Monday, September 25, 2017

Gold Fever: Elmirans in the Klondike Gold Rush

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The California Gold Rush of 1849 gets more attention, but I personally find the Klondike Gold Rush a few decades later much more interesting. In August 1896, prospectors found gold in the Klondike River region of the Yukon Territory. As news spread of the find, “gold fever” also spread across the nation. Adventurers and fortune-seekers packed up their belongings to try their luck in the freezing north. Local folks would not be left out of the race for riches.
Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, August 27, 1897
The Alaska Mining and Prospect Company was formed in Elmira, New York in 1897 and incorporated on December 24, 1987 in Colorado. The company’s mission was to fund an expedition of 10 men to the Klondike to locate and mine gold. Prominent Elmira men John M. Diven and Dix W. Smith were among the company’s directors. Andrew Sherwood, a geologist from Mansfield, PA, was hired to lead a party of prospectors and miners. The Alaska Mining and Prospecting Co. organized with capital of $200,000 and did swift business selling stocks. 

John M. Diven
On August 6, 1897, the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press reported, “The gold fever seems to be raging harder and many Elmirans are investing their hard-earned cash in the uncertainties of the gold fields. They flock to the offices of the directors of the scheme [the Alaska Mining and Prospecting Co.] like so many ducks after water. Even the women have the fever and yesterday one new woman from Elmira Heights entered the office of one of the directors and said she wanted to buy some stock…Two Elmira Heights young women, one a stenographer and one a school teacher, are said to be anxious to try their luck in the gold fields, hoping to get remunerative employment there.” 

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, January 4, 1898
The Alaska Mining and Prospect Company’s expedition team left in May 1898 and reached the Klondike via the Teslin Trail. The route was the cheapest and safest. The journey lasted about 6 weeks. They wintered in Wrangell, Alaska.
Like many of the miners in the Klondike, they found little gold. They did find some coal, however. In 1902, Dix Smith reported that the company had 12,000 acres of coal land, but he seemed to “be of the opinion that the stockholders will realize very little, if anything on their investment.” There is a collection of materials about the short-lived company at the University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections.

David Lewis of Elmira worked for the Alaska Mining and Prospect Company in Dawson, Alaska. He reported finding some gold, but admitted that conditions were difficult and that it was frequently -30 degrees Fahrenheit. He supposedly grew a beard that came down to almost his waist. 

Employees of the Alaska Mining and Prospect Company were not the only local people to go in search of riches. In February 1898, friends Charles Bertram and Albert G. Miller headed for the Klondike. In March, Bertram wrote his brother a letter from Seattle, Washington. Seattle was mobbed by wannabe prospectors from around the country who were waiting to board the boats that would get them closer to the frozen gold fields. Bertram reported on the chaos and major price gouging by local stores. Miller had married Margaret Weaver just before leaving and the two of them headed to Seattle, where she planned to stay while he went on. 
Bertram's brother John was also apparently interested in the Klondike. He offered this promotion for his bowling alley in 1897. His brother hadn't even left yet. I'm assuming the prizes were just cash, not actual gold.
Two more Elmirans, Joseph Grady, a mail carrier, and George Backer, a grocer, also left in early 1898. In May, Grady wrote a letter home saying he had reached the Chilkoot Pass, a particularly difficult and deadly stretch of the path. He arrived at the time of an avalanche. He reported that descending the pass the most difficult part of the journey. That declaration might have been a little premature. By August 30, Grady had enough of the Klondike, quit, and headed home. He arrived back in Elmira by mid-October.

Of course, you didn’t even have to leave Elmira or start a prospecting company to make money off of people’s gold fever. Stores, businesses, and hotels all adopted the Klondike name in their advertising. 

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, November 22, 1897
A natural promotional opportunity for Gold Dust soap in the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, August 2, 1897.
Probably my favorite local Klondike story is that of Reverend Frederick L. Benedict, the pastor of the Franklin St. church, who went north in early 1898. His primary mission was to help the miners who were driven to sin by the 24-hour nights and lack of civilization. Benedict wanted to build a simple log cabin to hold services, which he would call "Miner's Rendezvous." 

Benedict explained his mission as follows: "My prime object in going is to establish some innocent place of amusement on religious principles, where the Alaskan miner may while away on a long winter night instead of going to the saloon or gambling hall, of which there are an astonishing number already. But understand me, I am no fool! I am not going to kick any nuggets that I run across, out of my way and say ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’”

Benedict was correct that gambling, drinking, fighting, and prostitution were common pastimes for miners in the Klondike Gold Rush. There are no reports, however, to determine how many miners the reverend was able to convert. Benedict left Alaska around 1903 and headed to Oklahoma to work in a Sunday School. Still, he made it longer in the frozen fields than many others with the gold fever.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

By the time March of 1863 rolled around, the American Civil War, a war which most had assumed would be over by Christmas, had been going on for nearly two years. At the outbreak of the war, enthusiasm was high and there were actually more volunteers than could be equipped or trained. The longer the war went on, the fewer men were joining up. In July 1862, Congress Passed the Militia Act of 1862. Among other things this act:

  • ·         Established recruitment quotas for each state based on population
  • ·         Authorized states to use a draft to fill said quotas
  • ·         Allowed Blacks to serve in the military for the first time
  • ·         Established rules about court-martials, enlistment bounties, and activation procedures

Unfortunately, the Act wasn’t enough to keep the army in warm bodies. On March 3, 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act which required all male citizens and immigrants who had applied for citizenship between the ages of 18 and 43 to enroll for a military draft. For the next several months, military census takers working under the State Acting Assistant Marshall went door-to-door in each city, town, and village in the state recording the names, ages, and professions of each eligible male, with occasional comments about their fitness for duty.
Ledger of persons liable to military duty in the town of Erin, 1862

J section of the ledger for the town of Erin. Note the remarks on fitness for duty.

The Enrollment Act was hugely unpopular, especially among the poor. Draftees could avoid service if they could pay the government a $300 commutation fee. They could also hire someone to take their place. Both required that the draftee had the funds to do either and many poor people, especially among immigrant groups, did not. In Elmira, a group of concerned citizens began to collect funds so that poorer draftees with families to support could hire a substitute or pay the fee. 

Notice from the Elmira Daily Advertiser regarding the fund to help drafted men, April 10, 1865
Elsewhere, people rioted. The first round of the draft occurred on July 11, 1863 along with some outbursts of unrest in Buffalo, New York, and a few other cities across the nation. They were quickly quelled. On July 13, the day of the second draft pick, a group of firefighters began a riot at the Ninth District Provost Marshall’s office in Manhattan which lasted for nearly four days. Rioters attacked telegraph lines, police stations, newspapers, abolitionists, and blacks, before eventually being overwhelmed by additional troops. 

All told, only 2% of those who served in the war were draftees. Of the 168,649 men procured for the Union through the draft, 117,986 were paid substitutes. Only draftees 50,663 actually served, largely because they were too poor to avoid it. Some 120,000 men dodged the draft altogether, mostly by fleeing to Canada.