Alaska Reading Material: The Diary of a Ninety-Eighter

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As part of my Alaska preparation reading, I received a vintage copy of the book “The Diary of a Ninety-Eighter” by Basil Austin. It was written during his gold rush voyage to Alaska and the Yukon Territory in 1898-1900. The promise of riches will make people do crazy things and this book is a first-hand account of that. The English-born Austin was living in Detroit and working in the pipe organ business at the time. News out of Alaska was that gold had been discovered and many would get rich by prospecting. The sensationalized stories made it sound like giant nuggets were just rolling down the rivers free for the taking. This caused thousands to put everything on hold and race north. Basil and his friend Nels thought this sounded like a wonderful idea and headed to Seattle, the departure point for most prospectors. They convinced their friend Ed from Tacoma to join them as well, so the three of them bought passage on a sailboat named Lizzie headed for Alaska.

 

Back then that voyage took three weeks and delivered them to Valdez, which was just a collection of tents and shacks at the foot of a glacier. To get to prospecting country, they had to first hike up a 20-mile long, 4,500 foot high glacier while pulling hundreds of pounds of equipment on sleds. With his stories of blizzards and avalanches it’s amazing anyone survived, but many made it over the glacier and into the interior. They camped there through the summer and fall until the rivers froze again so they could travel by sled (which believe it or not, was easier than traveling over land). Most of the gold rushers, panicked by the extremes of Alaska, turned around and headed for home, but Basil and Nels were among the few who stuck it out. They headed deep into the interior of Alaska and into the Yukon Territory and this diary chronicles all of it for us. The fact that Basil Austin also happened to be a talented and funny writer makes it an even more enjoyable read. Our heroes did eventually strike gold but they didn’t get rich. They got to Alaska and back in one piece when it was largely unknown, and that was a significant achievement in itself.

 

5prospectorsThis story has extra special meaning to me as I have several Beatty family ancestors who participated in this very gold rush. Their journey is remarkably similar to that of Basil Austin, leaving from Seattle and arriving in Alaska at the port of Valdez. Austin even mentions their steamship Excelsior arriving at Valdez port. Among their party was one woman, which was extremely rare, “This is sure no place for women or children,” according to Austin. The Beattys wrote letters home to family in Iowa, creating a travel log of their own that I’m fortunate to have copies of. We know for sure they stayed in a placed called Amy’s Landing along the Klutina River through the summer and early fall of 1898. The last letter we have was written in late October 1898 and indicated they intended to stay through the winter, although it seems most likely they came to their senses and headed home soon afterwards, as there is no further record of them in Alaska. By the 1900 census they were all back in the lower 48 (except for poor George, who unfortunately drowned while crossing the Klutina on a raft.) Most fascinatingly, while the groups’ routes differ after crossing the Valdez glacier, it is possible that Austin and the Beattys could have crossed paths or maybe even met at Amy’s Landing that summer. We’ll be near the area where a lot of these stories took place when we visit Copper Center, but because there are few roads in Alaska, much of the land they talk about is still remote, unspoiled and nearly impossible to visit.

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