Judge James Wickersham

Judge James Wickersham

Judge James Wickersham

James Wickersham’s classic book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials (Washington, D.C. : Washington Law Book Co., 1938), is an account of his years as a pioneer District Court Judge in Alaska.

Judge Wickersham was appointed by President McKinley in the summer of 1900 to head the newly created Third Judicial District of the Alaska territorial court. He brought the first law to interior Alaska, a district that covered 300,000 square miles.

After building a modest log home in Eagle City, on the Yukon River, Wickersham began settling mining claim disputes, collecting saloon license fees, and presiding over judicial proceedings across a vast area, traveling by foot, steamer, dog team and revenue cutter.
During the forty years he spent in Alaska, from his public battle against the corporate power of J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheims, who were trying to dominate mining and transportation in Alaska, to the statehood foundations which he helped to lay–he  introduced the first statehood bill in Congress in March 1916, the 49th anniversary of the 1867 Purchase of Alaska–Judge James Wickersham’s work transformed the territory from a lawless frontier to a shining northern star on our nation’s flag.

The courthouse in Eagle

The courthouse in Eagle

In his travels across the broad northern land the Judge kept detailed diaries, explaining why in chapter five of his book, titled Riding the Arctic Circuit: “It was my practice to keep a dairy of my journeys on the Alaska trails, in the hope that the details of daily travel, trails, temperature, weather conditions, and lodgings may be of interest.”

Wickersham begins chapter five by explaining, “Due to the lack of litigation in Eagle in the winter of 1900-1901, I determined to make a winter trip down the Yukon River to hold court at Rampart. Mine owners there were aroused because alleged jumpers had intruded upon placer claims and threatened expensive litigation over their ownership.”

Wickersham around the time of his 1901 trip

Wickersham near the time of his trip

The trip downriver would be made by dogteam, stopping at the roadhouses spaced along the route. Wickersham’s writing gives us not only a good accounting of the Yukon River roadhouses, but an excellent look at typical dog team travel of the day.

“Every dog in our team was quivering with excitement and plunging in the collar anxious to be gone. With a highly developed dog team sense they knew that another journey over snowy trails was to be taken and they were ready to start. On the trail there is change and exercise, long and exciting races with other teams along the icy surfaces of the river trails, bells jingling sweet music in the clear and frosty air, warm rations of rice and bacon deliciously boiled over the evening campfire, with every canine eye on the cook and the steaming kettle. Mouths water while waiting for the savory supper served hot in separate pans at the evening meal–the one meal of the day. Then, too, there are the friendly meetings with strange teams and sometimes jolly good fighting at the overnight roadhouses, and more often with passing teams crowding in narrow trails. Dogs and boys, be they young or old, love Alaskan winter snow trails and the joy of their travel.

“Our friends gathered round the official sled to wish us a safe journey and a dry trail. Many of them looked upon the trip as hard and unpleasant, not without danger from overflow and freezing. Often a deep carpet of snow is insidiously invaded from underneath by the constantly flowing water, and the unwary traveler may find himself suddenly floundering knee-deep in water, far from fire or fuel, in a temperature of thirty degrees below zero, or lower. Unless he can quickly start a fire and change his footwear he will freeze, and he will be helpless to save himself. Most of the cases resulting in the death of travelers in this region are caused by accidents of this kind. We carried on our sled a dozen or more flour sacks of heavy drilling, and when we saw indications of water under the snow or crossing the trail, we pulled a sack over each foot and tied them closely about our feet and legs. This enabled us to wade water for a reasonable distance in safety.

Ed Crouch's dogteam

Ed Crouch’s dogteam

“Our long, Indian-made spruce-basket sled was filled with dunnage bags, and dog feed, generally rice and bacon, sometimes dried fish; with blankets, dry socks, and warm clothing; with Alaska Code and blank court records for law and order purposes; with a well-stuffed grub box, extra dog harness, and soft caribou-skin moccasins for trail-sore dog feet. The load was well wrapped in waterproof tarpaulin and lashed down with the diamond hitch. The dogs were hitched tandem, with the wise old leader ahead. On the right side of the front end of the sled the gee-pole extended forward; the driver ran astride the low hanging rope which attached the dogs to the sled; he guided the team with his whip and voice, and the sled with the gee-pole. At the rear of the sled a pair of handlebars, similar to those of a common plow, enabled the rear guide to manage the sled and keep it in an upright position on sloping ice ways.

“Our lead dog was a heavily-thewed female husky, with fine team sense, and a faculty for finding the hard and beaten trail even when covered with many inches of new-fallen snow. Neither a strong wind carrying clouds of snow or sand, nor water, nor hidden under overflow could drive her astray. When the danger of overflow and water was met she dragged the team through to dry snow and immediately stopped and lay down, as every native dog will do. An inexperienced outside dog under such conditions will stand and shiver while the wet snow freezes around its feet and legs, but the native or husky dog will instantly lie down in the snow and apply first aid to its feet by licking the snow and ice off, and then drying them with his tongue, as his cousins the timber wolves do, thereby escaping all harmful effects.

“All Ready! At this warning the leader sprang into her collar and started the load; every dog barked a joyful farewell. Ed Crouch, the manipulator of the gee-pole, guided the heavy equipage down the steep riverbank and lined it up along the northbound trail on the icy bosom of the mighty Yukon River, and I, the wilderness magistrate, clad overall in blue denim parka, ran behind, hanging to the handlebars.”

Rough accommodations on the trail

Rough accommodations on the trail

Judge Wickersham then gives a day-by-day report of his party’s travels down the Yukon River, naming each roadhouse they stopped at:

  • February 9, 1901. Reached the Star roadhouse at four PM, five dogs with three hundred pounds on the sled. I had a bad fall when the sled turned over on broken ice near Star. Ed Jesson keeps the roadhouse, good meals; distance covered twenty miles; forty below zero tonight.
  • February 10. Fifty-two below zero when we left Star roadhouse…. Bad trail today. Distance to Montauk roadhouse twenty miles.
  • February 11. Nation River roadhouse. Trail is very bad, fifty-two below.
  • February 13. Forty below when we came into the Charley River Indian roadhouse.
  • February 14. Forty below tonight. Good trail today. Coal Creek roadhouse.
  • February 15. Fifty below zero. Came to Webber’s roadhouse.
  • February 16. We could have reached Circle tonight. We stopped at Johnson’s roadhouse–twenty-two miles out of Circle. Weather tonight much warmer–only twenty-two below.
  • February 17. Reached Circle City an hour after noon–distance twenty-two miles.
  • February 18. Left Circle this morning early, 20 Mile roadhouse for lunch and reached the Half-Way roadhouse after six o’clock, distance traveled forty-five miles.

And at this point Wickersham reports an unusual phenomenon:

February 19. Thirty-five below zero this morning. Left Half-Way roadhouse at seven o’clock and came to Seventeen Mile Cabin at two o’clock. We have seen wonderful mirages to the westward both yesterday and today. Yesterday the objects seemed to be houses, churches and mills, high, square, and upright. Today the reverse–the objects are elongated–a long flat bridge-like structure with wide arches standing on low piers, a low flat battleship with cannons thrust out at each deck end, and other similar objects. They were so astonishingly like the objects mentioned that we stood gazing at them in amazement. They seemed miles away, and yet connected with the nearby foreground. We passed much open water in the river today, the main river channel is open, running fast and deep; the ice is breaking and falling in and crossings are dangerous. Twenty below tonight.

Fort Yukon, 1900

Fort Yukon, 1900

February 20. We reached Fort Yukon… The travelers continue making their way down the Yukon River, from shelter cabin to shelter cabin, and then a rough night’s accommodations:

March 1. We remained last night in an old abandoned cabin, minus doors and windows, at a place called Salt Creek–a fitting name for the frightfully cold and uncomfortable place it was. No landlord, no stove, no bed–we slept in the most sheltered corner on the packs and dog harness, while the dogs huddled on our feet and at our sides for such comfort as our bodily heat gave them. Left there early ahead of the team to get warm by exercise.

The NAT&T store in Rampart (North American Transportation and Trading Company)

The NAT&T store in Rampart (North American Transportation and Trading Company)

And finally, on March 2: We came into Rampart early in the afternoon; “people are surprised to see me–say that they had no idea I would come–that I made a very quick trip, & etc. Secured a room in the rear of the NAT&T Co. store, while Ed and his dogs got into an outside cabin.”

March 3. A day of rest, in bed until noon; swollen ankles and blistered heels afflict us both. The dogs’ feet are equally sore but there is nothing the matter with our trail appetites.

March 4. Pursuant to public notice, a special term of the United States District Court convened at eleven o’clock today–the first court ever held in Rampart.

James Wickersham described the legal proceedings of his Rampart court, and then detailed the trip back up the Yukon River to his home in Eagle, noting “Met many stampeders from Dawson en route to Nome passing down the river with dog teams.”
Also notable was this comment at Nation River roadhouse: “The roadhouse keeper reports a rich strike on Fourth of July Creek; exhibited a glass jar with fifty ounces, about eight hundred dollars, in coarse gold dust which he says came from that creek. Ran into Montauk roadhouse for the night, thirty-four miles. The dogs know we are getting home and travel better.”

Mr. and Mrs. Wickersham (right) and woman friend in front of the Eagle cabin built by Judge Wickersham in 1900. [Alaska State Library P277-019-022]

Mr. and Mrs. Wickersham (right) and woman friend in front of the Eagle cabin, 1901.

And the final entry in this chapter: “Left Montauk early; had lunch at Star at the mouth of Seventy-Mile River. Bought a handsome Navajo Indian blanket from Mrs. Matthews; reached Eagle and home at three o’clock; distance thirty-six miles. We were twenty-two days in going from Eagle to Rampart, less than one day and two half days not traveling–full time twenty days, a distance of 520 miles one way and an average of twenty-six miles per day. Returning in 17 days, one day at Nunivak, and one at Circle, which left us fifteen days for the return trip–an average of thirty-four miles per traveling day. We were gone forty-five days and traveled more than one thousand miles. The total expense of the trip for dog team, driver, roadhouse expenses, meals, and beds, amounted to $705. Paid driver and sent my vouchers to Washington with report, paid. Found everyone at home well and happy.”

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About Helen Hegener

I write nonfiction books about Alaskan history, and my titles currently include The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923, Alaskan Roadhouses, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, The First Iditarod, The All Alaska Sweepstakes, The Yukon Quest Trail, The Matanuska Colony Barns, and others. You can contact me via email at helenhegener@gmail.com
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