In the Archives: Alaska Trumps Michigan

An Ypsilanti teacher's tale of a Klondike expedition

Editor’s Note: Laura Bien’s local history column this week relates a familiar tale of a gold rush expedition that did not actually lay claim to any gold – but it’s through some elegant prose from an Ypsilanti teacher-turned-prospector’s diary.

A single personal belonging of onetime Ypsilanti teacher Frederick Boyd survives today: a diary preserved in Alaska. With Frederick, the tiny book crossed mountain passes, frozen snowfields, and part of the Pacific ocean. The book details Frederick’s struggle as a miner in the turn-of-the-century Klondike gold rush.


Beginning in the summer of 1897, Klondike travel agents began advertising in Ypsi papers. This ad is from the Jan. 27, 1898 Ypsilantian.

Frederick had likely read the stories in his hometown paper warning against Yukon hardships – stories that also detailed the luck of a fortunate few. Frederick had a secure job, a wife, and an infant daughter.

On the morning of March 6, 1898, the 33-year-old teacher stepped from the Ypsi depot platform onto an eastbound Michigan Central train. As it began to pull out, he saw his 27-year-old wife Celia on the platform holding their daughter Daphne. Frederick was leaving behind his classroom, his friends, his and Celia’s home, and his hometown.

The previous July, breathless stories about the “gold ship” from Alaska that had docked on the West Coast had blared from papers nationwide. The ship’s passengers were Klondike miners loaded with gold. “The ‘Portland,’ with 68 passengers and $750,000 in gold [over $19,000,000 today]… is an advance agent of prosperity,” read one glowing story in the July 29, 1897 Ypsilantian. That summer, ads for Chicago-based Klondike travel agents appeared in the Ypsilantian, which also ran a series of in-depth illustrated articles about the fabulous frozen gold-fields.

Another ad, from the Feb. 17, 1898 Ypsilantian--three weeks before Frederick left home.

“Here I find myself at last in the midst of the greatest and most wonderful mining camp the world has ever seen,” wrote Charles Metcalf in an article published in the August 5, 1897 Ypsilantian. “Gold is so [plentiful] that it has to be carried about in cotton bags … I have seen the result of one day’s washing [of ore] on a claim in Eldorado, and the figure was $18,000 [$470,000 today] for twelve hours’ work for four men … The excitement is now so great that no one will sell [their land claims] at any price, so there is no chance for newcomers in this immediate vicinity.” Frederick likely read Metcalf’s story in the Ypsilantian. He ignored the warning.

“[F]lour, sugar, and spices, the absolute necessities, have advanced 50 per cent,” wrote Louis Stokes in a letter published in the August 19, 1897 Ypsilantian. “The luxuries – tea, coffee, eggs, and butter – are bringing fancy prices, so that a man now needs ten times the sum required a year ago for traveling through the settlements of Alaska.” Frederick apparently thought the savings from his modest teachers’ salary would suffice.

Frederick’s was a risky venture, considering a Klondike expedition’s huge expense and uncertain profit. The cross-continental train ticket alone from Chicago cost around $200 at bare minimum – over $5,000 today. Once in Seattle or thereabouts, the would-be prospector, while paying for meals and a hotel, also needed to assemble an “outfit” of all the equipment and food required to survive in the North. Estimates for the cost of an outfit began at $140 [$3,600 today].

One of the many published lists of outfit necessities included 150 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds each of beans and sugar, 40 pounds of oatmeal, 30 cans of condensed milk, 25 pounds each of apricots, butter, and evaporated potatoes, 25 canvas sacks, 16 pounds of nails, 15 pounds of coffee, 10 pounds each of tea and salt, 8 sacks of flour, 6 towels, 3 pounds of candle wick, a whip saw, rubber sheet, tape measure, axe handle, oakum and pitch (for boat-building), a gallon of vinegar, and 2 spoons (one tea, one table). Also: “1 Gold Pan.”


Other ads picked up on the Klondike meme. This one for chewing tobacco appeared in the Oct. 6, 1898 Ypsilantian.

The lengthy list was good advice. Part of the journey included a crossing into Canada, and the Canadian Mounted Police didn’t allow anyone across who wasn’t hauling one year’s worth of food.

By 11 a.m., Frederick was in Detroit. He changed to a Canadian Pacific train, entering a special sleeping car for which he and 30 other gold-seekers had pooled their money. Off they went across the continent. “We soon became acquainted with our traveling companions,” wrote Frederick in one of five travelogue letters later published in the Ypsilantian. “The car proved to be a pleasant, portable home, and we enjoyed the ride to the coast.” It would prove to be a one-way trip.

Frederick arrived in Seattle on March 10 and set about buying an outfit. He had two partners with him. A. G. McMichael was a Detroit photographer, “a fastidious bachelor of middle age, sedate demeanor, and good habits,” wrote Frederick in the second of his letters to the Ypsilantian. “He has locked the darkroom door, thrown his retouching brush and the key in the well, disjointed the camera tripod, and struck for brawn and bedrock.” The other companion was Tecumseh bank cashier George Knapp, “of adipose physique, even temper, and pacific spirits,” wrote Frederick. “[H]e is a nimrod [hunter] of the first water, the author – and often the finisher – of our desultory supply of fresh meat.”

Frederick and his companions stayed in Seattle for a few days completing their outfit, examining the seething crowds of prospective Klondikers, and consulting the free Alaska information bureau in town. On March 25, they boarded the steamship Alliance for Alaska.

“As our ship ploughed the deep,” Frederick later wrote, “whales spouted on port and starboard; porpoises sported at our bow; seals peeped from the wave crest; ducks took flight at the ship’s approach; sea gulls in myriads blanketed the surface; or deer gazed from the forest-skirted shore.”

On March 30, Frederick’s party landed and marched three miles to Dyea, the starting point for one of the two popular routes to the goldfields. Frederick and his party chose the Chilkoot Pass route, which was shorter but more physically demanding. The party traveled to Sheep Camp on foot in the rain and bought bunk space in a small “tent hotel.”

The next day Frederick learned of their narrow escape from disaster, A mile up the trail, two avalanches of wet snow had buried an unknown number of people. “Within twenty minutes,” wrote Frederick, “several hundred brave men regardless of the danger of more slides were on their way to the rescue. Before storm and darkness compelled them to stop, active shovels had uncovered twenty victims of the slide, nearly all alive.” The men delayed their trip north and dug for another day, uncovering 52 additional bodies. Frederick wrote, “[I]t was thought many more bodies would be disclosed by the spring thaw.”

Ahead lay the Chilkoot Pass. Much of the passage lay at a 35 degree slope, with the final leg at 45 degrees – too steep for pack animals. A thin line of backpackers struggled up the mountain. “After viewing this scene for some time,” wrote Frederick, “my first thought was, ‘Where before in the world were ever so many fools?’ Then recalling I was numbered with them, my thoughts became more charitable.”

Frederick made three trips up the slope hauling 50 pounds of supplies each time before giving up and paying some of his dwindling money to have the rest taken over by porter.

On April 19 the men reached the boomtown of Bennett. It may be that Frederick stopped in at the “Arctic Restaurant and Hotel” for a decent meal. If so, he may have glimpsed its owner, German immigrant Frederick Trump. Trump had bought the hotel with the proceeds from his tent restaurant on the Dead Horse Trail, the alternate route to the goldfields. The dish du jour, every jour, was (according to one biographer) stewed flesh of the horses that died and froze on the trail. Trump made his fortune in the Klondike, which was passed down in part to his famous grandson and modern-day real estate tycoon Donald.

At Bennett, the next obstacle Frederick faced was the task of building a boat for the 800-mile trip down the Yukon River. Frederick and the bank cashier took turns sawing logs propped up on giant sawhorses. “[O]ne man stands on the ground and the other on the log. The one on the ground gets the dust, and the one on the log, the backache. By changing backache for sawdust about every two hours, we thrived well for eight days.”

Many other miners were building boats as well, and getting used to the privations of camp life. “The Klondiker has many and varied experiences. Among the most interesting and vital is that of cooking his own food,” wrote Frederick. “[T]he experience of one young fellow could have been duplicated in many a tent home. Evidently he had attempted to bake a loaf of bread. The result was an object soft and doughy on top, hard and charred on the bottom, and about as thick as a pancake. He hung it to a stake outside his tent and labeled it, ‘A cook wanted.’ None applied.”

Among crowds of other miners in their own homemade crafts, the trio set off in their 23-foot boat. On June 20, the party finally reached Dawson, a boomtown near the goldfields with some 25,000 miners. Here they received dispiriting news. Every scrap of land for up to 100 miles around had long since been staked and claimed.

Frederick and his party set off down Forty Mile River in hopes of finding unclaimed land. They didn’t.

The party finally drifted into little Fourth of July Creek. Frederick and his companions passed scores of claims. Miles further, they arrived at a remote scrap of land nobody wanted.

Frederick staked his claim and began scraping at the dirt. The party had only their remaining trail rations to live on. Swarms of mosquitos plagued them throughout each day and at night in their chilly tents.

Frederick never returned to Ypsilanti.

But he did retreat to Seattle a few months after his expedition, settling there with Celia. For awhile he served as a school principal, and eventually secured a job as a federal clerk in the Seattle naval yard. He and Celia had four more children. Eventually Frederick retired and went to live with one daughter in Long Beach, California.

In those quieter years, it’s likely his grandchildren heard the tales of his long-ago, ill-fated, yet unforgettable exploit in the Klondike.

Mystery Object

Two folks correctly pegged last column’s Mystery Object as a sewing machine: cmadler and Judy Ahronheijm.

In the Archives Mystery Object

In the Archives Mystery Object

This week we’re confronted with an Ypsilanti Historical Museum object that predates Frederick’s trip by the better part of a century.

Made of a section of log, the object has a smooth chamber scooped into the top. What might it be? Take your best guess and good luck!

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  1. July 3, 2011 at 9:01 pm | permalink

    Was it designed to split in two or has it split from age? If it was designed that way, it could be a mold for casting something. Not metal or glass, if it’s made from a log. Candles? Soap?

  2. July 3, 2011 at 9:16 pm | permalink

    A sewer pipe, from when they were made out of wood.

  3. By Russ Miller
    July 3, 2011 at 11:37 pm | permalink

    I always enjoy your columns Laura & was very relieved that the Boyd’s reunited in Seattle after that perilous adventure.

    The artifact looks like a mortar – perhaps for pounding or grinding acorns or grain into meal or flour. The metal straps look like a modern addition to control the split.

  4. By cmadler
    July 4, 2011 at 8:05 am | permalink

    Since you wrote “scooped” rather than hollowed, I don’t think it’s any kind of pipe or tube. It might be a mortar as Russ suggests, but I think that sort of grinding was usually done with stone. I’ll guess that it’s a butter churn.

  5. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    My word, have I really managed to stump :D the history people? Gee whiz, I thought for some reason this would be a gimme, but I’ve been wrong before about such things.

    Jim: It was not designed to split that way. The metal bands are a modern-day add-on just to hold it together, just as Russ said.

    Sabra: You are right, Ypsi used to have municipal pipes made out of wood (!) I know they were used for the water system, not sure about sewer but I will take your word for it. Can you imagine what a maintenance nightmare that would be? Good grief. This is not a pipe, though.

    Russ: Thank you for your lovely comment. I really want to get a transcription of his diary but have not yet pursued that with the Alaska State Library, where it is housed. Frederick was such a perceptive observer and funny and descriptive writer…I’m dying to read it. There’s also some question as to whether Celia and their infant daughter joined Frederick for some of the journey…I couldn’t verify that, however, but aim to eventually. Interesting guess on the mortar.

    cmadler: The scooped part is not too deep; about as deep as a big mixing bowl (I know it’s hard to gauge in this pic). I can say that despite your good guess, it’s not a churn. It is, however, arguably the oldest local artifact in the museum, from really rough-hewn pioneer days in Woodruff Grove.

  6. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm | permalink

    …It’s also an artifact that’s mentioned in H. Colburn’s “History of Ypsilanti,” in the beginning sections. Early 19th century.

  7. July 4, 2011 at 2:11 pm | permalink

    I don’t think Ann Arbor ever had wood sewer pipes, but we certainly had wood water mains, maybe still do. I remember a story in the AA News many years ago about the oldest water main in town, which was made of wood and ran under the street in front of South Quad. This was within the last two or three decades.

    You’ve got me stumped. It’s a fair amount of work to make a smooth scoop into the end of a log, and given its age, I’m going to say it’s functional rather than decorative. If it holds something, it doesn’t have much capacity. The height suggests it doesn’t just sit on a table. None of the crazy things I can think of seem right (spittoon, ash tray, snack bowl). Maybe it’s architectural, or part of farm equipment. But you didn’t expect this to stump us, so it can’t be too obscure.

    I’m not going to check Colburn, that’s a giveaway. Come on, Chronicle readers, help me out here.

  8. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm | permalink

    Jim: That is fascinating about the South Quad wooden water main. Wow. Similarly, I know Ypsi also had wooden water mains, but the water system predated the sewer system by quite a few decades. For many years people had home sewer vaults…this delightful item was a septic tank directly under one’s home, in the basement, which needed periodic cleaning out and was eventually viewed as a vector of disease…or they had privies in the backyard. You can see 19th-century backyard privies on old Sanborn maps even in the upscale Normal Park area.

    If I had to guess without digging into my files, I’d venture that by the time an Ypsi municipal sewer system was instituted, metal pipe was available with the advent of industrialiation. For some time even the metal pipe system drained directly into the Huron, though.

  9. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm | permalink

    …there’s an interesting example of an indoor privy at Cobblestone Farm, down a long hall on the extreme northwest corner of the main farm building. It’s a two-holer. Basically a wooden bench with holes with lids. The reason for the lids was that there was no water trap arrangement as in modern toilets. Just a privy pit down there, presumably. A lot of Ypsi homes with home privy vaults, even if they had flush toilets, did not yet have water trap toilets in the early days to block odors. There was talk at the time about the noxious gases emanating from vaults–into one’s home–being a cause of sickness. Kind of a gross topic but I personally find it fascinating how people began to develop the municipal systems we take for granted today.

  10. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm | permalink

    Hey, can I make one more comment about historical poop? :) When we started having problems with our kitchen sink we checked with the Ypsi water people, who told us that when our little post-WWII returning-GI home was built in 1948 on what was then the fringe of the city, each one had its own small septic tank in the backyard. Not hooked up to the city systems at that time. Guessing that that was the cheaper option at the time. A plumber recently reconnected the washing machine and the kitchen sink drain pipes from that ancient septic tank to the later-installed modern sewer/water main exiting our house; end of problem. Just a little freaky to think that somewhere out there in the backyard is a half-century-old septic tank.

  11. July 4, 2011 at 9:12 pm | permalink

    Wood water pipes are still in use in a few places. There’s one in Chelan, Washington. London installed a system of wood water mains in 1613 and parts of it were still in use in the 1930s. Detroit once had 22 miles of wood water mains, and as late as 1913 there was at least one company in Michigan manufacturing wood pipe. 100 years ago it was cheaper than metal and considered superior for preserving the taste of fresh water.

    But I still don’t know what that object is.

  12. July 4, 2011 at 9:51 pm | permalink

    I’ve logged an inquiry with relevant city of Ann Arbor staff about possible extant wooden water mains round these parts.

    I sorta feel like this object is connected thematically to the topic of the tale from the archives … when I think Klondike I think: FROZEN TREAT. So as my guess for the mystery object I’m going to go with: the bucket from an old fashioned hand-cranked ice cream freezer. It’s missing the metal hardware for the crank and the container, obviously, but that’s my guess. Having presided as “Crank Master” for many years over what is now a defunct ice cream social, I feel like that guess has to be afforded some extra credibility.

  13. By cosmonıcan
    July 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm | permalink

    I concur with the notion of a mortar, though I think cracked corn or coarse corn meal is the end product, maybe to sift through the two slots in the wood.

    Or…part of a bongo/conga drum set, missing skin. Babaloo!

  14. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 11:35 pm | permalink

    Jim: That is fascinating. Dave A. mentions that he checked with city officials in AA to see if there are any extant wooden water pipes. I’d love to learn if there are, and I in turn should check with the YCUA (our water folks) with the same question. When we asked them @ the sewer question they seemed to have reams of historical maps at their disposal so perhaps they have some interesting info. I should pay them a visit, so long as I’m not bothering them.

    Cosmonican: With all due respect I don’t believe bongo drums were a survival priority on the southeast MI frontier. :) :) :)

  15. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 11:41 pm | permalink

    Oh, and Dave…amid households prostrated by malaria and dealing withmalnutrition and pesky local wolves and bears, banana sundaes were not a top menu item either… :) there is no hardware missing on this artifact, but there is one clublike missing component which likely was attached to a nearby sapling, bent over.

  16. By Laura Bien
    July 4, 2011 at 11:51 pm | permalink

    p.s. …that came off, unintentionally, as a bit snarky…not meant as such. Just that I’m sometimes surprised to learn how thin the pioneer edge of survival was.

  17. July 5, 2011 at 7:40 am | permalink

    “clublike missing component … attached to a nearby sapling, bent over.” Ah, you’ve given it away. Obviously this was a primitive weapon used to scare away the bears that were so common back then and today are making a comeback. You load the bowl with banana smoothie (bears are terrified of banana), pull the sapling over to dip the club, then let it go, spattering the bear in the face. I think I’ve seen a similar device down at Washtenaw Dairy.

    The story I dimly remember reading in the AA News was about the wood water pipe being taken out of service, so I’m pretty sure there are none left in Ann Arbor. I may have the location wrong, could have been East Madison, but it was near South Quad. Wish I could remember when it was published, I’m going to say 1990s. I’ll be curious to see what the City says.

  18. By Laura Bien
    July 5, 2011 at 8:21 am | permalink

    Oh darn it, clearly I did indeed give it away. Though I’m a little surprised no one suggested that this is a pioneer-era marshmallow toaster. “You build up a bed of coals in the bowl, and position a marshmallow skewered on a two-penny nail suspended from a fiddle string…”

    Also looking forward to hearing about old-time wooden water pipes in AA; there’s a good story there for an AA historian.

  19. By George "SMOKINJOE"
    July 6, 2011 at 5:00 am | permalink

    Always interesting to read tales about early Alaska. My family ancestors were early settlers in Alaska, my mother the first Caucasion born in the Matanuska Valley in Knik, her father was a cinnabar, coal and gold miner. My fathers parents were teachers and missionaries in the Bristol Bay village of Pilot Point. I got my handle of “Smokin’ Joe from smokin’ the beaches of Nome from my partner Andy Hehnlin, a miner and well known Alaskan tempera artist. You can “Google” him by name. Here’s some on my family if you like history. [link] [link]

  20. By Laura Bien
    July 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    Those are some wonderful photos, Smokin’ Joe; thank you for sharing them. And a fascinating family history; have you ever written it up? That’s definitely a book I would read. I am wondering, however, why Washington D.C. forced the town to change its name before issuing post office equipment…bit of a mystery there.

  21. By George "SMOKINJOE"
    July 6, 2011 at 8:08 pm | permalink

    The Pilot Point issue first. If you “Google Map” Pilot Point and zoom in it shows Pilot Point, Ugashik and Ugashik New. Ugashik & Ugashik New are the same place. Pilot Point was New Ugashik and Ugashik was Old Ugashik or Traditional Ugashik. I think the post office wanted entirely different names as some people would simply address to “Ugashik” and mail delivery was a major effort to those remote villages in those days.
    There is a book being worked on now by Jim Fox about the pre 1935 history of the Matanuska Valley. He is an excellent historian that worked on a couple of DVD’s addressing the “Colonists” in the Mat Valley that took place in 1935. It’s available at Amazon or can be purchased directly from Juster Hill Publications: [link]

    An interesting bit. George Lucas’ (of “Star Wars”) family was from the early Mat Valley and did the sound track for “Alaska Far Away”.
    I met Jim Fox at a local presentation of Alaska Far Away at the Cook Inlet Historical Society showing in Anchorage. I turned Jim on to our family and he has done extensive research on it along with Coleen Mielke that has a super award winning genealogy site that did our pages. [link]
    Please sign her guest book if you visit!
    Luckily, our family tends to live long lives. I have a great aunt that moved back to Morton, WA that is doing well and is “Sharp as a tack” at 102 years! Jim spent time with her for a lot of info.
    By the way, a lot of the “Colonists of ’35″ came from Michigan. Some of their families will be on Alaska Far Away.
    Small world, aye? Glad I ran across your article. George in Girdwood, AK

  22. By George "SMOKINJOE"
    July 7, 2011 at 3:51 am | permalink

    Something goofy with the above Juster Hill link on “Alaska Far Away” when you click on “purchase”. I tried this one and it worked OK. [link]

  23. July 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm | permalink

    Re: wooden water mains

    I touched base with Cresson Slotten, who’s unit manager in the systems planning unit for the city of Ann Arbor. He’s been with the city for over 20 years and during that time, no wooden water mains have been discovered that are still in use. However, work crews have found wooden water main still in place. A wooden plug was also discovered in one instance, and it was replaced with an iron plug. A sample of one of the wooden mains was retained and is stored at the Wheeler Service Center.

  24. July 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm | permalink

    Probably the story I remember reading was about one that was found but not in service, because it was within the last 20 years.