John Philip Clum, Gold Rush Postal Inspector

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John Clum with his first wife, Mary Ware. Mary "Mollie" Clum died on December 18, 1880 while the couple was living in Tombstone. She was 27 years old. Mary died shortly after giving birth to the couple's daugher, Elizabeth, a sickly child who died the following summer.

While serving as a postal inspector in Washington, D.C. in the late 1890s, John P. Clum (1851-1932) was appointed as special commissioner to Alaska "to examine into postal affairs." Before becoming a postal inspector, Clum had already led quite a colorful life in the American West. While serving as the agent for the San Carlos, Arizona, Indian Agency, he crossed paths with Geronimo. Later, as mayor, of Tombstone, Arizona, (and founding publisher of the Tombstone Epitaph), he befriended Wyatt Earp and his family. Clum's postal bosses believed that because he had experienced the great silver rush of Tombstone, Clum was especially well suited to the rigors of the new gold rush.

Clum arrived in Skagway, Alaska on March 26, 1898. Both Skagway and nearby Dyea, Alaska had operating post offices by the time Clum arrived. After inspecting the facilities there and in Juneau, he set out along the Chilkoot Pass trail. His progress was slowed when he stopped to help dig out survivors and victims of the horrible "Palm Sunday" avalanche.

But even the avalanche, which occurred on April 3, 1898, did not keep Clum from his duties for long. The very next day, he appointed Joseph G. Brown as postmaster of the new, nearby Sheep Camp post office.

During his months in Alaska that first year, Clum traveled over 8,000 miles and established post offices across the territory. He carried everything he needed to create a post office with him-postage stamps, mailbags, postal locks, keys and postmarking devices.

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Postal inspector John Clum, seen here in Sheep Camp, Alaska, on the Chilkoot Pass trail, was sent to fix the Alaskan mail system. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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This photograph shows Clum (on the left) talking with Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a noted Alaskan educator. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During his first trip to Alaska, John Clum established a number of post offices along the gold rush trails and in the Alaskan gold fields, including:

April 4, 1898
Sheep Camp
Joseph G. Brown, postmaster

May 11, 1898
Albert J. Paul, postmaster

May 18, 1898
Canyon City
Kenneth Murray, postmaster

June 25, 1898
Eagle City
Thomas McMahon, postmaster

June 25, 1898
Star City
John C. Hayes, postmaster

July 4, 1898
Ft. Yukon
Rev. John Hawksley, postmaster


July 5, 1898
Milton P. Fleisehman, postmaster

July 6, 1898
Rev. Jules L. Prevost, postmaster

July 7, 1898
Rev. John W. Chapman, postmaster

July 13, 1898
Frank Pickarts, postmaster

August 12, 1898
Thomas A. Edwards, postmaster

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Inside the Nome, Alaska, post office in 1900.

When the Nome, Alaska, post office opened in June 1899, Joseph Wright was named postmaster. By that fall, over 3,000 people were in Nome, with thousands more on the way. Clum had returned to Alaska in April, and concentrated his efforts on Western Alaska and the Bering Sea, extending postal service to the north Bering Sea coast, and establishing semi-monthly postal service between Nome and Point Blossom.

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Interior view of the Nome, Alaska, post office in 1900. John Clum is in the center of the photograph, facing the camera.

By the summer of 1900, the Nome rush had reached its peak. Over 20,000 people crowded the city and beaches of Nome, looking for gold--and mail. Clum, who assumed charge of the Nome post office for much of the summer of 1900, employed 23 men in that tiny building. Fortunately for him, among the gold-seekers that summer were two letter carriers from Salem, Oregon. Fred Lockley, Jr. and Ben Taylor, after obtaining temporary leaves of absence from their jobs, had arrived in Nome looking for gold that summer. When it became apparent to both that there were no available claims, they approached Clum with an interesting offer--their service as free city delivery carriers. The pair were hired, and their work was deeply appreciated by the astonished citizens of Nome. Lockley wrote about their work in a small book, "Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900."

In January 1906, Clum was named the postmaster at Fairbanks, Alaska. His daughter, Caro, worked at the office as a postal clerk. Clum's postal service to the Alaskan gold towns had not gone unnoticed by residents. The citizens of one small mining town showed their gratitude by naming their town after Clum's daughter. The post office at Caro, Alaska, on the Chandalar River, 45 miles north of Circle, opened in 1907.

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Old friends from Tombstone, Arizona, (left to right), Ed Eiechstadt, Wyatt Earp, and John Clum on the beach at Nome.

John Clum left Alaska in 1909. He had run for public office the year before and lost to the very popular Judge James Wickersham. Clum spent the next several years touring the country and lecturing on Western America for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He retired for a second time in 1920 and moved near Los Angeles with his third wife, Florence. Clum lived quietly there, spending most of his time writing historical articles for various publications.

John Clum died on May 2, 1932, three years after serving as a pall bearer for his life-long friend, Wyatt Earp. As Clum's friends mourned his death, one noted that it was "a sign of the passing of the Old West."