- 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
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.