Last updated: October 9, 2015
If there was an ascendant religious organization in Alaska in the last quarter of the 19th century, it was the Presbyterian Church. Its missionaries were widespread, and their efforts bore fruit where the Russian Orthodox Church had long held sway. Presbyterian missionaries often lived with Alaskan natives while spreading the gospel and establishing schools. Presbyterian Sheldon Jackson had a particularly important role. In 1885 he was appointed as the U.S. Government’s General Agent of Education for Alaska. As such, his $2,400 salary was shared between the government and the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions. Most of the native schools he oversaw were affiliated with religious organizations.
With the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush, the game changed. There was a new, urgent emphasis on ministering to the hordes flocking north. One church leader to take action was James Robertson, superintendent of northern missions for the Canadian Presbyterian Church. In August 1897, Robertson left his work in Winnipeg to see at first hand the turmoil caused by the gold rush in Vancouver. Robertson decided that a missionary needed to quickly be sent north.
At this point the border between Alaska and Canada was still subject to debate. The two main entry ports, Skagway and Dyea, were held by the Americans but claimed by the Canadians. Given the unsettled situation, Dr. Robertson wired the American Presbyterian Church in New York to ask its views about serving the entry ports. The American Board responded that it had insufficient funds, and gave a green light to the Canadian church. The situation was to be reconsidered when the border was clarified.
Robertson’s choice for the mission was the 25-year old Robert Dickey, then studying arts and theology at Manitoba College in Winnipeg. The still-unordained student accepted what was sure to be a challenging assignment, and shelved plans to see his widowed mother in County Derry, Ireland. Dickey was instructed to proceed to Vancouver, where he was ordained. On his trip north on the Quadra, other passengers included the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, and a contingent of Canadian Mounties.
Upon Dickey’s arrival in Skagway on Friday, October 8, he made enquiries for men who had an interest in church work. With the assistance of a Mr. Bloomfield, described as “a good Presbyterian,” Dickey rented Burkhard Hall located in a business on the southwest corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. He posted notices around town on Saturday, and must have been gratified with 70 to 90 participants at the 3:00 Sunday service. According to Dickey’s papers, as reported in the James M. Sinclair book Mission: Klondike, “The crowd as a whole looked fairly rough, as if seasoned to hardship, but there was a radiation of warmth and conviviality as our service proceeded.”
At the end of the service, Dickey asked for a show of hands of those who wanted a regular service. The response was positive. A suggestion was made to start a Sunday school, which Dickey immediately agreed to do. In a meeting held later that day, many participants voiced interest in building a church. Dickey was pleased, but added that he couldn’t promise any aid from the Canadian church. Ten ladies were appointed to canvass the town, and a building committee was formed to select a site. By a meeting the next day, it was clear the ladies took their role seriously. They reported raising $250, in addition to donations of “a stove, a dictionary, a can of oil, a lot of lumber, and almost enough volunteer labor to erect the building.”
By October 21 the building committee had a site and building plans, and reported cash contributions of almost $500 plus more-than-sufficient lumber and volunteer labor. Before construction could begin, Dickey had to intervene to stop some people from “jumping” the church lot and taking possession. The church was to be open to all denominations. Given that it was to be constructed with no Presbyterian Church aid, Dickey made no objections. However, he noted, “it will be a Presbyterian Church to all intents and purposes.” Dickey was appointed as resident minister, although he planned to leave by the spring.
The building was dedicated on December 12, 1897. It was on the south side of Fifth Avenue, between State and Main Streets. A lean-to was constructed onto the rear as Dickey’s residence. Besides a Sunday school, Dickey opened a day school supported by voluntary contributions, with initial enrollment of thirty pupils. What with Sunday and mid-week services, concerts, community sings, and a library of books and periodicals, the building was busy all week. It served as a point of stability and community in highly transient Skagway.
At the first Skagway Christmas, according to a report in a Presbyterian periodical, “The church was filled to overflowing – not half of those present could find seats, though additional seats had been secured. Many were turned away unable to get in at all. The verdict of all who had the good fortune to enjoy the first Christmas tree in Skaguay is that it was a great success. It was a strong resisting force to the attractions of evil on every side.”
Meanwhile, Dickey had been corresponding with his Toronto headquarters and urging more missionaries to be sent into the field. On November 18, he had asked for a replacement so he could move to rapidly growing Bennett. The boomtown was at the end of the White Pass and Chilkoot Trails and was an entry point into the Yukon River system. Many stampeders were going into the Bennett area where they would build boats they would use in the late spring to get to Dawson.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Presbyterian Church had raised some $7,000 for missions to Skagway, Bennett, Glenora, and Dawson City. On December 30, the 37-year-old Reverend A. S. Grant of Almonte, Ontario, was commissioned for the Klondike. Grant left his wife and children January 2, 1898, and arrived in Skagway January 22.
In discussions between Grant and Dickey, they agreed that Grant, who had medical skills, should be the first to leave. After only two days in Skagway, Grant took to the bitterly cold White Pass Trail. In what he called “the herculean task of my life,” in a nearly three-week journey, he ministered to those along the trail. In Bennett he picked a church site and ordered a 24- x 40-ft meeting tent. To add to the $60 he had collected along the trail, he started a subscription list headed by a contribution from Major James Walsh, Yukon Commissioner.
Grant wrote Dr. Robertson to urge a replacement for Dickey, so Dickey too could come to Bennett. Meanwhile, Commissioner Walsh was pushing both Grant and Dickey to accompany the prospectors to Dawson when the waterways opened. Although a Presbyterian replacement had not arrived, Dickey preached his last Skagway sermon March 27. Two missionaries, one Episcopalian and one Methodist, had arrived, and the Union Church’s trustees agreed that they could alternate in the pulpit. In less than six months in Skagway, Dickey had been responsible for Skagway’s first church, its first school, and had chaired the committee for the first public hospital.
Five days after his last Skagway sermon, Dickey arrived in Bennett where he again conferred with Grant. Dickey, they decided, would serve in the Bennett area until ice breakup, and then go on to Dawson. Grant immediately proceeded overland to the north end of Lake Laberge. Here he would take an early boat to Dawson, where there was much need for his medical skills.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Presbyterian Church’s Home Mission Committee had authorized Dr. Robertson to select a replacement for Dickey. The replacement, 35-year-old Reverend John A. Sinclair, arrived in Skagway on May 20, 1898, nearly two months after Dickey’s departure. Sinclair, who considered himself to be the designated successor to Dickey, was confounded when he went to the Union Church and found a large sign mounted on it, saying “Episcopal Church.” Besides this, Dickey’s quarters in the back had been taken over by the Episcopalian clergyman. In a conversation, the Reverend John Campbell reportedly told the Canadian Sinclair, “You are not in your properly assigned field of labor when you are attempting to minister in American territory.”
Sinclair decided to go to Bennett to confer with Dickey, so hiked there on the White Pass Trail with companions. For two days Dickey and Sinclair discussed the situation and their options. They concluded that the best approach would be to urge the American Presbyterian Church to take over the Skagway mission without delay. In the meantime, Sinclair would hold the ground in Skagway and minister to those located along the trail from Skagway to Bennett. When Sinclair was relieved, he would set up his ministry in Bennett. Dickey, with the ice now breaking, was to shortly follow the stampeders to the Yukon Territory.
Dickey wrote a letter to the Skagway congregation. Sinclair took the letter with him when he returned to Skagway via the Chilkoot Trail. Dickey’s letter apparently had the desired effect, since a unanimous resolution passed that Sinclair remain for an indefinite period and be appointed as “resident minister” to succeed Dickey. At a meeting of clergy, four protestants and one Catholic priest, a Sunday schedule of services for each denomination was agreed. A union Sunday school was to take place at 2:00, and the building would be open weekdays as a reading room and lounge for homeless men. Evenings were for denominational group meetings, and all were invited to a weekly social evening.
Episcopalian clergyman Campbell, however, still refused to vacate the church’s attached residence, and a feud with him continued for almost three months. He finally left after being replaced on the orders of Episcopalian Bishop Peter Rowe.
The energetic Sinclair held Sunday morning services in the railway hospital, and would frequently hold services in the many camps along the railway construction route. In July Sinclair conducted the funerals for Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith and Frank Reid. He was an amateur photographer and took some well-known photos of the dead Smith and his autopsy. Sinclair welcomed visitors to his room in the Golden North Hotel, located on the north side of Fourth Avenue between State and Main Streets. This was a temperance establishment operated by Thomas Whitten, with no gambling or drinking allow. It is not the same building or location as the current Golden North Hotel.
By the fall of 1898, an American Presbyterian presence was long overdue in Skagway. Sinclair felt the urgent need to move on to more demanding work in Canadian territory. One possible replacement was the well-know veteran American missionary S. Hall Young, the “Mushing Parson.” He had traveled to Dawson early in the gold rush, and was surrendering his role to the Canadian Reverend Grant. Young met with Sinclair, observing that he “was doing splendid work at Skagway, and was much beloved there.” Sinclair agreed to find a new church building and then, said Young, “go into the interior in the spring, when he would be relieved by one of our American preachers.”
Following Young’s departure, Sinclair worked on behalf of the American Presbyterian Church on planning a new building. According to Sinclair, “The Union Church is hopelessly tied up insofar as our Presbyterian interests are concerned.” In late February 1899 Sinclair cut ties with the Union Church and moved the congregation into Victoria Hall on Fifth Avenue, a short distance east of the Union Church. Based on photographs, it appears the rental building had previously held the Seattle Stove Company. The move was followed almost immediately by a strike of railway workers. On March 2 a committee asked Sinclair if the strikers could be allowed to sleep on the new church’s floor. Permission was granted. Tensions were high in town, but Sinclair used some of his good will with workers and railroad management to discourage violence and push towards a settlement.
The American church sent word that a missionary, Norman B. Harrison, was to arrive in mid-June. Sinclair wrote back urging earlier arrival. The Presbyterian congregation was progressing well, with 165 seats filled one Sunday. A Scot whom Sinclair befriended, Arthur Copeland, began leading some services at the hospital and the new church. With Copeland’s help, Sinclair felt able to get on to work in Bennett and to continue his weekly rounds among the construction camps.
Once in Bennett in early April, Sinclair found a new church site, and put out a call for funds and volunteers. On May 24, 1899, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Lake Bennett’s cornerstone was laid. This church was only in active use for a few years, as people moved on. But the church building, although empty, still remarkably stands in a lovely setting that more than a century ago was full of life. The building could also serve as a reminder of the indefatigable Canadian Presbyterian missionaries who played such an important role in early Skagway, Bennett, and along the White Pass Trail.
Dickey, R. M. (Petersen, Art, ed.) Gold Fever: A Narrative of the Great Klondike Gold Rush 1897-1899, Klondike Research, Juneau, AK, 1997.
Green, Kenneth J., Alaska Sportsman, “First Christmas in Skagway”, December, 1967, p. 3.
Sinclair, James M., Mission: Klondike: From Lawless Skagway to Bennett and Dawson, Mitchell Press, Vancouver, 1978.
Young, S. Hall, Hall Young of Alaska: The Mushing Parson, Fleming H. Revell, NY, 1927.