Sunday, July 15, 2012

Part 2. Here's what REALLY went down...

All right, you asked for it, you got it. Just don't say I didn't warn you. This is an epic tale, as i'm sure I've said many times before, and epic tales have LONG endings. Just ask Aragorn. 412 pages in Return of the King, 263 minutes in the movie version. The story of the Arctic Brotherhood may not entail a long trek to Mount Doom and that ultimate battle of good and evil, but with the amount of times I've tried to condense the story, and with how emotionally vested I am in this story at this point, it might as well. So, here we go. It's kind of ironic that i'm having a hard time figuring out where to begin the story of the end of the story. I'd start at the beginning but that ends up to be about 65.000 words with my last edit, a little too long for a blog post. I guess the best place to start is right in the thick of it: Seattle, 1909.

By this point in time, the Grand Camp of the AB had been created. With 32 camps altogether over the lifespan of the club, and maybe 15-20 active at this point in time (1909), the Grand Camp was the governing body that held everything together. Representatives from different camps were voted in to be the ones who made decisions that affected the entire club.

Because Alaska is so geographically huge (take that, Texas), the logistics involved in having Grand Camp sessions a few times a year were a nightmare, especially in those days when things weren't as developed as they are now. Because of the way everyone was spread out, and because of the fact that so many current AB members had moved south (re-read part 1), locations outside of the north had been chosen as Grand Camp settings.

They held the Grand Camp in Victoria, Vancouver, and Tacoma, to name a few, when previously sessions had been held in Skagway each year. In 1909, the Grand Camp was set to take place in Seattle.

It's a natural choice for a lot of reasons -- Seattle opened up the Alaska trade routes in a big way, and a lot of ex-miners found themselves living there. This year, an extra factor played into it: the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

That is another can of worms. The Exposition, modeled after the World's Fair and the Lewis And Clark Expositions that preceded it, was ostensibly an advertisement for Pacific trade routes. The men behind this exposition were Arctic Brotherhood officer Godfrey Chealander and Alaska Club officer J.E. Chilberg.

Because at that time the AB refused to address the notion that a chapter of its club be stationed in Seattle, the Alaska Club had been created a few years prior to fill the void.

The Alaska Club and the AB collaborated in creating the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (that's a tedious phrase to type -- henceforth "AYPE"). It was a great idea and it was wildly successful. But the AB's involvement in it proved not to be without alterior motives as they tried to pull a fast one on the members who still lived in the north.

Add to the excitement one very important visitor -- President Taft made an appearance at the AYPE and was received by the AB. That was a huge deal for the club. They'd met with Teddy Roosevelt years earlier, but Taft spent more time with them and became an honorary member. Therein begins to lie the problem.

There's going to be some speculation happening now, only because I feel like I know these guys well enough to have it figured out what they were up to.

A few factors are incredibly important that contributed to the breakup of the AB precipitated by the events of 1909.
First, The Arctic Brotherhood was officially in favor of Alaska becoming a territory. In 1909 Alaska was a district.
Second, President Taft was in favor of Alaska NOT becoming a territory but remaining under federal control ala the colonial style he'd dealt with in the Philippines.
Third, Taft was not the only member to be made on that day in 1909. One Hundred other men were initiated in Seattle who had never been north of Seattle.
Fourth, Many of the representatives present at the Grand Camp sessions were no longer residents of Alaska, the Yukon, or northern British Columbia.
FIFTH, and most importantly, the thousands of men of the AB who still did reside in the northland had no idea what was going on.

But it went down anyway. Taft was initiated into the AB. He gave a speech after his initiation which initially praised Alaska and Alaskans and then cut to the core of them by talking about his great plans for colonizing the area. According to the papers of the time, the crowd was nothappy with him and shouted their disapproval. After they did, Taft declared simply "I've expressed my views. If you don't like it, you can take back your honors."

The response from Alaska's camps was staggering. Representatives from almost every active camp in the north protested -- in a big way. They publicly decried the actions of the Grand Camp by way of newspapers. A few camps sent notes to the Seattle papers to be published; a few published them in their local papers. Skagway's paper received several anonymous letters to the editor about the entire thing. It was a fiasco.

The general consensus by most camps of the AB at the time was that, to save face, the AB should keep its honorary titles bestowed upon the President but revoke the hundred additional memberships that were given to men in Seattle. Those hundred memberships absolutely degraded the memberships of the men who actually lived in the north.

It's fairly obvious to me what was going on. The guys in the Grand Camp wanted to make a camp in Seattle so the club could expand. With the population of the north declining, how else could their membership go up? It is a perfectly logical step, one could argue; however, it did not seem that they had the approval o f the entire body of the club to go ahead with that move.

After all, if the club ceased to be exclusive to the north, the actual constitution of the organization would have to be changed, as well as the spirit of it and its very reason for existing.

But the Grand Camp didn't see it that way. In the weeks following the debacle at the AYPE, the camp voted to uphold their illegal decisions to initiate Taft and the hundred others. And then it all started to fall apart.

There just isn't a whole lot written about the AB after November of 1909. It was a peak year for them, for sure -- lots of mention in newspapers, consistently; they published a book on their own history; they were mentioned in two Robert Service poems; one AB member even published a tune called "The Arctic Brotherhood Two-Step." (You can listen to it at the site for Alaska Klondike Music.) After what went down at the AYPE, and the Grand Camp's decision to uphold their decisions, the AB began to fall off the map.

A few things happened afterward, but not much. The enthusiasm once held by the men who had come north to change their lives and experience the world was waning. It's sad, really. The Arctic Brotherhood was such an important part of our history, and because after 1909 it fell apart, so many of their contributions go completely unacknowledged. It was thanks to the AB that Alaska got representation to Congress, by the way-- and one of its most active and controversial members was responsible for getting Alaska territorial status in 1912. That same member, none other than James Wickersham, wrote the first bill for statehood, decades before it came to fruition. He went up against the likes of President Taft himself in getting Alaska to become a territory -- and won.

I guess in victories like that the AB still prevailed over all its adversity. It's just sad to think that, today, the main two reasons anyone knows what the AB is is because of its building in downtown Skagway and the mountain that still bears its name. And, because there's a woman who lives in Skagway who has their logo tattooed on her arm and it looks weird so people ask her what it is sometimes.

And that's that. Kind of an anticlimactic end, in some ways. The last battle didn't involve Legolas skipping up onto an elephant. The Mount Doom of the Arctic Brotherhood was the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Sadly, in this case, the ring that got cast into the fire was the organization itself. So ends the tale of the Arctic Brotherhood. I hope that you'll still stop back to find out what happened in their heyday and the few things that came about after their demise in 1909. More than that, I hope that in some way you will appreciate the significance of this once-great organization that did so much to bring all of us to where we are today.

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