Early in his military career, the apostle of air power blazed a trail through the wilderness, forging the last link in a telegraph line to the edge of the Bering Sea
Few figures in American history have been surrounded by more controversy than General William Mitchell. He is a man chiefly remembered for his outspoken advocacy of air power in an age when most military minds were still firmly rooted in the earth, and for a visionary’s indifference to the feelings of his more conservative superiors, which led to a sensational court-martial. Little remembered today, however, are the numerous exploits of Billy Mitchell’s earlier career—among them his achievement in helping to lay the first telegraph line across the Alaska wilderness from 1901 to 1903. During his years of retirement after the famous trial in 1925, Mitchell found time to record his memories of his often incredible Alaska experiences in a book still in manuscript. AMERICAN HERITAGE is happy to present in these pages the first extensive excerpts from it ever published. The manuscript, which is now part of the collected Mitchell papers in the Library of Congress, comes to us through the courtesy of the General’s daughter, Mrs. Kenneth N. Gilpin, Jr., of Boyce, Virginia.
When vast gold deposits were discovered in Alaska at the end of the nineteenth century, thousands of fortune hunters swarmed north to stake claims. They found themselves in a land that was in turn beautiful and barren—and utterly remote from civilization. During the short summer months, communication was slow at best; in the long, cold winter, all but impossible. Early in the 1900’s, however, the U.S. Signal Corps managed to lay down an underwater cable from Seattle to the Alaskan port of Valdez; but attempts to build an overland telegraph in the wild and largely unexplored territory made little progress.
In the summer of 1901, Brigadier General A. W. Greely, the famous Arctic explorer who was head of the Signal Corps, sent a promising first lieutenant named William Mitchell to investigate the delays in the Alaska line. Though only twenty-one, this adventurous son of a Wisconsin senator had already served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. “Alaska attracted and interested me,” Mitchell wrote, “not only because it was our last frontier, but also because it represented a stepping stone to Asia.... it was obvious that at some future time its strategic importance to us would be very great.”
Sailing from Seattle in July, Mitchell landed at Skagway, and in the next few weeks proceeded to cover a vast stretch of territory from the Canadian Yukon District to the Bering Sea. As he traveled, Mitchell thought he saw a way to speed up the construction of the telegraph.
Until that time, he observed, the operation had been carried on only during the muddy, insect-ridden summer months; no one attempted to work in the winter for fear of the cold. But it soon became evident to Mitchell that “very little would be accomplished if we attempted to transport material through this area in the summer, as a pack horse could carry only two hundred pounds fifteen or twenty miles a day; but in winter these same animals could pull from one to two thousand pounds over the frozen snow for even greater distances.... Although this was one of the coldest parts of the world, it seemed to me the thing to do was to work through the winter getting the material out: the wire, insulators, poles, food supplies, and forage; then to actually construct the lines in the summer, when we could dig holes in the ground and set telegraph poles.”
Greely was much pleased by the young lieutenant’s findings, and late that fall Mitchell returned to Alaska. As the winter set in, he journeyed to Fort Egbert, near the town of Eagle City on the Canadian border. This lonely outpost in the gold-rich Klondike region was to be his base for the next two years. Prospects for success, however, seemed at first unlikely.
No trails existed over the mountains where the telegraph lines were to go, nor was their course definitely located, so the first thing we had to do was to survey their route. The first line would be between Eagle City and Valdez, where the submarine cable from the United States ended, a distance of almost four hundred miles through a trackless wilderness, with no means of subsistence for men or animals except game, which could only be found at certain seasons of the year.
My orders specified that all transportation in the post should be turned over for my use, and I made preparations to get my outfits out on the trail as soon as possible. I began to buy dogs to use for light sledding and reconnaissance work, selecting each one myself. The first dog I obtained was a MacKenzie husky leader called “Pointer,” owned by a squaw man named Jack Lawrence, a mail carrier. My attention had first been drawn to Jack when he neglected his squaw for a week or so, to remain in Eagle City celebrating. She came up with a long knife, found where he was, grabbed him by the nape of the neck, and marched him home.
Pointer was the greatest dog I have ever seen. He weighed about 120 pounds and was perfectly sure on the trail. He could feel through the snow with his feet for an old trail and unerringly find it. We could depend on him to protect the sled and the team under all conditions. He was so fierce that we had to cut his fangs off to keep him from chewing up the other dogs. He became tremendously attached to me, and from that time on during every trip, Pointer was my constant companion and friend.
Gradually we got together wonderful teams. I selected the best ones, mated in size, gaits, and weight, and organized them into two teams. Taking a man named Emmet with me, I made a reconnaissance to see for myself where the lines should go and how we could stand the weather. When doing this advance reconnoitering, we always traveled light, often not carrying a tent but digging a hole out with a snowshoe and banking up a fire of logs opposite it, sleeping in the reflected heat of the embers. Sometimes we slept in a hole in the snow with the dogs lying on top of us.
It was necessary to push through to the south and find where the men working under Captain Burnell were located. He was supposed to work north from Valdez over Thompson’s Pass in the Alaska Range of mountains, and meet me somewhere on the Tanana River, more than 150 miles from each of us.
Emmet and I sought and found the Mentasta Pass, south of the Tanana River. Just south of the pass lies Mentasta Lake, the headwaters of a small river called the Tokio, which is fed by warm springs.
We traversed the lake without much trouble, but once down the precipitous sides of the Tokio River, on whose treacherous icy surface we had to travel, we began to break through. The temperature was around 60 degrees below. There was layer upon layer of ice, with about three feet of water between them. When our moccasins and trousers were wet, they would freeze instantly and become hard as boards the minute we got out of the water. In one place I broke through with my sled, clear to my shoulders, and if my leader Pointer had not gotten a foothold on the ice beyond and pulled out Hunter, the second dog, and the rest of the team, I would probably have been there yet. Emmet avoided that hole, but broke through in another up to his waist. We were both thoroughly wet and the dogs were incased in ice, biting at their feet to get it off. If we did not act quickly, we would be frozen to death in a few minutes.
Fortunately for us, I spied a dry tree leaning over the river, as if it had been put there by Providence. Shouting to Emmet to start chopping the tree, as he was the least wet, I drove the team ahead, breaking through the ice as I went, and began turning the dogs loose from their harness, jumping in the water meanwhile to keep from freezing stiff. I got two candles from the sled and lighted them with matches we carried in a shotgun cartridge case to keep them dry.
Emmet grabbed a double-bitted axe and went for the tree, but on raising it for the first stroke, the axe handle broke in two from brittleness caused by the intense cold. Emmet was now beginning to freeze. I told him to jump in the water while I tackled the tree. After having chopped it about half through, my axe handle broke. Things looked bad. I had a little tin of kerosene, but that had frozen. We had placed the lighted candles in a sheltered place and warmed our hands over them, because if our hands became stiff we would be unable to light the matches. I jumped back in the water, as Emmet came up with his second axe, with which he got the tree down, stripping off the branches in a second, and setting them ablaze.
In the meantime, three of his dogs had chewed through the traces and gotten loose before I had been able to let them out. But in a moment we had a roaring fire, and everything was changed. Before long, I had a fine meal ready.
Within a few hours we had dried everything, repaired the harnesses where the dogs had chewed through, and prepared the dogfood of equal parts of bacon, rice, and king salmon. I always carried the best food obtainable for the dogs and fed them in individual dishes so as not to lose any of the substance in the snow and ice. Each dog was trained to come to his own dish, while I stood over them with a twenty-foot whip, ready to pounce on any animal that tried to steal his neighbor’s food or make trouble.
We whittled out a couple of new axe handles from spruce wood, and started out again next morning. There was a mail station somewhere in the vicinity, and we expected to meet the mail carrier coming north from Valdez at any time. We should have met him the day before, but I figured he had been delayed. Soon I could see by the action of my lead dog that he smelled a habitation. It is remarkable how these animals show by their actions what lies ahead of them. We were running along at the base of a steep bank when I noticed ahead of us a place where a sled had evidently broken into the ice.
Peering over the bank, I could see the top of a tent. It was about lunchtime. Yelling “gee” to the leader, I jumped up the bank with the team. There in front of the tent was a sled on which a man was sitting, with his head leaning over on his hands. Sitting in front of him, immovable, was a large, black dog. I called to the man but received no response, and going closer found that he was frozen to death. The mail was in the sled under him. Between his teeth was a match, and between his knees was a box on which he had tried to scratch the match when his hands had frozen.
Pieces of harness showed where four of his dogs had bitten out and left; his only remaining companion was this half-bred dog with all four feet frozen. We put the body of the mail carrier in his tent, which we laced up, and shot his dog. Then we proceeded on down the river.
In a couple of days we arrived at Copper Center, where there was a settlement of Indians. I noticed one especially handsome large Indian with reddish hair and blue eyes. I asked him his name, and he answered, “Me named Cross River Joe.”
“Who your papa?” I asked.
“Long time ago big soldier chief, he come here. He my papa,” Joe replied. “Now me chief of tribe.”
“Where your mama?” I went on, inspired by some curiosity.
“She live in cabin up river,” he answered. I told him I would like to see his mama tomorrow, so the following day she appeared, decked out in very handsome beaded caribou-skin clothes, with a large aneroid barometer hanging around her neck, like a jewel. It was of brass, polished till it shone. The barometer had been given her as a magic talisman by the “soldier chief” who was Joe’s father.
Copper Center was just north of the Coast Range, and here I encountered a sergeant from Valdez who had some telegraph supplies in his charge. Proceeding south from there, I came to the Thompson Pass in the Coast Range, where I met Captain Burnell.
I had now traversed the whole route over which the telegraph line was to run from Eagle City to the coast. We made all arrangements possible between ourselves for its completion. I returned over the trail we had broken and fortunately got by the Tokio River without breaking through again.
On this trip I fell in with the Middlefork Indians on the Forty Mile Creek, whose chief, Joseph, became one of my great friends and companions later on. He had thirteen families under him. Their country began about one hundred miles south of the Yukon and extended over to the Tanana divide. They were great hunters, trappers, and fishermen.
Every Indian tribe had its own clearly defined hunting grounds and boundaries, and each hated every other tribe. The only time they got together was in their general hate for the white man. All of them, however, respected the soldiers, especially the “soldier chiefs.” I was the first officer to come into Chief Joseph’s camp. As he heard my men calling me lieutenant, he always afterward addressed me as “Chief Klutina,” that being his rendition of the word “lieutenant.” I was later known by that name to all the Indians in that part of the country.
Back at Fort Egbert, Mitchell found his men still in a bad state. Growing restless in the dark and melancholy Alaska winter, they had taken to brawling with the townspeople of nearby Eagle City. Mutiny threatened. Characteristically, Mitchell decided that his best course was to get them to work as soon as possible. His plan was to head south in January, 1902, surveying the telegraph route and transporting poles and supplies to be cached along the way.
Mitchell’s goal was the Tanana River, about 150 miles distant. To reach it, he took a somewhat circuitous route, following the Yukon River east a way into Canada, and then turning south along its tributary, the Forty Mile Creek, which eventually recrossed the border. “I decided to go that way,” he explained, “because there was no trail broken over the mountains for horse sleighs... Sledding along the rivers made the distance further but did not require anything like the exertion incident to scaling the mountains and ridges.”
Progress was slow and laborious; but by the end of the winter a right of way had been cut to the Tanana. “Gradually it began to dawn on people that we were going to build the telegraph lines,” Mitchell wrote with no little pride, “and that it was possible to do so in the dreaded winter. Those who had failed accused us of wasting equipment and endangering the lives of men and animals, but I never lost a man or even had one seriously frozen.” Unless some unforeseen accident occurred, he felt certain that the telegraph system across Alaska would be completed within the next two years.
Gradually the streams showed signs of breaking, and we came back from the trail to Fort Egbert, putting our dogs in the corral for the summer. The snow melted from the hills and ran down, forming pools of water. From the south, ducks began to arrive, first by tens, then by hundreds and thousands. In May, the Yukon River was still frozen.
One night we heard a tremendous cracking like cannon shots. It was the ice in the river. People began yelling and discharging firearms. Next morning when I looked out, I saw that it had broken, and the river had begun moving. This is the great annual event in the North. All winter long, private bets had been laid, specifying the day, hour, and minute when the breakup would come and the ice begin moving at a certain point. A stake was erected on one bank and a tree or rock selected on the opposite side, from which a sight could be taken by two or three people, to decide when the river actually moved. Each settlement had a pool made up as to when the river would break up.
Everyone who is able to gives a party, and they visit between cabins at all hours of the day and night, drinking each other’s health for the coming season.
The grandeur of the breakup at Eagle City is impossible to convey by words. A great bend in the river here has as its background an enormous mass of rock called Eagle Cliff, against which the ice piles up for more than one hundred feet. Great cakes from five to ten feet thick grind and crash together with a noise like an artillery preparation for attack, for two or three days. Every day the river moved more and more and finally was clear.
One day while shooting ptarmigan on a hill near Eagle City, I suddenly came upon the body of an Indian with the whole side of his head torn off. He had a bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows on his back. Near him was a hole between some rocks on a hillside, and the snow all around was covered with blood and bear tracks. Putting buckshot into both barrels of my shotgun, I followed the bear’s trail into a little open stretch of spruce timber. Within a hundred yards I came upon him, stone dead, with an arrow piercing his heart.
This is probably what had happened: the Indian saw the breath of the bear rising from his den as he prepared to come out from his winter hibernation. Going to the mouth of the cave, the Indian shot him through the heart as he emerged, then ran. But the bear, enraged at the pain, saw him, and being more active than the Indian had calculated, jumped out and happened to catch him right on the head with the first blow.
It was now the latter part of May, and instead of darkness, the days were all light. Before the snow had half gone, the mosquitoes made their appearance. Wild flowers began to cover every inch of ground.
Soon we were able to get out on the trail with saddle horses and pack mules, and get the men started digging post holes. The earth was still frozen, and we tried many methods for getting the holes down. Blasting did no good; the ground was so springy that it just bounced away and closed up again. Using steam points from a boiler was too cumbersome, because it took too much equipment to carry a boiler along and too much work to get fuel. So we used very sharp digging tools, which were sharpened and tempered every few days by blacksmiths who went from place to place with their pack mules.
Our next project was a trip from Eagle, on the Yukon, to the Tanana River, then down the Tanana to locate the mouths of the north and south tributaries of the river and determine the best place for crossing it with the telegraph lines. We were to travel by pack mule 150 miles to the Tanana, where we would build a whipsawed boat to take us down the river to Fort Gibbon. None of my acquaintances in Alaska had gone down the Tanana; it was just as mysterious a country to us then as the center of Greenland or the Antarctic continent is today.
While making my arrangements, I received a telegram from the commander of the Canadian Mounted Police across the border in Dawson that Major F., my superior officer, who was on the way up the Yukon from Skagway to inspect the lines, was acting strangely, and that two plain-clothes Mounted Police had been detailed to accompany him. This seemed very odd to me, and I could not imagine what was the matter.
I went down to the wharf to meet Major F. as he came off the steamer. He greeted me with his usual cordiality. I noticed, however, that he was very nervous and kept looking all around suspiciously. Going out to my cabin at the military post, he was immediately called upon by the commander and other officers. As soon as they left, I spoke to him of the trip I was about to make, of the arrangements I had made for it, and suggested that it would be a good thing for him to accompany me, as he would get an excellent idea of the country.
Major F. said he would like to go to my office and look over all phases of our work. As soon as we were alone, he said, “I want to tell you what has happened to me recently, and then I want your candid opinion about it.
“About a month ago, I was in my room in the hotel at Juneau, when I heard two men talking in the next room. I could hear one of them saying, over and over: ‘Now we have him. We will kill him tonight.’ After a while, I heard my own name mentioned. I listened further and when I was sure that they were after me, I took my pistol, broke the door, and jumped into the room, intending to arrest the men and take them to the town marshal. There was nobody in the room whatever. I went out and walked around the streets. Everybody stared at me. As I passed different groups of men, they eyed me peculiarly and absolutely stopped talking.
“I went back to my room and thought it over. I thought I had better consult a doctor. I went to one, and he gave me some medicine to take, but it made my brain so inactive that I stopped it.”
Here the Major paused a moment, and I asked him how he knew it made his brain inactive.
“Because I took a simple problem in integral calculus, and it was perfectly impossible for me to work it out. I was sure then that the stuff was affecting my brain. Again I heard the men talking in the next room during the night. The door of the room was open, and I rushed in, but again they avoided me. There was no one there. So I determined to come up here to you. I kept my departure a secret. Just before the steamer was to leave Juneau for Skagway, I ran down and jumped on board. As the steamer pulled out, I could see people running down to the wharf with the evident intention of getting me.
“When I arrived at Skagway, I went to the cable office and looked over the messages received that day, to see if anyone had wired ahead that I was coming and to look out for me. I found only one suspicious message which was in code. It was addressed to the Canadian Bank of Commerce. I went to the bank and asked them to let me see their cipher, so I could decode the message, which they did. It said that a shipment was being made to the bank and to look out for it. It did not say what the shipment was or anything else about it, and I drew from that, that it might mean me. I seemed to be followed everywhere, through the streets, mostly by the rougher element, who always kept their eyes on me.
“I went to White Horse on the White Pass Railway, and at that place I asked the Canadian Mounted Police authorities for an escort. Two men were detailed to accompany me, in plain-clothes, and they took the river steamer with me. A few cows were being shipped down the river, and as I looked in at them through a window, I heard the two men who were taking care of them say, ‘We’ll get him before long; he is going down the river now.’
“When I arrived at Dawson, the commander of the Mounted Police met me at the wharf, and as there was another boat ready to leave, I did not go into the town but came to you right away. I saw how everybody looked at me when I got off the boat. I am sure that I am being watched and followed, and that the first opportunity will be taken to make away with me.”
He stopped speaking, and I could see that my old friend was in a terribly excited state of mind. He had always been one of the bravest of men, and to see him in abject fear was a strange thing to me.
Unquestionably Major F. had lost his mind. If we confined him or restrained him physically, he would certainly go all to pieces. But if I got him out in the wilderness where he would get plenty of fresh air and “exercise, I thought I might cure him. So I suggested that we start on the trip for the Tanana River the next morning.
He wanted to know if there were many Indians and if I thought they knew about the plot. I replied that there were a few, but I knew them all. They were my friends and would do more for me than for any other white man. He then asked what kind of an outfit I was going to take, and I told him one packer, four pack mules, and our saddle horses. He asked to see the packer, and I had the man, Hall by name, come in. He was a great big fellow, about six feet three in height, with blue eyes and a blond beard, as fine and straightforward in appearance as any man I have ever seen. Major F. was satisfied with him.
Next morning we got away. Major F. would look behind every tree, thinking he might find an Indian waiting to shoot him. At our first camp that night, the mosquitoes were terrible. I built smudges, around which the horses and mules stood, and put up our silk tent, which had a floor to it and a hole with a puckering string to close it up. In the middle of the night a bear or wolf came near the camp, and the horses made a lot of noise. Major F. thought the camp was attacked and made a bolt for the hole in the tent, knocking the whole thing down on top of us. Once disentangled, Major F. took a pistol in each hand and began running all around. I thought he would certainly shoot Hall and myself before I could persuade him there was nothing to be feared.
The next day we ran into a small herd of caribou. We made a careful roundabout stalk and I brought Major F. within range of a nice bull, which he killed. This pleased him greatly, not only because he was glad to make the kill, but also because he was satisfied he could hit whatever he aimed at.
For several days we journeyed on and saw nobody, but one afternoon, just as we were making camp, an Indian from the Middlefork Tribe came up. Indianlike, he approached me, gave one grunt and then sat down on his haunches to watch what was going on. After having made our camp and started the fire, I gave him a little tobacco and papers for cigarettes, and poured him a cup of tea with some sugar.
“Long time me no see you, Klutina,” he said. “What for you bring stranger here?”
“He is very big soldier chief,” I replied, “much bigger than me. He is chief of all the soldier chiefs in the North. All the Indians who see him must remember he is a very big soldier chief and do everything for him they can, as he likes all Indians.”
Major F. had heard him say, “What for you bring stranger here?” and immediately he was off again, thinking the Indians were in league against him. For several days after this we saw nobody, and again he was becoming quiet, although he would frequently get up at night with his weapons and look around.
Arriving at our little station on the Tanana River, I ordered the two men there to whipsaw some lumber and make a boat for us to descend the Tanana River. We then proceeded south through Mentasta Pass to meet Captain Burnell’s party.
A few days later we met a large and well-appointed pack train with the supplies from Valdez. Captain Burnell had accompanied them, and we conferred again about our plans for joint action. After their hard journey, the men were certainly a tough-looking lot in their buckskin clothes, leather chaps, and long beards, their faces covered with running sores caused by mosquito bites. The mules and horses looked more like skeletons than the sleek animals one sees in the United States. I could see that Major F. was becoming nervous again. He took me aside and said he thought we had better get away from that rough crowd, as he feared he might be grabbed up by them at any moment. Here in the wilderness nobody would ever know what had happened!
We returned to the Tanana River station, where we found our boat completed, so we started down the river. For twelve days we traveled on, catching fish, both salmon and trout, and seeing many animals on the banks: bears, wolves, beaver, caribou, otter, and moose. I purposely avoided Indians on this trip, because at the mouth of the Tanana we would run into another military garrison, and I thought it best to keep the Major from seeing anyone as long as possible. He had said not a word about his hallucinations during this stage of the trip, and I thought he might be over them.
When we finally arrived at Fort Gibbon, we looked pretty tough. Our clothes were in rags. I had lost my hat in the river, and my head was shaggy. Our bearded faces were full of sores from mosquito bites, but we were in fine physical condition. The exercise and fresh air had done Major F. a great deal of good.
Upon our arrival, one of the officers began to jolly us about our appearance, and immediately Major F. was off again. He took this as an indication that the officer was linked up with the gang who were after him. His fears redoubled, and they had to send him out of Alaska under guard. Fortunately, with a year of quiet and good care, he recovered his health, and was sent back to full duty with his organization. In due course he retired from the Army, and afterward became a professor in a large university.
Leaving Major F. in safe hands, Mitchell took a steamer up the Yukon to his headquarters at Fort Egbert. When he arrived, he was elated to find the telegraph line actually working through to the Tanana River. The connection with the party coming north from the port of Valdez would soon be made. With this first line all but completed, Mitchell’s next project was to lay a second one from Fort Egbert to Fort Gibbon, near the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Somewhere along the way he was supposed to meet the party under the command of Lieutenant George Gibbs, which was working eastward from the Bering Sea.
The most obvious route for the new line would have simply followed the tortuous course of the Yukon River. But Mitchell thought he saw a shorter way to his goal, one that would save both hundreds of miles and thousands of dollars. It seemed typical of the man that this alternate route ran through a wilderness that was entirely unexplored. What Mitchell proposed was to cut a trail cross-country from Fort Egbert to a small tributary of the Tanana, the Goodpaster River. He planned to set out just after New Year’s of 1903 to scout the new and hazardous route, accompanied by a packer named “Dutch” De Haus, and Chief Joseph of the Middlefork tribe, whose acquaintance he had made the winter before.
No white man had ever been down the Goodpaster River, and few Indians in our vicinity knew anything about it, because the Middlefork Indians’ domain stopped at the divide at the head of the river, and the Goodpaster Indians, who live on the Tanana, did not come over on the north side of the divide. I had consulted several times with Chief Joseph of the Middlefork tribe about the trip I proposed to make down this river. I wanted him to accompany Dutch and myself, to help break the trail down there. He always said it was a terrible trip, and it was a tradition among his people that anybody who went down it in wintertime never came back.
These Indians were very bad, he explained. If they looked at you intently, they made you sick, and they stole from graves. I assured him that I could protect him against these things, that he need not worry because I had fine dogs, good toboggans that we would use on the snowshoe trails, good rifles and snowshoes, and the best of food in the North. We had become great friends, having hunted and fished a great deal together, and for that reason he agreed to go with me.
Just before Christmas I made a trip with Dutch to my various stations to see how things were going, and to make sure the men were well taken care of and would have whatever we could give them for Christmas. We had a wonderful horse trail made across the country, and with our sleds light, we went along at a great rate, often at a dead gallop. I was crossing the Forty Mile Creek on the way back, when I looked down the trail and saw a lone figure running toward me with a springy step and waving his hand. I brought the dogs to a halt, and he handed me a letter from the commander of the Mounted Police in Dawson, asking me to come there and spend Christmas with them.
We had to travel hard to get to Dawson in two days. Turning my teams in the trail, I made for the metropolis of the north. The dogs seemed to know that they were on the way to holiday and a rest. We jingled down the Forty Mile with our bells echoing from the hills on either side. That night we reached the little town of Forty Mile on the Yukon and stayed at the roadhouse, setting off early next morning.
The Yukon River trail was rough in spots, but we made good time. The winter trail along a large river follows the smooth ice as far as possible. On each side, broken fragments and high ridges of ice were heaped up where the water had pressed them aside before they froze solid. Behind them, the high and precipitous river banks thrust upward, heightening the boldness and grandeur of the scene. In some places the ice had no snow on it, and the wind whistled over the frozen surface with biting fierceness.
About three o’clock in the afternoon, the dogs showed that they smelled the town lying around the bend of the river ahead of us. We went straight down the main street at a gallop, our bells jingling merrily.
The Christmases at Dawson were renowned all over the Northland. I put up with Captain Cosby of the Mounted Police, one of the finest fellows I ever knew, while Dutch went with the noncommissioned officers, and our teams were carefully housed in a section of the Mounted Police dog corral where they could not fight the other dogs. Our teams were the envy of all the dog mushers in Dawson who gathered to inspect them.
The parties given by the various prosperous citizens were endless and all very well done. The ladies had as fine Paris gowns as could be found anywhere and wore wonderful jewels. At one dinner, we ate raw oysters on the half shell that cost one dollar apiece. I learned afterward that the shells had been brought in separately, and the oysters put on them, but they were very good indeed.
Most of the music consisted of fiddles, played by musicians who knew all the old-time dances. There were some accordions, guitars, and mandolins, and a few upright pianos.
On Christmas Eve, the Mounted Police gave a great ball. All turned out in their full-dress uniforms. As I had none with me, I wore one of Cosby’s, red coat and everything else, and had just as much fun as if it had been my own.
We stayed seven days, which was plenty long enough. Had we remained longer and accepted the lavish hospitality extended to us, both the dogs and ourselves would have lost our “trail condition.”
The temperature had been falling constantly, and when we left Dawson on January 2, the thermometer registered 62 degrees below zero. In weather as cold as that, when one exhales the breath, the moisture congeals instantly, and a distinct pop can be heard. It is practically impossible for wind to blow at this temperature. If it did, it would freeze you just the way a hot iron burns.
Having a long nose that protruded whenever it had a chance and was constantly being frozen on the end, I hit upon the scheme of putting a little piece of snowshoe rabbit fur on it, the hairs of which stick out about an inch and a half. The moisture from my face held it there.
Ice formed all over our parka hoods from the moisture of our breath and had to be knocked off every little while. Long beards and mustaches become instantly caked with ice, and are not only an inconvenience but a menace, as they might freeze one’s face. That is why men in the North shave clean in winter, after having let their beards grow long in the summer to keep the mosquitoes off.
One often hears inexperienced men say that after it gets below 40 degrees, a further drop does not make much difference. This is not so. Forty degrees below is not particularly cold, or even 45, but for every degree below 50, the intensity of the cold seems to double.
In spite of the intense cold, we made excellent time, going by way of Forty Mile, and in three days I reached the head of the Middlefork River and scaled the high divide where I had ordered a cache of supplies to be made. Here I was met by Chief Joseph. He had brought an excellent outfit with him, good snowshoes, caribou-skin clothing, and a 30/30 carbine. He seemed quite melancholy, however, and told me that he might never see his own people again as he was going with me into the country of the bad Indians. Although I did not expect to encounter any very unusual conditions, I knew that a long snowshoe trip with the temperature below 60 degrees was a serious thing, particularly if we ran into any warm springs and broke through the ice. The temperature had been falling steadily. It was now under 70 degrees below zero.
We found the Goodpaster to be a beautiful stream, gradually broadening out between washed-down hills, with excellent timber. We threaded our way through groves of spruce trees, birches, and alders, and as we descended the river course, we began to get more and more into the bed of the stream.
The terrible cold continued, constantly around 70 below. The wise huskies would stop every little while and bite the snow out of their feet to keep them from freezing. A snowshoe trail in cold weather is extremely hard on dogs, because even after it has been broken, the dogs go in almost up to their bellies. As their feet go down through the snow, their toes spread out, with the web and hairs projecting so as to offer the greatest surface possible. The snow sticks to the hair between the toes, and in a little while it is a good deal the same as marbles between them.
We made about fifteen miles a day, which we considered good, as the snow was quite deep compared to the Yukon. On our fifth day out we ran across a trail which Joe at once pronounced to be made by an Indian, one of his tribe, he thought, who had left his own country and gone into the forbidden territory because it was so rich in furs. The trail went ahead of us down the river. Soon we saw the smoke of a fire rising through the spruce trees, and getting closer, saw an Indian wickiup, a lodge built something in the form of a beehive, covered with bark and spruce boughs.
“Him David house. I guess he die,” said Joe, meaning that the lodge belonged to a man of his tribe named David, who was probably starving to death.
Leaving Dutch with the dogs, Joe and I went to the wickiup and looked in. There sat David with his head in his hands, emaciated and pale. Three children, practically unable to move, were on the other side of him, while his squaw was just able to put wood on the fire. Three dogs were in the lodge, two of them hardly able to move, but one came toward the door to try to attack us. He was so weak he fell into the fire on the way and had to be pulled out.
Joe talked to David and elicited the information that David had come across with his family at the first snow. It had grown cold so quickly that he had been unable to get sufficient caribou meat to last him through the winter. The snow was so light that the game ran right through it, but it offered the maximum impediment to snowshoes. He had only killed a couple of caribou since the middle of November, and for over a month they had subsisted on moosehide from their moccasins and the sinews out of their snowshoes, had eaten one dog, and were about to kill the others. All these Indians seemed perfectly numb, mentally and physically, so exhausted were they. A white man under the same conditions would have frozen and died long before.
We had been hitting a terrific gait along the trail. Dutch was getting tired, but Indian Joe was becoming much more so, although neither of them said anything about it. I therefore decided to give them a day’s rest and at the same time try to save this Indian family. If I split my own meager store of provisions with them at that time, they would eat everything up in a few days; so I gave them only meals that we cooked ourselves during the day we were there, and left them just enough food to last for ten days, by which time I expected to return.
Naturally this was cutting down our own supply pretty low, but I knew I could get to the mouth of the Goodpaster in four or five days, and I expected the Indians there to have some dried salmon left and possibly some game. We chopped an additional store of wood for David’s family and fixed up his lodge. The effect of a little food on the dogs was even more marked than the effect on the Indians.
The day’s rest had stiffened up both Joe and Dutch, who showed increasing signs of fatigue. Dutch kept lagging behind, so I sent him forward where I could watch him. When cold begins to seize people, they become very pleasant, and everything seems rosy to them. They want to lie down and take it easy, and when they do, they freeze to death in a couple of minutes.
The second day out from the camp of the starving Indians, Dutch began to lag behind worse than ever. As we rounded a turn in the river, I looked back and did not see him. I could tell by the action of the Indian that he was worried. A little way down the stream we saw a dry spruce tree, sticking over the bank above the ice. I told Joe to go down there and make a fire instantly while I ran back on my snowshoes to look for Dutch. I found him about 150 yards back, lying in the snow. I spoke to him, asking him why he had not kept up. Dutch answered that he was so tired he had to lie down and take a rest, and he didn’t believe it was possible for him to move, that he was perfectly comfortable there in the snow.
It was a typical example of the stage where circulation begins to slow up, preparatory to freezing. I jumped squarely on his face with both my snowshoes and wiggled them around, then jumped on his chest and kicked him in the stomach, all the time abusing him verbally, trying to make him get up and fight me. At last I got him on his feet and slapped him in the face as hard as I could with my open hands, to make him so mad that he would exert himself. Dutch was a good man physically, and ordinarily would take no foolishness from anybody, but I had a terrible time trying to rouse his ire and get him started down the trail. At last I succeeded and walked along with him, hitting him every few moments and dragging him along. As we rounded the turn, I saw that Joe had gotten the fire started in a jiffy. Flame and smoke were rising from the dried spruce boughs.
The sight seemed to work a transformation in Dutch. His eyes stuck out, and he made straight for the fire. When he got there, he jumped squarely into it. We had to drag him out to keep him from burning himself. As it was, he burned a part of one snowshoe and one moccasin, and it took us an hour to repair them. He now began to tingle all over and appreciate how cold he was.
I had two bottles of Perry Davis Pain Killer in each sled. This is the greatest medicine ever invented for use in the North. I do not know the ingredients, other than alcohol and some laudanum, but I would hazard a guess at red pepper, turpentine, and tabasco juice. You can take it internally or rub it on as a liniment. For man or dog, it is one of the best remedies I know for frost bite.
I gave Dutch a good swig of it and rubbed some on his neck and chest. In a little while he was well heated up. We ate a good hearty lunch, and I filled him full of hot tea. Then I put him ahead of the sleds and kept him there for the rest of the trip.
Five days out from David’s house, or ten days away from the head of the Goodpaster River, we reached its mouth, a distance of 170 miles. Rounding a point, we came all at once on the Indian village, which consisted of ten or twelve log cabins, with caches outside of them. Birchbark canoes were piled up for the winter outside the houses, and sleds and dogs were in front of the doors. As the dogs heard our bells, they put up a great hue and cry. An Alaskan dog cannot bark, it can only howl. If one does hear a bark in the North, it is an unmistakable sign that the dog is of an outside breed.
As we came up the bank to the village, these Indian dogs ran up to my leader, Pointer, apparently with the idea of biting him. Pointer grabbed one of them by the throat and threw him five or six feet, never looking at him at all, but keeping right on the trail. The dog beat a hasty retreat, and none of the others came near us again.
The Indians seemed tremendously astonished to see us, and eyed my Indian, Joe, curiously. He spoke an entirely different language from their own, but he made himself understood by signs and a few words common to all Indians. Several of the Goodpaster Indians spoke quite a few words of English, having been down to the mouth of the Tanana River to trade their furs.
I explained to them that I was a soldier chief, engaged in putting up a “talk string”—as they called the telegraph wire—which I said would be a great assistance to them when installed. One asked me if it would bring more white men into the country, and I told him it probably would not, because the “talk string” would do the work of many mail carriers who otherwise would have to go through that country. One Indian said he had heard that game would not cross the “talk string,” and that therefore the migration of the caribou would be changed, much to their disadvantage.
This was really so. The caribou at first were very much afraid of the right of way that we chopped through the country and of the wire that was laid on the ground, because when they came into contact with it, it cut their legs. We found that caribou had become entangled in our wire in several places and pushed it a hundred feet away from its original location, but afterward let it severely alone. Gradually they became used to it and after a while crossed the right of way without hesitation. I explained this to the Indians and told them it would make no difference with the caribou migration. In addition, the telegraph line went straight from point to point and would always afford them a fine winter trail.
They asked me why I had brought an Indian of another tribe with me, because he might find out things there which they did not wish him to know. I replied that I was a soldier chief, and he was an Indian chief, that we were great friends and companions, hunted and fished together, and I had made him come with me against his will, to assist me on this trip.
The Indians seemed satisfied with these explanations and told me they were glad to see me, that I was the first white man who had ever come down the river, and they were greatly surprised that I came through in this terribly cold weather. They themselves had even stopped trapping, they told me.
After having provided for our dogs and eaten a good meal ourselves, we settled down to smoke, and I gleaned from the Indians all the information I could about the country. I asked when they thought the breakup would come in the spring, and where they thought was a good place for us to build boats. The conversation shifted to when the salmon would come, whether there were many of them, how much game there was in the country, and where it was located. The Goodpaster, they told me, was the best place for marten, or Alaska sable, but the Delta River, the mouth of which was about ten miles below, was the best place for foxes, particularly’ black and silver tips, several of which they had obtained during the last month.
Finally, an Indian who was telling me about the Delta River, said, “Me come back yesterday from line of traps, Delta River, me catchum two white men. They heap sick, too much eat.”
This was astonishing information, two white men in the country at that time of the year, and sick from eating too much! I could get no more out of him except that he had left two Indians with them, that he had given them frozen salmon to eat, and that they had been on the trail a long time, coming from the Copper River. Joe elicited the information that these men were nearly frozen to death and in a very bad condition.
I determined to push down there at once and see what the trouble was. Telling one of the Goodpaster Indians to start down ahead of me, I borrowed a sled from them to use instead of my toboggan, hitched my team to it, took a little rice and bacon with me, and left Dutch to look after things at the Goodpaster village.
In a couple of hours I reached the Indian camp, a little above the mouth of the Delta. Sure enough, I found two white men, one an Irishman and the other a Swede. The Indians had built a nice wickiup for them, with a comfortable fire which made it quite warm. The Irishman’s face and hands were entirely black from freezing, and his ears were all shriveled up and sloughing off. The front teeth of both men were broken off from having tried to bite into the frozen fresh salmon which the Indians had given them, and both were very sick at their stomachs from having eaten so much of it. The Swede was in much better condition than the Irishman. His toes and fingers were a little frozen, but his face, except for the nose and ears, was pretty clear of frost, as were his legs, arms, and back.
I looked over the Irishman. The Indians had taken off his trousers and were rubbing him with snow to try and save him, but I saw at once that his legs were gone and probably his arms. He had worn suspenders to hold up his trousers, and these had frozen from the moisture. There was a black streak on each side of his chest and down his back where they had extended. I did not see how the man could have lived.
I gave him a little Perry Davis Pain Killer, and cooked some rice, bacon, and salmon for them. It would have been impossible to get these men back to my working parties or to Eagle City, but there was a trading station at a little place called Chena, about a hundred miles below, where a gold strike had just been made. I therefore told the Indians that they must mush these men on down there, and they would be paid liberally for their efforts by the government or by private individuals. Both the frozen men said they had plenty of money and produced an order from the Northern Commercial Company to give them practically anything they wanted.
In the meantime, the Swede, whose vitality seemed enormous, began telling me what had happened to them. To begin with, he and his partner had determined to go into the upper Tanana River country, as they thought it offered the best chance for making a strike. During the summer they hired some packers to take them up the Chestachina River, and carried a good outfit across the divide, which is without timber for about thirty miles. They made a good strong cache for it, which would resist wolverines or any other animals, then crossed the divide and waited for the freeze in a cabin on the Chestachina about fifty miles from their cache.
Still they decided to push ahead. Soon their scanty supply of corn meal was exhausted. They went several days without eating, and their dogs became so exhausted that they could go no further. A dog can work from four to seven days without anything to eat. After that he dies if he is not fed. So they killed one dog, ate some of it, and fed the rest to the other dogs. This carried them on a little further. Two dogs ran away, which left them only two others. These they also killed. Pulling their own sled, they still made from six to eight miles a day.
Eventually, the terribly cold weather overwhelmed them. Their clothing and outfit were not sufficient to stand it. The Irishman began to freeze more and more every day and could not thaw out properly. When all their dog meat was gone, they chewed the dog hides, then ate all the webbing out of their snowshoes. They ate their moccasins and attempted to make sandals for their feet out of birchbark. Finally they ate their moosehide mittens, leaving only the woolen linings to wear, which of course soon became wet and froze their hands. By that time they were nearing exhaustion and really had expected to die in the camp where the Indians found them.
I urged the Indians to make all haste to take them down the river. They did it and did it well, sending two sleds with two Indians each. I afterward found that they got the men to Chena in about four days, in as good condition as could be expected. The Swede lost only two or three fingers and the ends of a few toes. The Irishman lost both legs and both arms. I saw him several months afterward, and he remarked in a jocular way that he did not know whether it was better to be dead or alive in that condition. His face was a mass of scars and his ears practically eaten away.
Even in the dead of winter, news of Mitchell’s trailblazing exploit spread quickly through the Alaska wilderness. If his new route to the Tanana River shortened the projected telegraph line, it also gave fast, though hardly easy, access from the Klondike to the newly opened Tanana gold fields near Chena and Fairbanks. At Fort Egbert, Mitchell discovered that men were already outfitting to make the trip; despite the rigors of the arctic winter, the migration of gold-seekers over the Goodpaster trail soon amounted to a stampede.
Mitchell continued to make long survey trips to the Tanana and back. During one stay at Fort Egbert, he became a member of the Society of Arctic Brothers, a secret organization of men who have spent at least one winter in the North and become “sourdoughs.” His initiation called for him to walk barefoot in the snow at 55 degrees below zero. Then he was brought before a “tribunal” and accused of purposely starving his men on the trail to the Tanana. “The charge had the exact effect that they desired on me,” Mitchell wrote. “I got very mad and challenged the fellows that made it to come out and fight me right there. So we went outside, and they grabbed me and rolled me around in the snow for about five minutes, then brought me in and gave me a good warm spiced drink and invested me with complete membership in the order.”
As the spring of 1903 approached, Mitchell made preparations for the completion of the telegraph line. At Central, his advance base at the head of the Goodpaster, he put his men to work building boats to transport crews and equipment down the Tanana as soon as the ice broke. It was his hope that he would meet the party of Lieutenant Gibbs, which was working toward him, sometime that summer. While there was still snow on the ground, he made a final trip to Fort Egbert and Eagle City, 150 miles away. Stopping only once for a brief meal, Mitchell and his friend “Dutch” De Haus covered the distance in a little less than twenty-four hours. The two men had established a record for a single day’s journey with a dog team.
I went back to Central, to find the boats practically finished. There were five quite large ones, about eighteen feet long, which would hold one ton of cargo, four rowers, and a steersman; and for my own use, a double-ender, twelve feet long. Despite their crude tools and equipment, the men had built excellent boats.
I organized the crews and practiced them in rowing and steering. I put our best men with the two boats containing our reserve food supplies, so as to insure their getting through in good shape. They were to stop at the mouth of the Goodpaster, opposite the Indian village, and organize a camp from which supplies could be distributed up and down the river.
I started the pack trains through the water while the ice was still floating on it. They carried the working parties along the line where they were to erect the poles, put on the insulators, and tie the telegraph wire on. Our wire had now been laid all along the right of way from the head of the Goodpaster to the Tanana, and it remained for me to determine the course of the line from that point on down to where we met the other party.
We had practically continuous light at this time. I started out in the lead with my boat, ordering the others to come at two-hour intervals so that if anything happened to us in front, we would have sufficient time to run upstream and signal to them what to do.
Old Dutch was at the oars in my boat, and he proved to be a pretty fair oarsman. I manned the two steering sweeps in the stern, which I used to avoid drifts, rapids, or “sweepers,” that is, trees which had fallen into the water but whose roots had not been detached from the earth. They would be carried downstream by the current, then would spring back and repeat the operation. It was a very dangerous thing to get caught under one of them.
I sat in the stern, with Dutch in front of me at the rowing bench. The Goodpaster was beautiful; the trees were beginning to take on their summer aspect, and the bushes were completely clothed with bright green leaves. Wild flowers covered the ground. We were so confident now that we would finish the telegraph line that summer that we had ceased to talk about it.
That night we made camp at the mouth of the Goodpaster. I decided to wait there until the other boats arrived and reorganize the expedition. Mosquitoes were beginning to get bad. It is impossible to convey to one who has not been in the North how terrible these insects really are. At night we built long smudges, or slow-burning fires, around which the mules and horses stood to escape the mosquitoes. After a while the animals got so they would not even leave the smudge to feed or graze, so great was the pain inflicted by the bites. Two of my mules were literally killed by mosquitoes on this expedition. They were bitten so severely that they would not leave the smudges to feed and grew constantly weaker. Later, trying to avoid the mosquitoes, they got into the swift water of the Tanana and were swept away and drowned.
Dutch and I worked down the river ahead of the working parties. When I found a suitable place to land, I would get out on the bank, strike the line where the telegraph should go, then with my prismatic compass lay a straight line from one point to another, and blaze the trail through myself, alone. I laid out from five to ten miles a day in this way. It was difficult working through the underbrush, bogs, and wet moss, with the mosquitoes and insects to contend with, but much easier and quicker than carrying a big outfit and several men along with me.
Rounding the promontory which is at the mouth of the Delta River, we entered Bates’ Rapids of the Tanana. The water here was much swifter than I had supposed. The river was wide, with an interminable number of sloughs. The current ran at a prodigious rate, carrying with it whatever trees or other floating material got into it. These things lodged on the bends, bars, or on projections along the banks and made a great heap like a log jam under which the current raced and roared. If a boat got under them, it would be all off with it.
We had only about one hundred miles more to go to finish the line, so I determined to take one of the large grub boats and handle it myself, to be sure that nothing happened to it on the way down. I had one of my other men take my own boat while I took Dutch and three others, all of them at the oars, two on each side. One was an ex-constable of the Canadian Mounted Police, a very good man on the water. I stood up in the stern and had a twenty-foot sweep with which to steer the boat. The channels were crooked and in many places “sweepers” fifty feet long hung over them, going down with the water, then rising with a swish and falling again.
We made very good time, and I was able to avoid both “sweepers” and the great piles of drift on the bars. I had never before seen such swift water, nor have I since. Suddenly the channel narrowed, and the speed of the current increased. I could see there was a sharp turn ahead, on the other side of which there would be an eddy, due to the water hitting the point and then swirling on the other side. Directly opposite this point was a long “sweeper,” a green spruce tree. Green trees are much more limber than dead ones, and whip in and out of the water with an incredible swing. If this “sweeper” hit us, we would certainly be swamped and lose our grub, and thus be delayed another year on the work. It was the supreme moment of test, on which hung the success of our expedition.
Shouting to the men to put on all the speed they could so as to get steerage, away we shot for the point. I planned to swing the boat as we got there, aiming it to the right and trusting it would hit the eddy on the other side and carry us to safety. As we neared the point, I thought I would make it. Standing in the stern, I pulled my steering sweep with all my might, but just as I did so, the spruce caught me squarely across the waist and lifted me from the boat.
Below us was a great pile of driftwood on a projection of the bank under which the water swirled. I knew if I let go of the tree, I would be carried under the driftwood and never be heard from again. The tree carried me under the icy water, then flopped up about fifteen feet in the air, then fell again and went under the current. I could hear Dutch telling me to hold on, and the other men shouting as they pulled for the shore. A quarter of a mile below me the boat landed. By that time I had wrapped both my arms and legs around the trunk and found that I could hold my breath while the “sweeper” went under the water. I thought I could hang on for fifteen or twenty minutes at least, but if I were swept off at the end of that time, I would have so little strength left I could not avoid going under the drift pile.
I saw three men leave the boat the instant it touched the shore, while a fourth made it fast to the trunk of a tree. One of them had a big coil of rope, another an axe. Never have I seen men work faster or to better effect. Going to the bend about thirty feet upstream from me, they tied the rope around Dutch, over his right shoulder and under his left arm, then took a turn around his body. They snubbed the rope around a tree, and Dutch jumped into the raging current, being let down gradually by the other three until he got to the point where the “sweeper” carried me upstream and down into the water. As I came up, he grabbed me around both shoulders, and I grabbed him. Holding on to each other like vises, we were pulled in by the other three men.
As we landed, Dutch said to me, “I don’t know if we are even, but you saved me from freezing last winter, and I have pulled you out of a bad place in this river.” If it had not been for men like these, I doubt if I would have been rescued.
We completed the trip twenty miles down the river that day without further mishap. Here we stayed several days, while I ran the course of the line up and down. Then Dutch and I took our small boat and dropped down to the mouth of the Sakha River, a few miles below. Again I ran the course of the line, meeting my men about twenty miles up the river as they worked chopping out the right of way. Never have I seen greater physical strength or endurance displayed by a group of men. There were twenty in each working party, great bearded fellows in blue denim clothing, high horsehide boots and slouch hats, with remnants of mosquito netting around the edges. Their faces were running sores from the terrible assaults of the mosquitoes and black flies. As they attacked the spruce trees, the forest seemed to fall in front of them. Without such men, the lines in the North could never have been completed.
For a couple of weeks we worked with great speed. Already our parties had gotten in touch with those of Lieutenant Gibbs working up the river. July was approaching, and now I had no doubts that we would finish the telegraph system that summer. At last my wire crossed the Salcha River. Because of lack of transportation, Gibbs had fallen a little behind in his work, and I had to extend on beyond, but at length we reached the end of his wire. I made the last connection of the Alaska system myself.
Then from St. Michael and Nome on the Bering Sea, clear through to New York and Washington, the electric current transmitted our messages with the speed of light. Alaska was at last open to civilization. No longer was it the land of the unknown, sealed tight by the God of Everlasting Snow and Frost. We had forced open the portal with which he shut out the white man from the North.