. He prevailed upon the traders to sell no molasses to the Indians in quantities, so that they could not make this drink. He issued orders in regard to clearing up the native ranches, which were filthy in the extreme, and had been the scene of nightly horrors of almost every description. He appointed a police force from the Indians themselves, dressed them in navy cloth with ‘Jamestown’ in gilt letters on their caps, and a silver star on their breasts. He made education compulsory. The houses were all numbered and the children of each house, each child being given a little round tin plate on which was marked his number and the number of his house. These plates were worn on a string about the neck. As the children arrived in school they were registered. Whoever failed to send their children were fined one blanket. As soon as they discovered that the captain was in earnest they submitted, and I believe no blanket was forfeited after the first week. The ranches have been cleaned, whitewashed, and drained, and all is peaceful and quiet where a few months ago it was a place of strife.”
The Sitka Industrial School – or as it is better known here, the Jackson Institution – is the most interesting feature of the town, because one cannot fail to realize how much good it is accomplishing in the way of practical civilization and real education among the natives. At this writing there are nearly one hundred boys, and about sixty girls and young women, who are under the parental care of the Institution. The teaching force consists of a dozen earnest workers, mostly ladies from the Eastern States. Besides the ordinary English branches taught in the school, the girls are trained to cook, wash, iron, sew, knit, and to make their own clothes. The boys are taught carpentry, house-building, cabinet-making, blacksmithing, boat-building, shoemaking, and other industries. The work of the school is so arranged that each boy and girl attends school half a day, and works half a day. The results thus brought about are admirable. The “Mission,” as the cluster of buildings forming the school, the hospital, the residence for teachers, cottages, and workshops is called, is situated beside the road leading to Indian River, overlooking the bay, the islands, and the sea, with grand mountain views on three sides. Fifteen different tribes are represented in this Sitka Industrial School. English-speaking young natives who have been trained here readily obtain good wages at the mines, in the fish-canneries, and wherever they apply for employment among the white residents of the Territory, while their influence with their tribes is very great. That the Alaskans are teachable and capable of attaining a higher and better plane of life has been abundantly proven by the successful mission of this school during the few years of its existence.
There is a small monthly newspaper published at Sitka in the interest of the Training School called “The North Star.” It is inexpensively produced, and is calculated to disseminate information in behalf of the excellent mission, as well as to add interest to its local affairs. The type-setting and all the work on this little paper is done by native boys. In his last published report Dr. Sheldon Jackson says in relation to the Alaskan natives: “Christianize them, give them a fair school education and the means of earning a living, and they are safe; but without this the race is doomed. We believe in the gospel of habitual industry for the adults, and of industrial training for the children. By these means they can be reclaimed from improvident habits, and transformed into ambitious and self-helpful citizens.”
The Industrial Training School at Sitka was established as a day school by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions in 1880, with Miss Olinda A. Austin as teacher. The following fall circumstances led to the opening of a boarding department. Since then the institution has grown until there are connected with it two large buildings (one for boys and the other for girls), an industrial building sheltering the carpenter and boot and shoe shops, the printing-office and boat house, a small blacksmith shop, a steam laundry, a bakery, a hospital, and six small model cottages. Every building has been constructed by the pupils themselves under the direction of the one carpenter, who acted as their instructor. Even the domestic furniture, such as beds, chairs, bureaus, and the like, is the handiwork of these native boys. We can testify from personal observation that all is wonderfully well done, and of excellent patterns.
There is a valuable gold mine situated six or eight miles southeast of Sitka, eight hundred feet above the sea level and about a mile from deep water, on Silver Bay, where the largest ships may lie beside the shore, the wharfage having been prepared by Nature’s own hand. The quartz rock is here represented to be of excellent quality, showing thirty dollars to the average ton, and there is never-failing water near at hand sufficient for running a hundred stamp-mill. Gold has been mined at Silver Bay in a primitive way for several years. Numerous other mines have been located and opened on Baranoff Island which give great promise, but this just mentioned has accomplished thus far the best results. We took notes of eleven mines upon which much work had been done, shafts sunken, and tunnels run. “The island is besprinkled with these gold-quartz veins,” said an intelligent citizen to us. “Prospectors and miners have been attracted elsewhere in the Territory by still more promising gold deposits. This, together with the want of capital, is the reason the mines have not been opened and worked on an extensive scale. This will follow, however, in due time, for miners can work here all the year round, with comfort as regards the weather, and at the minimum cost of living.”
The arrival of an excursion steamer at Sitka is made the occasion of a regular holiday, which is very natural with a people who live in so isolated a place. As the steamer enters the several harbors of the inland passage northward, her presence is announced by a report from the cannon on the forecastle, which awakens a score of sonorous echoes from the rocky cliffs and nearest mountains, also serving to arouse the sleepy natives and put the dealers in curios on the qui vive. The few caf?s do a thriving business; the nights, never very dark in summer, are turned into day, and hours of revelry prevail. The aboriginal women drive a lively business with their home-made curios, and indiscreet native girls promenade freely with strangers. Peccadilloes are overlooked; no one seems to be held strictly to account. The officials are unusually lenient on such occasions, just as they are in Boston or New York on the Fourth of July.
The immediate environs of Sitka present many rural beauties, including river, forest, and wild flowers, with here and there a rapid, musical cascade. The same species of highly-developed white clover as was seen at Fort Wrangel is a charming feature here, fragrant and lovely, – “Beautiful objects of the wild bees’ love.” Buttercups and dandelions are twice the size of those which we have in New England. Ferns are in great variety, and the mosses are exquisite in their velvety texture, while tenderly shrouding the fallen and decaying trees they present an endless variety of shades in green. There are over three hundred varieties of wild flowers found on Baranoff Island, and wild berries abound here as among all the islands and on the mainland. The wild raspberry, salmon-berry, and thimbleberry are especially luxuriant and fine in size and flavor. The woods are full of song-birds and of others more gaudy of feather. These are only summer visitors, to be sure, among which the rainbow-tinted humming-bird made his presence obvious. A pleasant walk is finely laid out along the banks of the sparkling Indian River, a swift mountain stream, hedged with thrifty and graceful alders, by which means the citizens have created for themselves a charming and favorite promenade. Along the left bank of this beautiful watercourse are woodland scenes of exquisite rural beauty.
It would be foolish to suggest the idea that Alaska promises to become eventually a great agricultural country; but it is equally incorrect to say, as did a certain popular writer not long since, that “there is not an acre of farming land in the Territory.” There are considerable areas of good arable land now under profitable cultivation in the Sitka district, and large farms, rich in virgin soil, could be had for a mere song, as the saying goes, in desirable localities, by clearing away the timber and draining the land. Some twenty-five milk cows are kept at Sitka; milk is sold at ten cents per quart. Fresh venison is cheap and abundant, and fish of various kinds cost nearly nothing. In the immediate vicinity there are three thousand acres of arable land, much of which is well grassed and covered with white clover. On the foot-hills there is plenty of grass for the sustenance of sheep and goats. Experienced residents told us that wool-growing might be profitably pursued as a business here, and that there was not a month in the year when the animals would absolutely require to be housed. Hay is easily made, and is in abundance at cheap rates. “I have never seen finer potatoes, turnips, cabbages, and garden produce generally, than those grown here,” says Governor Swineford in his annual report to the Department at Washington.
There is a great abundance of natural and nutritious grasses in most parts of the country, but especially in the southern islands and the Kodiak group. The great prosperity of Alaska, however, to be looked for in the near future, lies in the energetic development of her coal trade, her fisheries, and her extraordinary mineral wealth. The immense supply of timber, some of which is unsurpassed in its merchantable value, will come into use one or two generations later. The fur-trade, already of gigantic proportions, cannot be judiciously developed beyond its present volume, otherwise the source of supply will gradually become exhausted. It might be quadrupled for a few years, but this would be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. If protected, as our government is striving to do for it to-day, it will continue indefinitely to meet the market demand without glutting or overstocking it. In this connection, and after some inquiry, we cannot refrain from expressing the fear that the legal limit as regards the slaughter of the seals is greatly exceeded. Over three million dollars’ worth of canned salmon were exported from Alaska last year. “This Territory can supply the world with salmon, herring, and halibut of the best quality,” says Dr. Sheldon Jackson.
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