“The Voyage of the Alaska Union: Adventure, Danger, Scurvy, Romance”
By Mr. Whitekeys; Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly By Night Club, 2022; 304 pages; $44.95.
The Koyukuk River doesn’t loom large in Gold Rush era histories of Alaska, though not for lack of effort. As would-be prospectors flooded into Alaska and the Yukon following the 1896 Klondike gold strike, some quickly realized that all the good ground around the initial discovery had been claimed. Rather than fight for the remaining scraps, many fanned out in other directions across the territory, hoping to find the next mother load. No small number headed up the Koyukuk, where a few promising signs of gold had been found. If that part of the stampede is largely forgotten today, it’s because not much was ever brought out. It was a bust, albeit one that briefly drew hundreds of stampeders.
Among them were the members of Alaska Union Gold Mining Co., an enterprise launched in Chicago that brought 80 men north in an attempt at collectively staking and mining enough ground to turn a profit for the entire group. It didn’t work out that way, but adventures were had and memories were forged by those who tried. And now, thanks to multitalented Alaska celebrity Mr. Whitekeys, their story has been told in “The Voyage of the Alaska Union,” a book that leans heavily on first-hand accounts of the expedition and an amazing trove of photographs.
The outline is fairly simple. Amidst the gold fever that consumed Americans at the very end of the 19th century, a Chicago businessman named Frederick C. Hageman proposed a venture that would involve a large group of men sailing north for Alaska to St. Michael, where they would assemble a riverboat dubbed the Alaska Union. This they would take up the Yukon River to the gold fields.
The company was assembled, and they shipped out from Seattle in the spring of 1898. Upon reaching the island of Nunivak, they built their largely prefabricated riverboat, and after a tenuous sea crossing, headed up the Yukon. Along the way, they were convinced by other miners to prospect the Koyukuk River instead of making their way into Canada. By this point, men were already abandoning the project and turning around, but a fair number of them stuck it out, remaining for a winter before most of them gave up. A few loitered for another year, but no one made any money to speak of.
One of those who stayed for two winters was Charles Harris, a Chicago plumber who was 28 when he sailed north. Decades later he gave a two-night presentation on his experiences at the city’s Masonic Temple, the transcript of which serves as a a major source for this book. He also took most of the more than 100 photographs included in these pages.
“It was a party made up of persons of every imaginable trade,” Harris told his audience, describing the men who signed on. They were “mechanics, professional men, ex-policemen and almost everyone who would come along and put up from $500 to $1,000.” Of those men, he said, “Fifty were fitted for that kind of life. The other thirty were not...”
Carpenter William Rule was one of those suited for the challenges. His journals offer considerable insight into the expedition, though his role would shift throughout it. Other writings are also incorporated into the book, including those of one John Tait, who was tragically lost in a drowning after falling through the ice. The journey was not a walk in the park.
Whitekeys first learned of this expedition from his friend Randy Jacobs. Though not a blood descendant of Charles Harris, Jacobs considered the man to be a grandfather. One night over barbecued ribs, Jacobs mentioned the expedition in passing. Whitekeys immediately took notice and was soon committed to bringing it to print, going so far as to dub himself “Boy Historian” as the author.
Whitekeys acquits himself well in this role, accomplishing several things. First, he’s hit on a largely untold story. The romance of the Gold Rush understandably sends researchers digging through the early days of Dawson City, Nome, and to a lesser extent, Fairbanks. It’s well known history. Americans and Europeans swarmed all over Alaska, however, and like the members of the Alaska Union Company, met with little success. Their experiences are as crucial to understanding the era as the events that took place in more famed locations.
Having stumbled on this tale, Whitekeys brings it to life with the extensive quotations he draws from source materials and his own writing, which, as one would expect coming from him, includes humorous asides. Readers are treated to an account of the challenges faced by participants of surviving long cold snaps, horrific mosquitoes, hard travel, harder labor, months of isolation, and the disappointments of finding nothing for all their troubles.
This was also the first extended encounter between Alaska Natives of the region and people of European heritage. Owing to records only being kept by whites, the perspective here is one way and not always pleasant, but kudos to Whitekeys for not sanitizing it or excusing the worst of it. Without acknowledging the initial responses to Indigenous peoples — and in the quoted writings those responses vary from positive to negative — it’s not possible to understand the present.
Finally, there’s the wealth of photographs, perhaps more valuable than Harris’s narrative. Many are of Native peoples and their dwellings. Others document work being done, cabins, watercraft, winter entertainment, or simply outdoor shots depicting the timelessness of Alaska’s Interior.
Most of the initial 80 men were gone by the summer of 1899, including Hageman who left before the first winter. Harris was among the few who remained a second year, but even he had his limits. By August of 1900, he was homeward bound. According to Whitekeys, Harris would tell his Alaska story to anyone who would listen, and thanks to that impulse, and the efforts of Mr. Whitekeys, we can relive his adventures today, learning in the process about an overlooked piece of Alaska’s Gold Rush history.