The Way To Alaska


Among the visitors who tour Alaskan Way, the noisy street that arcs the Seattle waterfront, a few may wonder how to get to Alaska from there. Ships from Wrangell, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway used to berth there, but their last passengers crossed the gangway in 1954. Until then Seattle harbor was the jumping-off place for the North, steamships heading up through the Inside Passage and schooners coming down with yellow deckloads of spruce and hemlock. Now the takeoff is from the Seattle-Tacoma airport, where jets roar up into the rain. They touch down at Juneau three hours later, with breakfast on the way. A half century ago it was a week’s voyage to Alaska, and the lumber schooners took four times that long.

In 1923 downtown Seattle was beginning to spread northward and up the hill, and Pioneer Square with its tall totem pole in the little triangular park was not yet abandoned to skid row. Between voyages I lived down there in the three-story North Star Hotel, and I hung out in the Shipping Board’s hiring hall near the Colman Dock on Alaskan Way, or Railroad Avenue, as it was then called. One assignment I wanted was a run to Alaska. There were two regular services to what the travel literature called the “Top o’ the World,” the Alaska Steamship Company and the Admiral Line. When ships docked at Pier a, next to the Colman Ferry, I watched men come ashore—loggers, fishermen, old sourdoughs, young cannery hands, a few Indians—and wondered about the little towns up there under the huge mountains. Having made the China run in an Admiral liner, I was hoping for a job on one of their Alaska ships. There were four of them: Admiral Dewey, Admiral Rogers, Admiral Evans , and Admiral Watson . These “modern, fast and commodious vessels” were pictured in the Admiral Line’s window on Second Avenue. The Dewey was the newest and largest, but they all looked fine to me.

A recent reading of Ernest Gruening’s account of “Alaska: The Last Frontier” led me to unearth some old notebooks, and I found a grubby item called Pheasant Pocket Notes. Beneath a faded picture of a ring-necked bird are lines for Name and School. My name is inked there, less dimmed than one would expect after fifty-one years, and my school also. The school is “Pacific Ocean.” I think I remember buying the notebook in a secondhand bookstore on the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way, but I had forgot about the pheasant and the school. At the top of the inside page is my word “Log.” In 1923 I was compiling thoughts rather than actualities—a literary error common to the young—and the log makes queasy reading now. It begins with the spacious observation that the countries of the world are encircled by the unknown, just as the continents are but islands in the encompassing sea. Box the compass then, it exhorts me, to all the horizons of truth and understanding. These transcendental notes, I find, mostly ignore the daily encounters on the skid road and the harbor. But memory holds on to a few of them.

On one of my visits to the Admiral Line window, where I studied the big map of Alaska, I saw a towering man with long white hair under a Texas hat greeting everyone on Second Avenue like an indulgent king among his people. He spoke to me: “God bless you, young man,” and a bit startled in my paint-stained dungarees, I said “Yes, sir.” After he had passed, someone said, “That’s Mark Matthews, the greatest preacher in America.” On Sunday morning, in my shore clothes, I barely got into his church; he had a huge and hearty congregation. My log calls the sermon “dull and patronizing,” but all I remember of the Reverend Mr. Matthews is his benign greeting on Second Avenue.

My blessing came promptly. “Monday morning, March 18,” my log says, “shipped on lumber schooner for Alaska.” I had learned to get to the hiring hall early on Monday mornings. When I came in the agent was writing on the blackboard ”4 O.S. Schooner Snohomish towing S.E. Alaska for lumber.” I was the first man to ask for the job, and while he wrote out my assignment to the schooner at the Connecticut Street pier, my mind filled with pictures of the rugged coastline and the storied towns at the Top o’ the World.

I went to the North Star, stuffed my shore clothes along with Shelley and Dante into my seabag, and walked through a thin drizzle to the Connecticut Street basin. It would be a slow run, but I would really see the Inside Passage and have a good payday at the end. Ordinary seamen drew sixty-five dollars a month in 1923.

At the foot of Connecticut Street the Snohomish stood above the clutter of lumber and fishing docks. She was an old four-master, tired and dirty, her topmasts lifting into the fine rain. She still had her rigging but no canvas. Like other West Coast sailing vessels, she had become a barge. Instead of leaning white sails into the wind she would plod behind a grimy tugboat. But as I crossed the cleated gangplank she looked good to me.

The deck was littered and lifeless, but a wisp of smoke came from the galley. I looked in there. A morose, dark, dishevelled man was spooning coffee into a battered pot. “Keep out of the galley,” he said sharply. I asked for the mate—a sailor reports to the mate with his assignment notice. He shook his head. “No mate here. Captain Olson’s in his cabin.” He opened the stove door and poked in a piece of slabwood. “Where’s the fo’c’s’le?” I asked. He pointed through a small square opening in the bulkhead—the slot through which would be thrust all the meals I would eat for weeks to come.