- Historic Sites
Billy Mitchell In Alaska
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
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
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.