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Letters As Precious As Gold

by Nancy A. Pope

Volume 7, Issue 3
July–September 1998

On June 21, 1900, John P. Clum, Alaska Territorial postal inspector, appointed Fred Lockley, Jr. and Ben Taylor as postal clerks in Nome, a city that had barely existed the year before. Lockley, charged with providing free delivery service for city businesses, set out to gather names and addresses for the delivery service. When he explained the service to the owner of a restaurant, she was quite taken aback. "Free delivery! Now wouldn't that just paralyze you! Going to bring us our letters around for nothing. Well God bless Uncle Sam, that is the only thing I ever heard of in this camp that was free." 

The clerks worked from early morning to almost midnight the next day sifting through sacks of unopened and unsorted mail—some of which had been ignored for months. The next morning they rigged crude letter carrier bags out of canvas mail sacks and set out on their rounds - the first free city delivery service made in the Territory of Alaska. Lockley and Taylor even wore letter carrier uniforms, which stopped traffic and drew stares all along their routes. 

It may be hard today to imagine why Lockley and Taylor's service was so enthusiastically received. To understand this excitement, we need look back only a few years, before the city of Nome even existed. Many of those in Nome were veterans of a long, hard journey. They had fought their way into the far northern Yukon Basin as part of the Klondike Gold Rush—the last great gold rush of the 19th century. 

On August 16, 1896, a small group of prospectors discovered a fabulous gold discovery in Rabbit Creek, a small tributary off of the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory. Word of the strike spread across the Yukon Basin, where about 400 miners spread out along creeks in Canada and Alaska abandoned their diggings and headed for the Klondike River. Winter set in before any could leave the district. Not until the next summer did word of the fabulous strike reach the outside world. In July 1897, ships loaded with Klondike miners carrying over two tons of gold dust and nuggets docked at San Francisco and Seattle. Newspaper reporters jumped on the story. Before long one word spread across the country and the world - Gold! 

By the end of 1898, over 100,000 people had set out to find their fortune in the Klondike. Few understood how difficult the journey would be. For most, it meant spending hundreds of dollars on supplies and enduring days of wretched conditions aboard loathsome ships headed north. The ships set their passengers ashore at Skagway or Dyea, two southern Alaska towns that served as entry into the gold fields. Stampeders rushed to save their precious ton of goods from rising tides after ships' captains crudely dumped them on the beach and set sail south for more paying passengers. 

After gathering up their goods and stopping to take a breath, stampeders, now face-to-face with the territory's imposing Coast Mountains, began to understand the enormity of their task. Those with money purchased sleds and pack animals to would help carry supplies for at least a few miles into the mountains. Others strapped their goods to their back, 50-60 pounds at a time and began trudging up the hill. After about five miles or so, stampeders set their goods down at the side of the trail, building their cache and setting out back down the trail for another load. Men and women repeated this pattern day after day, walking 80 miles for each single mile of forward progress. 

The "Golden Stairs" marked the summit of the Chilkoot Pass trail. Stampeders carried their ton of goods over the mountain and down to Lindeman and Bennett Lake, where they built boats to sail their goods down the Yukon River to Dawson and the Klondike gold fields. 

On June 8, 1898, the first great mass of the stampede flotilla reached Dawson. Day and night the boats continued to arrive for weeks, overflowing the Dawson docks. One can only imagine the shock and dread felt by these stampeders, who had conquered weather and geography to get to the gold fields, when they learned that the best claims had already been staked by miners who were already in the territory in 1896 when the great strike was discovered. Those unwilling or unable to return home stayed on in Dawson, taking jobs working in other people's mines. Most, however, were only marking time. The next summer, the rumors of another extraordinary strike were confirmed. The rush was on again. Thousands abandoned Dawson and the Klondike for the new strike - gold had been found on the beaches of Western Alaska. This great population that had flooded over the mountains and down the Yukon to the Klondike picked up and set out down the Yukon River for the new magical city—Nome.

Less than a third of those who had set out for the Klondike managed to get there. But for those 30,000, giving up the niceties of day-to-day living seemed to pale in comparison to being forced to live without word from the families they had left behind. Neither the United States nor Canada had been prepared for this colossal population. The few official post offices on both sides of the border were quickly overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of letters, papers and parcels being sent in and out of the territory. Stampeders - letters are filled with references to sending the letter out in the care of someone going the opposite direction, in the hopes that he or she would deposit the mail in a post office. Some strangers carried messages out of kindness, others for a fee. 

Families on the outside could only guess how they should address their mail. Were their husbands in Dyea, or had they reached Lake Bennett or Dawson by now? Were their fathers, brothers and sisters still in Skagway, or did they switch to the Chilkoot Pass and were now in Sheep Camp or at Lake Lindemann? When letters were received it was often two or three months after they were written. Private individuals made money by contracting with towns and groups to carry mail, setting up post offices in tents along the trail and charging anything from 5 to 25-cents to take or deliver a letter. During the winter, when mail could only reach the Klondike by dog sled, only first class mail was allowed through. Newspapers and packages piled up until steamers could get through in the spring. 

By the time these wearied stampeders made their way into Nome, they had long before learned to accept day-long lines at the post office as a natural part of their lives. Is it any wonder, then, that the citizens of Nome stopped and stared at Lockley and Taylor as they made their rounds? As one man commented, the sight was "the most natural thing I have seen since I left Denver. Blamed if it don't make a man feel as if he was in God's country, and that Alaska was part of the United States."

Go to "As Precious as Gold," an online exhibit that tells the history of the mail service in Alaska during the gold rush era