St. Michael awakens to gold rush fever

Aunt Phil's Trunk

On June 25, 1897, the sleepy old Russian town of St. Michael awoke when Alaska Commercial Company's river steamer Alice arrived with 25 miners from Dawson carrying $500,000 among them in gold dust. That was enough to liven up just about any town.

But the party wasn't over. Two days later, the P.B. Weare carried in another group of 60 successful men who staggered off that small steamer with more pokes of gold. Miners from both boats then transferred to the SS Portland and the SS Excelsior to carry their fortunes on to Seattle and San Francisco.

Soon more miners followed. St. Michael, founded in 1833 by Russian traders, became the hub for those with visions of nuggets dancing before their eyes, both coming from and going to the rich fields in the Yukon.

The Yukon River carries about two-thirds the volume of water of the mighty Mississippi and is loaded in the summer with the soil debris of ground glacial rock and silt from banks cut by the current. The debris, deposited on the wide, fan-shaped flats that reached out into the Bering Sea, prohibited large ocean ships from entering into the deep current of the stream. All passengers and cargo had to land at St. Michael and transfer to small river steamers, which could make only 100 miles a day churning against the powerful current of the muddy Yukon. Running one-half to six miles per hour, it took more than two weeks for the boats to make the 1,600-mile trip to Dawson and the Klondike.

With the lure of big money to be made, commercial and trading companies built warehouses to help with the transfer of goods and fleets of steamers to convey the "gold-crazed lunatics" and their freight up the Yukon. The Northern Commercial Company and its rival, the North American Transportation and Trading Company, enlarged their facilities and built boats at a feverish pitch. New companies like the Alaska Exploration Company and the Seattle Yukon Transportation Company also sprang up.

Some of the companies shipped parts and pieces for boats on ocean liners headed north, and then men assembled the steamers, barges and tugs in St. Michael. As the gold rush wore on, river steamers were built in Seattle and gingerly made the 2,300-mile voyage on the open ocean under their own power or towed north by large ships.

Transportation opportunists weren't the only ones eyeing the potential for profits in St. Michael. Gangs of gamblers pitched tents along the beach and welcomed those passing through to try their hands at games of chance. In an effort to dissuade the con men, the U.S. War Department built an army post, Fort St. Michael, in 1897 and set up a 100-mile reserve around it. The commander of the post then ordered the gamblers and "sure thing" men to leave.

About 10,000 people lived in St. Michael during the gold rush. It also became a popular trading post for Alaska Natives to trade their goods for Western supplies. After the mad rush for gold, many Yup'ik then settled there from other villages after the measles epidemic of 1900 and influenza epidemic of 1918 decimated their own communities. The population of St. Michael hovers around 450 today.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.

 
 
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