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Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials

Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials

Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials

Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials


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In this humorous and upbeat memoir, James Wickersham describes his career as a pioneer judge and later as a congressional representative assigned to a vast, snow-covered district, extending over 300,000 square miles in the undeveloped Alaska Territory.  Wickersham’s many adventures include traveling by dogsled over hundreds of miles through snow-covered mountains; serving as judge for the trials of many famous outlaws in the midst of the gold strikes; and hunting, mining, and climbing in his local Alaska wilderness. Though he was instrumental in the early history of Alaska, and his legacy is evident throughout the state—for example, he named the city of Fairbanks—this is the first and only work to focus on Wickersham’s life during this pivotal time in Alaska’s history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602230514
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 09/15/2009
Pages: 514
Sales rank: 1,100,100
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

James Wickersham (1857–1939) was a statesman, author, historian, and scholar. He was born near Patoka, Illinois and moved in 1883 to Tacoma in the Washington Territory.

Read an Excerpt


By James Wickersham

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2009 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-051-4

Chapter One


All ye icebergs make salaam You belong to Uncle Sam. And above the wild ducks' clamour, In his own peculiar grammar, With its linguistic disguises, Lo, the Arctic prologue rises-

* * *

Rocks, too, mebbe quartz; let's see- 'Twould be strange if there should be- Seems I've heerd such things told- Eh! Why, bless us,-yes, it's GOLD! -Bret Harte

At the general election in the fall of 1898 the people of Tacoma elected me to the Legislature to assist in procuring the return of a local candidate to the office of United States Senator. After a strenuous campaign the Hon. Addison G. Foster of Tacoma was elected to that office. William McKinley was president, Marcus A. Hanna was the leader of the Republican party in the Senate, and Senator Foster became one of their supporters. In due course it became known that I had been recommended for appointment to a modest state office.

Among those who objected to my appointment to this local post, the most earnest protested that the post was not equal to the obligation the Senator owed me for services rendered in his campaign. They urged my appointment as Consul General to Japan, an office credited to the state of Washington, or to some other foreign post of equal honor and profit. While that suggestion tickled my vanity, it was not otherwise satisfactory to me. My family had been backwoodsmen for two hundred years-ever since my first Quaker ancestor settled on wild land just west of the Brandywine, and began to people the western wilderness with his sons and daughters. It seemed to me, also, like hitching a very small wagon to a very distant star, and the proposal was declined.

One of my friends observed that those who were most active in urging my appointment to a foreign post were the attorneys and representatives of certain public utilities against which it had been my duty as a public official to wage several legal battles in support of the public interest. He suggested that they harbored the same thought that President Lincoln once so sagely expressed in a similar case. An inconspicuous and not overly competent resident of President Lincoln's home town followed him to Washington and applied for appointment to the foreign consular service. He became such a nuisance that one day the President mentioned the matter to the Secretary of State and requested him to give the offender the appointment. The Secretary replied, "Certainly, Mr. President, where shall I send him?" The President stood by a large library globe; placing his long, bony forefinger upon the City of Washington, he stretched his arms half around the world, placed the other forefinger on the point farthest away from Washington, and replied, "Send him around there."

Whether that thought actuated any of those who gave me their support I never knew. Anyway Congress passed the Act of June 6, 1900, extending civil government in Alaska and authorizing the appointment of two additional district judges for the northerly parts of the great Arctic Territory.

Upon the recommendation of Senator Foster, supported by my local political friends, President McKinley appointed me district judge for the third judicial division of the Territory, which was promptly confirmed by the Senate. My official residence was fixed at Eagle City, on the bank of the Yukon River, about one hundred miles below the great Klondike mining camp, then at the height of its boom. The honor and responsibility of aiding in founding American courts of justice in a vast new territory was accepted in the spirit that my forefathers shouldered their rifles in 1776 to aid in establishing the independence of the colonies.

Albert R. Heilig, a young Tacoma lawyer, member of the Washington legislature which elected Senator Foster, and a competent accountant, accepted an appointment as clerk of the court. George A. Jeffery went with us as stenographer. We quickly packed our personal belongings, tucked my judicial commission and an unbound copy of the newly printed Alaska codes in a grip sack, and were ready to carry the Law into the unknown wilderness.

Under instructions from the Department of Justice we awaited the arrival at Seattle of Judge Arthur H. Noyes, the newly appointed district judge for the Nome division, in order to jointly fix the boundary between the Nome and the Eagle City divisions before proceeding with our judicial labors. This duty was not concluded until after Judge Noyes' arrival at Seattle on the last day of June, when I met him for the first and last time. The judge appeared to be an agreeable man, though he seemed to be immoderately fond of the bottle. I also had the pleasure of then meeting his charming wife, who was en route to Nome with him, and his colleague Alexander McKenzie, who unbeknownst to me was even then plotting a monstrous legal conspiracy that would stain the American legal system and have a lasting impact on my life.

On comparing the nome group with the Eagle City group, it seemed to me that my companions were rather unimportant and probably blessed with only moderate ability. Members of the Nome group were alert, aggressive, and busily engaged in planning huge mining ventures. The members of my modest party felt that they were being shunted to an obscure place in the Yukon wilderness. The great Nome gold camp was everywhere the main topic of conversation. We were not interesting to the Seattle crowds which stood open-mouthed about those bound for Nome.

Our official party was completed by the arrival of Alfred M. Post, of Nebraska, United States attorney, George G. Perry, marshal, and his amiable wife, and Mr. Plato Mountjoy, a special accounting officer from the Department of Justice, who was to install the official system of bookkeeping in the offices of the clerk and the marshal.

On July 2, 1900, we sailed from Seattle on the S. S. City of Seattle. On the Fourth we were off the coast of southern Alaska, and that night our children, on the upper stern deck, shot off firecrackers and watched a practice fire drill by the crew. We stopped at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Treadwell, and Juneau, and then steamed into the narrow and too-often stormy waters of Lynn Canal, at the head of which lay Skagway, the gateway to Alaska and the Yukon. Early the next morning we tied up at the little dock at Haines, on the Portage Bay side of the long narrow peninsula that separates Chilkat inlet from Chilkoot inlet, which leads to Dyea and Skagway. Here we were fortunate in finding a large number of Indians from these inlets at a tribal potlatch, or salmon feast. The Chilkat Indians, and their cousins, the Chilkoots, are members of the Tlingit nation, speak the same language, are divided into the same social clans, and are otherwise so closely related by blood and tribal customs as to constitute one people.

On the 6th day of July our steamer landed us at the White Pass railway dock at Skagway. We were taken in a hack to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, a sprawling three-storied lumber structure, filled with a restless crowd. Some were going "outside" (to Seattle and the States), whereas others were going "inside." There was however, but one topic of conversation-the Klondike gold creeks. We were there at the close of the old Dyea trail days, with all the romance, hardships, and dangers incident to a sixty days' struggle against Arctic blizzards over mountain trails. In Skagway a multitude of railroad laborers were engaged in the erection of shops, engine houses, stations, and warehouses. Terminal switches were filled with loaded freight cars and the wharves with bales of merchandise. Construction work went on night and day. An army of men, with Skagway as their base, were blasting cuts and tunnels in solid mountain walls over the pass and along Lake Bennett. Trains left in the early morning for construction camps along the mountain grades, and over the pass to meet the steamboats at the station on Lake Bennett.

Fortunately the District Court for the First Division of Alaska, Judge Melville C. Brown, presiding, was in session when we arrived at Skagway. At a joint meeting we quickly agreed on a temporary boundary between the Juneau and the Eagle City divisions, and postponed fixing the permanent boundary until we should learn more about the geography of the region. We signed the necessary orders and forwarded certified copies of them to the Department of Justice in Washington.

Chapter Two


A million dollar gold bond could never, never buy, My memories of the Northland I'll keep them 'till I die. I'll treasure them like a miser, his hoard of gleaming gold- My memories are my treasure, and never may be sold. -Bruce E. Slater

Early in July 1900, our party left Skagway over the narrow-gauge railway for our post on the Yukon River. Our train wound its way up the Skagway valley and along the steep mountain sides to White Pass summit, and to a busy town of tents and shacks at the head of Lake Bennett. Since the railway had not yet been completed around Lake Bennett-construction workers were still blasting the grade along the south shore-we transferred to the steamer Australian, which carried us to Cariboo Crossing at the foot of the lake. There we were crowded back into small railway passenger coaches and sent on to Whitehorse, where we arrived at midnight. The steamer Yukoner, bound for Dawson, was waiting for our train and we were given berths, though many were forced to sleep on the floor or to share berths on the half-time plan.

Our boat left Whitehorse in the early morning. As we steamed northward towards the land of gold and our homes in Alaska, we overtook many belated sailboats loaded with gold-seekers and their supplies.

Late at night we came upon the steamer Pingree hard aground on a sandbar in the middle of the river. The crew had worked for two days to get her off, but without success. To lighten ship the cattle on board had been driven into the river and forced to swim to the east bank, and the sheep had been landed on the west bank. The steamer had lifted, only to be forced higher up on the bar by the strong current. Our boat tied up to the bank and heavy cables were attached to the Pingree and to the capstan on our boat. Both boats puffed and pulled, the capstan creaked-and the cables broke! All night long both crews worked, and not until ten o'clock the next morning was the Pingree freed. When our boat rounded the bar at noon on her way to Dawson, the Pingree's crew were getting the cattle and sheep on board again. It is little wonder that the prices of chops and steaks were high in Dawson.

When our boat landed at the Dawson levee we were informed that there would be no boat going down the river to Eagle City for several days. This enabled us to visit Dawson and the Klondike mines. Our party stayed at a nearby bunkhouse, for all the better hotels were filled. Dawson was then in its heyday as the richest mining camp in the Yukon basin. Its buildings had been constructed the preceding year from logs cut on the ground, or up the river; its streets were quagmires; its waterfront was jammed with hundreds of small boats and scows which had brought its inhabitants from Lindeman and Bennett through the dangers of the Whitehorse Rapids. The Ladue sawmill on the riverbank had furnished as much lumber as its coffee-grinder machinery could cut, and whipsawed lumber from Bennett coming down in the form of boats and scows was used for building purposes. In Government Square, buildings for official use were going up; the Mounted Police barracks, flying the flag of Canada, and the dreaded woodpile hard by, gave warning that a sentence for crime meant hard work; two-story buildings fronting on the levee were covered with signs, which were lighted by kerosene lamps at night, inviting all and sundry to the saloons and dance-halls; large log buildings housed the stores of the Alaska Commercial Company and the North American Trading and Transportation Company; log cabins and tents occupied the back streets.

Years before in Tacoma I had been appointed city attorney by Mayor Ed S. Orr. Six feet tall, handsome and generous, he was one of the first to join the Dawson stampede, and had established a stage line between Dawson and the Klondike mines. He met my party at the levee with outstretched hand and a happy smile and invited us to visit the mines by his four-horse stage. He introduced us to the Commissioner-Governor, the judges of the courts, other officials and businessmen, many of whom I had known on Puget Sound.

The next morning the Orr and Tukey stage drawn by four fine horses, driven by Orr, appeared at our bunkhouse at an early hour, and we drove away for a two-day visit to the famous Klondike mines on Bonanza and Eldorado creeks. We followed a bottomless mud road up the Klondike to the mouth of Bonanza gulch, and thence up that stream to Grand Forks. The view up the Klondike valley, as the rising sun tinted the distant peaks of the Rocky Mountain Range, was well worth the early morning trip. Our excitement increased as we entered the gateway of the gold gulches and saw a thousand men mining gold along the famous creeks and on the high bench claims. Gravel dumps, open cuts in the valley, hillside mining, cabins, miners at work casting the rich paystreaks into the long sluice boxes where rushing water carried away the muck, silt, and lighter rocks, leaving only the gold behind, made a picture never to be forgotten.

We arrived at the Grand Forks hotel in time for lunch, and took rooms for the night in that sprawling, and sometimes brawling, log hotel. That afternoon we inspected Clarence Berry's rich claim on Eldorado Creek and others like it. These were the most valuable claims on the creeks; the exposed gravel paystreaks fairly glowed with nuggets and heavy flakes of gold dust. Mr. Berry rather recklessly, it seemed to me, invited us to dig all the gold we wanted from the fully exposed golden paystreak, limiting us, however, to digging with our hands. Two greatly excited six-year-old boys, my son and Mr. Heilig's, and his young daughter Florence, at once began to hunt and dig like terriers after rats. Each child soon had a fistful of bright yellow gold nuggets, while the elders of the party were satisfied with one or two larger nuggets of the value of ten dollars or so. It was an exciting hour for the three children, who greatly pleased the owner and other miners by their happy cries as they dug out some particularly bright nugget. When they had recovered all the nuggets their hands could hold, and quite as much mud as their hands, faces, and clothes could hold, they were dragged out of the paystreak by their equally happy and excited mothers and taken to the creek for cleaning. We had dug gold in the richest part of the richest paystreak in the Klondike, and the result was interesting to us as chechacos (newcomers), a delight to the children and their parents and quite evidently a pleasure to the on-looking miners.

The Grand Forks roadhouse was a typical wild-west saloon and gambling house, without pistols or bad men. The main room on the ground floor had the office in one corner, the bar along one wall, gambling tables and games-said to be on the square-in the center, and the dancing floor at the rear. The second story, where guests' rooms were located, was supported by cross-beams which rested on a row of upright round logs along the center of the lower room. After a good dinner we viewed the dancing and gambling as nonchalantly as if we were quite used to such things. The strident music of the fiddles, the calls of the dance director, the whirling-dervish performances of some of the dancers, the promenade of the miners and their partners to the bar after each dance, the hazard of large sums on the turn of a card, the drop of a ball or the fall of dice stirred us, but official position and the presence of wives kept us merely spectators.


Excerpted from OLD YUKON by James Wickersham Copyright © 2009 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1        The Genesis of an Alaskan Court

2        Dawson and the Klondike Mines

3        Planting American Courts in the Wilderness

4        Common Law of the Trail

5        Riding the Arctic Circuit

6        The Yukon River Winter Trail

7        Triple Murder in the Aleutians

8        The Anvil Creek Conspiracy

9        The Corruption of the Court

10    Liars and Thieves

11    Social Life at Nome, 1901-1902

12    The Dog Trail From Circle to Fairbanks

13    Fairbanks and the Tanana Mines

14    The Mount McKinley Expedition

15    Up the Kantishna

16    The Approach

17    On the Slopes of Denali

18    Rafting Home

19    Three Thousand Miles of Justice

20    The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail in 1905

21    The Judge Goes on Trial

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