Early Settlement of Valdez

When the great Alaskan gold excitement sent thousands to land at Valdez, the old site of the town did not seem the proper place for a town, so a new site was selected, near deep water.

The Pathfinder is the official publication of the Pioneers of Alaska, a fraternal group which traces its history to the Yukon Order of Pioneers, organized at Fortymile in 1898. The following article on the early settlement of Valdez is from The Pathfinder, February, 1920. The issue is available to read or download.

On the 22nd day of September, 1897, the schooner Laninfa sailed from San Francisco with 33 passengers aboard enroute to the mouth of the Copper River in Alaska. They had been told that they could navigate this river with small power boats and were fully equipped to make a trip up that turbulent stream. On their arrival at Orca they learned that it was impossible for them to ascend the Copper River with any kind of boat, so about 20 of the men in the party chartered a cannery craft and came on up to Valdez Bay having been told that men had gone to the Copper River by that route thus landing above the glaciers and rapids of that river. The cannery boat carrying 22 men came into Valdez Bay on the 10th day of November, 1897 and landed its passengers at the place now known as Swanport, just below where Fort Liscum now is built. 

This was the first settlement on the shores of Valdez Bay. Prior to this time Tom Olson, a trader and agent for the Northern Trading Company had built a cabin over in what was afterwards known as “Hangman’s Town,” but at the time of the landing of the Swanport party this was abandoned and not a soul lived in the then “weird wild whiteness” of Valdez Bay. 

“Bald-headed Cris,” now dead, at times occupied the cabin at Hangman’s Town, but at this time he was “not at home” and had been gone for some time. W. C. L. Beyer, who was a fur agent at that time down the sound on one of the islands was a frequent visitor to the Valdez Bay in quest of furs from the natives who came across from the Copper River but he did not live on the bay at any time. So the Swanport party may well be called the first settlers on Valdez Bay. 

Unloading caches on the ice shelf at the head of Valdez Bay, March 9, 1898. A ship is moored just to the left, see anchoring ropes in the ice. Photo by Neal D. Benedict. [Alaska State Library, Neal D. Benedict Photograph Collection  P201-012]

After these argonauts got ashore with their supplies in the snow several feet deep, they began to “excavate” for their buildings, made of canvas. Before this was fairly done they had a craving appetite for something to eat, and on snowshoes gathered some dry limbs from distant trees to their first fire. While eating their hastily prepared meal darkness commenced to hover around them and once more they had to don their snowshoes and hunt for boughs to make themselves a bed. 

The only man of that party of 22 yet remaining in Valdez is Adam Swan, now treasurer of the Pioneers of Alaska, Valdez Igloo. Only once in the more than 20 years since he first slept on the bed of boughs across the Bay has he visited the states or scarcely so much as left the bay. And his faith in Valdez is unshaken by all the adversities with which he has met. He is still firm in the faith that Valdez will yet be the “Golden Gate to the Golden Interior.” His family of boys and girls have grown up and all of the children now have comfortable homes in Portland, Brooklyn, Tacoma and other parts of the Union, anxious to have the “Father of Valdez” come and live with them, but he clings to his adopted child of the North with an anxiety for its future state that is most remarkable. 

About a month after landing on the Bay, Adam assisted Capt. Zain Moore and Jack Shepard, now a resident of Cordova, to erect the first building on the present townsite of Valdez. This building was for the Pacific Steam Whaling Co. and was to be used for a trading station. Sixty acres of land was staked off for a trading site and it was called “Copper City.”

This company was then operating vessels between Puget Sound and Prince William Sound, and points to the westward. Mr. Swan was appointed land agent for the Company and had charge of the mail. About this time the A. C. Company’s agent Mr. Washburn purchased from Adam a portion of the Swanport tract and made him agent for the Company, which position he held until 1900. The A. C. Company at that time was operating the steamship Dora between Seattle, Valdez Bay and Kodiak. This Company erected a wharf at Swanport, the first wharf to be built in the waters of Valdez Bay. 

In 1898 Capt. Abercrombie arrived in Valdez Bay for the purpose of opening a road from the Bay to the Interior. He located a military reservation which included some of the ground that the Pacific Steam Whaling Co. had staked, and the building that had been erected. 

Sometime in December, about a month after the landing of the Swanport party, the schooner Bering Sea hove into port with a large number of passengers bound for the Klondike by way of the Copper River. In this party was Dan Greenig, now of Cordova, and Chas. Sponberg, still a resident of Valdez. 

In February, 1898, the steamer Valencia arrived in the Bay with 600 passengers, and crafts of all kinds then came thick and fast until there were over 4,000 men climbing over the glacier bound for the Copper River enroute to the Klondike. 

At this time Mr. Swan made up his mind to stake out a townsite so he called a meeting and the 80 people present adopted a code of rules and regulations under which each man or woman could possess one lot 50 by 150 feet in size. And this was the beginning of Valdez, just 22 years ago. Seems to the old-timers but a few days ago, but the incidents of the men’s lives who have lived here during the major portion of that time would make a screen picture that would cause one’s hair to stand pompadour.   ~•~ 

Port Valdes (Valdez), at the head of Valdez Bay. Valdez Glacier is between the mountains on the right side. Aug. 27, 1898. Neal D. Benedict. [Alaska State Library, Neal D. Benedict Photograph Collection P201-145]

In the winter of 1898 a group of gold seekers traveled to Alaska aboard the schooner Moonlight, bound for Valdez and the Copper River country beyond its great glacier. Among these prospectors were Charles Margeson, who would write a book of their adventures (Gold Hunters in Alaska, 1899, see Sources), and Neal D. Benedict, who took many photographs. 

Arriving in Valdez Bay in March, 1898, Margeson was dismayed to find not the wharf they’d expected, but a large shelf of ice extending a long ways out into the bay. He described their landing and unloading, and what they found when going ashore: 

About one o’clock we drew up along the edge of the ice near where the steamers were unloading. Going back some distance from the edge, we cut a hole in the ice, and hooked our anchor into it, and our boat was thus held firmly in place. The ice was about eighteen inches thick, and covered with three feet of snow, while away from the ice the snow measured eleven feet on the level. 

“About a mile from where the schooner was anchored was a piece of timber containing two or three hundred acres, and running down through this was a clear stream of pure water. In the edge of this timber, and near this little stream, were about one hundred tents, clustered together, and others were being set up. This unique camp—for it was about that—presented a scene of unusual activity. Some were tramping down the snow, preparing a place to put up their tents; some were cutting tent poles, and others were cutting firewood, while others were getting their dog teams ready for hauling their goods up to the foot of the glacier, which was five miles away, 

“Situated about two miles from our camp, in another piece of timber, and about the same distance from the glacier, were a few rude log cabins and several tents, the former having been built several years. One man had lived here nine years. This was Valdez proper, and the old Indian trading post. Years ago many Indians came over the glacier during the latter part of winter, bringing sled-loads of valuable furs and articles of their own manufacture, and traded them for beads, brass trinkets, gaudy-colored clothing, provisions and such other articles as seemed to strike their fancy. 

“When the great Alaskan gold excitement sent thousands to land at Valdez, the old site of the town did not seem to them to be the proper place for a town, so a new site was selected, near deep water, and seemed to be a more suitable place for a thriving village. Upon this new plot streets were laid out, and during the summer many log and some frame buildings were erected, so that in the fall of 1898 Port Valdez was a village of three hundred people. The first boat-load of gold seekers that landed at Valdez took up their quarters at the old town site.”