I’ve included two maps this week. The first shows this episode with Hayes traveling down the Yukon river into the very center of Alaska where he finds a brief bit of work. The second shows his path in the previous 18 months.
June 17, 1908 – July 5, 1908
Hayes seems to have been on a sightseeing trip rather than seriously seeking work up the Yukon. Still, he’s got to find a paycheck somewhere; the price of food alone has flattened his purse. A moose steak dinner costs a dollar and the least meal is fifty cents, “and I have eaten no higher.”
With Dawson “rapidly fading into a ghost city” of no more than 3,000 people where 35,000 bustled ten years ago, Hayes decides to press upriver to Fairbanks, “despite the rumors I hear it’s futile.”
Dawson City 1908
At Fort Yukon, the river winds briefly north across the arctic circle so, “It is midnight, yet the sun is shining. It is low on the horizon, and for fifteen days does not go below the horizon.” Their stern-wheel steamer Sarah, “one of three great river boats, the Susie, Sarah, and Hannah,” makes slow progress in this sixty-mile wide swampy portion of the Yukon River where a boat could easily be lost.
Stern-wheel steamer Sarah
“Somehow one feels depressed and gloomy by the magnitude of the river. It sweeps silently and forever onward, as relentlessly as the progress of the sun.”
Bending south below the Arctic Circle, the Sarah arrives at Rampart: “Just another Yukon town. A mile long, one street wide, many dogs, a few women, many ragged men who show the signs of hardship and the toil of futile seeking after gold.” Hayes estimates that not one man in 500 will leave Alaska with more money than he took in. “So it will be with me doubtless, but the experience no one can rob me of.”
At “Tanana, or Weare, or Fort Gibbon, take your choice and call it what you like,” Hayes describes the river as “lacustrine.” Somewhere along his rough and tumble life he learned some big words. Tanana is the end of the line for the Sarah; she’s too large to navigate up the smaller Tanana River, tributary to the Yukon.
By 1908, Fairbanks had replaced Tanana as center of trade for this region. The mining at Fairbanks remained active but deep: “From fifty to 160 feet overburden, then the pay streak in gravel three or four feet in depth.” Even in summer the ground never thaws more that three or four feet deep so the miners force steam pipes through the “frozen muck” to reach the gravel pay streak. “It is said that at Fairbanks one mine put a shaft down 600 feet and did not get through the ice.”
Pay is $2.25 for a ten-hour day running crouched over a wheelbarrow of steam-thawed gravel in a low ice-tunnel more than fifty feet underground. About 3,000 men work the mines with 2,000 idling about town and more arriving on every boat from the south. The mining company placed the “flattering advertisements” Hayes saw in Seattle to achieve precisely this end: lots of unemployed men each keeping a man with a job working at top speed. Passage back to Seattle from Fairbanks, overland in winter or by river in summer, costs $125. Hayes doesn’t say how much he has in pocket but it’s not $125.
June 28: “No job, no chance of a job.” Except… “There is a river steamer here, the Relief, and I have asked the mate for a chance.” The mate replied, “Nuthin’ doin!” (Hayes’ quote.)
Stern-wheel steamer Relief
Still, “inside advice” says the Relief is short a man. Hayes is determined that man will be him. In the meantime, he observes the locals: “pimps, gamblers, prostitutes, musicians about the dance halls, prize fighters, politicians and other shady characters,” all living off the toil of the 3,000 men behind the wheelbarrows.
July 1: Hayes got the job on the Relief steaming back down the Tanana River to Fort Gibbon/Tanana/Weare. His protestation, “Look here, I’m a sailor!” (Hayes’ quote) finally elicited from the mate, “All right, I’ll try yuh out. If you’re no good, I’ll fire yuh at Gibbon.” Competence as a sailor won’t be the issue; cases of whiskey almost entirely fill the cargo hold of the Relief – Hayes will be expected to unload it all at Gibbon.
The mate’s surprised reply when Hayes explained his unwillingness to handle alcohol? “Why I’m a Christian, and I handle booze.” At Gibbon, Hayes wrestled all the general cargo from the hold, refused to lift the whiskey, locked eyes with the mate, gathered his belongings and walked ashore with no word exchanged. Half a dozen men jumped for his place, the mate chose one, and the Relief steamed out of sight round a bend in the river leaving Hayes high and dry 900 miles up the Yukon.