Spring 1898 - The Stampede

excerts of

From Valdez Gold Rush Trails 1898-99

Photo of unloading on the "wharf" at Valdes by Neal Benedict a member of Margeson's party. From the Messer Collection courtesy of the Cook Inlet Historical Society.


On arriving in Port Valdes in early March, George Hazelet complains laconically to his diary, "It was claimed when we left Seattle that there was a wharf at this point, but if ice 18 inches thick is a wharf then we unloaded on a wharf (Hazelet, 3/13/98)." However, compared to ships arriving later, Hazelet's party did indeed enjoy a unique "ice wharf." Gold seekers arriving in February and early March encountered a thick layer of ice covering the shallow tidal flats at the head of the bay. For these early stampeeders, the ice turned out to be more of a blessing than a curse; for in the absence of any kind of dock or wharf, the ice provided a stable platform close to deep water where steamers or schooners could unload their passengers and tons of supplies. The ships in late winter needed only edge up alongside the ice sheet at high water. Once the ship was made fast, a boom was extended over the side and the prospectors' goods were deposited onto the ice. Then the sorting and sledding would begin.

Once on the ice, it was an easy matter to sled the goods the mile and a half to the cottonwood groves on the shore sheltering a random collection of tents known first as "Copper City," then as "Camp Valdes," later as "Port Valdes," and finally "Valdez."

As shipload after shipload of eager gold seekers arrived, the settlement grew so that by mid-March, one frame building and from 100-200 tents housing between 700-900 inhabitants lined the glacier stream. The rapidly growing little community possessed a dynamism all its own. "This unique camp - for it was about that - presented a scene of unusual activity. Some were tramping down the snow, preparing a place to set up their tents; some were cutting tent poles, and others cutting firewood, while others were getting their dog teams ready for hauling their goods up to the foot of the glacier, which was five miles away (Margeson, Experiences of Gold Hunters in Alaska, p.55)."

Photo of Camp Valdes by Neal Benedict a member of Margeson's party. From the Messer Collection courtesy of the Cook Inlet Historical Society.


Treloar who arrived on the Valencia that windy March day remarks that the little tent town even offered some civilized amenities. He describes his first evening off the boat eating out at a Valdes restaurant.

Bill Miller and I had our first meal at the only restaurant there was at Port Valdes, only ten men could eat at the same time, there were ten men inside when we went there, and we had to wait until they had finished. The restaurant was a tent, set down in the snow about ten feet. The camp stove was the only thing on which they had to cook, so it took some time to get a meal. While we were waiting, we picked out a place to put our tent, we marked it and put up our sign, then we went back to the restaurant. We sat down a few minutes until the landlady announced dinner, she told us to come right in, and make ourselves at home, but it didn't look very homelike, the tent was about eight by ten, a box for a table, and a few more for chairs, the dishes were granite ware, and beans, bacon, baking-powder bread, cooked dried potatoes, and coffee was our bill of fare. We were glad to get even this bill of fare for we had been on short rations on the boat for three or four days, sour bread and salt horse, so this tasted pretty good to us. We filled up on it. Before we got through it made us think of home sure enough we paid one dollar for our meal . . . (Treloar, Memoirs. 15-16).

However, the amenities offered by his tent pitched on the bare snow that first night did not quite measure up to his experience at the town's restaurant:

. . . sleeping on the snow is not what is cracked up to be. I can only speak for myself but I believe the rest of the boys were in the same fix I was. First we would lay on one side and the underside of a fellow gets pretty cold lying close to the snow when it got so cold we could not stand or endure it any longer we would flop over to the other side. That was a long night for me and I was glad when morning came (Treloar, Memoirs, p. 17).

Toward the middle of March, the temperatures warmed and the ice wharf became more precarious. The first signs of trouble appeared on March 15th. As the Connecticut Company unloaded its steam-sled and heavy lumber, a sudden thud reverberated across the ice as it settled onto its mud base. Eight inches of salt water oozed across the breached surface. The men struggled to move their endangered goods and precious steam-sled to higher ground. While they hastened to unload the remaining 35 tons of groceries and hardware, the situation worsened.

Toward noon, the third day, the ice had become so rotten that large cakes became detached, and would settle under us into the water as we passed over them with our goods. The last half day of this work was attended with great danger, for had any of us broken through with our loads, drowning would have been the almost certain result. I remember well one time, while drawing my load, that I stepped on a large cake, which broke into several smaller ones with my weight, none of which were large enough to support me, and leaving my load, I sprang lightly from cake to cake until I had reached firm ice; then, getting the assistance of some of my companions, we carried lumber and bridged the spot sufficiently to bring over the balance of our goods. We were all glad when - the last of it was got off; for there was scarcely a man but could relate some thrilling adventure during his work over the rotten ice. (Margeson, Experiences of Gold Hunters in Alaska, p. 57)

By the time of the arrival of the Valencia on that windy March day the fragmented ice had become detached from the shore and blown by the strong winds down the bay. The ice wharf could be depended on no more. The lack of a suitable place to unload off the glacier stream caused the Captain of the Valencia to select Swanport as a point of debarkation and precipitated the ensuing passenger revolt. The captain was forced to call in flat bottomed, lightering vessels from the company's cannery at Orca.