Tuesday, October 26, 2010

October 25 and beyond

Of all the tragedies to hit the Skagway area, as far as I can tell, the most sensational is the wreck of the Princess Sophia. She was southbound from Skagway carrying 300 passengers and 65 crew members, 92 years ago today. That’s more than the Palm Sunday avalanche, and it’s a story more shrouded in mystery than the Christmas Day murders. The main reason that so little was known for so long – and in many ways, so little is still known today—is that the company who owned the vessel destroyed all records related to the incident. Bad press, you know?

At the time of the wreck, in 1918, Sophia was one of many regularly-scheduled ships to cruise up and down the coast much like today’s Alaska marine highway ferry system. This was before regular air service, and before well-developed roads, so the water was the main form of transit for many. Each fall, just like today, a mass exodus left Skagway. In 1918 it wasn’t just Skagway's summer workers heading home; back then Skagway was one of the main access ports to getting in and out of the Yukon, northern BC, and interior Alaska. The exit from Skagway was made up of people from all over; most notably Dawson.

Members of Dawson’s Arctic Brotherhood who were on board included entrepreneurs William C. Sharron and Albert Pinska; Sam Henry; carpenter Thomas Collins; James A. Clarke; and customs officer Edmund Ironside. The wife and daughter of C. J. Vifquain were also on board, as well as Council City member John Haynes. Ironside is the most notable character of the AB group on the ship. The book written by Betty O’Keefe and Ian MacDonald on the subject give light to the well-loved officer of the law. According to a tale by Ironside, another passenger, Lulu Mae Eads, was the same “Lady Lou” of the Robert Service poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Ironside himself had no misgivings in admitting that his own poetry was modeled after Robert Service’s—at the time, many amateur Northern poets styled their poems after their favorite poet (who, by the way, mentions the AB in two poems but was not himself a member).

Ironside was traveling with his mother for a winter holiday. Nostalgia raged among the passengers, crew, and the farewell parties in Skagway as Sophia’s final voyage of the season lay ahead. This year, according to O’Keefe and MacDonald, there were more people leaving than usual. Unlike past years, many of them planned to never return. Ironside, wrought in emotion as well as everyone around him, captured the moment in a short poem called “Leaving Dawson.” The final few lines:

It isn’t “goodbye” forever
That is the message you vain would send,
To the magic city of Dawson as the
Ship sails around the bend.

Unfortunately, Ironside’s words held an ominous foreboding, as for at least 365 oceangoers, it would be goodbye forever.

The wreck happened in the midst of a blizzard. Many rescue attempts were thwarted by the weather. It was another Arctic Brother, Governor Thomas Christmas Riggs, who orchestrated the recovery efforts and coordinated the search for bodies from Juneau. Charles Garfield, a member of Nome’s AB camp, was the sailor who confirmed that none of the passengers or crew of Sophia survived. If Dawson had the most passengers on board, Juneau was equally captivated by the disaster by heading up relief efforts. No one in Juneau was unaffected by the search.

After the Titanic sinking in 1912, ship safety had been heightened; but the Princess Sophia had added extra berths last minute to over-extend their passenger capacity. The final report ended in much controversy by stating that the ship's pilot had indeed been going too fast as well. In spite of the hope that many ships gave the passengers and crew in the hours following the initial cause of the wreck-- collision with a reef, about halfway between Skagway and Juneau-- no rescue would occur. Many passengers wrote out their final wills and letters to loved ones in the moments before water filled the boat and the lives of 365 were lost.

Shortly after the disaster, Governor Riggs quarantined Juneau, banning all maritime traffic due to an influenza outbreak. It was this same Spanish flu that had tragically ended the young life of Skagway officer Vincent Dortero in October of 1918, around the same time. Dortero was in Iowa serving with the military. Not only was he an AB, he also was a member of the Eagles, Pioneers, and Knights of Pythias. His death was reported in the Skagway papers, and was a rude awakening to many.

On a more positive note to close out October in AB history, the 1909 Arctic Brotherhood book documents two clubs being founded in this month.

October 22nd of 1900 marked the founding of Camp #11, Council City. The camp was established with fifteen charter members by Walter H. Ferguson, the US Commissioner for that district. Council City was located in the vicinity of Nome on the Seward Peninsula. At the time of the camp’s founding, Council City was on the decline. It was debatable as to whether the camp would survive at all… more on that next month!!

Also in October of 1907 the Arctic Brotherhood camp in Fairbanks, #16, was re-organized. It had originally been founded in 1903, but poor management had caused its breakdown and its members decided that a re-establishment was in order. Next month Fairbanks is in the spotlight again, with a night to remember for many.

Monday, October 18, 2010

October 1-18 in Arctic Brotherhood History

First off, it's important to note that today, October 18th is Alaska Day... not just a day off from work, it marks the day that Alaska went from Russian hands to American. KTNA in Talkeetna explains the difference between Alaska Day and Seward Day.

It's fitting to begin this blog on Alaska Day, because the day that the United States took control of Alaska is, essentially, the first in many steps toward the Arctic Brotherhood's inception. In an abstract and removed way, that makes October 18 of 1867 a very important day in the AB's history.

There are a few other dates from October 1st through the 18th that are directly significant to the Arctic Brotherhood:

October 9, 1901: Camp Dawson, #4

Work on Dawson's AB hall began today, according to Ken Spotswood. The Daily Nugget, newspaper in Dawson, reported on the new construction. According to the paper, the building was slated to be 50 feet by 100 feet, and to stand at a story and a half high. The construction took only three weeks and $16,000.

October 10, 1907: Camp Skagway, #1

One of Skagway's newspapers reports that on this date new officers were elected to Arctic Brotherhood camp #1. Among them were Arctic Chief Edward Rasmusson, who at the time was US Commissioner; and Vincent Dortero and his father Tony.

October 15, 1908: Camp Hot Springs, #24

Deputy Grand Arctic Chief C. A. Davidson on this date established an AB camp at the town of Hot Springs, 100 miles west of Fairbanks in the Tanana Valley. According to the Arctic Brotherhood's book, published 1909, "the camp has such a position in the Tanan valley that it is sure of acquiring a goodly membership, and at present shows a healthy growth." 21 charter members were present at the first meeting.

October 16, 1917: Camp Juneau, #32

Juneau, one of the most short-lived camps in the rolls of the Arctic Brotherhood, began in January of 1916 with 130 members at its first meeting. Its last recorded entry in the attendance roster book at the Alaska state archives in Juneau is on this date, with only one member present. What happened to Juneau's camp? Your guess is as good as mine... but there were many factors involved.

October was a busy month for the AB's! In the next posting, a few more camps will be established, and the AB blog will pay tribute to some fallen ABs. One was killed at the young age of 22, and at least six more perished during one of the North's most sensational (and oft-forgotten) disasters.