Opinions

Donald Trump's grandfather survived an Alaska shipwreck. Here's what happened.

The phone rang Monday afternoon as I was trying to piece together new information on what happened to Donald Trump's grandfather when he was shipwrecked in Alaska 118 years ago.

"Mr. Trump is no longer self-funding," a recorded voice barked, asking for an "emergency investment" of $1,000 in exchange for "an exclusive signed photo of Donald Trump, suitable for framing."

I resisted the urge to make an emergency investment and went back to reviewing the record of Friedrich Trump, the German immigrant who spent a brief period in the Yukon and Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush.

A New York Times story published Monday includes a one-paragraph reference to an incident that had gone unreported anywhere as far as I can tell. It tells of how Donald Trump's grandfather survived an 1898 shipwreck on Chirikof Island, about 80 miles southwest of Kodiak.

The Times story also included a quote from Donald saying reports that his grandfather had anything to do with prostitution in the Yukon 116 years ago were "totally false."

The Trump claim that the report is totally false is false.  In 1900, Fred Trump and a partner ran the New Arctic Hotel and Restaurant next to the railroad depot in Bennett, a town on the White Pass & Yukon Route from Skagway to Whitehorse.

On April 17, 1900, the Yukon Sun newspaper in Dawson ran an unsigned column by a writer who warned "respectable women traveling alone or with an escort" to stay away from Trump's hotel. If respectable women stayed in the hotel, the writer said, "they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings and uttered, too, by the depraved of their own sex."

[Donald Trump's grandfather got rich in the Yukon with hotels known for 'female companionship']

That's enough to be reasonably certain that Trump's hotel catered to people of all kinds, completely in keeping with the standards of a rough-and-tumble northern town. For single men, the hotel was great, the Yukon Sun writer said, and it had the best food in town.

Most of what we know about Fred Trump, Donald's grandfather, comes from a good 2000 book by Gwenda Blair republished last year with a new title: "The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate."

Blair said she was careful not to label Fred Trump as a pimp, but the lack of evidence has not stopped others from jumping to that conclusion in the search for sensation.

In a phone conversation Monday, Blair said she had never come across the shipwreck story mentioned to the Times reporter by family historian John Walter.

She said she talked to Walter as part of her research in the 1990s but she said he never gave her any information that she didn't already have.

Walter told the Times reporter of the letter Fred Trump wrote to his family in German about the shipwreck on Chirikof Island, concluding with the words, "We have hope that the United States government will now …"

There is only one 1898 shipwreck listed on Chirikof Island in the history books, that of the schooner Elsie, which ran aground on April 25, 1898.

A story on the shipwreck in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 17, 1898, listed 30 people on the manifest, including "F. Trump."

The Elsie left Seattle on April 4, 1898, bound for the Kotzebue area because of reports that Natives on rivers were trading gold,  which probably meant the rivers had gold, one of the passengers later told his hometown newspaper in North Dakota.

Three schooners left Seattle for Kotzebue that spring and several others planned to join the hunt in an area identified by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as "the newest field for which the Alaska-going contingent are heading."

Thirty men bought the 56-ton sealing schooner Elsie for $3,500 and spent about $15,000 for three years of supplies, "one of the most complete outfits ever taken out of Seattle," the newspaper in Devils Lake, North Dakota, said.

In addition to mining tools, equipment and food, they had 12 riverboats. The group included 10 experienced miners, a doctor, an assayer and Capt. L.M. Larson, "who claimed to be an experienced sailor."

"It was afterwards discovered that he had no knowledge whatever of navigation and this caused all the subsequent troubles which befell the party," the newspaper said.

On April 23, a man in the rigging yelled that he saw land, but the captain said that they were at least 300 miles from land, bound for Dutch Harbor.

The Elsie hit the rocks of Chirikof Island, then leased for the raising of blue foxes, at about 1:30 a.m. on April 25. The ship was grounded in about three feet of water some 300 yards from the land.

"They set up tents in which to live and had no lack of provisions, as they saved about half of the stock with which they started, the remainder being spoiled by the salt water, " the North Dakota paper said.

Several of the men got drunk and soon a fire was lit in the moss behind the camp, which drew the attention of one of the three men who resided on the island and who was in charge of raising foxes.

"He was very angry about the burning moss, claiming that it would spread over the entire island and that it would cause the destruction of the foxes," the paper said.

The shipwrecked gold seekers put out the fire with shovels and blankets. For three weeks, they were unable to get the ship to float free and then a storm destroyed the hull.

When a passing vessel finally saw the distress flags, the captain stopped and transported them to safety. It took eight days to load their supplies on the rescue ship.

Another survivor told his tale to the Wilkes-Barre Times, saying that some in the group wanted to hang the captain, who was unable to use a sextant and had no clue about navigation.

That account said five men died of diseases brought on by exposure, while others said there were no fatalities.

Some of the men returned home after the disaster; others continued to the mouth of the Yukon River, bound for the Klondike.

The preceding winter, Fred Trump was reported to be at Circle on the Yukon River, according to an article published Jan. 11, 1898, in the San Francisco Call.

It said that in the summer of 1897, Trump had tried to sell a half-interest in a claim he had in Dawson for $2,000 but could find no takers. A half-interest in a mine site two claims removed had fetched $30,000 while Trump was gone, Sam Wall wrote.

"Two parties started on Monday to go to Circle City to find Trump, who is not supposed to know the value of his property, to buy it from him for those $2,000 perhaps," Wall wrote.

One of the men chasing Trump was Tom Lynch, acting on behalf of a gambler named Goldie.

"There are several others about to attempt to overtake him," Wall wrote.

Trump spent some of his time in the next three years in Bennett and Whitehorse, where he advertised his hotel and restaurant as the "Newest, Neatest and Best Equipped North of Vancouver."

He returned to Germany a wealthy man in 1901, married in 1902, and the authorities refused to restore his German citizenship because of accusations that he had left for North America to get out of military service.

He died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 when Fred Trump, Donald's father, was 12.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.  The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

 
 
 

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.

Sponsored