The Very Latest Goldfield in the Arctic Circle
W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, October, 1900)
It is ten years ago since I first had the pleasure and privilege of making the acquaintance of Miss Elizabeth Robins. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was in the summer of 1890. I had just brought out my book on Ober-Ammergau, when a card was brought in to me with the message that its owner wished to see me for a minute. Not having the least idea as to who she was, I told them to send her in, and the next moment found me face to face with Miss Robins. As I do not go to theatres, I apologised for not recognising her as the famous Ibsenite actress, who had virtually created the role of Hedda Gabler on the English stage. The remark diverted her from her original purpose, which had been merely for an introduction to somebody at Ober-Ammergua who would enable her to study the mounting of the Passion Play from the point of view of the stage manager. This however, immediately dropped into the background, and I found myself once more in the presence of a categorical imperative in petticoats. My first experience of the kind was when I met Olive Schreiner fifteen years ago, since which time I had not met as charming a representative of a prophetess with a message. Olive Schreiner’s message those who know her can divine. Miss Robins’s was of a different nature, but it was delivered with no less decision and earnestness, which was charming to behold. Her theme was the wickedness of boycotting the theatre, upon which she preached so fervent a sermon, so full of personal application and striking illustration, that it almost sent me to the penitent form. I fear that I was but imperfectly converted, for I have not yet paid my maiden visit to the theatre, not even to see Hedda Gabler on the boards; but from that day to this I have been proud to count Miss Elizabeth Robins as one of my best friends.
One can imagine then with what dismay it was that I heard at the beginning of this year that the idea had been borne in upon her mind, or in some way or other had come to encompass her whole being, that she must set forth all alone to the uttermost parts of the earth, in order to see a believed relative who she feared was sick. Klondike is out of the world, but Cape Nome is even more far removed from civilisation; but it was to Cape Nome of all places in the world, that new Eldorado within the Arctic Circle, that she must fare forth to seek her kinsman. From the first, I saw it was no use to endeavour to dissuade her, for with such natures to hear is to obey the inward call. So as soon as the ice broke, in the early spring months of this year, Miss Robins took her passage on one of the first steamers to Cape Nome, and there she spent some eventful months this summer. Her descriptions of life in Cape Nome, in the strange newly improvised city that has sprung up more than half-way to the North Pole will, I hope, appear shortly in some newspaper or magazine, and will, I suppose, afterwards reappear in a book of travel which ought to be one of the successes of the publishing season, for Miss Robins is not only a delightful friend and, I understand, a most gifted actress, but she is also a writer of very considerable literary powers, combining grace of style, originality of thought, and the limitless audacity of the seeress. I was accumulating her letters until they were sufficient to permit of consecutive and rapid publication, when I was grieved by a telegram announcing that on her way home Miss Robins had been stricken down with typhoid fever, and was in the hospital at Seattle. There she lay for some weeks, fortunately in good hands, and the other day I had a welcome telegram to the effect that her health was almost restored and she hoped soon to be able to leave the hospital. All being well, her many friends may expect to welcome her back to London before many weeks are over, when it is to be hoped we shall find her none the worse for her adventures in the Arctic Seas.
Among her other contributions – a little heap of which is now lying before me, pending choice of a fitting channel for publication – she sent me on July 16th a letter describing the foundation of the very latest of these Arctic gold towns which are springing up like mushrooms in the frozen North. It is curious that whereas the digging of gold has hitherto been chiefly carried on under torrid skies – under the blazing sun of Australia, Africa, and California – all the more recent gold finds have taken place in the region of eternal frosts. But without more introduction, I print Miss Robins’ letter:-
Grantley Harbour, or New Town, Port Clarence District, Alaska, July 15th, 1900
I have to-day been present at the birth of a new camp – a future city. Twenty-four hours ago this bit of gravelly shore between Port Clarence and Grantley Harbour (about seventy-five miles north-west from Nome) was like all the surrounding country, the home and hunting-ground of a few scattered Esquimaux.
But there were rumours afloat in Nome and other camps of a new strike up in the region of the Kougerok River, and of good prospects in the neighbouring creeks and gulches. Yesterday some English and Americans landed on this point, and to-day in my presence a town was staked out and called – temporarily – Grantley Harbour, after the fine body of water it looks out on to the north-east. Whether the name of this town, like that of Nome (which started out as Anvil City), will later be changed – at all events the site which white men tramped over to-day, surveying, shaping into streets, blocks, lots, purposing settlement and civil government here for the first time since the creation of the world – this fine dry tongue of land between the two great harbours which yesterday morning was the haunt of the ptarmigan, wild geese, and a handful of the vanishing race of Esquimaux, is to-night the town of Grantley Harbour echoing with the sound of English speech, and dotted with the tents of Anglo-Saxondom. Already it has elected a Mayor and sundry officials. It has a public spirit, as exemplified in the indignation expressed against the missionaries for letting the sick natives die like sheep, giving them tracts and Bibles instead of the sorely needed food and medicine. Let it be recorded to the credit of Grantley Harbour that before men staked their lots they found time to show humanity to the Esquimaux, among whom the prevalent epidemic, a kind of pneumonia, is raging.
Looked at on a glorious July day, there are few town-sites equal to this. Imagine a great land-locked harbour to the south and west (Port Clarence Bay), and stretching inland through a strait, another body of water, widening out to the north and east of the new town, which thus commands the water system draining that whole vast section of Alaska by way of the Kougerok, the Noxapaga, the Agiopuk and other great rivers, and the lakes (really inland seas) Emuruk and Cowyinik, and other waters in the regions north and east, which upon the newest maps are marked “unexplored.” Men stood to-day upon the tongue of land commanding this terra incognita, that held no human soul knew what – but commanding, too, by the great Port of Clarence, the highway to the riches of the South. And the men establishing that new outpost, water-washed north, east, and west, said, “This town will hold the key.”
What the future and the energy of our race combined will bring about up there, it is no concern of mine to prophesy. What I saw was perhaps more beautiful than the things that are to be. A pebbly strand sloping sharply down from a natural flower-garden, luxuriant grass, starred with anemones and bluebells, and flowers I had no name for, but whose faces I had seen on far-off Southern hillsides and in English meadows. Here and there on the landward side, standing out sharp against the glorious evening light, were the high perched Indian graves – bodies bound up in blankets and lashed with seal and reindeer thongs to the rude driftwood platforms, raised from eight to twelve feet above the ground.
Below, on the Point, the half-dozen stained and tattered Esquimaux tents were hung about with fishing-nets, skin boats, poniaks, and weather-worn rags of every description. Kyaks are lying near, and sleds, and – fastened high up out of reach of dogs – clusters of what I took at first for game, but they were bunches of dried fish, the stiff, black shapes like dead birds’ outspread wings silhouetted against the light. Above the picturesque grime of the little Esquimaux group the tents of Anglo-Saxondom shine white and clean. Driftwood fires are burning before them, and sunburnt, sturdy men are preparing supper. The coffee smells very fragrant as we pass. A youth of Scandinavian aspect is drawing a pan of well-browned bread out of the one Yukon stove in the camp. We had meant to stay at the settlement of Port Clarence, where there would have been no difficulty in finding a Road House (rude pioneer lodging and eating-house); and here we were in a place not yet set down on the most optimistic map – a “town” that a few hours ago had no existence – and we without camp outfit (only biscuits and oranges), at five o’clock in the evening. There seemed nothing for it but to hire a boat and return ignominiously to the abominable little cockleshell we had just left (the Elk), or go out to one of the bigger vessels that dotted Port Clarence Bay and beg to be taken on board. But, hungry as we were, we remembered the dirt and the execrable food one finds on all these coasting steamers, and here was clean dry land, very unlike the soaking Nome tundra, and here were bright camp fires – and oh, the coffee must surely be the very best ever brewed by mortal man!
We asked a competent-looking person, who seemed to be in charge of things, if we could get a tent for the night. Our interlocutor turned out to be an Englishman representing a British syndicate. After a very slight parley, he pointed to a brand new A-tent lying flat on its poles a few feet from where we stood. “That is quite at your service,” he said; and a couple of blankets in a corner of one of the other tents was offered to my escort. He made acknowledgment, and began to pull out the tent poles preparatory to “putting up.” “You needn’t to bother about that,” said the Englishman; “I’ll have my men attend to it in half an hour. You’d better come in a few minutes and have some dinner.” And we “came”- after walking to the end of the sandspit, where we saw a sign in well-stocked tent, also “Peaches 50 cents. a dozen.” I stopped, read the legend with rising spirits, and said I should like to see those same peaches. “So would we!” roared the miners; but I believe they were better pleased to find a chuckako nibbling at their bait than if I’d produced a bushel of “white heath clings.” Returning to the English camp, where were none of these delusive promises, we were not permitted to join the standing group round camp-fire and stove, dining on their feet, tin plate in hand piled high with smoking-hot beans. “Sure sign of a prosperous camp,” says one, “when men can’t even sit down to their dinner.” But for us a box was put in the middle of a tent, one bag laid down for me, and another for my escort to sit upon. It was the only tête-à-tête dinner I ever ate, where there were half a dozen butlers – hosts, rather agreeable men of various nationalities to fly and get you everything you wanted. There was corned beef, and ham, and pork and beans, and fresh bread and butter, biscuits, capital coffee (quite as good as it smelt), and, for any one who wanted it, a chasse of whisky to wind up with. After dinner we went up the shore a bit to where the modest populace, to the number of less than a score, were gathering round the hour-old mayor to listen to his first public and official utterance. He was just beginning as we came up, and he stopped a moment, catching sight of my escort, for the young municipal judge of Nome was not unknown, it seemed, to the middle-aged mayor of Grantley Harbour. He hesitated – and silence and inaction fell upon the first town council, but presently, despite unexpected onlookers in the shape of a Nomite judge and a nomad lady: “I have been chosen by the committee to tell you boys about this new town which has just been surveyed” – the mayor looked off to where a man in the distance was still bending over a transit -” is being surveyed, and to let you know under what conditions you can stake lots here. Now, if you boys have come to stay, or to locate and improve, and so hold property here, I can tell you you’ve got hold of a good thing. You can start up there from the government surveyors’ limit-post, and stake as far down the coast as you like. It is a good proposition, boys, for Grantley Harbour has come to stay.” (Then followed a rough but picturesque description of the town site’s geographical advantages.) When he found that his eloquence had not intoxicated his little audience he laid on the colour somewhat thicker winding up: “Not that I have any interest in the matter, I have simply been chosen to lay the situation before you. We have a qualified Recorder here, and if you boys choose to come along with me I’ll show you how to stake your claims, and you can have ’em recorded for five dollars each. I’m not urging anybody, I’m only pointing out how any fellow who has any use for a town lot in this” (more colour) “metropolis that is to be, can have it by coming with me and getting his lot fixed before the rush. Now that’s all I’ve got to say, boys; that’s all the committee deputed me to say.” Voice in the group, “What committee?” Orator stumped. “The – a,” he looks vaguely off at the surveyor, then recovering his official command of the situation he spits with sudden energy upon the virgin soil between the mayoral feet, “the committee appointed by those – those who have the interests of this place at heart.” As every soul on the sand-spit except two or three Englishmen and a handful of natives were in the group, the committee must have wished to remain incog. But the mayor, undaunted, went on, wound up with a little flourish and started off full tilt up the shore, populace at heel. And so is a town born on the borders of the “unexplored region.”
Judge Van Dyck, seeming superior to the charms of town lots, turned to walk back with me toward the tent, which had been put up in our absence, and was now standing forth bravely in all the angular pride of its upright A-ness. But it was too soon to turn in. We walked about, looked at the homes of the Esquimaux, the living and the dead, saw from the height the great harbour full of ships, chiefly whalers, some Government transports and coasting steamers schooner-rigged. There was the Wanderer with the square-build crow’s nest of the whaler, the Alexander, first ship in at Nome this year, the John Winthrop, the Karlue, the graceful white-hulled government ship Seward, the Aloha, and our despised diminutive Elk, transformed by the glorious late sunset into a radiant thing of grace and light.
When we get back to camp my tent is ready and furnished, dressing-bag and my few effects arranged beside a bed of our own rugs and furs made on the bone-dry gravel. After saying good-night to my hosts and to the Norse cook, here sit I in my new white house, as fine as any princess, writing to my friends across the sea by the after-glow of the sunken sun at a few minutes to midnight. The Esquimaux dogs are howling at intervals, and all the time, boom! boom! the surge is beating on the shore a few yards behind me. As I lay down my pen and begin to think of going to sleep, a voice outside. The Judge is asking if I am warm and alright. “I’ve just staked two town lots,” he says. “Good-night.”
I am nearly asleep, when other voices arouse me just a little – on the left this time, by the camp fire. I hear the clink of the granite cups, and I know that a midnight Kaffee Klatsch is on among the Englishmen’s men. A good many “By G-ds!” and the infectious laugh of the Irishman Mike. Several times I hear a man’s name called: “Egerton, Egerton!” and then “Howard!” Another is spoken of as “Seymour;” and sleepily I fall to thinking of the vitality there is in some of the old English names – how their bearers go up and down on the earth and the seas, heading still for “regions unexplored,” as they did in the days of Drake, making gold and founding cities, and sending the old names sounding lustily down the ages. “I am here with Brandon’s outfit,” someone was explaining. “My partner is a descendant of Sir Walter Raleigh. He was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, you know. Do you remember how he got in with the old lady? She didn’t know him – never heard of him, and she was on her way to one of the Thames barges. She had to cross a puddle. Well, sir, this chap Raleigh, he offs with his cloak, all over gold and stuff, and by God! he slings it into the puddle for her to step on. He hadn’t a penny, and he wasn’t anybody; just a fightin’ feller, you know, and belonged at that time to a – I think it was the Duke of Suffolk’s outfit.” The voices grow indistinct, and soon there is no echo on these shores of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter; no sound in the day-old town but the beating of the eternal surf and the snarling of the Siwash dogs.