NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
—by: Tom Badham
n July 15, 1897, the steamship Excelsior docked in San Francisco with about 20 prospectors and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold on board. A few days later the SS Portland docked in Seattle with its famed "ton of gold" cargo. In the midst of a financial panic and depression, the United States went "gold happy". The news flashed around the world and the Klondike gold rush was on, especially in the United States.
Just a hundred miles or so north up country from what had been tiny one cabin settlements on the Alaskan coast called Skagway and Dyea there were fortunes in gold waiting to be mined from the streams and ground. An estimated hundred thousand men decided they had nothing to lose by trying their luck in the Klondike. Few had any real mining experience and none knew of the terrible deadly hardships that awaited them in the wet freezing cold mountains and streams above Skagway.
To reach the gold fields most of the "Klondikers" landed at the ports of Dyea, now an abandoned ghost town, and Skagway. Then they would trek north up the Chilkoot Pass or White Pass trails up into the mountains following the streams to the Yukon River which flowed northwest to the Artic and boat down it when it wasn’t frozen over to the Klondike gold fields.
Forty year old Joseph William Biddle was approached in August, 1897, by a consortium of mining men in Birmingham. Representing the Birmingham Gold Mining Company, he was to go to the Klondike gold fields and report as accurately as possible all conditions and the costs involved in making such a prospecting expedition. One of the Birmingham newspapers also wanted reports from this gold bonanza. Birmingham certainly had experienced coal and iron miners.
Perhaps the consortium didn’t want its expert miners leaving for the Yukon and causing disruptions at their mines. No one really knew what the conditions there were. But, the miners would believe the reports Biddle would send back.
Biddle, originally from Birmingham, England, came to the US in 1886, becoming a citizen in 1892. He started his new life in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a skilled carpenter and wood worker employed as the carpentry supervisor of Sloss Furnaces, but he was best known as a local amateur athlete and physical fitness advocate who owned an interest in his brother’s prosperous bicycle shop on Twentieth Street in Birmingham. He was chosen not only for his excellent physical condition but his grit and level head.
He left on the night train to Memphis on August 25, 1897 with connections across the country to Seattle, arriving on August 30th. He kept a trip diary, noting every thing from the condition of the crops he saw to the shockingly high meal prices, 75¢ each for meals in the Rockies, instead of the usual half dollar or quarter charged for a meal gobbled down at a station café during the half hour or less train stops.
Using his letter of introduction and his natural charm, he wandered around the docks and outfitting stores of Seattle recording prices on heavy clothing, hardware, tools, canvas and groceries, inspecting equipment, getting price quotes and talking with people who had been "up country" in Alaska. He bought heavy woolen clothes, rubber hip boots and a pack when loaded weighed around sixty to seventy pounds which would contain his blankets, oil sheet, bacon, bread, axe, kettle; tin cup; stew pot and frying pan.
The gold fields happened to be over the border in Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had strict regulations at their border checkpoints that anyone coming in had to have food and shelter that would last them for a year. Most of which would be spent in freezing rain, ice cold streams, deep snow and below zero temperatures.
For a four man party this would amount to over a ton of various supplies which had to be packed by horse, dog sled or human back up and over the frozen mountains. Starving and/or freezing to death were common occurrences among the prospectors as well as “land scurvy” due to no fresh vegetables with Vitamin C. Anything bought in Alaska would sell for astronomical prices, if it was available. Sometimes a party took months packing all their supplies up the mountains to the border just for entry into the Yukon.
On the evening of September 6, 1897, he boarded the coastal steamer Al-ki with a second class ticket to Dyea. On Sunday, September 12th he arrived at Juneau at 2 AM. Reported, "Dance and gambling houses going full swing." During the ship’s layover he inspected the gold quartz stamp mills and mines owned by the Nowell Gold Mining Company. Leaving Juneau, he arrived at Skagway on the 14th and went to Dyea on a scow which grounded about a mile from shore and spent the night on it in a howling rain storm. Wearing layers of heavy woolen clothes, rubber hip boots and carrying his 65 pound pack, he joined a party attempting to go up the Chilkoot Pass Trail to the Yukon River. This trail would cross the U.S.-Canada border at the foot of Chilkoot Pass. While the pass was about twenty straight miles from Skagway, the trail to it going up and down steep hills and following creeks was much longer. Biddle decided he would go to the RCMP checkpoint at the foot of the pass.
In his diary he reported the following:
"Turned out 2 AM [September 17th] Dark, blowing like H. Raining. Loaded boat, stove in bow, pulled off. Got in current, pulled into rock, stove in stern, landed on Island, packed some [supplies], stole another boat went back to scow. Scow high & dry (30 ft. tide), packed 2 boat load to boats and pulled same about 3 miles, first one side of stream then other. Landed stuff, went across, 2 more boat load, pitched tents, got supper. Coffee & bread & bacon grease, 7 o’clock, 17 hours. Wet, in water most of time. Wet yet, writing this in dark. 5 men, 4,000 lbs, 3 miles."
On Saturday, September 18th, he recorded the following:
"Rained hard all night. Rivers up. Started for mouth of canyon this AM. Road just beyond description. Up Hill, down hill, across creeks, which run from mountain sides, ice water free, slipped off log into creek. Bath free, pulled about 2 miles from mouth of canyon, wave came down canyon washed some tents away & played H. to some party above. Our man grabbed sack of sugar & ran when he saw water coming in tent. Another got out with a coat & so on. Water is running now about 40 to 45 miles an hour."
The next day, Sunday, September 19th, he recorded:
"Started at 7 AM (raining). Reached Mouth of Canyon 9 AM (2 ferrys, 50¢ each). Reached Sheep Camp (or what was left of it) about noon. Here was a pretty tough looking sight. The night before there was a big rain which caused a glacier to come down into the river & the result was similar to the Johnstown, Ohio flood. Tents, log houses, stores, horses, provisions of all kinds were washed away. Only one man was killed so far as people know, although there may be more; men were digging out of the sand & mud what was left of their supplies; saddles, & every kind of things you can mention. There were here about 400 people as near as I could find out, & to some of them this was a severe blow, as it takes about 3 weeks for 2 men to move [their supplies] to this point from Dyea, & that is using teams & pack horses some of the distance."
The trail up to this point was lined with the carcasses of horses killed by exhaustion, starvation and exposure while packing loads up the brutal trail. When the trail rose above the tree line there was no vegetation for the horses to eat or wood for men to make fires with. Now the miners had to contend with crossing an uphill sloping glacier to get to the foot of the pass where the RCMP would inspect and approve their year’s supply of food and shelter before allowing them to then haul all those supplies almost straight up over the lip of the ice covered pass.
Biddle slogged his way to the RCMP inspection station at the foot of the Chilkoot Pass on September 20th. He found the Mounties stationed there to be, "first-rate fellows and they don’t seem to interfere with anyone. The Captain I spoke with was very friendly."
He then turned around to make the return journey back to Dyea and Skagway. He noted if he slipped he could slide and tumble all the way down the glacier and into the not quite frozen lake at its foot.
He arrived back on the beach at Dyea on September 23rd. Crossing to Skagway on the 24th he noted, "When I left Skagway 8 days ago, there was but very little except canvas tents in town. Now streets are laid off, cut out with stores and houses by the hundreds appearing. They also had a murder and suicide in that same 8 days. A man shot a woman who he had been living with, and then shot himself. Fortunately for him, he made a good job of it, as he would have been strung up otherwise."
After giving himself a day to lay up and recuperate from his wet, freezing trek, he caught a steamer down to Haines Mission about twenty miles from Skagway to find out the conditions of the Dalton Trail to Dawson City in the Klondike. He was told the trail was very bad with soft snow and deep mud and with the rivers high from rainfall.
A man who left Dawson City on August 28th stated that the stores in Dawson City had quit selling provisions and were offering to buy all the provisions from anyone coming up the trail. A great many people were coming out for the winter since people who did make it up the trail were lightly provisioned due to the bad condition of the trail. People expected things were going to be bad there the coming winter.
On September 26th, Biddle decided to head back to Seattle stopping along the way to further gather information. He caught a steamer going south down the coast to Juneau. He found the underground mines there were paying miners from $2.00 to $2.75 a day with board, but that the mines were very wet and dangerous. He also found that mining claims covered all the streams in which most of the gold was first found for miles around the reported gold strikes.
Heading south to Fort Wrangle, he got information on the "Wrangle Route". A much longer trail to the Klondike gold fields, but much of it by interconnected lakes which made the trip in country by boat easier, but many days longer, requiring even more provisions to be carried.
He arrived back in Seattle on the morning of October 2nd. He noted, "Changed clothes this AM. First time pants were off in 24 days." He made a friend out of a Mr. Stanley, the manager of the Washington Woolen Mill Company’s store. With support from the store and from several other Seattle merchants, Biddle returned to Dyea, Alaska on February 5, 1898. This time attached to a well-funded and supplied knowledgeable group with the objective of going all the way to the gold fields near Dawson City in the Yukon.
Except for a one page listing of dates and way points, he did not keep any journal. He made it to Dawson City on July 6, 1898, and then went on to Moose Hide Creek on July 10th. There, for whatever reasons, the journal ends. He may have received word from the Birmingham Gold Mining Company that in light of the astronomically huge projected costs, terrible conditions and miniscule chance of any profit, they decided to dissolve the company and stick with coal, iron mining and limestone quarrying in Alabama.
Biddle returned to Birmingham, eventually retired to Mentone, Alabama and passed away on November 15, 1926, at age 69.
Sources: Hill Ferguson Papers, File #56. 6. 12. 18, Copy of Joseph William Biddle’s Trip Diary. Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Birmingham Public Library. Wikipedia on Klondike Gold Rush.
The History Center occasionally purchases artifacts with funds provided by the Jefferson County Historical Association. This item is the original art work for the design of the radiator cap of the Premocar, the only automobile ever built in Birmingham. The Preston Motors Corporation was organized in 1919 to manufacture automobiles in Birmingham. R. A. Skinner was president and chief engineer. With $1,000,000 in capital, the company built its Preston Motors Plant No. 1 on Vanderbilt Road at 18th Avenue North (near the present Tallapoosa Street exit off I-20/59) where it built five passenger touring cars. Only about 300 of the cars were built, none are known to exist today.
This early one cent postage Vulcan postcard was donated by James Lowery. On the reverse side “Just as Vulcan towers above men, Averst’s Stores tower above the old style individually operated store.”
Although not in mint condition, this Alabama Brewing Company serving tray was donated recently by Dr. Dennis Pappas. Located at 22nd Street and Avenue E, the company was operated by Isadore Newman, Arthur Isnard and A. Cammack of New Orleans, Louisiana from 1897 until local prohibition was enacted in 1908.