This week, I have the pleasure of bringing you a private collection of letters written during the Klondike Gold Rush. This is an exciting
collection, one that brings history alive, as the drama of a hard-working family of pioneers facing difficulty and tragedy unfolds. The original letters are still in the family, and copies were sent to me by Malcolm Haner, the great-grandson of Mr. Banks.
As with many people trying to get established in a pioneer area, the 39-year-old man worked at many jobs, including teaching school, operating a produce commission business,
carpentery work, and any other jobs that would supply cash for the family.
Bruce Banks was not particularly successful in Skagway, and made a tragic choice of ships to return home on. A few hours after leaving Skagway,
during the night of February 6, 1898, the
Clara Nevada exploded, killing all those on board.
He had apparently never received any letters from Josie while he was in Alaska. Some of her letters were undoubtedly lost, but Mrs. Baker finally received and returned to Josie the ones in this collection.
The first letter was written to his wife, who remained in Thorp with their children. The editorial notes are by Hazel Haner.
Seattle, January 13, 1898
Dear Josie and Children,
I arrived in Seattle 2:30 yesterday. Hans [Peterson] met me at the train. Am not sure I can get a ticket for Saturday but the chances are I will. Leon Baker and Delbert have tickets to go Saturday. They have no money nor grub. Hans handed me 50 cents this morning and without
conditions. He is going though as fast as he can.
Ed Raymond goes on the Alki Sat. Herb Raymond says he left Dawson 28
Sept. that Pratt was in the best of health, had a good claim, and was
fixed for grub for the winter. Another man who went up with Herb R has
just come back, says he has been in same cabin with Pratt and he is all
right. He farther says an able bodied man can surely make 6 to 15
dollars per day up at Dyea or Skagway (?). Other people say there are
too many there now. I mean to know for myself. The rush has begun and
I believe I can do well to go up.
Charlie's address is 212 Wall St. They are all well. If I cannot go on
this boat I can go in one week.
No snow here, a little snow at Skag.
I can get a good pair of Blankets for $6.75.
Write me to Charlie's address.
[ signature ]
The next four letters in the collection are those from his wife and three children - Daisy 15, Waldo 13, and
Lillian 9, written immediately after he had left for Skagway, Alaska.
Thorp, Washington Jan. 17, 1898
I am so sorry we did not get a letter to you before you took the boat
but I supposed you would go before another mail. The children are all
well now and Lillie went to school again today. Clyde still insists on
carrying out his threat to you, says he will get a cannon that will
shoot to Seattle but I guess it would hardly hit you away up there. He
thinks to scare you into submission so you will come back. I told him
what you said in you last letter and it pleased him. He has taken your
place at the table and tries to act just like you. The baby feels all
over my face every morning and then says Where's papoo?
Waldo tends to his chores good and we are getting along all right as far
as the work goes.
There were twenty four came out to singing school last Friday and tho
the books had not come we put in the time profitably. Miss Cager said
there were five more who had promised her to come. I don't know just
how many of those there the other night but nearly all I think. The
organ came Sat. morning so we have to wait till tomorrow morning to get
the way bill back as the bank was not open til this morning. The organ
is nice and I think they will all be pleased. The freight was $7.30.
The singing books came yesterday and with the $5.50 from Morgan (he said
that was all) and some paid in advance on Singing Books had a little
more than enough to get them from the express office and will get that
back as fast as the books are taken. It is too bad you have to be so
long on the way and I hope you will all get there safely. I am glad
Hans is the same old sixpence. Wish he was going to be with you after
you get through. I suppose he heard from that girl before he left.
What about her, anyway?
I suppose you and Leon will camp together. I am glad he is with you, I
think he will be good company. Have you written to George and Barbara
and Harve? The folks here are very kind and we are not left much alone
except during the day while the children are in school.
The children are all writing too and I must stop now and go to work.
Thorp, Wash. Jan 17, 1898
All the rest have told all the news, so I will tell about the basket
social to be next Saturday. It is to pay the freight on the organ. It
came last Sat. morning. Miss Cager will pay now and the social money is
to pay her. We will hear the organ in school tomorrow.
They are getting up one of their contests, and will pay mamma for
training the singers.
I got a letter from Ethel today. She said maybe she would have to go to
Whatcom when the folks go.
Mr. Briggs has been quite sick with something like pneumonia, but he is
I will have to stop and tend to the supper.
Thorp, Wash. Jan. 17,1898
We received your letter today from Tacoma. I have good times skating
yet there is little new snow now, about three inches, I think. The
organ came the next day after you left and we will hive it in school
tomorrow morning and I have got to speak a piece the 20th of this month
and so has Lillian and Lillian and I are going to sing the moon song.
We are on the half moon side, the side they call the crescent side.
We'll beat them all to smash.
I dout if you can read this scribbling of mine. The baby won't let me
have the led pencil so I had to take the next best, the pen I got the
Last evening Frank Halverson spent the evening with us and we played
games that is all the games we have dominoes and authors and we popped
Did you take any popcorn with you or not? Mamma said she dident think
Everything is going all right now. We are going to have a basket soshel
to rase enough to pay the freight on the organ. Well I think I will
close for now and tell the more next time if I can think of any then.
On the back of Waldo's letter was a little letter from Harold, aged just past 6.
We are reading about over to Susy and her chickens in my reader now.
Thorp, Wash. Jan. 17,189
I would have written in the letter before but my head ached and Mamma was in a hurry.
We got a letter from Ethel this morn along with your's and the
They are going to have a basket social here to get the rest of the money
for the organ. We will have it in school tomorrow morning.
Frank Hutchinson came in last night and we play authors for a while then
he went home.
The Cresent's side is going to have their entertainment. (I guess that
is what you call it.) next Friday, and Waldo and I are going to sing
"The Moon song". They want me to speak a piece but I don't think I
Did you see Sema?
Well I can't think of anything more to say.
Lillian had just passed her 10th birthday - (12-27). So much for modern school, audio-visual and
tortured methods of teaching! This child and the others had probably never had a full nine-month school term.
(Skagway in sight) Steamer Alki Jan 21, 1 PM
Dear Josie and children,
I sent you a letter from Wrangle. We then expected to be here yesterday
but owing to getting a little to one side of the channel the steamer
stuck in sand and we were 24 hours waiting for the tide. We get our
board with ticket so we only lost a day time, The weather is not cold,
some snow here 4 or 5 in. Mountains look like those at Easton only
timber is smaller. Skag. is about 2500 people. A man on bord talks of
starting a wood yard thinks he can give me a job. Will write more as
soon as I can determine what to do. I am not going inland.
Ashore, First man to meet me was Elihu Baker. He is teaming here and we
Leon and I go up to his place for a short time. We have a tent and
stove and will soon set it up. I got a job for 50 cents and hour for
tomorrow and am asked to figure on a job this evening. I am hoping to
hear from you by Monday. Do keep well and try to not worry about me.
The buildings here are generally cheap and not much contracting done.
Most all is day work. I am told some are offering to work for 30 cents
and hour but that won't do for me and won't hold me here. The symptoms
are that all lines of work will be overdone. Most all the people coming
in now are coming to work. I cannot say now it will be for packing.
Don't fail to write me as many as can from baby up. You know I shall be
very lonesome and a letter will help me. If I cannot make big wages I
shall come home.
There was a great fight here on the landing. The ship broght some
Siwashes from Juno to unload freight and the people here drove them off
and got 50 cents per hour to help unload. No one seriously hurt. Mrs.
Baker is very friendly but we do not intend to impose upon her.
Hans is rather sorry he outfitted for Dawson and may not go in anyhow
not at once.
If you need anything call on Mr. Rann as he assured me of his own accord
he would see that you did not want. Tell me of your music class.
Clyde, I will bring you some money be a good boy.
Skagway Jan 24, 8PM 98
Dear Josie and Children
I will try to get a letter out to you on next boat. Adelber got here
this evening. I expected he would bring me a letter for I told you to
write me to Charles address. We have not been to post office here yet,
but will go tomorrow. We have to stand in line for our turn to get mail
here. I sent one letter from here. Leon and I worked Sat. I made $4.
today $3.50 and can work at same job tomorrow (shingling). Yesterday we
fixed our tent. We put three logs down, hewed top and inside and set
tent over it. The logs make shelf all around our house. We have our
bed up 2 ft. from ground in one end of tent. No floor yet we are
comfortable and well. While we were fixing up our tent a man came along
and engaged us to make 20 or more cords of 4 foot wood at $4 per cord.
The timber is mostly larch. I may bid on 500 cords of wood yet for the
electric light. There is not much rain here generally they say.
I miss you all when night comes. Write me often. I will send some
money home soon.
Letter from Waldo Banks, aged almost 13, to his father.
Thorp, Wash. Jan. 26th 1898
We got your letter this morning we are all right now the cow is getting
along all right too. That little owl is here yet and in the evening
when I go out to milk the cow it sits up and winks and blinks at the
light. Mr. Miles brought us a sack of apples to pay for Addah's singing
lessons. I wish you had some of them to night and some popcorn to eat.
Lillie has gone to stay all night with Pearl and Rosa. Today Clyde took
two sents and went down to Beache's store and got a mouth organ and the
right price was five sents. The other eavning when I went out to milk
the cow there were some chickens in the feed box and I put the lantern
on the wheat box and when I pulled the old roster out he tipped the
lantern of and as it happened the burner dropped out and the started
blase but I put it out so it did not hurt any thing.
The next letter was not to his own family from Bruce Banks, but
from him to a friend or relative whom he called "Brother" Snyder, reporting on
conditions in Skagway at the time.
Skagway, Jan. 29, 98
Brother Snyder and Family,
I have been a little slow about writing because I wanted to look at all
sides of the question.
In regard to teaming would say the roads are good here now for sleds but
there is but very little to do for the teams here. Hay is $100.00 per
ton. Many horses for sale here. When a thaw comes the road will be
very bad again about 6 in. snow here in town and deeper up the trail,
about as cold as Kitti-tas. Packers if they get a job make pretty good
pay. But you can see notices up on some buildings where there has been
some packing let. "No packers wanted." On the road office a notice
says "No men wanted." I have worked most of the time since coming here
a day here and there, but hundreds are hunting work.
As for wood there is no regular market and it cannot be got without
going up the mountain and schuting it down or going down the bay and
rafting. The price is now as low as $2.25 for cutting. The town takes
all the level land between the mountains for 3 miles from the bay. This
I think is the town of Alaska, but it is too big now. I saw Bob the
other day coming down the trail with his blankets. Said he was going to
Dyea to drive team. He was in a hurry so I did not talk much with him.
You may want to come here, but certainly you are better off than the
best of them here.
I heard there was a snow slide at Dyea yesterday that killed three men.
That is at Chilcooot Pass.
Best regards to all,
[ signature ]
Skagway Jan. 31, 1898
Dear Josie and Children
I get but little chance to send mail as the boats are so irregular. I
have been working most of the time but had to lay off some on account of
my wrist. It is better now. I am going up on the road to do chopping
at $3.50 board. Seven miles from town.
I can hardly sleep at night for thinking "Are you all well?". I have
not had a word from you since the letter I got in Seattle. Don't let
Clyde go to sleep with cold feet. Daisy Don't let Mama over work if you
have to stay out of school.
If you think best, or rather if the strain is too great for you, I will
come home in March. I can have some work near home in the spring.
The Corona ran on a rock two days ago all are safe camped on shore. The
Oregon is expected in today with the mail that was on the Corona and I
hope to get a letter then but I am going up the road now and Mrs. Baker
will send my mail up. You are in my mind all the time.
Skagway Feb. 2,1898
I sent out a letter Monday on S.S. Noyo but we hear she is on a rock
between here and Juno. I had hired out then to go on the wagon road to
work but when I got out there they said they already had too many men.
There are ten carpenters for every days work here.
The weather has been very cold and windy for 4 days. We are very
healthy,, but I did not come here for health or poverty. Had plenty of
that before. Wood cutting is $2. per cord now, and buck our own timber,
pay uncer-tain. In fact pay here is generally uncertain. I have not
had a line from you to date except letter in Seattle. Unless something
good turns up soon, I will return to Seattle. I can earn a little money
there before spring. Alki is expected Friday, then I surely shall hear
from you and return on her unless things look better.
With much lonesomeness
[ signature ]
Thorp, Wash. Feb. 13,1898
You never saw any snow go so fast as this does! Last night the path
from here to Burlingames was all snow but this afternoon it is all
gone. Yesterday in the afternoon I went over to Currie's with Edna and
Maggie. We played colors, and hide the spool quite a while then ______
her lesson and I went home.
We are going to begin next week to take a pin and put after your name
for not using good grammar (not the whole school, of course, but just
those in Waldo's grammar class). Were you in that fight with the
Do you remember that well that you filled up? This morning Harold was
jumping up and down on the snow and ice and come to find out the snow
that was with the dirt had melted and left it all hollow. Then Waldo
took the ax and cut the snow away ____________
This was Lillian's letter, now torn and incomplete. (She was just past nine.)
Letter of Feb. 13, 1898
Mr. Peck acts kind of queer about paying that three dollars in
vegetables. The other day, Mamma asked him about cabbage and he said
it was all buried up and then she asked about potatoes and he answered the same.
Miss. Cager went to Ellensburg last Thursday and Friday to the teachers'
examination and Georgia and I helped Mr. Butcher to teach. I enjoyed it
quite well and didn't have any trouble to speak of. Friday afternoon
was not the day for either of the societies and so we had a debate on
the question Resolved "That the gun is more useful to man than the
dog". Rosa led in the affirmative and Fred Newman in the negative.
Myra was chairman and all the school had the priviledge of speaking on
either side. I spoke on the affirma-tive also Madeline Davis and Willie
Ellison helped Fred. The others did not speak at all. It was decided
by a vote of the school and Myra didn't talk loud enough for all to hear
and so about one third didn't vote on either side. It was decided in
favor of the negative. Then Mr. Butcher made a motion that we have some
recitations and as quick as a flash Myra called on him. At first he
seemed to be ____________
Although the last page was missing, we could identify the letter by Daisy's handwriting.
Thorp, Wash. Feb. 13, 1898
We got your letter this morning and when I heard that you had not heard
from us since you left Seattle I couldn't think why you didn't get a
letter for we have written a half dozen letter since you left Seattle.
We are going to send our letters in care of Mrs. Baker this time and see
if it will reach you.
The other day Mr. J. Burch was here with hay for Mr. Crandall and Mama
told me to go and tell him she would like to see him about getting some
hay for the cow and she made a trade for one ton of hay paying for it in
music lessons, Roy and Mrs. Burch, hay is only $10.50 now the hay we got
is fine hay the cow has gained on her milk a little, but not much.
The ice pond is all most dry now and where that ditch runs from the pond
there are lots of white fish. Yesterday I took my spear and went up to
the pond and caught three fish. Jim Gorden took his 22 rifel and when
they would come up in shallow water he would shoot them and as quick as
the bullet struck them they would come to the top of the water and he
would wade in and get them out. Charley Ramm caught twelve in all and
lots of what he hit would get off his spear and swim away and the other
fellows would get them. The snow is all most gone it comenced to rain
this morning and is all gone in the flat now.
Well, I think I will close for now. Waldo
Waldo later added, above the heading of the letter - "If you can come
home soon come, for I don't think I will get the crop in right." (Waldo had just turned 13)
No date, probably Mar. 3rd.
We haven't heard from you since the 2nd Feb. when you thought you would
return on the Alki and since reading of the storms on the ocean and the
sick-ness and death at Skagway we are very anxious. If you are alive
and able come home for I cannot stand this much longer. I can send you
some money if I knew how to reach you. I addressed the two last letters
in care of Mrs. Elihu Baker since you said she would send you mail out
We are well as usual but very uneasy about you.
Your loving wife,
Josie L. Banks
Thorp, Wash. Mar. 3, 1898
We have not heard from you since the letter you wrote the 2 of Feb. I
went and got the horses the other day they are pretty poor and we have
got to get plowing soon Mr. Peek thinks he will not have time to help me
and I am going to try to get some body else to help me everything is all
right now but I expect I will have to stop school soon to go to work.
Thorp, Wash. Mar. 6, 1898
We haven't had a letter or any kind of word from you since the letter
that was written Feb. 2. You had just failed to get the wood job. We
are awfully anxious about you since that sickness broke out up there.
Mamma has had all the daily papers for nearly a week and tried to find
out about the Alki's trips. She found that the boat had been delayed on
account of storms, and having to be repaired.
We want you to come home as soon as you can, no matter about what wages
you may be getting there. If you need money to come with we can get
some and send you if there is any safe way of sending it. It is fine
spring weather here, some buttercups in blossom. You could get work
here all right.
All usually well, tho Mamma has headache a good deal. I must close. It
is nearly mail time.
Thorp, Wash. Mar. 9, 1898
We are very anxious about you in view of the sickness and the Clara
Nevada disaster about the time you said you might return on the Alki. I
learn that the Alki did not come that trip so am afraid to think what
may have come to you. The last we heard from you was you letter to Mr.
Snyder. O I pray that if you are alive you may come home as soon as
possible only do not any risk on a boat of uncertain reliability.
The wheat will be put in next week all right.
We are well as our anxiety will permit.
Your loving wife
Josie L. Banks
We can send you money of you want it. - -
Letter from Rober Bruce Banks' youngest sister, Barbara Thomas (Mrs.
Sheldon) to his widow, Josie Banks.
Alzada, Mont. Apr. 1st, 1898
Dear Sister Josie
I will try to write to you a few lines, to let you know I can't forget
you in your sorrow. I got a paper from Windom (Minn.) today telling of
the terrible accident about Bruce, I can hardly believe it, and yet it
seems true all that is given in the paper, everything is so plain. I
do hope he has escaped and will be all right and reach home once more.
I hardly know what or how to write it has upset me so. Ma has been
dangerously sick the last three weeks and I have worried more than a
little. All I have learned was in the home paper, we take, the one
today said she was out of danger, and gave the sad news of another.
It is terrible, and yet we have to learn it sometime. Did you get a
letter I wrote to Easton with a letter from Phoeby? She had lost her
baby girl, about two years old, I got that just before Ma was taken
sick, she came very near dying. Well I can't write anything more, hope
you will get this. I will address this to Thorp as I see it given in
the paper. As you might have moved since last I heard from you.
Your loving sister, Barbara,
Write and let me know when you can.
In this letter, I do not know to whom Barbara refers to
as "Ma". Her own mother died at the time of her birth. This may have
been an adoptive mother or her mother-in-law.
Skagway April 8.
Mrs R.B. Banks
I have received your letter of March 9th today but know that by this
time you must know of what we consider Mr. Bank's untimely end. I
hunted up all of the facts as near as I could and sent them to your
Uncle sometime ago, just as soon after the disaster as I could. We feel
sure that he met his death on that boat because he left our house
expecting to go on her, and that is the last we have heard from him.
And Mrs. Banks, you have our heart felt sympathy. He was here with us
so much and we felt so sorry for him because he was so home sick all the
while he was here. And he felt as though something was to happen with
his family. and the last thing he said to me, was if I get home and
find all of my folks as I left them, I will never leave them again. He
thought so much of our baby that was three years and a half old, he
seemed to be a comfort to him. We have lost him since Mr. Banks left.
Baby died Feb 28. It was an awful blow to us. And Mr. Banks' death also
in so short a time, it did seem terrible.
I think this is all now thinking you know what I know by this time, I
But if there is any inquiries I can make, or anything I can do let me
know and I will gladly do.
I remain a true friend,
Mrs. E. Baker