Series: Fred W. Dewey's Trip to the Klondike

Mountain side with men in a line going over the pass
Men at scales and ascending Chilkoot Summit in 1898.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Candy Waugaman Collection KLGO Library SS-32-10566


Sheep Camp, April 10, 1898

Dear Boys:

A week has passed since I wrote to let you know that I was safe from the slide. It has proved to be as bad as I estimated in that letter. Up to date 53 dead and 3 alive have been taken out of the “shovel gang”. Of these, our party—the North Easters and Batavians—took out four. These figures do not include many who were not buried deep and made their own way to the open air. One of the dead was a woman. She was buried in the slide at Scales and rescued; she then joined a party of 40, who carried a rope and were led by a man who best knew the trail, and endeavored to escape. Of that party of about 40 only four escaped. They have not all been found yet. A tramway gang was set out to work. They were all lost. I believe that have all been taken out. By vote the trail was closed for two days. At the end of that time a hot meeting was held. Many wished to keep the trail closed until all the bodies were taken out; the majority, however, thought it endangered the lives and property of those remaining too much to longer keep the trail closed. There were about 1500 men at the meeting and they were feeling pretty ugly. It had been claimed and I guess it was true, that the tramway gang had objected to going out in the storm, but that the manager, one Bennett, had given them choice of going out or discharge. At the height of the excitement at the meeting someone called for Bennett. The idea caught the crowd. A committee was formed to capture Mr. Bennett and bring him in. They found him and placed him on the stand. I tell you he was pretty white and shaky when he faced that mob. He denied the accusations and one of his employees upheld him. Another one, however, claimed that he had ordered the gang out. Bennett called him a liar. The crowd made him apologize on the spot. The U.S. Marshall tried to interfere and was told to mind his own business. He minded it. He is a pretty hefty man, too. It began to look as though Mr. Bennett’s life was not worth much, but at about that time, one Cleveland, who is a very popular man here, made a great plea for Mr. Bennett and he was allowed to go.

Just as I was sealing my last letter to you a shot was fired close by. It proved to be from the fourth tent from ours. A 44 caliber Colt was accidentally discharged. The ball entered the next tent and shattered a man’s arm. So you see there are enough little excitements here to keep our life from being dull.

All my goods are at the Scales and some at the Summit…..was caught in a storm up there one day. It had been still all day, only the sky had been gradually clouding over. It was late in the afternoon and I had planned to take up one more load. As I was strapping on the load, I noticed how black it was getting far over in the south. The cloud was perhaps 10 miles away and there was no wind, and I thought I would probably be able to take up my load and get back home before the storm broke. I got about half way up and turned around to rest. I immediately turned back and toddled on. About two miles away she was ripping over the mountain tops. I had climbed perhaps 300 feet when a blast truck me and in a minute I was in the midst of a whirl of snow that blotted out everything. I heard men calling to “leave everything and get out of this,” and it made me think a thing or two, I tell you. But I knew if I laid down my pack the chances were poor of ever finding it, so I stuck to it and reached the top, and got back down some way. One of the other boys was also caught. That night he was taken sick, and the next day I down, but we are both all right now.

The climb to the Summit is no picnic. The grade ranges from about 1/3 pitch near the bottom to about ¾ pitch near the top. When you consider that the distance is rather farther than three times the height of the Washington monument, and that the steps are uneven and sometimes none at all, I think you will admit that it is difficult. I was near the top one trip when the man in front of me with hundred pounds on his back slipped and went on his knees. It made me catch my breath for a minute. A part of the way over the steps, the tramway runs a half inch wire cable at an elevation of over 100 feet and with a single span of 3500 feet. It looks rather dangerous, but I suppose it is all right. Will lay this aside for the present.

Monday-—Have been packing all day. The wind on the summit was something terrific, so I consigned myself to small packages. I took 350 pounds in six loads. An Indian the other day took up a trunk weighing 250 pounds.

No more dead have been taken out of the slide. In fact, they have ceased searching. All those taken out were in the two large parties that were buried, and few of the scattering parties of two or three have been found. We all have much to be thankful for. Have not lost a single package. Some cannot find any of their stuff. Scores are selling out and going home. I saw one man on the Summit who said he had 700 pounds up when the storm came and he had looked three days without finding it. Another poor fellow said all that he had left was on his back. He had his 8–foot sled on end beside his cache; the guide pole stood about 6 feet higher and he could find no trace of theme. Tonight I received the letter that Peeler wrote on March 16. Cost me 10 cents. When you write, write longer letters. Shall probably pull out for the lakes in two or three days and the letters will then cost me 25 cents each. I want my money’s worth, so write a lot. Shall set up housekeeping for myself at the lakes. And am might glad of it. The boys are getting ready for bed, will close.

So long, Fred Dewey.
- - -

Tuesday--Storm again. We got all ready to go to the Summit this morning and then backed out. The few who did start were driven back. It is very quiet down here now and snow is almost rain. The slides are coming again; have heard two this morning, but do not know where they were. There was a man around yesterday trying organize a party to drive the shell game men from the trail. I do not think he will succeed. After the slide a week ago, when they were raising funds for relief work, a committee called on each of the 39 shell game men in town and demanded $5. Without exception the money was forthcoming.

One of the Baravia boys has clippings from the New York Journal sent him. I believe it was supposed to be an interview with one Cleary, who came from the interior. In it he dramatically describes the “black death” in this country. It closed by saying that high medical authority pronounced the symptoms like spinal meningitis. Without exception all such stories are false. There is some spinal meningitis here, but not more than one case in five proves fatal. When warm weather comes, though, there is apt to be more sickness. The water is terrible. We go about a quarter of a mile up the mountain and get water that comes directly down from springs above. It is somewhat discolored from spruce boughs, but I think it is pure.

I understand that Salisbury is to leave the middle of this month to the overland route. Am afraid he will never get here. Why, they are closed on the Stickeen river route with only 130 miles overland. All other routes than the Chilkoot are now practically closed. If this route is purgatory, the others are Hades itself. The worst reports come from the Copper River.

Some little laughable incidents occur once in a while. The other day I saw a man having trouble with his dogs. They baulked. He finally got off his sled and whipped them unmercifully. “Now, ----you, will you mush? He said. The moment his back was turned they “mushed” and as pretty a little runaway as one could wish to see was the result. A strong smell of sulphur was noticed in that vicinity, but cussing did not bring the dogs back and the driver was obliged to take a two mile walk after them. The climb from here to the Summit I have taken so often that it does not seem as hard anymore, but the hills are as steep as ever, I guess. Places that I hardly dared lift my foot at first, I jump over now without noticing. I heard today, semi-officially, that as near as could be learned from the inquiries of friends, 93 are missing as a result of the slide. That leave 40 still under the snow. I am doing most of my packing up the Peterson or summer trail. It is longer, but not as steep. Most consider it harder, but it seems the opposite to me. There is no standing in line waiting to ascend. That kills me. The two trails are about like this (see photo). Today the storm has been rain. That means snow at the summit. Tomorrow will probably be cold here and stormy, and in the course of a week or so we may have a pleasant day, then another storm. The old packers wear no snow glasses, but blacken their faces from cheek bone to cheek bone, across the nose. The best glasses are those glass with netting at the side; but the best scheme I have seen is a coarse black veil which does not steam and is at once a protection from the glare of the sun and wind, awful wind, with the accompanying storm, of minute particles of snow and ice which seem to fairly cut the eyes out. This is rather a disjointed letter. “According to Hoyle” I should have finished one subject before beginning another, but interruptions are so numerous that I cannot keep the run of my ideas. Will say good-bye now. May add more and may not. Fred Dewey.


Sunday, April 17—Am still stuck at Sheep Camp. However, I only need a part of one pleasant day to put me on the Summit. Then I can work down on the other side, when I could not on this side. A man was killed a couple of days ago on the hill from the Summit to Crater Lake. The “G” pole of a runaway sled struck and went through him. That is one great danger in working on these hills during a storm. It is impossible to see anything coming from above.

I ran away with myself down from the Summit the other day. I was taking the slide and had a very light brake stick. It did not work. I came down at railroad speed and incidentally brought a couple of fellows with me who happened to get in the way. One of them was new at the business and was carefully climbing down holding to a rope. He was on the main line, so I took him along. He was mad, but the other one did not care. It is always easy to pick out a newcomer by the way they descend the mountain.

The rush is evidently over now. The steamers are bringing very few passengers. I hear that Uncle Sam and Spain are at it. If that is true, Alaska news will seem tame to you. One of the Gillette party is broken out with measles or chicken pox or something. He is now better.

So long, Fred.