Work in the Yukon Begins

The Gold Rush and Central Alaska

Robert McCahon Dickey arrived at Skagway on October 9, 1897, to encounter one Captain Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, the toughest character in the country, and a renowned “villainous con-artist.” Smith had arrived just a few weeks prior to Dickey. Dickey was an incorruptible Presbyterian minister from Canada. The two men were notorious adversaries in the small gold rush community. It was just the beginning of Presbyterian influence in Gold Rush country -- our co-religionists were there from the beginning; in fact, before the beginning.

The Russians had discovered gold as early as 1832, but it was ignored in favor of the fur trade. In 1834, Robert Campbell, a Presbyterian Scotsman, was the first white man to find evidence of gold in the Yukon. But it was not until 1896, that another Presbyterian Scotsman Robert Henderson, from Big Island, Nova Scotia, discovered a rich Klondike deposit, at first credited to George W. Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie. 

We Americans tend to favor Carmack, Jim and Tagish as the discoverers. Ours is but one opinion. The Canadian government has officially proclaimed Henderson as co-discoverer, since it was he who pointed the way to Carmack in the first place. What we can agree on is that he discovery was first announced in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 17, 1897. Presbyterians everywhere perked up their ears and opened their eyes.

S. Hall Young

Not to lose any time, that same summer the Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. invited the Rev. S. Hall Young of the Presbytery of Wooster and formerly a missionary in southeastern Alaska (from 1878 to 1888) to head back to Alaska, only this time to penetrate the Interior to seek out the seekers of gold -- for God.

At that time it was supposed that the Klondike was in American territory. Young arrived in Dawson, the center of the Klondike region, by autumn of 1897, having crossed the Chilkoot Pass on foot with the other seekers and voyaging down from the headwaters of the Yukon.

Since 1832, the Church of England had established missions in what was the Yukon Territory. The Presbyterian Church of Canada had joined the effort in 1881.

Our man Dickey, not long out of Ireland, was sent to the Klondike in his second year of theology at Manitoba College. Enroute to the Klondike, he was ordained at Vancouver. He arrived at Skagway on October 9, and preached the first Presbyterian service in the area on October 10, 1897 at Burkhart Hall.

Known for his early ecumenical efforts, Dickey helped build a Union Church -- involving the Episcopalian, Baptist, Native Christian Church, Methodist, and Presby-terian communities. He maintained friendly relations with the Catholics and Jews of the community, as well. He is also recognized for seeking trained nurses and other medical personnel for the local hospital. 

The later arrival of Canadian Presbyterian missionaries Andrew S. Grant, John Pringle, John A. Sinclair, and others augmented Dickey’s efforts.

Meanwhile, during the fall and winter of 1897, American S. Hall Young organized the Presbyterian Church in Dawson and also assisted in the establishment of a hospital. When it became definitely known that the scenes of his labor were not on American soil, the Canadian Presbyterian Church sent in missionaries to whom Young turned over the work at Dawson. Eventually, the Skagway work became American.

In the summer of 1898, Young took a trip down the Yukon through Alaska, visiting the camps and towns as far as Rampart. He then returned to the States and urged the Home Mission Board to send a number of missionaries into the Yukon Valley -- in territory owned by the United States.

Young spent the winter of 1898-1899 helping the Board to raise funds and enlist interest in the work for Alaska. Several men were commissioned to go at once to that distant field. 

Because of the inaccessibility of the country, the General Assembly of 1899 was petitioned to authorize the erection of the Presbytery of Yukon. The new Presbytery would include the pre-existing missions at Point Barrow and St. Lawrence Island and all north Alaska. The Assembly in Minneapolis granted the petition, May 26, 1899. The new Presbytery was included within the Synod of Washington.

The first meeting of the Presbytery was held in Eagle, Alaska, July 26, 1899, and attended by the three of the five missionaries assigned to the new presbytery. The others were still enroute or had not heard of the meeting.

The Rev. and Mrs. James W. Kirk were to remain at Eagle. The Rev. Horatio R. Marsh, MDand the Rev. Samuel R. Spriggs continued on their way to Barrow, while Young and the Rev. M. Egbert Koonce, Ph.D. proceeded to Rampart where Koonce was to labor. Young joined the gold seekers headed for Nome. At St. Michael he met Dr. Sheldon Jackson, who was making his annual tour of the schools. Dr. Jackson said, “Hurry on to Nome; you will find the greatest task of your life in that new camp!”

The Men Take Up Their Task

The Rev. Koonce went Rampart in 1899 but spent the winter of 1900-01 at St. Michael where he experienced “a good attendance” at his services. With the military and commercial companies already leaving, however, it was decided to make St. Michael an “occasional preaching point." He then went to Teller in fall of 1901 and returned to Rampart before leaving the field in 1905 for Pittsburgh.

The Rev. E. J. Meacham was serving the people of Nome in 1901 and in 1914 the Rev. E.N. Bradshaw was serving those in Ruby.

Challenges and Disappointment in Nome

The Rev. L.L. Wirt, a Congregational minister, had arrived in Nome in August of 1899, having passed the Rev. S. Hall Young at Eagle. The Rev. Wirt looked over the situation and saw the need for a hospital and a church. He departed for Seattle to raise the money for both.

In his absence, the Rev. Young arrived -- in the midst of both gold fever and typhoid fever. A full one-third of the men in Nome had typhoid and the Rev. Young conducted eleven funerals in one week. Young was the only minister in Nome for six weeks, when the Rev. Wirt returned with money and materials for a hospital -- as well as nurses, medicines, and an additional physician.

The story has it that Wirt was somewhat resentful of Young but realized that the seriousness of the situation required their working together. Young was suddenly struck with the disease he had been fighting and lay ill for seven and a half weeks -- kept alive by the loving care of the miners, the bartender, and milk from the only cow in Nome.

During his convalescence, Young received word from the Presbyterian Mission Board to hand over his work to the Congregationalists, in accord with the Comity Agreement. 

In January of 1900, Young left Nome by dogteam to the new gold camp at Council, 85 miles northeast. He organized a mission there that later became a Presbyterian church. When he returned to Nome in June, the town was swarming with 20,000 gold seekers -- and an epidemic of smallpox and German measles. Young opened a tent church -- and both the Congregational chapel and Young’s Presbyterian tent were filled with eager worshipers. There were 32 charter members for the Presbyterian church organized there. The Rev. Luther Scroggs was named stated supply and Young moved on.

The development of the Presbyterian fieldwork can be monitored in one way by charting where the Presbytery met each year. It met at Eagle in July of 1901 and again in Teller in August of that same year. The 1903 and 1904 meetings were conducted at Rampart. In 1905, the Presbytery convened in the new church building at Fairbanks. 

The Nome Presbyterian Church was discussed at the 1901 meeting at Teller. Presbytery ordered the Presbyterian Church in Nome disbanded with the direction that members were to be encouraged to unite with the Nome Congregationalists. The Rev. Young was to oversee the transfer.

During the ensuing years, meetings were also held in Nenana, Cordova, Seward, Knik, and Anchorage. Issues faced by the Presbytery during these early years centered on obtaining continued financial support and personnel for the mission work throughout the territory -- and the opening, closing and re-opening of various ministries.

The church at Council was declared disbanded at the 1912 meeting at Cordova.

In 1919, Presbytery heard a brief review of the fieldwork while meeting at Nenana:

 


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