Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26, 2011: Happy 112th birthday!

Today is the 112th anniversary of the founding of the Arctic Brotherhood. It's hard for me to even know where to begin in trying to think of what to write in honor of this incredible day.

I try and imagine that first night when the group was founded and I find that I can picture it pretty well. The eleven founding members were on board a ship, the City of Seattle, on their way back up north. Actually, depending on which source you look at, there's conflicting thoughts as to whether or not they had all been up here already by then. The Klondike Gold Rush took place between 1897-1898, with the biggest migration of people occuring in winter, '97-'98. According to folklore and certain sources, the eleven founders had all been northward during that rush. Some like to even believe that all of them had hiked one of the trails north to Bennett and points beyond, but only one of them can definitively say that his name was on the rosters of the NWMP's checkpoints.

Regardless, on the chilly evening of February 26th, 1899, eleven old friends united in the saloon (or dining room, depending who you ask) of the ship somewhere in the inside passage. Having been on a boat in those same waters countless times it's not that difficult for me to picture. Granted, the bar on the Alaska state ferry isn't exactly like what the saloon on the City of Seattle would have been, but it's a modern-day comparison.

As reminiscences of their northern experience flowed out, maybe along with anticipation and plans for the next part of their trip, the ship chugged along and the beer and champagne flowed. At some point in their revelry, as happens so often in bar room conversations, someone had a BRILLIANT idea. Unlike most of the drunk plans that i've been involved in ("let's make a 'This is Skagway' music video!" "We should all go on a road trip next weekend", "We are going to start our own business"....), this idea was more than a pipe dream. Three months later, the intoxicated plans of eleven men had become an elite force of three hundred. Ten years later, ten thousand men-- one sixth of Alaska's white population (THEY made that distinction, not me)-- had joined in the dream. But thirty years later, it had faded into just that, a dream.

Their plan, of course, was the formation of the Arctic Brotherhood.

Could these eleven men possibly have known what it turned into? (Does anyone reading this have any idea what it turned into?) Could they have seen that the brotherhood would be responsible for getting Alaska representation to congress, and champions of the cause of territorial government for Alaska? Could they have imagined that thirty-two camps of their order would be sprawled out throughout every corridor of transit north of the 54 degree line, from coastal towns to inland river camps? Could they have seen that three US Presidents, one Canadian Governor-General, three Alaska governors, and countless mayors, judges, and senators would join their ranks? Could they have really grasped what their pipe dream would turn into?

I imagine them, in the days before anyone knew about lung cancer and liver cirrhosis, sitting in the bar with their drinks and cigars, laughing and talking, everyone just trying to get a word in. "OH! So we could make it just like the masons..." one would say, "Except," another would interject, "it would JUST be for people in Alaska!"

"No, no, no," someone interjects. "It can't just be in Alaska, the gold is in the Yukon."

"And all the people who come to Alaska are just going to the Yukon anyway," someone else pipes in.

"Well," the first would say, "We could just have it be north of a certain latitude."

"North of Vancouver!" someone says definitively.

Someone who maybe up until this point has been quiet waits til the silent pause and says, "if we go north of Vancouver then Prince George will be in. They're not really a frontier town like we're looking for."

"The kid's right," someone says. "North of Prince George!" He slams his fist onto the table.

"North of Prince George!" they all say together, raising their glasses.

And from there...

When i first started doing research on the AB, I was fascinated by the one tiny detail that everyone seems to ask about: What happened to them? They lasted longer than many people expected and yet they were all but defunct within thirty years. Still-- that's thirty years longer and ten thousand people more than any idea i've ever had has gone. (That sentence was full of taxing syntax, sorry.) This detail, the demise of the AB, haunted me. I would not rest until I had figured it out.

All the research I put into trying to solve the mystery of the AB, which no one could explain to me, ended up becoming the obsession which has led to this blog, my latest tattoo, and the book I'm forty pages into writing. And in all that research what I've found to answer my question is...

There were a lot of factors involved in the dissolution of the AB. But that's not what's important. What's important is that they did exist, and that they did have an amazing impact on the North. Captain Richardson, who was in command of all the road building in Alaska (hence Richardson Highway), was an AB. The President of the WP&YR railroad was an AB. S. J. Marsh, one of the first white men to explore the Arctic, was an AB. We owe our roads, our railroads, our maps, our infrastructure, our very independence, to these men who called themselves Arctic Brothers (though none of them lived north of the Arctic Circle). Why they disbanded isn't the most important detail of this story. What they accomplished, that's the story.

And all of this because... 114 years ago, a man named Henry left his hometown in Sidney, Maine, with his wife, Pauline, heading west. Why? Probably the same reason that anyone else did-- gold. Fortune. Relief from the economic depression. A fresh start. When he got to Skagway, he went no farther. His trade as a barber proved enough for him to make money in the town that was the gateway to the gold fields. He set up his business in a store front on Broadway that had been a hotel at one time.

4 years ago, a girl named Ashley left her home on the east coast, heading west. Why? Maybe some of the same reasons as Henry. A fresh start. Independence. A new beginning. When she got to Skagway, she knew it was home. The first place she went into when she got there, a place called Moe's Frontier Bar, had been in business for decades... but at one time it had been a barber shop in a store front on Broadway.

And the only reason I started delving into the Arctic Brotherhood was because Henry, the barber, shares my last name. He was an AB and in an attempt to learn everything I could about him to find a link between his lineage and mine, I found my brothers. They've given me a purpose and a goal unlike any I've ever had. Beause of Henry Bowman of Sidney, Maine, I know what I want to do with my life: write a book about the Arctic Brotherhood and bring their story, hidden for so long, back into light. And, God willing, bring their organization back into existence.