2.2 Holtville to Dawson

Once Hayes got his health back working in the American west, the old wanderlust grabbed him again.  Though he knows the Alaska gold rush is played out, in the spring of 1908 he decided to go up and see the country for himself.  By June he’s at Dawson halfway down the Yukon river in the heart of Alaska.

Once again, the length of the map of his travels in eight months is remarkable.  Click on the title of the post to go to the site.

October 16,1907 – June 14,1908

Today, flat rectangular fields checker the Imperial Valley where the Colorado River feeds some of the most productive agriculture land in the world.  Every drop of the river finds its way to one of the squares on the board; none reaches the sea.

Imperial Valley, California

In 1907, the Imperial Valley rose and fell in hummocks cut willy-nilly by flash floods seeking the Pacific Ocean.  Hayes and his mule team driven four abreast had a small hand in leveling this vast desert filled by “sands gouged out of the Grand Canyon.”

Print of section of photograph, Imperial Valley, 1901 - NARA - 296427
Imperial Valley, California 1901

But not much – he drove the team for a month and 10 days.  Drinking water from the newly formed Salton Sea caused a kind of dysentery and the pay was low.  The company offered $50 for seven days a week but reduced Hayes to $45 when he refused to work Sundays.  The dysentery combined with lingering malaria pushed him back to Los Angeles:  “I am more desirous of health than a job just now.

Back outside Los Angeles, Hayes now sees “plenty to do here if a man is not particular what he does.”  He quickly found work – driving four mules again, “this time two span instead of four abreast” – hauling clay in a brickyard with a Mexican crew.  This job lasted two weeks.  Simons, the boss, cut the pay without notice.  All the men held on until payday then promptly quit. Hayes caught a smile from the pay clerk when cashing out but only understood the clerk’s dark scowls directed to the other men after learning that two of Simons’ barns had burned the previous night.

Over in San Pedro, he found a couple weeks’ work at the Salt Lake Railway docks in San Pedro under a brute of a boss and the sting of fair weather friends mocking his penury.  “It is a temporary job at best, and where oh where will I go?”

To Eureka of course ­– to ask George Glenn for his old job back at the mill.  When Glen asked, “Will you promise to stay on?” (Hayes’ quote)  Hayes couldn’t lie to him, so he went on north to Little River where 300 giant Canadians were cutting trees, laying rails, and building a new sawmill in the constant rain.  At least the food is good.

But his heart isn’t in the work and a thirtieth birthday sinks his spirits even lower.  “A man is supposed to have done something toward finding his place in life at that age, yet I am still a drifter, and likely always will be.”  Still, when he spies Mike Mulcahy, a friend from his brief stint at business college, now far out-ranking him at this Canadian company, he writes, “I wouldn’t care to be Mulcahy just the same.  None of the men like him, he is a “company” man.  That is, the company is always right, no matter what happens.”  Hayes is a man who knows what he wants, respects himself as a principled working-man, and accepts the consequences of sticking to his own standards – even if he gets a little blue on his birthday.

In March of 1908 Hayes writes eloquently of what he admires perhaps most in life:  hard work, done well.  “The snatch teams that haul timber from the small mill to us flounder deep in the mire, but such skilled men are handling them they are never stuck.  This timber business is a marvelous thing.  Each man must know his work, he is a skilled man, yet is counted a laborer.”  Of course, he goes on about how the company fails to recognize these skills and his skills in particular, but Hayes can see the beauty of work well done even if the bosses cannot.

Nevertheless, Hayes lasted only from December 1907 to April 1908 at the lumber camp.  The lumberjacks had a good medical facility, but the mill owners set up a company hospital intending to force their workers to subscribe to substandard care at $1.50 a month.  All the men vowed to strike, but when the edict arrived only Hayes and Mike Mulcahy’s brother refused.  Two striking men are the same as two men quitting.  Hayes thinks maybe he’ll go north.

The Klondike gold rush began in 1897 and was essentially over in 1899.  In those two years, thousands of soft-handed city men poured into the Yukon feverish to sluice out an easy fortune.

Miners climb Chilkoot
Chilkoot Pass September 1898

Ten years later, when Hayes went north, a few large companies had already bought up any promising strike.  At Seattle in 1908, Hayes reads,  “many adds telling of the wonderful opportunities of employment at Fairbanks, and there are others posted by the miners union saying the place is already crowded out with men and no jobs for them.”   Still, Seattle is dull, mill work is “everlasting,” and “the call is on me and I am persuaded to go.”   Characteristically, boredom with the familiar and curiosity about the edge of the wild drew Hayes open-eyed to one of the most amazing feats of his life – his exit from Alaska to be described in the segment 2.4 of this synopsis of his diary.

At Skagway, miners returning to softer climes after years “inside” the Yukon basin tell Hayes stories of hardship, poverty, even death.  For about a minute, he thinks about selling the remainder of his ticket and returning south – In another week, he’s working the dock for the White Pass and Yukon Railway, saving for supplies to get “inside,” and telling tales of Soapy Smith’s death and burial outside the town limits.

May 22, Hayes writes that he has a “girl friend” in Skagway who “urges me to work for her dad, who has a place of business in town.”  (That’s ‘girl friend’ not ‘girlfriend.’)  Her proposition gets about a minute’s consideration too; his ticket shows he’s shipped his baggage on the train to White Horse – in fact, Hayes, travelling light as always, shipped baggage for an overloaded greenhorn under his name, a detail omitted from the girl friend – sadly he must follow at least that far north to claim his possessions.

Steel Cantilever Bridge on the White Pass and Yukon Route

The magnificent railway from Skagway to White Horse (still operating as a tourist attraction today) draws only passing mention from Hayes.  He’s more interested in the “men of a low type” playing exquisite baseball at White Horse while waiting to go “inside” to positions at the Yukon Gold Company “which belongs to the Guggenheim interests.”  The company pays fare for the men from Vancouver plus $2.25 a day while at work, and, if they last four months, passage back to Vancouver.  Quit early and pay your own way back – if you can.

When the ice finally breaks, the run to Fort Selkirk is uneventful:  stuck a few hours at a shallow in Lake Lebarge, some fast water slapping the steamer around, tales of “toughs who will not work” robbing prospectors then slipping their corpses into blow holes in the frozen Yukon – the usual for Hayes.

At Dawson, the picks and shovels of the earliest days of the gold rushhave given way to the enormous dredges of the Yukon Gold Company.

Klondike mining, c.1899
Klondike Mining 1899
Dredge and thawing system
Dredge and Thawing System 1908

Hayes immediately spots the Guggenheim’s swindle:  men with four-month contracts are fired at three and a half months so the thrifty company saves return fare on men not fulfilling their contracts.  The Canadian Mounted Police seem to be trying to do something about the company racket but their hands are full with more important matters:  Ned Elfors, one of murderous“toughs” Hayes mentioned, only creased the cheek of Anderson, a companion and would-be victim.  Apparently Elfors had been more accurate with a second companion named Bergman.  Anderson’s story, together with a doctor’s testimony that all the bullets removed from Bergman’s body came from Elfors’ gun, condemned Elfors to hang.

Six weeks in the washed-out Alaskan gold rush already has Hayes writing:  “I find nothing in Dawson to keep me here.”

2 Responses to 2.2 Holtville to Dawson

  1. Deirdre Butler says:

    Amazing story and wonderful photos!

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