The Free Lance
20 Jul 1900
**Letter from Norman McKINNON
Cape Nome, June 23, 1900
Ed. Lance: In response to your request, made prior to my leaving
Hollister, I send you these few lines, and trust that this letter will
also suffice for many like requests made by friends.
We left the O.R.&N. wharf, Portland, Oregon, May 26th, on board the S.S.
?Nome City.? She is a new boat; was built in California especially for
the Alaska trade, and carried 413 passengers and about 1000 tons of
freight. The vessel was well equipped, everything bright and clean and
plenty of provisions. The first evening out I counted 84 quarters of
beef, 53 carcasses of mutton, 7 of pork and 8 halves of veal and
everything else in abundance. The weather was fine for the first part of
the voyage, but in a few days we encountered some severe weather. For 2
days the ship rolled terribly, during that time most of the passengers
had that dark-brown taste in their mouths which is experienced only at
sea. As for me I had a very poor opinion of myself all the way from
Portland to Dutch Harbor, as my stomach got misplaced crossing the
Columbia river bar and stayed close to my neck all the way.
We arrived at Dutch Harbor, June 5th, and were glad to exercise our limbs
once more. This is a natural harbor almost surrounded by high hills.
Unalaska is built on a little peninsula and has about 300 inhabitants,
mostly natives, who resemble the Japanese in size and appearance. We
visited the Greek Catholic Church there. The pictures and ornaments and
part of the furniture is about 240 years old. The building itself is neat
and new in appearance. We also visited the Jesse LEE Home, a Methodist
mission, run by Dr. & Mrs. NEWHALL. The pupils consist of 14 native girls
and 5 boys. We left the harbor June 9th for Behring Sea, which was still
as a duck pond. We encountered our first ice the morning of the 11th
inst., in latitude 60 degrees 20 minutes; long, 168 degrees. For 6 days
we were either cruising around keeping out of the way of the ice or
laying still waiting for the ice to give us an opening. On the morning of
the 14th, as we lay at anchor with ice as far as we could see north and
west of us, a small steam launch from the bark ?Hunter,? came along side
and reported the wreck of the ?Hunter,? and crew and passengers in
distress on Cape Romanof about 90 miles south of us. At this time we were
within 80 miles of Nome. Our Captain immediately pulled anchor and
started for the shipwrecked crew, though we all were anxious to reach the
promised land, we felt glad to start on a mission of humanity, and
cheered our Captain heartily. We soon met the steamer ?Valencia? from San
Francisco, who willingly turned and accompanied us in the rescue. We
reached the scene at early morning and after getting them all safely on
board, again started northward.
We arrived at Nome, June 17th, and anchored about a mile from shore. It
was snowing when we got in, but since the weather has been fine.
We were put ashore with our baggage and it is beyond my power to describe
the situation here, it is so unlike anything that I had ever seen before
that I am lost to know what to compare it with. There is, I should judge,
as much money in the shape of merchandise piled up on the beach here as
the United States paid for all of Alaska. The sights and experience is
worth a year?s time and all that it necessarily costs. There are between
40 & 50 vessels of every description laying at anchor off shore, all have
to unload with lighters which have to be towed ashore by small tugs, and
goods are piled along the beach to the high tide mark. Should a storm
arise the loss would be enormous.
The town is built along the beach and from the boat we could see a line
of tents several miles long. We hear estimates on the population here
from 20,000 to 50,000. About an hour after landing I met Ed. NASH and
Chas. SAIRS, of Hollister, who came down from Dawson a few days ago.
Later saw Sam FREELS, at a distance; also Geo. & Chas. SHAW and Mr.
OLIPHANT. They are all well. I also met another friend, my old horse whom
my friends will remember as ?Nig.? I bought him in Hollister over 5 years
ago for $37. The party who owns him now asks $325 for him, which is a
relative value of horses between here and Hollister. Prices of everything
are high. Lumber, $125 per M; Hay, $125 a ton; Coal, $60; Flour, per 5-lb
sack, $3; potatoes, 5cents per lb; fresh meat, 75c; butter, $1.50 a roll;
single meal, $1; lodging, $3; common laborer, $1 per hour; it costs $5 to
move a trunk by either team.
It doesn?t get dark at all here, the sun is out of sight about 3 hours
but even then it is as bright as a cloudy day. A great many got cold feet
before they got off the boat, and as many more as soon as they got ashore
and are going back on the same boat on which they came. Some ships are
taking back as many as they brought. The beach near town where so many
expected to get rich is pretty well worked out. I can say nothing as to
prospects for we hear all kinds of rumors. The only information that I
can rely on is from my partner who went out prospecting 1 day this week,
and found everything staked as far as he went. He was granted permission
to wash out 1 pan of dirt and got $3 in the pan. Another man was rocking
and where he threw the gravel out of the hopper a bystander picked up a
nugget too large to go the holes in the rocker. That nugget was worth
about $4. And he had dinner with 3 men that cleaned up $75 for their
forenoon?s work. We are now building a boat and in a few days will leave
on a prospecting trip.
Everything, in the way of business seems to be overdone here. Nearly all
being done in tents. Carpenters are in demand and some very fair
buildings are going up now.
19 July 1901
Letter from Alaska --
Ed. Lance --
As we are again in communication with the outside world, and feeling
assured that you are all more or less interested in this land of snow,
sin and disappointment, I think it a fine time to make my annual report.
It is a few days over a year since we landed on the Nome beach, and about
a year since I wrote to you, which time has not been without interest. On
June 27th of last year we left Nome, and arrived in Council City on July
9th, remaining there all summer, and, of course, did some prospecting,
but as far as we could go with what grub we could carry, we found
everything staked where we could find a color, so gave up looking for new
ground. Early in September I bought an interest in a claim on Crooked
Creek, a tributary to Ophir Creek, in Council District, and began to
operate it, but was stopped by the soldiers, Lieut. OFFLEY in charge, who
were there to protect the miners. But his method of dealing out law and
justice was very unsatisfactory, and they were ordered back to St.
Michaels, and a U.S. Commissioner appointed for the District by Judge
NOYES, of Nome. After quitting the claim, I bought 3 cows and 2 calves,
and supplied Council with milk at 50 cents a quart until winter, when I
turned my dairy into a butcher shop.
I dreaded the long winter with nothing to do, so secured a very
comfortable log cabin and laid in provisions enough to last all winter,
but when the first snow came I bought a dog team, and during the winter I
have travelled 2400 miles to different points on the coast from Teller
City to St. Michaels, and the Yukon river, and enjoyed very little of the
comforts of my cabin home. It was a very severe winter. The thermometer
registering as low as 65 below zero at Council, but on the coast the
mercury didn?t go so low -- 48 below was the coldest at Nome. January was
a severe month, stormy as well as cold. I was caught in one of the
blizzards on the trail so that the dogs could not follow it, and the air
was so full of snow that I could scarcely see the dogs. Though I had been
over the trail before and knew just where I was, I didn?t dare go ahead
as the dogs would go with the wind when not able to follow the trail, so
I had to camp, and turning the sleigh sideways to the storm, unhitched
the dogs, dug a hole in the snow, rolled my robe around me and lay down,
when the dogs piled on top of me, and was soon as warm as pie. During the
night the wind ceased and there being good moonlight, I ?mushed? on,
reaching a roadhouse where I remained 2 nights and a day while the storm
lasted. Several were frozen to death, while many lost either fingers or
toes during these storms.
When in St. Michaels in February I took the contract from the military
officers of that place to go up the Yukon and bring to St. Michaels 3 men
who were frozen at Mountain Village, a distance of 180 miles from St.
Michaels. We found them in a very bad condition, 2 of them had both hands
amputated, and on reaching St. Michaels, the 3rd one had both feet
While traveling about this way we had a good opportunity of getting
acquainted with the Eskimo and the Yukon Indian (who are very much alike,
both in appearance and habits), as we camped in their Igloos with them,
cooked on their fires, and saw them as they are at home. For this
privilege they charged us $1 each, which price is universal all along the
coast and on the Yukon. They are a mild, gentle race when not under the
influence of ?hooch,? but like all other Indians, are very fond of
whiskey. They don?t appear to have any special ambition other than to
live, and that they get very easy, especially along the coast where they
lay up nothing for winter. They remind me of the story of the children of
Israel when God rained manna from heaven for them, and they had to gather
it every day.
Every day the Eskimo goes out on the sea, cuts a hole in the ice, and
with hook and line catches enough tom cod for that day. These they boil,
and when done it is placed in a large wooden bowl of their own make,
flavored with seal oil, when all sit around on the floor and with their
fingers consume the contents of the bowl. Some have a little flour but
the majority have not.
On the rivers they dry salmon during the summer and cache it for winter
use. Many of the rivers have fish in winter, but they do not depend
entirely upon them for their food supply. Nature has provided the natives
with nearly everything to supply their needs. There is an abundance of
fish all through the country. Along the coast there is not much game
except ptarmigan, which in summer look very much like grouse or prairie
chickens in color and size, but in winter turn white. They are very fine
eating and are easily killed, as they go in flocks in winter, and the
hunter can get close to them before they fly. About the only other game
there is in the hills is the fox -- gray, red, black and white. The
native is an expert hunter, as, they study the nature of the game, and of
necessity catch or kill them by the very cheapest method. In winter,
their clothing is made chiefly of furs, their footgear (mucluks) is made
from seal skin, and is universally worn by whites on the trail in summer.
Their ?parkies,? too, are the proper thing for this climate, and are also
worn by whites, and are made from young reindeer, squirrel and muskrat
skins. They are made to pull on like a sweater, with a close-fitting hood
attached, which protects the neck, head and face from the storms.
Our first steamer for the season, the Jeanie, arrived here on May 24th
and unloaded freight and passengers on the ice about 2 miles from shore
as also did the S.S. Nome City. The ice went out June 5th, just the same
day after the Nome City had finished unloading they had all freight
ashore. Last week there was 8 of the larger steamers arrived and 3
whaling schooners and to-day the Dora dropped anchor off shore and the
St. Paul is expected and is now overdue. These steamers brought in about
3000 people, most of them were here last year. The season is very late,
there is plenty of snow in places yet and no work has been done on the
creeks except the washing of a few winter dumps, but active operations
will begin very soon which will be a great relief to the majority of the
would be miners and prospectors. Nome was a very dull camp all winter
there being no work, but living was very cheap, except coal which was
high all winter. The new arrivals say that some goods are selling cheaper
here than in Seattle which is due to competition, the large amount of
goods held over and new goods coming in.
You have all heard and read a good deal about Nome as a mining camp and
of course many conflicting reports have gone out, many of which are
entirely without foundation. Now, Mr. Editor, if my story should agree
with what you have already heard it will not be entirely out of order. As
already stated I have did a little travelling during the past season and
was not doing it entirely for my health but what the result will be will
be easier told later. I have become somewhat familiar with existing
conditions in most of the mining camps in this part of the frozen north,
and believe that this country has a good future and that a large amount
of gold will be taken out in the next few years. There were a lot of wild
stories sent out this winter of rich strikes in different places which
there was no truth in whatever, but to my knowledge there is a lot of
good ground here and believe that some rich strikes will be made this
summer as there is lots of territory that has not yet been prospected.
There are some very rich creeks around Nome and there is much expected
from the Koughrok and Bluestone Districts. There have been several
strikes made in the Goodhope country, and much prospecting will be done
this season. Schooners and small sailing crafts are fitting out now to
carry supplies to the Arctic and Goodhope districts.
As for Nome itself we have an up-to-date town, incorporated last winter
with a full list of salaried officers, we have 7 Councilmen, one is a
newspaperman. Our Mayor is in the tin and hardware business and has the
reputation of being a good tin smith. The other 5 run saloons and
gambling houses and our Chief of Police is a horse shoer and was a member
of the notorious ?Soapy? SMITH gang so well known in southeastern Alaska
and has served a term in Montana. Our Federal officers? records you are
familiar with. At present there is a large force of men at work planking
the streets and putting in side drains. Dr. CALL is our health officer,
well known in San Benito county, and he is very popular and has the
confidence and respect of everyone. This part of Alaska is very healthy.
I have never seen as little sickness any place I have ever lived. There
was a little fever here last summer but that was largely due to the poor
sanitary conditions. We had a fire on May 25th that did much damage and
wiped out a part of the business portion of the town, the 2 leading
hotels and several business houses went up in smoke, together with most
of their contents. No insurance. The snow was very deep here during the
winter, many of those living along Snake river, also along the beach, had
to dig tunnels in to their cabins to get in and out, and not a few had to
shovel the snow off from their stove pipes to let the smoke out as well
as for ventilation, while others extended their stovepipes several feet.
I know of one party who had some goods in a tent and when he went for
them had to dig a shaft 32 feet before he struck the top of the tent, he
had to raise the snow with a bucket.
We had quite a storm on June 28th, and the sea got pretty rough. One
schooner, ?The Prosper,? was washed ashore which was the only damage
The St. Paul and 2 or 3 other vessels arrived since I began this letter.
Mr. CONE, formerly of Hollister, was a passenger on the St. Paul. Mr.
G.W. COLE is here, is in good health and very hopeful, and like yours
truly thinks it as safe a speculation to prospect for gold as it is to
raise prunes or bore for oil.
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