Robert Bruce Banks
In January 1898, Robert Bruce Banks (known by his middle name, Bruce) was living near
Thorp, Washington (100 miles east of Seattle) with his wife and family. He and his
wife, Josephine ("Josie") Jones Banks, had six children; Daisy aged 15, Waldo 13,
Lillian 9, Harold 6, Clyde 3, and Lyman 21 months.
As with many people trying to get established in a pioneer area, the 39-year-old man
worked at many jobs, including teaching school, operating a produce commission
business, carpentery work, and any other jobs that would supply cash for the family.
When news of the discovery of huge amounts of gold in the Klondike hit Washington, he
quickly planted his winter wheat crop, and then went to Seattle, where he boarded a
ship bound for Skagway, Alaska. Being winter, there was not much work to be had around
Thorp, so he and a friend decided that Alaska was the place to go - not for gold, but
to work for wages or on contracts which they hoped would bring in more cash than they
could earn in Washington.
Bruce Banks was not particularly successful in Skagway, and made a tragic choice of
ships to return home on. A few hours after leaving Skagway, during the night of
February 6, 1898, the Clara Nevada exploded, killing all those on board.
He had apparently never received any letters from Josie while he was in Alaska. Some of
her letters were undoubtedly lost, but Mrs. Baker finally received and returned to
Josie the ones in this collection.
The first letter was written to his wife, who remained in Thorp with their children.
Seattle, January 13, 1898
Dear Josie and Children,
I arrived in Seattle 2:30 yesterday. Hans [Peterson] met me at the train. Am not sure I
can get a ticket for Saturday but the chances are I will. Leon Baker and Delbert have
tickets to go Saturday. They have no money nor grub. Hans handed me 50 cents this
morning and without conditions. He is going though as fast as he can.
Ed Raymond goes on the Alki Sat. Herb Raymond says he left Dawson 28 Sept. that Pratt
was in the best of health, had a good claim, and was fixed for grub for the winter.
Another man who went up with Herb R has just come back, says he has been in same cabin
with Pratt and he is all right. He farther says an able bodied man can surely make 6 to
15 dollars per day up at Dyea or Skagway (?). Other people say there are too many there
now. I mean to know for myself. The rush has begun and I believe I can do well to go up.
Charlie's address is 212 Wall St. They are all well. If I cannot go on this boat I can
go in one week. No snow here, a little snow at Skag. I can get a good pair of Blankets
for $6.75. Write me to Charlie's address.
R B Banks
Thorp, Washington Jan. 17, 1898
I am so sorry we did not get a letter to you before you took the boat but I supposed you
would go before another mail. The children are all well now and Lillie went to school
again today. Clyde still insists on carrying out his threat to you, says he will get a
cannon that will shoot to Seattle but I guess it would hardly hit you away up there. He
thinks to scare you into submission so you will come back. I told him what you said in
you last letter and it pleased him. He has taken your place at the table and tries to
act just like you. The baby feels all over my face every morning and then says Where's
papoo? Waldo tends to his chores good and we are getting along all right as far as the
There were twenty four came out to singing school last Friday and tho the books had not
come we put in the time profitably. Miss Cager said there were five more who had
promised her to come. I don't know just how many of those there the other night but
nearly all I think. The organ came Sat. morning so we have to wait till tomorrow morning
to get the way bill back as the bank was not open til this morning. The organ is nice
and I think they will all be pleased. The freight was $7.30.
The singing books came yesterday and with the $5.50 from Morgan (he said that was all)
and some paid in advance on Singing Books had a little more than enough to get them
from the express office and will get that back as fast as the books are taken. It is
too bad you have to be so long on the way and I hope you will all get there safely. I
am glad Hans is the same old sixpence. Wish he was going to be with you after you get
through. I suppose he heard from that girl before he left. What about her, anyway?
I suppose you and Leon will camp together. I am glad he is with you, I think he will be
good company. Have you written to George and Barbara and Harve? The folks here are very
kind and we are not left much alone except during the day while the children are in
The children are all writing too and I must stop now and go to work.
Thorp, Wash. Jan 17, 1898
All the rest have told all the news, so I will tell about the basket social to be next
Saturday. It is to pay the freight on the organ. It came last Sat. morning. Miss Cager
will pay now and the social money is to pay her. We will hear the organ in school
They are getting up one of their contests, and will pay mamma for training the singers.
I got a letter from Ethel today. She said maybe she would have to go to Whatcom when the
Mr. Briggs has been quite sick with something like pneumonia, but he is better now.
I will have to stop and tend to the supper.
Thorp, Wash. Jan. 17,1898
We received your letter today from Tacoma. I have good times skating yet there is little
new snow now, about three inches, I think. The organ came the next day after you left
and we will hive it in school tomorrow morning and I have got to speak a piece the 20th
of this month and so has Lillian and Lillian and I are going to sing the moon song. We
are on the half moon side, the side they call the crescent side. We'll beat them all to
I dout if you can read this scribbling of mine. The baby won't let me have the led
pencil so I had to take the next best, the pen I got the baby broke.
Last evening Frank Halverson spent the evening with us and we played games that is all
the games we have dominoes and authors and we popped corn too.
Did you take any popcorn with you or not? Mamma said she dident think you did.
Everything is going all right now. We are going to have a basket soshel to rase enough
to pay the freight on the organ. Well I think I will close for now and tell the more
next time if I can think of any then.
On the back of Waldo's letter was a little letter from Harold, aged just past 6.
We are reading about over to Susy and her chickens in my reader now.
Thorp, Wash. Jan. 17,189
I would have written in the letter before but my head ached and Mamma was in a hurry.
We got a letter from Ethel this morn along with your's and the COMPANION.
They are going to have a basket social here to get the rest of the money for the organ.
We will have it in school tomorrow morning. Frank Hutchinson came in last night and we
play authors for a while then he went home.
The Cresent's side is going to have their entertainment. (I guess that is what you call
it.) next Friday, and Waldo and I are going to sing "The Moon song". They want me to
speak a piece but I don't think I will.
Did you see Sema?
Well I can't think of anything more to say.
(Skagway in sight) Steamer Alki Jan 21, 1 PM
Dear Josie and children,
I sent you a letter from Wrangle. We then expected to be here yesterday but owing to
getting a little to one side of the channel the steamer stuck in sand and we were 24
hours waiting for the tide. We get our board with ticket so we only lost a day time,
The weather is not cold, some snow here 4 or 5 in. Mountains look like those at Easton
only timber is smaller. Skag. is about 2500 people. A man on bord talks of starting a
wood yard thinks he can give me a job. Will write more as soon as I can determine what
to do. I am not going inland.
Ashore, First man to meet me was Elihu Baker. He is teaming here and we Leon and I go
up to his place for a short time. We have a tent and stove and will soon set it up. I
got a job for 50 cents and hour for tomorrow and am asked to figure on a job this
evening. I am hoping to hear from you by Monday. Do keep well and try to not worry about
The buildings here are generally cheap and not much contracting done. Most all is day
work. I am told some are offering to work for 30 cents and hour but that won't do for
me and won't hold me here. The symptoms are that all lines of work will be overdone.
Most all the people coming in now are coming to work. I cannot say now it will be for
Don't fail to write me as many as can from baby up. You know I shall be very lonesome
and a letter will help me. If I cannot make big wages I shall come home.
There was a great fight here on the landing. The ship broght some Siwashes from Juno to
unload freight and the people here drove them off and got 50 cents per hour to help
unload. No one seriously hurt. Mrs. Baker is very friendly but we do not intend to
impose upon her.
Hans is rather sorry he outfitted for Dawson and may not go in anyhow not at once.
If you need anything call on Mr. Rann as he assured me of his own accord he would see
that you did not want. Tell me of your music class.
Clyde, I will bring you some money be a good boy.
Skagway Jan 24, 8PM 98
Dear Josie and Children
I will try to get a letter out to you on next boat. Adelber got here this evening. I
expected he would bring me a letter for I told you to write me to Charles address. We
have not been to post office here yet, but will go tomorrow. We have to stand in line
for our turn to get mail here. I sent one letter from here. Leon and I worked Sat. I
made $4. today $3.50 and can work at same job tomorrow (shingling). Yesterday we fixed
our tent. We put three logs down, hewed top and inside and set tent over it. The logs
make shelf all around our house. We have our bed up 2 ft. from ground in one end of
tent. No floor yet we are comfortable and well. While we were fixing up our tent a man
came along and engaged us to make 20 or more cords of 4 foot wood at $4 per cord. The
timber is mostly larch. I may bid on 500 cords of wood yet for the electric light.
There is not much rain here generally they say.
I miss you all when night comes. Write me often. I will send some money home soon.
Thorp, Wash. Jan. 26th 1898
We got your letter this morning we are all right now the cow is getting along all right
too. That little owl is here yet and in the evening when I go out to milk the cow it
sits up and winks and blinks at the light. Mr. Miles brought us a sack of apples to pay
for Addah's singing lessons. I wish you had some of them to night and some popcorn to
Lillie has gone to stay all night with Pearl and Rosa. Today Clyde took two sents and
went down to Beache's store and got a mouth organ and the right price was five sents.
The other eavning when I went out to milk the cow there were some chickens in the feed
box and I put the lantern on the wheat box and when I pulled the old roster out he
tipped the lantern of and as it happened the burner dropped out and the started blase
but I put it out so it did not hurt any thing.
Skagway, Jan. 29, 98
Brother Snyder and Family,
I have been a little slow about writing because I wanted to look at all sides of the
In regard to teaming would say the roads are good here now for sleds but there is but
very little to do for the teams here. Hay is $100.00 per ton. Many horses for sale
here. When a thaw comes the road will be very bad again about 6 in. snow here in town
and deeper up the trail, about as cold as Kitti-tas. Packers if they get a job make
pretty good pay. But you can see notices up on some buildings where there has been some
packing let. "No packers wanted." On the road office a notice says "No men wanted." I
have worked most of the time since coming here a day here and there, but hundreds are
As for wood there is no regular market and it cannot be got without going up the
mountain and schuting it down or going down the bay and rafting. The price is now as
low as $2.25 for cutting. The town takes all the level land between the mountains for 3
miles from the bay. This I think is the town of Alaska, but it is too big now. I saw
Bob the other day coming down the trail with his blankets. Said he was going to Dyea to
drive team. He was in a hurry so I did not talk much with him.
You may want to come here, but certainly you are better off than the best of them here.
I heard there was a snow slide at Dyea yesterday that killed three men. That is at
Best regards to all,
R B Banks
Skagway Jan. 31, 1898
Dear Josie and Children
I get but little chance to send mail as the boats are so irregular. I have been working
most of the time but had to lay off some on account of my wrist. It is better now. I am
going up on the road to do chopping at $3.50 board. Seven miles from town.
I can hardly sleep at night for thinking "Are you all well?". I have not had a word
from you since the letter I got in Seattle. Don't let Clyde go to sleep with cold feet.
Daisy Don't let Mama over work if you have to stay out of school.
If you think best, or rather if the strain is too great for you, I will come home in
March. I can have some work near home in the spring. The Corona ran on a rock two days
ago all are safe camped on shore. The Oregon is expected in today with the mail that
was on the Corona and I hope to get a letter then but I am going up the road now and
Mrs. Baker will send my mail up. You are in my mind all the time.
Skagway Feb. 2, 1898
I sent out a letter Monday on S.S. Noyo but we hear she is on a rock between here and
Juno. I had hired out then to go on the wagon road to work but when I got out there
they said they already had too many men. There are ten carpenters for every days work
The weather has been very cold and windy for 4 days. We are very healthy,, but I did
not come here for health or poverty. Had plenty of that before. Wood cutting is $2. per
cord now, and buck our own timber, pay uncer-tain. In fact pay here is generally
uncertain. I have not had a line from you to date except letter in Seattle. Unless
something good turns up soon, I will return to Seattle. I can earn a little money there
before spring. Alki is expected Friday, then I surely shall hear from you and return on
her unless things look better.
With much lonesomeness
R B Banks
Thorp, Wash. Feb. 13,1898
You never saw any snow go so fast as this does! Last night the path from here to
Burlingames was all snow but this afternoon it is all gone. Yesterday in the afternoon
I went over to Currie's with Edna and Maggie. We played colors, and hide the spool
quite a while then ______ her lesson and I went home.
We are going to begin next week to take a pin and put after your name for not using
good grammar (not the whole school, of course, but just those in Waldo's grammar class).
Were you in that fight with the Indians?
Do you remember that well that you filled up? This morning Harold was jumping up and
down on the snow and ice and come to find out the snow that was with the dirt had
melted and left it all hollow. Then Waldo took the ax and cut the snow away _____
Letter of Feb. 13, 1898
Mr. Peck acts kind of queer about paying that three dollars in vegetables. The other
day, Mamma asked him about cabbage and he said it was all buried up and then she asked
about potatoes and he answered the same.
Miss. Cager went to Ellensburg last Thursday and Friday to the teachers' examination
and Georgia and I helped Mr. Butcher to teach. I enjoyed it quite well and didn't have
any trouble to speak of. Friday afternoon was not the day for either of the societies
and so we had a debate on the question Resolved "That the gun is more useful to man
than the dog". Rosa led in the affirmative and Fred Newman in the negative. Myra was
chairman and all the school had the priviledge of speaking on either side. I spoke on
the affirma-tive also Madeline Davis and Willie Ellison helped Fred. The others did not
speak at all. It was decided by a vote of the school and Myra didn't talk loud enough
for all to hear and so about one third didn't vote on either side. It was decided in
favor of the negative. Then Mr. Butcher made a motion that we have some recitations and
as quick as a flash Myra called on him. At first he seemed to be ____________
Thorp, Wash. Feb. 13, 1898
We got your letter this morning and when I heard that you had not heard from us since
you left Seattle I couldn't think why you didn't get a letter for we have written a
half dozen letter since you left Seattle.
We are going to send our letters in care of Mrs. Baker this time and see if it will
The other day Mr. J. Burch was here with hay for Mr. Crandall and Mama told me to go
and tell him she would like to see him about getting some hay for the cow and she made
a trade for one ton of hay paying for it in music lessons, Roy and Mrs. Burch, hay is
only $10.50 now the hay we got is fine hay the cow has gained on her milk a little, but
The ice pond is all most dry now and where that ditch runs from the pond there are lots
of white fish. Yesterday I took my spear and went up to the pond and caught three fish.
Jim Gorden took his 22 rifel and when they would come up in shallow water he would
shoot them and as quick as the bullet struck them they would come to the top of the
water and he would wade in and get them out. Charley Ramm caught twelve in all and lots
of what he hit would get off his spear and swim away and the other fellows would get
them. The snow is all most gone it comenced to rain this morning and is all gone in the
Well, I think I will close for now.
We haven't heard from you since the 2nd Feb. when you thought you would return on the
Alki and since reading of the storms on the ocean and the sick-ness and death at
Skagway we are very anxious. If you are alive and able come home for I cannot stand
this much longer. I can send you some money if I knew how to reach you. I addressed the
two last letters in care of Mrs. Elihu Baker since you said she would send you mail out
We are well as usual but very uneasy about you.
Your loving wife,
Josie L. Banks
Thorp, Wash. Mar. 3, 1898
We have not heard from you since the letter you wrote the 2 of Feb. I went and got the
horses the other day they are pretty poor and we have got to get plowing soon Mr. Peek
thinks he will not have time to help me and I am going to try to get some body else to
help me everything is all right now but I expect I will have to stop school soon to go
Thorp, Wash. Mar. 6, 1898
We haven't had a letter or any kind of word from you since the letter that was written
Feb. 2. You had just failed to get the wood job. We are awfully anxious about you since
that sickness broke out up there.
Mamma has had all the daily papers for nearly a week and tried to find out about the
Alki's trips. She found that the boat had been delayed on account of storms, and having
to be repaired.
We want you to come home as soon as you can, no matter about what wages you may be
getting there. If you need money to come with we can get some and send you if there is
any safe way of sending it. It is fine spring weather here, some buttercups in blossom.
You could get work here all right.
All usually well, tho Mamma has headache a good deal. I must close. It is nearly mail
Thorp, Wash. Mar. 9, 1898
We are very anxious about you in view of the sickness and the Clara Nevada disaster
about the time you said you might return on the Alki. I learn that the Alki did not
come that trip so am afraid to think what may have come to you. The last we heard from
you was you letter to Mr. Snyder. O I pray that if you are alive you may come home as
soon as possible only do not any risk on a boat of uncertain reliability.
The wheat will be put in next week all right.
We are well as our anxiety will permit.
Your loving wife
Josie L. Banks
We can send you money of you want it. - -
Alzada, Mont. Apr. 1st, 1898
Dear Sister Josie
I will try to write to you a few lines, to let you know I can't forget you in your
sorrow. I got a paper from Windom (Minn.) today telling of the terrible accident about
Bruce, I can hardly believe it, and yet it seems true all that is given in the paper,
everything is so plain. I do hope he has escaped and will be all right and reach home
I hardly know what or how to write it has upset me so. Ma has been dangerously sick the
last three weeks and I have worried more than a little. All I have learned was in the
home paper, we take, the one today said she was out of danger, and gave the sad news of
It is terrible, and yet we have to learn it sometime. Did you get a letter I wrote to
Easton with a letter from Phoeby? She had lost her baby girl, about two years old, I
got that just before Ma was taken sick, she came very near dying. Well I can't write
anything more, hope you will get this. I will address this to Thorp as I see it given
in the paper. As you might have moved since last I heard from you.
Your loving sister,
Write and let me know when you can.
Skagway April 8.
Mrs R.B. Banks
I have received your letter of March 9th today but know that by this time you must know
of what we consider Mr. Bank's untimely end. I hunted up all of the facts as near as I
could and sent them to your Uncle sometime ago, just as soon after the disaster as I
could. We feel sure that he met his death on that boat because he left our house
expecting to go on her, and that is the last we have heard from him. And Mrs. Banks,
you have our heart felt sympathy. He was here with us so much and we felt so sorry for
him because he was so home sick all the while he was here. And he felt as though
something was to happen with his family. and the last thing he said to me, was if I get
home and find all of my folks as I left them, I will never leave them again. He thought
so much of our baby that was three years and a half old, he seemed to be a comfort to
him. We have lost him since Mr. Banks left. Baby died Feb 28. It was an awful blow to
us. And Mr. Banks' death also in so short a time, it did seem terrible.
I think this is all now thinking you know what I know by this time, I will close.
But if there is any inquiries I can make, or anything I can do let me know and I will
I remain a true friend,
Mrs. E. Baker
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