My Back Is Lame, My Feet Are Sore

Men trying to haul a sled up a snow covered canyon
Struggling to get sleds up the Taiya River Canyon on way to Chilkoot Summit.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, 3a48122u

Dyea to the Summit

Copy of a letter to Mrs. F. W. Dewey

Dyea, March 13, 1898

I will write a few lines tonight because probably after this will not feel much like writing. My hard work will begin tomorrow. Over half of the party of 13 have their freight here and we will help them up the trail and when ours comes, they will help us. Yesterday I had a taste of it on the baggage. The lighters are landed at high tide on the sand bar about 1½ miles from town and when the tide goes out are left high and dry. I packed my baggage up, and then a big telescope with tools and ammunition, weighed about 75 pounds, for the other fellows, and as I had no pack strap, I thought it was a long mile and a half. Took a walk of about three miles up the canyon this P.M. Could have gone to work today at 50 cents per hour as longshoreman, but think will gain by helping the other fellows. A man was killed across the street from us last night. I heard the shooting but did not get up to see what it was about. I mentioned in my last letter that it was a law abiding town. It is so, for all the thieving, gambling, etc. If a man minds his own business, he is let alone. Last night I had a room alone. My door hooked on the inside. I know it was hooked, for one of the boys who thought there were two cots in there, and that he was to room with me, tried to get in and could not. This morning it was unhooked. However, I had taken other precautions with my money and lost nothing at all. Am feeling well except the water here is having a bad effect on me. Of course it is bad here in town, though at our place they claim to filter and boil it. However, tomorrow we expect to be above the town where we can get water fresh from the mountains.

Dyea, March 19, 1898

Came to town today to see if our freight was here yet. It is not, but expect it tomorrow. There have been a couple more murders at Sheep Camp and one or two hold-ups, but nothing serious. We are now up to the canyon and our tents are pitched through the narrow canyon. It is a narrow gorge from 25 to 75 feet wide with quite precipitous sides at the lower end and not quite so much above. In fact a mountain goat could climb with ease and in many places a human being. It is a creek bottom which is bridged with ice partially corduroyed. They have a slide in there once in a while, which usually kills 4 or 5, for people are thick in there. Can drag about 150 pounds through on a sled, very steep grade. The great rush here is to get through the canyon before it goes out. That is the reason we have been working so hard this week. All right now. Am standing it finely. My back is lame, my feet are sore, ditto Shoulder and I have a little cold. My mouth is so sore from hot coffee that I can scarcely eat: but otherwise am feeling fine. At the start off, there were only two of us to occupy the place of cook, but as the two boys gave out, one by one they owned up they could cook a little, so the sick ones stayed in camp and I got out on the trail every day. That is preferable, if it is hard. Imagine pulling a sled loaded from 300 to 600 pounds over a stretch of good ice, then change to a strip of sand, a few pitch holes that make your teeth joggle, a little ways over the dry bed of a creek full of boulders and rock, ford the river on logs or cakes of ice or on a couple of trees laid side by side, with cross sticks laid down for the sled to run on, and you have our labor. We have a photographer in our party and he has taken some pictures. If he gets any finished, will send some home before I go over the summit. Met a man while I was coming down the trail this morning who said: “I thought you were a pretty good looking fellow on the boat, but I’m d- - -d if you don’t look like a tramp now.” I said I felt like on. When we get to Sheep’s Camp which we will in two or three days, we will have a hard climb to Scales.

Can drag about 150 pounds. From Scales to Summit everything must be packed. At Scales all grade stops. It is as steep as the steepest stairs you ever saw. There have been steps cut in the ice, and one man’s foot is not more than off a step before another’s takes its place. It takes about 40 minutes to go up and about 40 seconds to come down. In coming down a separate track is used. It is a slide which many trousers’ seats have worn in the ice. The descender sits down, draws his breath, and is at the bottom. Quite a number of women are on the trail, most of them doing a man’s work. I pity the poor dogs though. The trail is fairly red in places with their blood and how they cry sometimes. Their drivers urge them on with “mush on, mush on.” The native dogs are the only ones that are any good here. One of them will draw as much as a man. If I should come again, though, should bring a burro. Have chances to go to work since being here, but have no time now. Longshoremen get 50 cents an hour, but do not have steady work. Was even offered $2 an hour last Monday in a rush, but was helping the other boys could not accept it. Teamsters here get $4 per day and board and the company furnishes the teams. Those working on the tramway get $5 per day. A woman can earn $12 a week in a hotel here do nothing but make beds and fill the lamps. If I had nothing else to do, should stake out a town lot at Canon City and pitch tent thereon and go to work. In a year that town lot will probably sell for $400 or $500. That was the way in Dyea and Canon city is building up in a place where, in the very nature of things, there must be a congestion in traffic. Maybe in a year from now I will kick myself for not taking some of these chances. Tell the boys about things. It is hard work, but after all, it is rather enjoyable. I had to buy another pair of rubber boots to work in here, as my others are in my freight.

Remember me to all, Yours, Fred.
- - -
Dyea, March 24, 1898

Dear Boys:

Once more I have taken the long walk down from Sheep Camp. We heard that the Cleveland was in, so came down (two of us) immediately to see about our freight. The steamer arrived at Skagway last night, but her freight is not over here yet; probably will not be this evening. The trail is all done at this end, so all freight must be hauled on wagons now. I took the precaution of contracting for mine at 2 cents per pound delivered at Sheep Camp, and as the expense will be divided among eleven of us, it will fall lightly on me. While I think of it, if you ever come this way and have goods hauled to Sheep Camp, stipulate that they are to be taken to the Junction. Sheep Camp strings out for two or three miles and if your goods are dropped at this end, it will be a great deal of hard work to get them through the camp. But really, boys, unless I can strike something and get back money enough so that you can have all your work done, I will not advise you to come. All the dark pictures ever published of life on the trail do not tell the story. The newspaper correspondents know nothing about it. They come here with plenty of money, hire everything done, walk over the trail themselves, and think it hard work. We think we have worked hard, but it is just a foretaste—our hard work begins now. We are as far as Sheep Camp, and in a few days will begin ascending the hills to the scales. There we use our tackle. We took our last load up through the canyon yesterday. The canyon is about 1 ½ miles through in about an hour and a quarter. When you consider the roughness of the road, its steepness, winding, turnings, narrowness (about 8 feet wide, with an occasional wider place) and the fact that it is more traveled than Main Street at home, I think you will agree with me that it is a bad place for a runaway. Yet there were two day before yesterday, and it is a miracle that no one was hurt or killed. The first one, the horse only ran a short distance and fell in a hole about 10 feet deep. But the second horse ran nearly the length of the canyon. One of our boys was nearly killed by part of the wreckage. A matter of about two inches more and he would have been brained.

We sent one of our party to the hospital a few days ago. He belongs to the Batavia contingent and is named Alton Smith or Si Haskins, as we call him. Poor Si was threatened with pneumonia, and as sleeping on the frozen earth is not a good thing for a person in that condition, the hospital was the only thing left. Tell Peeler his farm life will not help him any here. Si was a farmer boy.

Uncle Sam looks after his children, even up here. Si had not been in the hospital 24 hours before the U.S. Marshall called on him to find where his outfit was, to take care of it for him.

We are getting now where we occasionally see some poor fellow going out---in a box. The only ones I have noticed in the 10 or 12 days I have been here, though, was a murder in Dyea, another in Sheep Camp, a man dropped dead on the summit, and two die in the hospital since Si went there, two days ago. Someone is badly hurt, though, almost every day.

I used to think I knew what a snow storm was, but I was mistaken. I never saw one until within a few days. What would you say to a wind that would take a loaded sled with a good sail on up a hill like King Street as fast as a man could run with it? What would you say if that wind brought along a lot of snow so thick you could not see 10 feet away and which would drift higher than your head in ten minutes? That is what a storm is near the summit. At the lower end of the can the same storm is more than likely a gentle rain.

From Sheep Camp to the Scales are a series of long hills about like King Street at home. Here is where the tackle comes handy and it takes 8 or 10 men to run it successfully. From the Scales to the summit all grade ceases. It can only be described as UP. It is as steep as the steepest stairway. A lot of little nicks have been cut in the ice for toe holds, and a rope is strung down the side to grasp. There is one breathing place in the ascent. Standing below the line of men looks like a lot spiders crawling up the ice wall. Once at the top you are not allowed to descend the way you came up, but must go to one side where some troughs have been worn in the face of the wall, in some places four feet deep. It makes a man think twice to look over the edge and see what appears to be a sheer drop almost of 1700 feet. But you can’t stay up there, so you sit down on the brink, commend yourself to a merciful Providence, dig your elbows, knees, feet, etc., into the sides to act as brakes, and go. Lucky you are if your feet and head are not reversed two or three times during the descent.

In the climbing here, the best all-around creeper is about the style of the ones I have. They are made of steel, about this shape: with a sharp steel spike about ¾ inch long on each corner. Never get anything lighter, for it won’t last a week. Never come here without an animal of some kind to do your work for you. I believe a burro is about the best, as they are good climbers and can be fed on spruce boughs and tin cans. Some using oxen on the lower part of the trail and when through with them, will kill and sell for beef, probably making a profit. There a few little restaurants and saloons on the summit. Wood up there sells for 5 cents a pound. In Dyea it is $9 per cord, and any amount can be cut within four or five miles. It is $50 per cord in Dawson. Hay in Dyea is from $40 to $85 per ton and at Sheep Camp from $100 to $120 per ton.

Was just interrupted to have my picture taken for some illustrated paper. Group picture.

Remember, if you come here, bring everything of the strongest and best to be had. Nothing else will stand the racket.

Write me here—Dyea—and I will get it all right. Will have them forwarded as I go in. Probably will not be able to get our stuff on the summit inside of four weeks, work as hard as we may. Don’t think because I have drawn a dark picture of the life here that I am getting discouraged. I feel as fine as silk, and barring a little cough, a core mouth, a shovel cut on the wrist, a jammed ankle, and a few minor cuts and bruises, I am well. The life is hard, how hard you can’t imagine, but boys, there is a golden glimmer in the distance which grows a little plainer each mile traveled. Some good strikes have been made at and near the Big and Little Salmon rivers, and as they are on our way we shall probably look around there a little on our way in. Put a 2 cent stamp on your letter and it will reach me all right, but don’t write TOO often, as it will cost me 10 cents per letter each relay it is forwarded as I go in. Shall be on this side of pass for a month yet, anyway.

Ta-ta, Fred.

P.S. Just tell my wife the substance of this and save me writing twice. I’ll just do a line or two this time to her. Remember me to all the boys. Do you remember that Buffalo party of 40 or more that started about three weeks before I did? The leader got money from the party to pay for hauling their goods to the summer, and also to pay customs duties, and then left for parts unknown, leaving the rest of the party stranded here. Moral- - Carry your own money.

Yours, Fred.

- - -
Sheep Camp, March 31, 1898

Dear Boys:

I have a few minutes of daylight, so will start a letter. I am going it alone now. You remember I joined the North East party with the understanding that we were to help each other over. Well, they have become frightened at the hills ahead of us, and are hiring their stuff put up to the Scales. I look at it like this- - we have so much time to put in anyway, and might as well save that money. Of course it is making small wages, but it is money saved, and jobs are getting scarce here now. So yesterday I broke away and started sledding my stuff to Stone House. I take about 125 pounds to a load. From there I will take 50 pounds per load and put it to the Scales. Perhaps you can get some idea of the difficulties if I tell you that it is a big day’s work to pull 200 pounds from here to the Scales, a distance of 4 miles. There are three women alone on the trail and they are taking their stuff in. I would be ashamed to back down before difficulties that those women surmount. It may be, however that I shall hire two or three of my heaviest packages put up to the summit. I hate to tackle anything over 60 or 70 pounds. A slip means certain injury or worse. The summer trail, where they rope up, is not as steep (it is where the packers descend) but is longer and has no steps cut, so is almost impossible for packers to ascend.

Gillette is here camped near us. His party is taking their own stuff up. They had it hired from Dyea here as the trail is almost done and the canyon is liable to go at any time. He said he was very nervous until he got his stuff past the canyon. It is breaking up here almost a month earlier than usual. Last year Gillette came in the 1st of April and had fine sledding all the way up. In fact up here there was so much snow that it made an easy ascent, while not it is full of steep pitches that make a man hump himself. The trail is not without its little risks too. A few days ago one of the nearest glaciers broke and the debris landed within 50 feet of the trail. Last fall seven men were caught under a slide and last spring several were caught and drowned when the canyon went. As there is probably a hundred times as much travel this year, a good many are liable to be caught if they are not careful. I intend to stay above it anyway. I tell you, though, the work is slavery. My feet are sore, my heels are blistered, my legs sore and lame, my back lame, my hands, neck and shoulders sore and chafed from the rope, and in fact my spirits and appetite are about the only good things about me. I saw a runaway on the trail the other day; two men were run over and loaded sleds sent over the bank.

It is Sunday. Nearly all of my stuff is now cached at Stone House. It has been storming since Wednesday and yesterday afternoon late the wind went down, and the snow came in great wet flakes, with the water fairly dripping out of it. This morning about 12 or 14 inches had fallen. In the night sometime the snow slides began. I was awakened by a roar, but knew I could see nothing, so did not get up. Several more occurred, only not as close. This morning just after breakfast- - it had stopped storming- - we heard the rumble above us, and rushed out and watched a genuine avalanche. It was a grand and beautiful sight. It looked like a great waterfall as the snow came pouring over the rocks. Soon afterward it began raining, and then shifted to snow of the blizzard sort. About ten o’clock a man came down from Scales asking for help. Said about thirty had been buried there. By that time it was storming so hard that no one could go but after dinner, the storm let up and our whole party started. When we struck the trail, as far as we could see up the gulch, winding in and out was a black line of men, most of them with shovels, going to the rescue. On the way up we heard there were other slides at Stone House. It was pretty sure that my stuff was all right, as I had cached it with an eye to slides and storms. It was so, my cache stuck out like a wart on a man’s nose. About 500 feet beyond, however, several tons were buried. As I arrived one tent had been uncovered, and three taken out dead. Then the storm close in again and we could go no further. No one know how many are dead and buried; probably somewhere between 40 and 100. It seems there were several slides, the last one occurred a few minutes after 12 o’clock today. Those buried then are nearly all alive, but of the buried before, nearly all must be dead. I suppose by the time the news reaches the states, they will have all Sheep Camp buried. I hope it will cause you no worry. You see it is not all pleasure here. I am free to confess that I shall be glad to reach the peaks. Our tent leaks like blazes. I say our tent, it belongs to the North East boys, although we are to travel separate, I am still eating and sleeping with them, and shall until we go over the summit. They are afraid now, though, that their stuff is buried if that is so, I will go over first. Don’t worry any. Shall do all I can to keep myself and goods safe. Of course I must go over the trail. There is no such thing as avoiding it, and of course it may be that I shall be caught in a slide or something of that kind, but I believe many of the dangers can be avoided. Write me what the reports are that first reach home of this.

Good-bye, Fred Dewey

You remember the Bobbing party from Franklinville a few weeks before I left? They have reached her now. Bobbing sits around the hotel and lets his gang hustle for themselves. Gillette says he does not think Bobbins ever went into the interior, but thinks he was at Juneau in business, and that he did not bear a very good reputation there.


Last updated: November 28, 2017