Old papers, documents tell engaging tale of two Alaskans

August 31, 2011 

FAIRBANKS -- "Here, look these over" my friend Karen said.

"These" were a couple dozen Fairbanks newspapers from 1907 in a cardboard box. Karen had purchased the papers when they came up for sale in Fairbanks a few days earlier.

The papers were clean and undamaged. No single individual could have saved them 104 years. They must have been owned -- and protected -- by several generations of Alaskans. Given the fires and floods the Golden Heart City has suffered, the papers' survival was improbable.

Interior Alaska was connected to the outside world by telegraph in 1907, and the Fairbanks Times of yesteryear contained a great deal of wire copy. The president -- Teddy Roosevelt -- was frequently on the front page as was socialite Harry Thaw who shot and killed architect Stanford White in New York during a dispute over a woman. Radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood was on the front page too -- the defendant in an Idaho murder trial.

A municipal election dominated the local news, and there was voluminous reporting on gold mining, the foundation of the early Fairbanks economy.

I read or skimmed dozens of stories with little emotion until the July 17 front page of the Times made me smile.

"Tackstrom Is Married" shouted a headline atop a story with a Dawson dateline. A sub-head added "Cupid Captures The Popular Young Man While In The Klondike."

According to the unnamed Canadian reporter, Oscar Tackstrom of Fairbanks, passing through Dawson, met Christine McDonald, passing through Dawson, and after "Cupid interfered" with their travel plans, a whirlwind courtship followed.

"Mr. Tackstrom did not let the grass grow under his feet after meeting Miss McDonald," the reporter explained, "and the announcement of their engagement, though coming as a surprise, caused their many Dawson friends to flock to them with their congratulations."

Apparently both Tackstrom and McDonald had previously lived in Dawson.

Love at first sight produced a wedding in less than a week, and when last heard from the happy couple was decamping by steamboat for Fairbanks where Mr. Tackstrom was employed as local manager of the Orr Stage line, which ran between Fairbanks and Valdez.

A delightful story -- from an era when editors were not embarrassed to put Cupid in front-page headlines and newspapers insisted husbands were "captured."

I wondered: What happened to Oscar and Christine?

I got my answer the same day from another box that another friend, George, showed me. "Check these out," he said while handing me a stack of Pioneer of Alaska records from Ruby. The records mostly dealt with internal Pioneer matters -- membership, payment of dues, annual meetings. Buried in these papers was a full-page official statement by the members of Igloo Number 5 under the headline "In Memory of Oscar E. Tackstrom and Family." It began:

"Where it has pleased Divine Providence to Remove from our midst our beloved brother Oscar E. Tackstrom and Family, who met their sad fate in the Sophia Disaster, which (sic) floundered on Oct 25th 1918 on Vanderbilt Reef. Now therefore be it resolved that in the loss of our Estemmed Brother and Family, the Entire Community is shrouded with gloom and Igloo No. 5 has suffered and sustained an irreparable loss."

The memorial further noted the couple's two young children, a boy and a girl, had died with them. Oscar was 39, Christine 29.

The memorial ended: "Our Departed Brother was of genial disposition. Wherever he went, a ray of sunshine preceded him."

The wreck of the Sophia, a Canadian vessel making its way from Skagway to Vancouver, killed almost 350 people, many of them prominent in Alaska or the Klondike. Only a dog that swam to a nearby island survived. For weeks, debris washed up on the shores of Lynn Canal.

The 245-foot vessel hit Vanderbilt Reef on a windy, snowy night and was grounded for hours until a powerful storm ripped it apart on the rocks. Historians and maritime experts have argued at length about whether the passengers and crew could have been saved before the storm struck.

The Sophia tragedy, although among the major maritime disasters in Pacific Coast history, is largely forgotten. It occurred in a remote corner of North America in the final days of World War I. The war claimed millions of lives. Three hundred and fifty deaths were no longer big news.

Oscar and Christine met by chance in Dawson; they died when an unexpected storm thundered down Lynn Canal. Their story could have begun, could have ended, differently. Life is far more provisional than most of us are prepared to admit.


Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily news. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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