Friday, April 2, 2010


The following pages comprise the ALASKAN MEMOIRS OF NELSON BENNETT (Written in 1900, 1907, and 1909)
The original Alaskan manuscript was found in Tacoma this year (1965) and we publish it now as a supplement to - -

which we distributed last year to members of our family and friends with an interest in western history.


- - August, 1965


II. ODE TO A MASTADON' S TOOTH (1907) • Page 12


Compiled and Edited by


with the assistance of


To say that Behring discovered Alaska is as historically incorrect as is that Columbo discovered this continent. Nearly I00 years before Behring saw St. Elias peak (1791) Deshueff entered the straits which now bear the name of the former navigator (1648) and Gwosdoff sailed along the Alaskan Coast in 1731, ten years before Behring's discovery.
These earlier navigators followed the Asiatic coast and entered Behring Sea following the Kamschatka coast until they were confronted with the narrows be­tween Asia and America, although Gwosdoff seems to have traversed the sea skirting the Aleutian Islands until confronted with the mainland near Bristol Bay.
Behring kept to the south of the peninsula until Mt. St. Elias appeared and hence along the Sitka region, in 1799 the Russian government gave to the "Russo American" Co. special and exclusive rights to its American territory (Alaska) and extended these rights from time to time.
So exclusive were their rights and secret their operations that little attention by the outside world was paid to all this immense portion of America until they were refused further privileges and their charter was annulled in 1862 by the Czar Alexander.
Of course history tells us of some missionary work by The Russian (Greek) Church - Also of explo­rations by Kotezeboce, Beechy, Cook and Lukeen, but it was the Americans themselves who first made any real effort at exploitation of the inland empire of Alaska. The Western Union Telegraph Company sent a force of engineers headed by Kennicott to survey a telegraph line toward Behring Straits with the intention of extending it across Behring Straits through Asia and Europe, but the completion of a trans-Atlantic cable obviated the necessity of its fulfillment, 1865. It had this effect, however, it brought into notice by practical men the immense possibilities of the region of the Yukon and other valleys. Two years afterward, May 1867, Seward purchased the entire Russo American territory for the insignicant sum of $?, 200, 000; there is no question that the Czar of Russia was either lud­icrously hard up or there was some international obligation which prompted the deal. I have read underground history on both views.
I remember distinctly the abuse the copper­head press of this country heaped upon Mr. Lincoln's administration, and this same abuse extended to Seward and Stanton who were appointed to their respective offices before his death. "To pay $7,200,000 at the time of the nation's greatest financial burden, for a land whose sole products were icebergs and glaciers to help a barbarous autocrat" was beyond the ken of these disgruntled politicians.
Yet so little real knowledge of this land ob­tained at the time that many well meaning men thought this nation was paying a goodly price for Russia's friendship, as most people looked upon the deal. One year after the purchase the U. S. Custom and navi­gation laws were extended to Alaska, and one year later American enterprise placed steam navigation upon the Yukon River. Although the Russian missionaries had seen gold and copper among the natives of the Yukon and Kuskokuim Rivers it was passed by without attention. Just five years after the purchase, (1873 the time of the great financial panic in this country) Treadwell discovered gold on Douglas Island and this one mine has produced gold and other enter­prises in connection therewith to almost repay the nation annually for the original purchase.
The length permissible for an article before this Club will not justify details; I will therefore pass by saying that the products of American Alaska (omitting British Yukon) since 1905 has averaged upwards of $30, 000, 000 annually and the imports exceed $17, 000, 000, thus leaving $13, 000, 000 upon the right side of the ledger annually - nearly twice the purchase price, leaving a total product since the transfer of Alaska to the United States of upwards of $300, 000, 000. y; its the care and wisdom being exercised by the National Government in the conservation of Alaskan resources in the way of proper safeguards to prevent wanton destruction or extravagant use of them - such as fur bearing and food animals, fishes, etc. , and a judicious prevention of monopolizing the timber and coal by trusts, together with its well organized efforts in opening the country by roads, river improvements, mail lines, telegraph lines, geodetic and topographical surveys, mineral reports, etc., we may confidently look for an extended expansion of this trade for many years to come. I look upon the apparent inaccessibility of the region as one of its greatest safe­guards against despoilation.
As to Alaska's climate condition, I recall a letter I once wrote to one of my daughters from the notorious "Sheep Camp" located at the upperside of the timber line upon the south side of the Chilkoot Range on the old Dyea trail to the Yukon. The winter was passing and this April morning was unusually warm with a chinook wind blowing. I had had a consultation with some foreman upon the Co's force regarding the failure of a gang of men to get the cable over the topmost tower of the Chilkoot Range. The controversy was a spirited one. There were open accusa­tions against the boss of the gang and offers of bets that either of the other gangs of workmen could put the cable over in 30 minutes after arrival at the tower. The distance was about 3-1/2 miles with an elevation of probably 1500 feet. To quiet the controversy and at the same time advance the work, I ordered that the construction gang and the carpenters gang (tower builders) both go up next morning and put the cable over that tower, and the gang which had so signally failed were put at other work. But four or five men of each gang were selected for the work. The controversy had so excited many who heard it that the event was looked upon as a test of power and nearly all my staff together with clerks, engineers, helpers, the barn boss, etc., asked to be allowed to go to the summit to see the final stringing of the cable upon that there most wonderful piece of Aerial tramway ever undertaken. After some considerable persuasion I assented to make the occasion one of interest and pleasure to my men; even my bookkeeper was allowed to go. Out of 20 men who had housed at my headquarters, superintendent, bosses, clerk, bookkeeper, barn boss, engineer and staff, not one returned; they did the job in less than 30 minutes and were covered with an avalanche of snow on their return home, the notice of which I received as I penned the last word of the following:

"Sheep Camp, April 2, 1898"
"My darling Tude: - -

Today is one of those awful days which compels (as it were) a man to meditation. Yesterday it snowed hard all day and blew just enough to keep the storm moving. In the night there was one of those ominous calms. Whilst some of the men in our tent snored, as some men do, I happened to awake; then all was still. I believe the extreme stillness of the night awoke me, and as I am somewhat accus­tomed to the various phases of mountain climate, I suspected what was going on. Midst the monotonous quiet, a low rumble, then a tremor,­ roar, roar - what's that? What's that? from the frightened sleepers came, but the roar ceased gradually as it came, and the avalanche of accumulated snow from some point on the mountain side had found its way to the valley of Sheep Camp, and the night took on its wonted gloom of misty stillness. The morning came and the compressed tent-roof told the story of an unabated snow storm. Outside the tent everything was covered fifteen inches deep in very wet snow - just the snow which produces the terrible avalanches which I fear will cross the path of many a poor fellow who is toiling on his weary way in search of the hidden wealth of the frozen northland.
All this forenoon the quiet descending snow was accumulating and the fog was so dense that one could barely see 50 feet, and the roar of the many avalanches was appalling. Of course, our camp is entirely safe, being located with that end in view, but most people here know nothing of the nature of an avalanche and are just as much inclined to fear such things from a safe point as otherwise, therefore I have be quite busy assuring them that they were not in danger at present.
But now the wind is blowing, the snow has changed to a beating rain, and the snow slide and avalanches of snow (the small and the large) are more numerous and more terrible and withall the fog has raised and the good people of Sheep Camp are watching the movements of the aval­anches with awe and surprise; to me they are not new but always inter­esting. What a wonderful thing is gravity! It's an invisible string upon every material thing. The universe seems to be balanced by it; the insect, when clipped of its wings goes to the ground; the mountain when disturbed by internal force slides into the valley below, and so with the accumulated snows. These natural forces, governed by natural laws, have no discriminating features; good, bad and indifferent alike, are submerged when in the wake of the avalanche.
All in all, this is a terrible country. It has but few redeeming features, if any. It seems to me that it must have been at one time like unto the Valley of Sodom -"a goodly place for man" but being such man in his natural perverseness, abused his privileges egregiously until the Creator "in his wrath" just busted the whole thing up, and then to make it the more uninviting, froze it into immense glaciers and spread a mantle of storm and wind over the corpse".
Just at closing this last sentence, about 12 o'clock, I was apprised of a "terrible snow slide near Stone House which has covered many men". 20 men were killed in the above slide, 13 being saved. 30 men were killed in a slide further down canyon about same time. Owing to flat ground at base of Old Baldy, when this last occurred, the snow spread out so that the slide was not noticed until I found it next day.
And to any man who believes in the supervisory power of the Creator, or preordination even to a limited extent, must come to that same conclusion after travelling any considerable part of that land. It is a land just beginning to emerge from its long sleep; the pall of snow and ice is slowly but surely receding. As one gains an elevated point and with strong eye or glass takes in the landscape in midsummer, he is amazed at the beautiful panorama of valleys, undulating prairies, lakes, rivers and rivulets spread out before him, there are valleys, and many of them, which put the Willamette in a miniature list and insig­nificent in beauty. Yet once you put your foot upon the soil you quickly discern its deception. "Not yet for me". Persevere as only Americans do; cast aside superstition, rely upon the manhood and brain power which you possess and though hardships and many impediments confront you, Alaska presents one grand field for the scientist and mining engineer. As yet the climatic conditions are too severe (save in very small areas) and the underlying frosts too prevalent to permit of agriculture as a paying enterprise.
In time there will be a return of what once was in that region, just as it has already returned to this beautiful land. I entertain, with considerable assurance, the idea of a greater orbit which affects our planet, our earth, as well as the entire solar system. Giving to us seasons of long duration in which all the apparent and known conditions of prehistoric geological and climatic changes are accounted for. Coal forming areas, tropical animal remains in Arctic regions, upheavals of such magnitude as to form great ranges of mountains and subsequent abraisons and alluvial deposits as have formed our fertile valleys.
We know the glacial period is yet in evidence albeit many cen­turies before history began, the long winter which created it had ceased and the long season of spring is slowly undoing the work of the rigid winter. The removal of all of this accumulatiom of ice which capped both poles, reaching down to the tropics, must in the very nature of things cause a change at the Poles. And this, too, would account for many local disturbances such as earthquakes, electrical phenomina, violent storms, etc.
As to geological formations, I will not venture further than to say that in many respects they are very similar to California. The gold producing serpentines predominate in Alaska as in California. Disin­tegration, especially on the Seward Peninsula, is as pronounced as in the San Juan and Sacramento Valleys. The mineral zones are more diversified and with proper facilities will in my opinion produce more wealth than California has or can.
From present developments it seems quite probable that the copper bearing area of Alaska will produce a greater quantity of copper at less cost than any large district known. The oriferous and argent ferous ores are practically untouched; that is, ores in place. The gold bearing alluvial and glacial deposits are being worked in many places, but as yet little of the immense area has been prospected even slightly. I look upon Alaska as the great mineral store house for this country for centuries to come.
Mineral products, amount 1908 =$19,929,800. ($829,000 other than gold). The heaviest gold production was in 1906 = $22,036,94.00 - strike in Fairbanks - 1858.
The fish industry is second only to the mineral and it too is in its in­fancy. Salmon fishing is the only extensive industry in this line. The Codfish banks of Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands shoals are the most extensive of any known.
Codfish caught 1908 valued at $134,775.00
Salmon salted and canned , valued at $10,051,008.00.
The fur products will probably not increase but the government may succeed in preserving a normal output by strenuously executing the laws created for that purpose. There has been a great falling off in value of fur seals taken since 1903 - that year $1,203,000.00 and 1908 = estimated at $700, 000.00. Land furs 1908 - $323,000.00.
As to the present natives of Alaska, there are no material changes as from the other natives of America. There is a vivid study here as elsewhere as to the effect of environments upon man, especially the aboriginese. Go where you will, the native man has a constitution, a physical development, a temperament, courage, etc. in keeping with his environments and his neighbor is only different from him as the conditions are different under which he lives. Thus the Atlantic natives were a stealthy, crouching, foxy kind of men, almost as good on a trail as a hound. He lived by still hunting; a woods dweller. The Indian of the plains is tall and straight with aquiline face, piercing eye; is stealthy and a braver man. The Rocky Mountain Indian is a combination between the plains and desert or digger Indian. The latter is more indolent, dirtier, physically inferior. The Coast Indians of California, Oregon and Washington are mostly fish eating people; big mouthed, crooked limbed, etc. The British Columbia Indians differ but little from the former, save that he is a better sailor and appears a little more Japanese in appearance. The Alaska Indian, when dressed as a Japanese, is hard. to distinguish from the former, and so on. The changes are gradual and somewhat controlled by the frequent intercourse and friendship of neigh­bors. The Queen Charlotte Islanders are somewhat larger and possibly better developed than their neighbors and the educated ones claim that their traditions, their implements, and some of their words, justify the belief that they are a remnant of the old Montezumas or Aztecs who escaped up the coast at the invasion of the Spaniards.
- O D E -
To Mastodon's Tooth found on bar of Koyuk River, Alaska by Nelson Bennett, June 30, 07. Written on the spot. -0­
Relic of ages what dost thou here; what tale has thou to tell?
Was Adam born when Thou didst roam o'er mountain, plain and dell? One thing we know that where Thou liv'st, the climate must be mild, Different from Alaska's hills with snow and ice defiled.
Hast thou no history to unfold of prehistoric times?
Was old earth different then; what changes in the climes? Was North Pole firm in Artic Sea with ice piled high around? Did Jotun inspire Odin's glee, or Hymir smite the ground?
Did Greater Orb control the clime, or polar axis change?
Did Perseus with Andromeda dine, or Hercules smite the range? We thinks some havoc has been wrought; some curse upon Thy head By him who controls the spheres; the Living and the dead.
Didst thou else than eat the grass that grew upon the plain,
As God provided Thou should'st do: Then why wer't thou slain? Is't possible Thy life had served the purpose of Creation, Before a better could obtain old earth needed renovation?
Why ponder thus o'er this old tooth from Mastodon's mammoth jaw? Are we to know the purposes of God's unwritten law? Perhaps in time some part of us may lie exposed as well., And others wonder "why and where", who can tell?

­The LEDGER has had a number of requests that it publish, as an interesting matter for the public, the true story of Nelson Bennett's trouble with the mob and the so-called lynching incident that occurred in the early days of the gold rush to Alaska, many distorted versions of which have gone the rounds, the latest exaggeration being that he was threatened with lynching on account of a dispute over wages. Mr. Bennett at first insisted that there were one or two men right herein Tacoma whom he would prefer should relate the occurrence as they were up there. Be­coming interested, as his mind reverted to the snowy scenes of the far north, he related the happening as follows:
"It was in April, 1898. I had the contract to put the Dyea Road over the Chilkoot Pass; was working for the Chilkoot Company. We were trying to get a cable over the mountain to relieve and make easier the herculean task of packing freight, which up to that time was hand packed by professional packers who were making upwards of $10 a day going up and down the trail. There were two other Tramway Companies besides ours, all working for the same goal, to open up a way over the Mountain and solve the transportation problem. The snow was soft at that time of the year. We had a camp down below and one up above the snow line, where it was too cold and windy for the snow to stick. There was delay at the upper camp; we had got the cable that far, but the man there in charge, a fellow by the name of Joe Bennett - no relation of mine- who had been sent out from the East at a big per diem salary, had been two weeks trying to get the cable over the top and had not yet accomplished the feat. One evening in our tent, two of my under bosses got to banter­ing each other, and boasting about how quick they could get that cable over the topmost pole on the top of Chilkoot Mountain if they had the job to do. One said he could take his crew and do it in half an hour; and the other came back with a like offer. I made up my mind I would give them a chance, so I directed that the fellow in charge of the work be kept down at the foot of the Pass the next day, and they could each take their crews and go up the next morning and try their hand. They were anxious to do it so as to have the laugh on Joe and to "show" me. First one, and then another of my office force, and my engineers, and finally my clerk, a Mr. Pierce , a rather delicate fellow with a cough, started in declaring, they wanted to go along, urging as a reason they wanted to tell the folks back East they were on the spot when the cable was put over the topmost point of the Pass, and some of them had never been up on the Mountain, and they resolved to make it a gala day, and go along. I tried to dissuade some of them, but they were determined to go. The next morning we were all up early; I was up at five, and before six they were all started away up the trail. It was not snowing or storming then excess­ively and they started out bravely and cheerfully, and with plenty of chaffing. I remember that I made Pierce put on my high rubber boots. There were twenty of my men in that gang.
Later in the day I heard there had been some snow slides and that 32 men had been caught in the slide. I did not know for twelve hours that any of my men had been lost. I thought they would stay up on the mountain where I had accommodations for them, when it commenced to snow and the weather condition made slides probable. I stopped work and got out a crew to help dig out the men who had been caught, my Com­pany supplying everything, and we got the packers to stop their packing and help. The following night turned cold, and my men not returning I concluded to go on up to our Camp on the summit and see if they were there. Brad Fisk was keeper on the summit. He told me my crew of men had stopped at his place and left about 11 o'clock the morning of the slide on their way down the Mountain, having succeeded in getting the cable up in twenty minutes. He had told them to stay over in his hut, as it was storming, but they were anxious to get back to camp and started on, one man saying that the old man, meaning me, would worry about them. I knew then that they had been caught in the slide and were lost, and that I had come up the trail probably right over them. We went at the rescue work with renewed energy, working day and night to dig them out. Young Holt from this city was amongst them. The evening of the third day after the storm and slide, and after I had succeeded in digging them all out but one, I was told that a crowd was being harangued by some fellow who claimed I was not using proper effort to dig out the men, and he was advising taking measures to compel my company to desist work on the tramway until every man was rescued. I went out in the crowd, got up on a box alongside Doc. Cleveland, and asked him what the matter was, and if there was anything they wanted to know of me. There were about fifteen hundred men there; it was out on the snow plain. They were all worked up and angry. Cleveland seemed surprised at my presence, but announced that "Mr. Bennett is here and wants to know what charges are preferred". It seemed that someone - Joe Bennett, as I learned later - had started the rumor that I was to blame for my men getting killed; that I had driven them out to work against their protest in the face of the storm, threatening them with discharge if they didn't go, and so they had been driven to their death. Some of the crowd made threatening remarks. I remember how I felt; it was not fear of the mob, nor was it anger at them, only a profound realization of the terrible effect of a lie to poison the minds of men. I started out to convince them of their mistake. I showed them how I could not have driven the men to work under dangerous conditions for it was not storming when they started out that morning, and did not commence snowing until after seven o'clock; nor had they been killed while going to work, but while returning to camp. I reasoned that I would hardly drive out to work of that kind, my office force, and clerk, my stable boss, and my entire engineering force; that many of these men had no business to go at all; and I explained how and why they had gone, and that it was at their own volition . One fellow yelled out asking why I had gone o work the day after the slide if I cared so much for those fellows that were lost. I said I had not. He said he had seen a crew of the Chilkoot men working on the tramway over by the power house, not 400 ft, from the slide. I convinced him that it was the Pacific Tramway Company's men. When he saw his mistake, he was man enough to step up to my side and stand by me. I then had the crowd with me and not content with that, I went on and reminded them what my Com­pany had done towards rescuing not only our own men but the others; and got them roused up to keep at the work of digging out the men, many of whom were still under the drifts; and regardless of that, many in the crowd who were packers had gone back to their profitable work. Of course, these packers did not like our Tramway Company; we were interfering with their business, and there was also competition between the different Tramway Companies and their crews. There were rough men in the crowd; it was sort of a vigilance committee; but I convinced them of the truth which was that I had not driven my men to their death and was doing all in my power to rescue them and to care for their bodies. I will say I had the satisfaction of firing that Joe Bennett off the works, and he was given short grace to get out of camp. None regretted more deeply than I the loss of these men, many of whom had been in my employ for years. It was one of the tragedies of the mountains and of the snow that some­times overtakes even the most vigilant. No fair minded man who knew the circumstances ever blamed me for their death. There was no ques­tion of wages involved as has sometimes been asserted, nor did I hear of any threat of hanging anyone. Certainly there was no threat of violence after I got to that meeting.

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