Josiah E. Spurr in 1896

Through the Birch Creek Gold Mining District

“We of the flannel shirt and unblacked boot.” L to R: Frank C. Schrader, J. Edward Spurr, and Harold B. Goodrich, in San Francisco, California, 1896. 

In 1896 Josiah Edward Spurr led the first expedition to map and chart the interior of Alaska for the United States Geological Survey. It was the first of two expeditions of historic importance, the second being his 1898 exploration down the length of the Kuskokwim River, naming mountains, mountain ranges, creeks, rivers, lakes and glaciers. At the end of the Kuskokwim expedition he made the first scientific observations of the Mount Katmai volcano, and what later became known as the "Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.” After charting these regions, Spurr became the world's leading geological consultant, and was generally regarded as one of the world's foremost geologists. During the gold rush era his books were considered the definitive work on Alaskan minerals. Mt. Spurr, an active volcano 80 miles southwest of Anchorage, is named for him. In this excerpt from Spurr’s account of his first expedition in 1896, he and his men have traveled over Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River, arriving in Circle City. 

We reached that part of the river where Circle City was put down on the map we carried, but not finding it, camped on a gravelly beach beneath a timbered bluff. When we went up the bluff to get wood for our fire the mosquitoes fairly drove us back and continued bothering us all night, biting through our blankets and giving us very little peace, though we slept with our hats, veils, and gloves on. We afterwards found that Circle City had at first been actually started at about this point, but was soon afterwards moved further down, to where we found it the next day. We had been looking forward to our arrival in this place for several reasons, one of which was that we had had no fresh meat for over a month, and hoped to find moose or caribou for sale. As our boat came around the bend and approached the settlement of log huts dignified by the name of Circle City, we noticed quite a large number of people crowding down to the shore to meet us, and as soon as we got within hailing distance one of the foremost yelled out: 

“Got any moose meat?” When we answered “No” the crowd immediately dispersed and we did not need to inquire about the supply of fresh meat in camp. 

We landed in front of the Alaska Commercial Company’s store, kept by Jack McQuesten. On jumping ashore, I went up immediately, in search of information, and as I stepped in I heard my name called in a loud voice. I answered promptly "Here," with no idea of what was wanted, for there was a large crowd in the store; but from the centre of the room something was passed from hand to hand towards me, which proved to be a package of letters from home—the first news I had received for over two months. On inquiry I found that the mail up the river had just arrived, and the storekeeper, who was also postmaster ex officio, had begun calling out the addresses on the letters to the expectant crowd of miners, and had got to my name as I entered the door—a coincidence, I suppose, but surely a pleasant and striking one. 

We obtained lodgings in a log house, large for Circle City, since it contained two rooms. It was already occupied by two customhouse officers, the only representatives of Uncle Sam whom we encountered in the whole region. One room had been used as a storeroom and carpenter-shop, and here, on the shavings, we spread out our blankets and made ourselves at home. 

The building had first been built as a church by missionaries, but as they were absent for some time after its completion, one room was fitted up with a bar by a newly arrived enterprising liquor-dealer, till the officers, armed in their turn with the full sanction of the church, turned the building into a customs house and hoisted the American flag, on a pole fashioned out of a slim spruce by the customs officer himself. The officers, when we came there, were sleeping days and working nights on the trail of some whisky smugglers who were in the habit of bringing liquor down the river from Canadian territory, in defiance of the American laws. 

There were only a few hundred men in Circle City at this time, most of the miners being away at the diggings, for this was one of the busiest times of the year. These diggings were sixty miles from the camp, and were only to be reached by a foot trail which led through wood and swamp. Several newcomers in the country were camped around the post, waiting for cooler weather before starting out on the trail, for the mosquitoes, they said, were frightful. It was said that nobody had been on the trail for two weeks, on this account, and blood-curdling stories were told of the torments of some that had dared to try, and how strong men had sat down on the trail to sob, quite unable to withstand the pest. However, we had seen mosquitoes before, and the next morning struck out for the trail. 

It was called a wagon road, the brush and trees having been cut out sufficiently wide for a wagon to pass; taken as a footpath, however, it was just fair. The mosquitoes were actually in clouds; they were of enormous size, and had vigorous appetites. It was hot, too, so that their bites smarted worse than usual. The twelve miles, which the trail as far as the crossing of Birch Creek had been said to be, lengthened out into an actual fifteen, over low rolling country, till we descended a sharp bluff to the stream. Here a hail brought a boatman across to ferry us to the other side, where there stood two low log houses facing one another, and connected overhead by their projecting log roofs. 

This was the Twelve Mile Cache, a road-house for miners, and here we spent the night. Each of the buildings contained but a single room, one house being used as a sleeping apartment, the other as kitchen and dining-room. The host had no chairs to offer us, but only long benches; and there were boxes and stumps for those who could not find room on the benches, which were shorter than the tables. We ate out of tin dishes and had only the regulation bacon, beans and applesauce, yet it was with a curious feeling that we sat down to the meal and got up from it, as if we were enjoying a little bit of luxury—for so it seemed to us then. 

There were eleven of us who slept in the building which had been set apart for sleeping; we all provided our own blankets and slept on the floor, which was no other than the earth, and was so full of humps and hollows, and projecting sharp sticks where saplings had been cut off, that one or the other of the company was in misery nearly all night, and roused the others with his cursings and growling. The eight who were not of our party were miners returning from the diggings with their season's earnings of gold in the packs strapped to their backs; they all carried big revolvers and were on the lookout for possible highwaymen. 

Our packs were about twenty-five pounds each, and contained blankets, a little corned beef and crackers, and a few other necessities: they were heavy enough before the day was over. From Twelve Mile Cache to the diggings we travelled over what was called the Hog’em trail, since it led to the gulch of that name: it ran for the whole distance through a swamp, and was said to be a very good trail in winter—in summer it was vile. We had been informed of a way which branched off from the Hog’em route and ran over drier ground to a roadhouse called the Central House, but we were unable to pick up this; and we discovered afterwards that it had been blazed from the Central House, but that the blazing had been discontinued two or three miles before reaching the junction of the Hog’em trail, the axe-man having got tired, or having gone home for his dinner and forgotten to come back. So people like ourselves, starting for the diggings, invariably followed the Hog’em trail, whether they would or not, and those coming out of the diggings and returning by way of the Central House, followed the blazes through the woods till they stopped, and then wandered ahead blindly, often getting lost. 

The Hog’em trail was a continuous bed of black, soft, stinking, sticky mud, for it had been well travelled over. At times there was thick moss; and again broad pools of water of uncertain depth, with mud bottoms, to be waded through. We walked twelve miles of this trail without stopping or eating, for the mosquitoes were bloodthirsty. We arrived at night at what was called the “Jump-Off”—a sharp descent which succeeded a gradual rise—where we found two sturdy men, both old guides from the Adirondacks, engaged in felling the trees which grew on the margin of the stream, and piling them into a log house. This they intended to use as a roadhouse, for the travel here was considerable, especially in the winter. In the meantime they were living in a tent, yet maintained a sort of hostelry for travelers, in that they dispensed meals to them. As soon as they were through with the big log they were getting into place when we arrived, they built a fire on the ground and cooked supper, after which we were invited to spread our blankets, with the stars and the grey sky for a shelter. They made some apologies at not being able to offer us a tent—theirs was a tiny affair—and promised better accommodations if we would come back a month from then, when the cabin would be finished and the chinks neatly plugged with muck and moss. 

The next day’s journey was again twelve miles, over about the same kind of trail. Crossing a sluggish stream which was being converted into a swamp by encroaching vegetation, we were obliged to wade nearly waist deep, and then our feet rested on such oozy and sinking mud that we did not know but the next moment we might disappear from sight entirely. Further on, the trail ran fair into a small lake, whose shores we had to skirt. There was no trail around, but much burnt and felled timber lay everywhere, and climbing over this, balancing our packs in the meantime, was “such fun.” Sometimes we would jump down from a high log, and, slipping a little, our packs would turn us around in the air, and we would fall on our backs, sprawling like turtles, and often unable to get out of our awkward position without help from our comrades. 

Reedy lakes such as this, fringed with moss and coarse grass, with stunted spruce a little distance away, are common through this swampy country, and have something of the picturesque about them. The surrounding vegetation is very abundant. Excellent cranberries are found, bright red in color and small in size; and on a little drier ground blueberries nourish. Raspberries of good size, although borne on bushes usually not more than two or three inches high, are also here; and red and black currants. 

At the end of the second day we arrived at Hog’em Junction, where the Hog’em trail unites with that leading off to the other gulches where gold is found. Here was the largest roadhouse we had seen. There were fifteen or twenty men hanging about, mostly miners returning or going to the diggings, and a professional hunter—a sort of wild man, who told thrilling stories of fighting bears. 

One of the structures we saw here was called the dog-corral and was a big enclosure built of logs. Dogs were used to carry most of the provisions to the Birch Creek diggings from Circle City, freighting beginning as soon as the snow fell and everything froze hard. There was a pack of these animals around the inn —a sneaking, cringing, hungry lot, rarely barking at intruders or strangers, and easily cowed by a man, but very prone to fight among themselves. They were all Indian dogs, and were of two varieties; one long-haired, called Mahlemut, from the fact that its home is among the Mahlemut Eskimo of the lower Yukon; the other short-haired, and stouter. Both breeds are of large size, and a good dog is capable of pulling as much as 400 pounds on a sleigh, when the snow is very good, and the weather not too cold. The dog-corral is used to put the sleighs in when the freighter arrives, and the dogs are left outside, to keep them away from the provisions. The winter price for freight from Circle City was seven cents per pound; in summer it was forty. 

We ate breakfast and supper at Hog’em Junction, paying a dollar apiece for the meals; and when we learned that the bacon which was served to us had cost sixty-five cents a pound, the charge did not seem too much. No good bacon was to be had, that which we ate being decidedly strong; and even this kind had to be hunted after at this time of the year. Not only was food very high in the diggings, but it could not always be bought, so that in the winter, when freighting was cheap, enough could not often be obtained to last through the next summer, and the miners had to wait for the steamer to come up the Yukon. The Hog’em Junction innkeeper paid twenty dollars for a case of evaporated fruit, such as cost a dollar in San Francisco; condensed milk was one dollar a can, and sugar eighty-five cents a pound. The previous winter beans brought one dollar a pound, and butter two and a half dollars a roll. In summer all prices were those of Circle City, plus forty cents freighting, plus ten cents handling. So a sack of potatoes, which I was told would cost twenty-five cents in the state of Washington, cost here eighty-five dollars. Even in Circle City the prices, though comparatively low, were not exactly what people would expect at a bargain counter in one of our cities. Winchester rifles were sold for fifty dollars apiece, and calico brought fifty cents a yard. Luckily there were few women folks in the country at that time! 

Of the Hog’em Junction Inn I have little distinct recollection except concerning the meals. We were so hungry when we reached there that the food question was indelibly branded on our memory. For the rest I remember that when supper was cleared away, the guests wrapped themselves in their private blankets and lay down anywhere they thought best. There was a log outhouse with some rude bunks filled with straw, for those who preferred, so in a short time we were stowed away with truly mediæval simplicity, to sleep heavily until the summons came to breakfast,—for there were no “hotel hours” for lazy guests at this inn, and he who did not turn out for a seven o’clock breakfast could go without. 

We three separated on leaving here, each taking a different trail, so that we might see all of the gulches in a short space of time. I shouldered my blankets and after a seven mile tramp through the brush came to the foot of Hog’em Gulch, which was in a deep valley in the hills that now rose above the plain. This gulch derived its name from the fact that its discoverer tried to hog all the claims for himself, taking up some for his wife, his wife’s brother, his brother, and the niece of his wife’s particular friend; even, it is said, inventing fictitious personages that he might stake out claims for them. The other miners disappointed him in his schemes for gain, and they contemptuously called the creek “Hog’em." 

Be that as it may, I noticed a remarkable difference between the men whom I found working their claims along the creek and the miners of Forty Mile. Nobody showed the slightest hospitality or friendliness, except one man on the lower creek, who invited me to share his little tent at night. He had not enough blankets to keep him warm, so I added mine, and beneath them both we two slept very comfortably. In the morning he cooked a very simple meal over a tiny fire outside of the tent—wood was scarce along here—and invited me, with little talk, to partake of it with him. He was evidently far from happy in this cheerless existence; he was working for wages, which, to be sure, were ten dollars a day, but with provisions as high as they were this was nothing much, and the work was so hard that, great stalwart man as he was, he had lost thirty pounds since he had begun. He would have liked to return to the States, for he was somewhat discouraged, but he could not save enough money to pay for the expensive passage out. 

After I left this silent man, I found none who showed much interest. Some of them were a little curious as to what I was doing, but most of them were fiercely and feverishly working to make the most of the hours and weeks which remained of the mining season; the run of gold was ordinarily very good, and all were anxious to make as good a final clean-up as possible. At dinner-time everybody rushed to their meal, and I sat down by the side of the trail, ate stale corned beef, broken crackers, and drank the creek water. When I was half-way through I observed two young men in a tent munching their meal, but watching me; and a sort of righteous indignation came upon me, as must always seize the poor when he beholds the abundance of the rich man’s table. I walked into the tent and asked for a share of their dinner. They gave me a place, but so surlily that I said hotly, “See here, I’ll pay you for this dinner, so don’t be so stingy about it.” The offer to pay was an insult to the miner’s tradition and one of them growled out, 

“None of that kind of talk, d’ye hear? You’re welcome to whatever we’ve got, and don’t yer forget it! Only there’s been a good many bums along here lately, and we was getting tired of them.” 

After this they were pleasanter, although I could not help reflecting that I was actually a bum, as they put it, and mentally pitied the professional tramp, if his evil destiny should ever lead him into the Yukon country. 

As it grew near nightfall I climbed out of the gulch, and, crossing the ridge, dropped down into Greenhorn Gulch, which, with its neighbor Tinhorn Gulch, form depressions parallel to Hog’em. There was only one claim working here, and on this the supply of water was so scarce that not much washing could be done. The people seemed like those of Hog’em Gulch, and took little notice of strangers. 

I climbed out of the gulch and walked along the mountain ridge for a while, encountering, whenever there was no wind, swarms of the tiny gnats which the miners often dread worse than the mosquitoes. They are so numerous as actually to obscure the sun in places and they fill nose, ears, and eyes; there is no escape from them, for they are so small that they go through the meshes of a mosquito net with the greatest ease. 

On top of the ridge, where the wind blew, they disappeared. As I walked along here I met a prospector, and after a friendly talk with him, dropped down another mountain-side to the bed of Independence Creek, and followed that to the junction of Mammoth Creek, so called from the number of bones of the extinct elephant, or mammoth, which are buried there. 

The next day a tramp of seventeen miles brought me to the Central House, on the way home from the diggings; for although our rendezvous should have been at Mammoth Junction, yet I concluded to wait for the others at Circle City. ~•~

Edited from ‘Through the Yukon Gold Diggings,’ by Josiah Edward Spurr, Geologist, United States Geological Survey, published by Eastern Publishing Company, Boston, 1900. Available to read online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/44038