Wells Fargo & Co. in Alaska
Freighting in the Far North
On January 24, 1848, gold was found at Sutter's Mill near Coloma, in northern California, and within the next few years approximately 300,000 people flocked to the territory seeking their own fortunes. In September, 1850 California became a state, and San Francisco, a small settlement of about 200 residents in 1846, would explode into a boomtown of 36,000 by 1852. Watching these developments with increasing interest were Vermont native Henry Wells and New Yorker William G. Fargo.
In his book Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West, noted historian Phillip L. Fradkin captures the history succinctly: “Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, who both began their express careers as messengers in upstate New York, joined forces in 1845 and commenced the process that would result in bringing the functions of communications, speedy transportation, and banking together in California. Both were stern-visaged, bearded men who exuded rectitude. Wells was the mediator and Fargo the aggressive entrepreneur.”
Wells Fargo & Company quickly gained a reputation for speed and reliablility and developed a far-flung network of connections. Their policy of subcontracting express services to established companies, rather than duplicating existing services, was a key factor in Wells Fargo's early success, and that would be evident in their later move into the Alaska territory.
In March, 1911 a news release by the San Francisco Examiner detailed the contracts arranged with Alaskan transportation companies: “Pursuant to their recent decision to enter the Alaska field, Wells, Fargo & Co. and the steamship companies operated between Seattle and Alaskan ports are entering into and signing contracts for handling express business. The invading concern will cover the entire field of the vast northland territory, which heretofore has been occupied only by the Alaska Pacific Express Company. Among the steamship concerns and stage lines and railways signing up with Wells Fargo are the Alaska Steamship Company, the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad; the Ed S. Orr Stage Company, operating from Chitina, the terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern, to Fairbanks; the Northwestern Navigation Company, operating on the Yukon River; the Western Alaska Steamship Company; and the Merchants’ Yukon Dispatch, successor to the old N.A.T. & T. Company.”
Wells Fargo’s history in Alaska began, however, in the 1880’s, a dozen years before the Klondike Gold Rush. The company opened offices in Sitka, Wrangell, and Juneau (then called Harrisburg), and contracted with steamship companies to carry goods to and from San Francisco, advertising they delivered “letters, money, valuables, packages, parcels and merchandise.” The company ceased operations in Alaska in 1885, and did not renew their northern routes until 1911.
The official newsletter of the company, The Wells Fargo Messenger, featured an article in the May, 1913 issue written by Kenneth C. Kerr, who shared details of two early trips:
“Two notable shipments made by Wells Fargo & Company in Alaska are remarkable examples of what an enterprising company and its dauntless representatives can accomplish during the winter months, when interior Alaska may be said to be hermetically sealed.
“On December 14, 1911, our company chartered two dog teams to bring a shipment of gold a distance of 479 miles from Iditarod to Seward. These two teams were under the charge of two noted drivers and mushers, Norton and Griffith.
“To aid in forming a clearer mental picture of this rigorous journey, a brief description here of the sled used by the company for this purpose may not be amiss. The Yukon sled, while not a thing of beauty, is usually built to stand all kinds of hard wear—which it seldom escapes. This sort of sled is about eight feet long, leaves a trail from its wooden runners about sixteen inches wide, and is comparatively inexpensive. Another and more substantial pattern is the ‘basket sled,’ made also from hard wood—usually hickory, birch or oak—and its trail is nearly two feet wide. This sled is to the Yukon as a three-masted schooner is to a coal barge. The Yukon lies close to the ground, but the ‘basket’ sled is often a foot or more from the runners. The basket sleigh is often lashed together with rawhide thongs.
“But let us return to this remarkable value shipment. It comprised $558,863.34, in pure gold, and left the Iditarod district via Wells Fargo, on December 14, 1911. Through storm and wind, over hills and frozen rivers, this first Wells Fargo & Company dog express pushed bravely forward. If it were an unusual feat, the men handling it did not so regard it. It was merely an incident in the life of the North. In fact, they did not show any traces of undue excitement or satisfaction when they arrived in the streets of Seward, and drew up in front of our headquarters there, as shown in one of the accompanying pictures (photo above). The date of that arrival was February 6 of last year, and the shipment was immediately put aboard the steamer Alameda of the Alaska Steamship Company, being placed in the bank in Seattle five days later. Impatient to return, Norton and Griffith rested only two days in Seward before starting back on their thousand mile journey.
“None the less notable than this was the gold shipment made on sleds from Fairbanks to Valdez, before the railroad was built from Cordova, but horses instead of husky dogs furnished the motive power. The shipment was valued at $600,000 and was handled by Wells Fargo & Company over the stage road. It took eleven days, the distance being 376 miles. This has been considerably reduced by the building of the Copper River route, which connects with the winter stages at Chitina. Similar shipments are now quite common. The capacity of the Wells Fargo & Company has frequently been tested, but never found wanting.”
Justifably proud of its Alaskan dog team services, Wells Fargo included them in the parade and displays for the company’s day at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where they were reportedly a favorite with the crowds.