This morning, I harnessed the girls (Annie and Sophie), bundled them and the scooter into the back of Little Blue (our “dog truck”), and headed for our favorite trail along the Willamette River. It’s October 1, and the air is decidedly cooler. The cottonwood definitely are beginning to yellow up, and leaves filter down with the breeze. In a flash, I am transported to Alaska.
One hundred eighteen years ago, Grampa Orme (technically great grandpa) was pulling the Tanana Chief up to the shores of the Chena River, a bit past where Fairbanks now lies. It was 1898, and the Tanana Chief was the steamer that he and his partners had built, disassembled, shipped, rebuilt, and towed up into the Yukon River. They named her Tanana Chief in hopes of promoting friendlier encounters with the native peoples of the Yukon and Tanana watersheds. By this day in 1898, they had met people and visited villages of both Inuit and Athabascan Alaskan Native. They had found the Chena River, and navigated her twists and turns multiple times to get their gear, and that of another party, up to their landing spot. Leaves were long gone, as trees had seemed to color and drop their leaves overnight in mid September. The air had turned cold (16 degrees above on October 3), they had been through their first snowstorm, and his company decided it was the right time and the right place to bring “The Chief” ashore, and build “Fort Chena”.
Sept 15th 1898. On Chena River, Alaska
My dear Sister;
From the above heading, the first thing that you will ask is “where is the Chena River?” Well I will try and tell you, I suppose you have a map of Alaska, as well as one of Cuba and the seat of war, lay your map out and trace the Tanana River to where it widens the second time near the 148th meridian, pencil and make a point about ten or fifteen miles to the west of the 148th line, draw a line almost parallel to the Tanana River until almost the center of Bates Rapids, then draw a very crooked line to the headwaters of Birch Creek the South Fork and you will have an almost correct map of the Chena River.
Chena must mean crooked, you never saw anything like it, the turns are so short in places that we cannot turn without hitting the banks the river is about 200 feet wide, and in some places not much over 100 feet wide. Big trees overhang the bank on both sides so that we are constantly into or under them, we call them sweepers because the trees sweep everything off the boat that is loose and three of the men have had very narrow escapes from being swept off by these trees. Some of the windows have been smashed, some of the timbers near the wheel are broken and one big hole put into the cabin just back of the port engine, the bends are so sharp and the current swift and strong that it throws the boat against the bank in spite of all that we can do.
Sept 19th 1898. Monday
Just six months ago today we left St. Paul and what months they have been! Months of history, of war and excitement, how I long for a newspaper. June 29th is our latest, I do so wonder about what has happened since then, is the war over or only just began? Have other nations got into the fight? and is Uncle Sam holding his own? You bet he is, we can lick the world.
The current is so strong in this river that we could not take Mr. Currier’s boat the “Potlatch” with us, so we left it near the mouth and went up about forty miles and last Friday arrived at the foot of a small rapids. There,we left our barge, unloaded our goods from the steamer, and went back after the “Potlatch”. It took us seventeen hours to go up the river, it only took three and a half to get back, say! But we had a touch of high life, we just flew over the water and around the bends and turns, we ran into the bank but once on the down trip. We got back to the Potlatch safely Friday afternoon, loaded her freight into our steamer and started up River again just before six and tied up for the night about half after seven, it gets dark quite early. Saturday afternoon we came to a small creek, that we have named Little Beaver Creek. There we tied up the “Potlatch” for the winter and Mr. Currier and his party are now with us on our boat. Sunday we did not run. Sperbeck who is about the only man on board that can handle the wheel on this river was sick and could do nothing, we are running today as he is much better, and if nothing happens we will get back to our barge by tonight and tomorrow our troubles will begin in earnest.
I found my first gold on the 15th, it was very fine like flour, 8 or 10 little specks that I have glued on some paper and will send it to you, it is not much, but it proves that there is gold higher up and the thing to do now is to find where this flour gold came from if we can, if we can’t, our trip will have been in vain.
Tuesday Sept 20th
We got back to the barge sooner than we expected yesterday afternoon, we stopped only a few minutes and then started up again to attack our first rapids, the water fell about two or three feet in perhaps about fifty feet, it took us about half an hour and we surprised ourselves at how easy it was done, we find now that the current is a little faster and we don’t make many miles an hour.
We are now running in a line with the foothills and just after we started this morning we could see through an opening in the trees, a snow-capped mountain. The head of navagation can’t be very far away.
I have not mentioned it before, I think, but the water of the Chena River is clean and clear, the Yukon was muddy, but the Tanana was mud, clear thin mud nothing else and it did seem so good to see clear water, the first since leaving Unalaska, even the Bering Sea, away out of sight of land was muddy.
In going up the rapids yesterday afternoon, our lifeboat got between the steamer and the rocks and was badly squeezed, a big hole put into each side of the lifeboat, I tried to nail it up a little while ago but it still leaks very badly, but you need not fear as there are two big airtight tanks one in each end of the boat and even if full of water it could not sink with three or four men in it.
We saw a bear last week, the first wild animal that we have seen. “Rowlands” saw it first, and he was so anxious that he could not wait until some of the others got their rifles and fired at the bear. The bear must have been hit as he jumped up, turned, and ran into the woods, we landed and most of us got our guns and started after the bear, but he could not be seen he had too good a start. You might wonder why we would land and go after the bear but when you remember that we have had no fresh meat for over five months you will understand why we wanted that particular bear.
We had some brant or geese at the mouth of the Yukon once for dinner, since then we have had ducks twice and partridge twice, so you see that we have had game only five times so far. The stories that we were told about these rivers being covered with ducks and geese and the woods full of moose and bear are all bosh. True we have seen both moose and bear tracks along the river bank but we can’t eat the tracks, there are not many ducks and less geese, the ducks are very tame but we can’t get within half a mile of the geese they are so shy. We almost ran over a black duck yesterday, the doctor fired at it with his rifle and missed it of course, but what is one poor little duck for twelve — just now fifteen, hungry men there would not have been even a taste to go round.
It has just come to my mind that you asked about send the mail to Weare, yes send all your letters there until told to send elsewhere. We have made arrangements with the postmaster to send us our mail by any white man coming up this way, and during the winter some of us may go down to Weare on purpose to get what mail there may be there for us.
Thursday Sept 22nd
Winter is here, about five o’clock this morning it began to snow, at first very lightly until about seven when it began to come down very lively, it is now nine o’clock and still snowing a little, as most of the snow melts as fast as it falls, it may not last very long.
The leaves on the trees, birch, cottonwood, and willows, began to turn yellow about the first of this month and by the fifteenth the leaves were falling very fast, the leaves have all fallen from the cranberry bushes, the bushes are about three feet high and look very pretty now with clusters of red cranberries upon them. Our cook does not think much of cranberries because for every quart of berries he has to use a quart of sugar and he thinks they are not worth it.
The river here is if anything more crooked and swifter, last Tuesday we came to a creek that we will call Beaver Dam Creek, I think that we will make our winter quarters there, we have to make three trips from below the rapids I mentioned up to Beaver Dam Creek, we are now about half way up on our second trip and by the time we make a third trip we may have to stop. Beaver Dam Creek is about ten miles from the mountains in a straight line it may be twice that far by river but when we get all our goods up there we may try and go up still farther if possible. Three men are at the mouth of the creek to cut logs for cabins, so as to have them ready if we decide to stay there.
Oct 4th Tuesday
Lieut. Carson of the regular army arrived here this morning, a little more than a living skeleton, he has been about starved and has had an awful time, he leaves here tomorrow and will take our letters to Weare with him. Lieut. Carson lost all he had. He has two men waiting for him at the mouth of this river, he and the other two lived for six days on berries, before they were wrecked they shot a wolf and lived for two days on that wolf, they then found the dead body of a mule that had died and each man cut off a piece after driving off the ravens that had nearly eaten up the mule.
We had a hard time making our last trip up this river but we finally got all our outfit up and have been busy building our winter quarters, two large log houses they are not quite finished. We arrived here on our last trip Sept 25th and have been very busy building our house it will be finished in a few days now. The weather has been the finest that one could want although now it is cold. Yesterday morning it was 16′ above I don’t know how cold it was this morning, there is no snow on the ground now, we had a snow storm but it melted about as fast as it fell.
Night same day.
I must begin all over with the Lieuts story. He left Capt. Glenn on the Delta River and got to the Tanana River, he has one soldier and a packer with him, but I am ahead of the story he started out from Cooks Inlet to find a trail to Circle City, and on the Delta River he was overtaken by Capt. Glenn, who afterward turned back. The Lieut. and his party were traveling overland and had two pack mules one of the mules died just after crossing the Tanana River, then he went down the Tanana to the Valkmar River and started up that river for Circle City, and about this time began to get short of provisions and to make things worse the mule gave out, and they had to shoot him and pack what they had on their backs the mule was shot when they were about half way up the Volkemar River, well they got to the head of the river and looked for the pass that Capt. Ray had gone through, but they could see nothing but snow capped mountains and being short of grub turned back and started for the Tanana River, and to us as he had heard from the Indians that white men with a steamboat was here, well they built a raft and started down the river by this time the last of their provisions gave out and all they had to eat was what they could shoot and berries, on Sept 19th they were wrecked and lost everything they had except what clothes they were wearing, the Lieut. only had shirt and trousers he had taken off his coat and vest to help handle the raft in the swift water, none of them had on their shoes only their stockings, for two days before they were wrecked they lived on a wolf that they had killed, and after they lost everything that they had, they started, without coats or blankets and barefoot, for the place where they had killed the mule. They were six days getting there, and all that time they had nothing to eat but cranberries and those little apples that you see on wild rose bushes, after the flowers have dropped off and are full of seeds. The Lieut. says that one has no idea of how much nourishment there is in those apples or berries, well they all took a big slice out of what was left of the mule that had been dead for over two weeks and started on and in two days got to an Indian camp. He hired the Indians to take him to us, he left his two men at an Indian camp at the mouth of this river, he tasted bread today for the first time in three weeks. Every man in the party is getting out what clothes they can spare for them, I am going to give him some underclothes, stockings, and a cap and maybe my coat and vest the blue one that I wore when I left home, we will let him have our lifeboat and enough provision to last him to Weare, and he will try to send us our mail that may be at Weare to us by any Indians that may be coming this way, and will take letters from us to mail at Weare, this gives us a chance to write that we had not looked for.
Our log house will be finished before the end of this week and we will be in there by Saturday, we have the roof on and covered with moss one side of the roof is finished, the floor will be laid tomorrow and the windows and doors put in.
On the 1st of Sept the leaves on the birch trees and on the cottonwood trees began to turn yellow, by the 15th the hills and valleys looked most beautiful all colors, now the birch, cottonwood, and willows are all bare, the leaves have all fallen and every day it seems to get a little colder, the sun is getting quite low and the moon high. I do not mind the cold a bit so far, why when I cut wood or cut moss I am all in a perspiration in a minute, it seems queer to be so warm as to sweat and have ice on my mustache at the same time, I will have to cut it off, can’t have whiskers here in winter time on account of the ice that forms on them.
Well dear sister I will close soon we are all well except the Dr and Wells, they are always sick when there is any hard work to do and let me say right here that there is no easy road to Alaska. I almost forgot we had some moose meat, that we bought from an Indian, this was the first fresh meat that I had tasted since Apr13th last, moose meat tastes a great deal like beef steak and you don’t know how good it was. I hate bacon and beans, I eat bacon between two slices of bread and I cover the nasty beans with mustard. I can eat them that way.
We were just two months getting here, we left the mouth of the Yukon on July 25th and got the last of our outfit up here on the afternoon of Sept 25th.
If nothing comes of our trip we can say that we have in a way saved the lives of three men, the Lieut. and his two men would never get to Weare had we not been here, just think of men living on berries and sleeping under trees, no blankets to sleep under and their clothes in rags, they used to build a big fire at night and they would rake away the burning wood and lie down in the warm ashes, sometimes they would find a live coal in the ashes and then they would get up right quick in that way they burnt up what little clothes they had saved, none of them had a coat. I wonder how they lived so long.
I do hope that the Lieut. will find a way to send us our mail at Weare, you don’t know how I long for a letter from home and for a newspaper.
How do we live? Well, I get up about six o’clock and have breakfast we have dinner at twelve and supper at six, we go to bed right after supper, at least some of us do, I go to bed about eight or half past eight o’clock, it has been a long time since I have been up later than nine o’clock. While we were building the cabin, I helped to haul the logs from the woods and cut one side flat, I put all the moss in the cracks of the roof.
This is about the last chance for us to send any letters to our friends this year, so this letter will, in all probability, be the last that you will get until next spring or summer, so dear sister, Goodbye.
With love to all at home
Fort Chena. Chena River, Alaska
Send all letters to Weare
Image from JE Orme’s photo album showing Fort Chena, the cabin they built on the Chen River, October 1898, to serve as headquarters for string of 8 relay cabins into the Tanana Hills.