Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 12, 1919, Anchorage essentially closed. The businesses shut their doors in part because they had no other option. There would have been no customers anyway, nor staff to serve them. Money, entertainment, food and everything else up for sale did not matter, at least for a little while. Mother White, the saint of early Anchorage, had died, and the nascent town shut down to pay its respects.
Martha Greer, the future Mother White, was born Feb. 22, 1867, in Glasgow, Scotland. As that day was also George Washington’s birthday, she was named after Washington’s wife, Martha. She was 14 when her family immigrated to America. After surviving a brief, misbegotten marriage that began when she was around 15, she moved to New Jersey, where she met Edward White. They moved to Texas, then to Washington, where they homesteaded near what is now Copalis Beach, north of Grays Harbor. It was here that Martha achieved her first taste of fame.
Grays Harbor had been the site of many deadly accidents in those years, including the 1888 wreck of the Abercorn when 20 men aboard died. In late January 1892, the Ferndale, a British bark bound for Portland with 2,000 tons of coal, was caught in a particularly nasty storm. The wind and currents carried her far north of her target, to the point that the captain mistook Grays Harbor for the mouth of the Columbia River.
Early Jan. 29, the Ferndale struck sand directly opposite the Whites’ home. Here, the captain made another fatal error, ordering the wheel turned hard to port, which pitched the ship onto its side and left it at the mercy of the punishing breakers. Some of the crew attempted to escape via one of the ship’s boats, but a wave immediately smashed the small vessel against the yardarm, and all aboard drowned.
Those crewmen still alive climbed into the fleeting safety of the rigging, where they faced the grim option of either freezing to death in place or trying to swim to shore. A survivor told the Aberdeen Herald, “One of the men with us — a native of New Zealand — took off all his clothes and leaped into the sea and swam for shore, which was the last we saw of him.” Eventually, each man was forced into a similar decision, though most attempted to grab a piece of the wreckage as a float.
The waves tossed Erick Sundberg onto the beach after a half-hour of bouncing in the surf. There, he met the 25-year-old Martha White, who led him to her house where she had prepared a large fire, coffee and food for possible survivors. White returned to the beach, entered the water, and retrieved an exhausted Charles Carlson from the shallows.
After depositing Carlson with Sundberg, she again returned to the beach where she spotted Peter Patterson struggling farther offshore. She tossed off some of her clothes and jumped in after him. Both were hit hard by the breakers, but she successfully dragged him through and onto the beach. As Sundberg noted, “(Patterson) was delirious with exhaustion and would certainly have drowned had that brave woman not rushed to his rescue.” Only Sundberg, Carlson, and Patterson survived; the other 20 sailors aboard the Ferndale died.
While White characteristically downplayed her efforts that morning, others were quick to promote her heroics. The chamber of commerce in Portland awarded her a gold medal and $275, roughly $8,500 today after accounting for inflation. Fervent advocacy by newspapers, Sen. John B. Allen, and Washington Gov. Elisha Ferry led to a more considerable honor. The Life-Saving Service, which later merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard, awarded her the Gold Lifesaving Medal.
In keeping with the times, most newspapers had credited “Mrs. Edward White” with the rescues. Martha’s only request was that the medal be inscribed to “Martha White,” which the Life-Saving Service granted.
Two years later, Edward and Martha relocated to Alaska, the beginning of an itinerant and poorly documented period of her life that lasted until she arrived in the new town of Anchorage 21 years later. The nationwide economic depression that began with the Panic of 1893 perhaps prompted the move. The Whites first established a roadhouse at Ladd’s Station on the western coast of the Upper Cook Inlet about 2 miles from Tyonek. They also traded goods for furs with the local Dena’ina.
Around 1895 — accounts vary — Martha gave birth to a daughter at Tyonek, the first-known settler child born in the Upper Cook Inlet. They named her Martha, though everyone called her “Babe” to differentiate her from her mother.
Over the next five years, the Whites made their way however they could. Edward may have tried his hand at whaling. They both spent some time at the fish saltery at Ladd’s Station. By 1896, gold discoveries around Turnagain Arm had coalesced into a full-on rush with the resulting boomtowns of Hope, Sunrise and Glacier City (now Girdwood). The Whites moved to Sunrise, where Edward mined, and Martha cooked.
It was during the late 1890s that Martha earned the nickname “Mother White.” If someone was hungry, they could go to Mother White. If someone needed a grubstake, Mother White was there. If someone wanted experienced counsel or an empathetic ear, Mother White was there. It was easy to win a nasty reputation in 1890s Alaska. It was much harder to win universal acclaim.
In 1900, Edward and Martha divorced. Between 1900 and 1904, she remarried and divorced again. By this time, she was operating a boarding house in Sunrise. Sometime after 1904, she left Alaska, moving to Chicago, where her daughter was educated while she ran a store. Mother White later said she moved south with $50,000 sewn into her skirts for safekeeping.
Mother and Babe White returned to Alaska in early 1915, eager to find a place in the newly established railroad town of Anchorage. Babe was selected to drive in the first spike for the Alaska Railroad. Mother White reportedly said, “I was lonesome, lonesome for the snow-capped hills of Alaska, the sun-shiny valleys, the great rivers, the far-spreading meadows, but lonesome most of all for my Alaskan friends, the men and women who call me ‘Mother.’ ”
She opened two businesses, a restaurant and hotel, in the original tent city that grew around Ship Creek. During the July 10, 1915, auction of townsite lots, she bought the site of her next endeavor, the White House hotel on Fourth Avenue between I and K Streets.
Though successful in business, she was still best known for her concern for others. In the summer of 1916, she learned of a 4-year-old Dena’ina girl suffering from tuberculosis of the knee. White pressured the railroad hospital, the only hospital in town, to accept the girl with White covering all expenses.
If the Alaska Labor Union needed a parade prize, Mother White provided. If a friend needed more support than she could offer on her own, then White organized a fundraiser. In October 1916, she staged a benefit dance that raised $115, about $3,000 in 2022 money, for Mabel Ivanoff’s hospital bill.
When it came to charities, she was a hustler. Though not a member of the Red Cross, she continually worked to their benefit. One time, she persuaded every passenger on a visiting steamer to enter a raffle for a handmade, decorative pillow. That effort raised $106 for the Red Cross, about $2,000 in 2022 money. In 1917, she convinced the U.S. Marshal to look the other way and organized a throwback party. For one night, Anchorage was like Dawson in its 1898 peak, with gambling and dancehall girls. All the proceeds went towards sending Christmas presents to American soldiers serving in World War I.
However, her health was rapidly declining, reportedly due to cancer. Beginning in January 1917, when she had an operation of unknown intent, her status updates were regular notices in the local newspaper. By October 1918, she could not participate in the community she loved. When the women of Anchorage organized a parade that month to raise support for Liberty Bonds, they launched the event in front of the White House out of respect for her.
So, when Mother White died on Feb. 2, 1919, the news was sad yet expected. The Anchorage Daily Times editorialized at length on her virtue. “She was brave, yet tender; keen in business; yet generous to a fault. She ministered the afflicted, cared for the sick, aided the needy, cheered the downhearted, gave good counsel to those who came to her for advice, and was indeed a ‘mother’ during her long and useful life, to the inhabitants of this remote region.” The Douglas Island News, without any hometown inclination for exaggeration, stated that Anchorage had lost “it most widely known resident.’ ”
Her funeral was delayed for several days so that her daughter could make the trip up from Seward. The service was held in the Pioneer Hall, but the building “could not accommodate scores of people who gathered about.” Those forced to wait outside bided their time until they could join the procession to the cemetery, the largest in Anchorage history to that point, larger than the December 1918 mass service for victims of the influenza pandemic.
Ula Thompson, president of the women’s auxiliary of the Pioneers of Alaska, gave the eulogy. Amongst a barrage of compliments, she said, “(Mother White) has lived, worked, known the loneliness of the pioneer, the heart hunger, the disappointments, the meager successes, the occasional stroke of big luck, and through it all has loved and worked for the betterment of the great frontier she called home.”
March is Women’s History Month. If you want to know more about some of the notable women in Alaska history, other entries in this series have included features on lawyer Mahala Ashley Dickerson, the Parking Fairies, Peggy Lott of Peggy’s Restaurant fame, and Mickey Knapp, the first woman elected in Anchorage. For a deeper dive, the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame offers biographical sketches on many more women who have shaped this state.
“Anchorage Honors Pioneer Woman.” Douglas Island News, March 7, 1919, 2.
“High Finance for Noble Cause.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 1, 1918, 1.
“Lid Will Be Lifted Here Next Saturday.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 21, 1917, 1.
“Local Jottings About Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 21, 1916, 12.
“Mother White, Alaska Pioneer, Laid to Rest.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 13, 1919, 1, 4.
“Mother White Called to Rest.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 3, 1919, 1.
“‘Mother’ White Called to Rest.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 3, 1919, 2.
Parham, Bruce, and Walter Van Horn. “White, Martha Greer ‘Mother.’” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, https://www.alaskahistory.org/biographies/white-martha-greer-mother/
Stevenson, Shanna. “Mother White.” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Summer 2014, 24-27.
“Up by the Sea.” Aberdeen Herald, February 4, 1892, 1.
“Woman Robs the Sea.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 1, 1892, 1.