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February 2, 2013

Area residents sought gold in Alaska in 1897

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The Daily Star

---- — “Where the river is windin,’ Big nuggets they’re findin,’

North to Alaska, They go North, the rush is on.”

From Johnny Horton’s hit song from 1960, there was history coming to real life for a few men and women from our region, who headed to the “Klondike” in July 1897.

No local people were reported to have become rich by finding gold, and none of them died from the exceedingly harsh climate in what would eventually become our 49th state. Some were just glad to get home.

Our region first read about the ambitions of many to go north and west in The Oneonta Star of Thursday, July 22, 1897. The report on the front page suggested that crowds would go in the spring of 1898.

As reported on July 24, “A party of five or six young men from Oneonta and vicinity say, in all sincerity, that they will undertake the journey to Klondike early next spring, and are already making preparations. One or two of Oneonta’s prominent business men are seriously contemplating the trip, with an idea of taking in a large supply of merchandise to sell. In fact all classes are talking of Alaska and it has been, for a week, the popular subject of conversation.”

“There are a few Oneontans now in Alaska, and they are enviously talked of by the prospective explorers. Charles Yager, a son of John Yager, who lives about four miles from Oneonta, has been in the southern part of the new territory for about three years. At first he bought and sold furs, but the latest reports told of his success in the mines. He is about 40 miles from a postoffice and the opportunities for sending a letter home are infrequent.”

“Another young man, well known to Oneonta … is C.E. Hoye, brother of Justice B.W. Hoye. He is a graduate of New York Medical college.” Hoye was a surgeon in the employ of the Berner’s Bay Mining and Milling Co.

Herman N. Carpenter of Oneonta wasn’t about to wait until the next spring. Carpenter was reported as having departed for the Klondike on July 28. He told a Star reporter, “I shall have a wonderful experience, a good time, anyway, and if there is any gold to be gotten I will get some of it. I anticipate the journey with pleasure only.”

Frank D. Miller got a letter from Carpenter in early November, telling of how Carpenter had arrived at Minook, “a place several hundred miles up the Yukon, where the party will remain for the winter,” as the river had frozen over.

Harsh conditions, no food and lawlessness were pretty much all items to be read about in Alaska during the winter months of 1897 to 1898. Still, people were making their way north once the spring months returned, but not as many as the past fall. Some likely changed their minds about going.

From the Otsego Farmer of April 8, 1898, came the news, “Dispatches from the coast say that the steamers going north are only half loaded with passengers. Last week George Behme of Middletown (Delaware County) returned before he reached the Klondike. He concluded there were too many ahead of him. F.W. Wakeman of Walton … has returned, not being pleased with the prospects in the region.”

The adventure wasn’t only for men. The Otsego Farmer of May 6 reported that Flora Reidel of Cobleskill had made the trip and wrote home to her husband from Lake Lindeman.

“The average load a man takes is about 100 pounds and they were surprised to see me carry as much as I did. The men are gone half a day in search of wood as the snow is up to their armpits and sometimes deeper.”

By August, Alfred Morse was back in Sidney Center, and it was reported, “He seems to have had a good deal of experience during his trip in everything except digging gold.”

W.C. Fonda, from the family that was the namesake of the Montgomery County village, said he had worked hard after spending $1,000, finding gold worth $1.60, and then having to pay $5 for a ticket home.

“Going back? Don’t you think of it. I’m only too glad to get out of that God forsaken country alive,” Fonda said. “I said I was sick, but it was not disease that troubled me. I’ve discovered that it was purely homesickness, and let me tell you a good many poor fellows are dying of it up there.”

On Monday:  Justice turned plastic in Chenango County.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.