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Yukon River steamboats, October 1898

Roster of Yukon/Alaska Sternwheelers

Northern Ships and Shipping

The Examiner, San Francisco - October 23, 1898


    ST. MICHAELS, October 4. - "I tell you Dixon will get the Bella through," still prophesied the ancients about Fort Yukon. A few of the "Tche-cha-kers" thereupon worked up a mighty faith in Dixon. The mere matter of taking a three-foot boat over a two-foot bar became nothing to the Dixon of the imagination. He might put wings on the Bella, or, inflating her, try something. new in aeronautics. They sat down to wait for Dixon. They may be waiting yet, for down at Fort Hamlin, perhaps 200 miles below Fort Yukon, the returning steamer Alice found the redoubtable Dixon and the miracle- achieving Bella discharging cargo into warehouses, and without the faintest notion in the world of attempting to go any further up stream.

    Surely there had been some misapprehension or rank disobedience of Captain Hansen's orders. That energetic man had ordered Ceptain Saunders and the Margaret to remain at the Devil's Teeth cache until the last possible moment to take advantage of any unexpected rise in the river, or to help the Dawson people down stream, should the alarm reach the mining center in time. But here was the Margaret alongside the Bella at Fort Hamlin.

    When Captain Kennedy reported at St. Michaels that both the Bella and the Margaret were coming down Superintendent J. M. Wilson gave the captain one piercing look, said never a word of censure for anybody, but issued his orders sharply:

    "Work all night. Get the Alice back into the river as quick as you can. Stop the steamer Yukon and tell her to go up with a barge as far as she can and wait as late as possible, even if she has to take a chance of getting lost. We must help those people out as much as possible if any of them get down river before the ice."

    There was some excuse, to be sure, for Dixon's not trying to drive the Bella further up stream. The Indian pilots, eager to reach their homes, declined to go with Dixon, saying he would get caught in the ice.

    Captain Kennedy, however, who has a sort of medicine-man control of the Indians, persuaded two pilots to accompany Dixon and take chances on getting frozen in; but then came the decision not to try, and the only concession which Dixon would make was to take some provisions back to Minook (or Rampart City, as the ambitious settlement prefers to call itself). Later Dixon did decide to go to Fort Yukon, though his letter to Superintendent Wilson indicated that he had no notion of trying to go any further.

    With Dixon turning tail on his admirers the only hope of those who wished to reach Dawson before the ice set must remain in some of the other boats on the river. The situation, in so far as these other boats is concerned, was not encouraging.

    The Dawson insanity has launched upon the Yukon a nondescript assortment of generally misdirected efforts. Boats little and boats big, deep boate, shallow boats, boats neither deep nor shallow, launches, tugs, yawls, side-wheelers, stern-wheelers and propellors have gone to add their incompetence and inefficiency to the already prevailing and amazing display of those qualities which has made the Yukon service a swearing point for human kind. The Indian, the drunkard and the doddering idiot have hitherto been responsible for most of the starting late and getting nowhere, but added to these will be craft singularly designed for almost anything else than Yukon river traffic.

    In the order in which the steamer Alice passed these hopes of those who wait beside the banks their chances for Dawson this year are here set down:

    The stern-wheeler St. Michael by September 20th had reached & point on the river somewhat above Minook and was drawing thirty inches of water. Her chances of passing the bar are small. She certainly cannot yet through with any load aboard.

    At Minook was the Alaska Commercial Company's new steamer Victoria, built specially for service on the upper river and out for her maiden trip. She drew thirty-eight inches, couldn't be lightened to much less than twenty-eight, and Charles Hall, the Commercial Company's representative on board, said he had no nope that he would be able to pass the bar before next year.

    On September 21st the old tug Governor Stoneman, soon a health boat in San Francisco bay, was found a few miles above Anvik hitched double with the launch Esperanza and towing two barges. They had not yet reached the swift water, so discouraging to propellor craft, and the likelihood of their getting beyond Minook before being stopped by the ice seemed as remote as Areturus.

    "How far up is the Hettie B.?" they shouted as the Alice passed.

    Now no one on the Alice had seen anything of the tug Hettie B. so when it was found she had left Anvik five days before, the natural supposition was that she had passed up some side slough. The passing of a side slough may be a matter of easy accomplishment, and then, again, it may not. The sloughs are treacherous, full of bars and their channels shift as easily as the opinions of a traveling theologian. So the Hettie B. may have gone on in ease and pride. Or she may be stuck for the winter. There is no probability that she can reach Dawson this year under anything else than a very late season, and a big fall flood.

    Then all eyes kept watch for the May West. She was not passed until well down to the Russian Mission, say 350 or 400 miles from St. Michaels. She was literally "loaded to the guards," and had been eight days on the way. She drew three feet six inches, but it was said she could be brought up to eighteen Inches draft with everything but the machinery out of her. Should she ever reach the Devil's Teeth, she might get through, but could carry little or nothing with her - a useless boat upon a useless errand.

    Below the Russian Mission two open boats were passed, each with a spritsail, bowling up stream with a fresh beam wind. In one boat were five men; in the other, three. Here was represented the craziest undertaking of all. In the swift water of the upper river these boats can make no head under sail and oars combined. They are too heavy for tracking or poling, and at best have started too late in the year.

    The Alaska Commercial Company's small steamer Yukon was passed about sixty miles above Andreafski. She was laboriously towing a barge, and was destined for no further up river than Anvik. On the same day, September 23d, the North American Company's big new steamer Hamilton was met making good way up stream. She reported being wind-bound eight days at the river mouth and will probably go into winter quarters at the Russian Mission.

    Not far above Andreafski the steamer Seattle No. 1 came puffing along. This was the boat brought up to St. Michaels by the Humboldt to fulfill the contracts made in Seattle by Mayor Wood and others to deliver people in Dawson. The steamer was heavily loaded, and crowded with passengers, but seemed an able boat. Her draft is too great to let her pass the bar, however, and that contract to deliver men in Dawson will probably have to be fulfilled over the ice or next year.

    The tale came wafting along up stream of the fate of the venture of the launch Volunteer. She had started out towing a barge and the hopes of one Dr. McKinnon, but the barge capsized. All the goods were lost, and with them were supposed to have drowned the McKinnon aspirations for a crown of Klondyke gold. Still, the Volunteer, Dr. McKinnon and others interested in her, started back up stream on the Seattle No. 1 to have another bout with fortune on a badly chosen jousting ground.

    At St. Michaels the Alice found two of the jack-rabbiting expeditious still at anchor. These were represented in and by the old side-wheel ferry boat Mare Island, which for years precariously plied between San Francisco and West Berkeley, frequently calling for assistance, generally more or less broken down, and the stern-wheeler Merwin from Puget Sound attached to a barge, bearing more resemblance to Father Nouri's Ararat ark than anything else in the domains of the imagination. The Mare Island was keeping up her record for accidents, and had been delayed by blowing out a cylinder head and other disablements. She steamed out at midnight of September 25th, however, drawing over five feet of water and making only thirty pounds of steam. She couldn't get into the mouth of the river and had to turn back. Most of her passengers are returning, disgusted and discouraged.

    The Merwin, down to her guards and towing her barge so deeply laden that she was awash in the slight swell of St. Michaels bay, went out the following day. On her were the men who had deserted the old side-wheeler Eliza Anderson at Unalaska and come on to St. Michaels in the chartered schooner Baranoff. When the Mare Island turned back she sought shelter under St. Michaels island. Her passengers sent word over to the town that the Merwin was fast at the mouth of the river with the ice closing about her. To be cauczht by the ice there would mean certain destruction, The Mare Island's report also said the steamer Alice could not get into the river and was nipped in the ice. This prob- ably is not true, as Captain Kennedy has too much experience to be caught that way.

    The steamer Weare of the North American Company, wheezy, worn, compelled to stop for repairs every few miles, was passed by the Alice within two days of Fort Yukon, where she expected to go into winter quarters; thence to make a dash for Dawson the moment the ice opens. On a rise in the river and a late run of ice she might get up this year. Or the down-coming Klondyke miners might decide, on finding her at Fort Yukon, to discharge her cargo and force her to carry them to St. Michaels, on the chance of catching a late steamer for Seattle or San Francisco.

    There is one boat that may go through - that is the missionary steamer Northern Light, belonging to the Episcopalians, she is a small affair and badly out of shape. She passed the Alice at Minook, and should she reach Fort Yukon before the ice begins to run she undoubtedly can crawl over the bars with enough supplies for the Circle City mission. She had intended to go no further, but Hansen left orders to charter her for a trip to Dawson should she arrive at Fort Yukon in time to make it probable that she could do any good by helping the people to get to the provisions. The best she could do would be little, however, and as for taking people up to Dawson, that would be out of the question.

    So of all the people who set out for Dawson after July 15th, by way of St. Michaels, and the Yukon, not one is apt to reach the mines before the ice sets - not even the few who started to pole up in the miners' boats as soon as it was found that the Hamilton could not pass the flats. Those who stopped at Minook got claims, the others will get nothing but experience during all the long winter.

    When ice will close the navigation of the river no man may say. "Alaska is the land of I don't know, and when you do it's wrong," says a wag, and he enunciates a great truth.