the men at the end of the earth -- 4/14/17

Today's selection -- from The Klondike Fever by Pierre Berton. In the late 1800s, the sparsely populated mining camps of Alaska and the Yukon River valley of Canada were the end of the earth. "Fortymile" was one such camp:

"Who were these men who had chosen to wall themselves off from the madding crowd in a village of logs deep in the sub­-Arctic wilderness? On the face of it, they were men chasing the will-o'-the-wisp of fortune -- chasing it with an intensity and a singleness of purpose that had brought them to the ends of the earth. But the evidence suggests the opposite. They seemed more like men pursued than men pursuing, and if they sought any­thing, it was the right to be left alone.

"Father William Judge, a Jesuit missionary in Alaska, described them as 'men running away from civilization as it advanced westward -- until now they have no farther to go and so have to stop.' One of them, he discovered, had been born in the United States, but had never seen a railroad: he had kept moving ahead of the rails until he reached the banks of the Yukon. They were Civil War veterans and Indian-fighters, remittance men from England and prospectors from the far west. Many of them had known each other before in the Black Hills, or the Coeur d'Alene country of Idaho, or in the camps of Colorado. They were nomads all, stirred by an uncontrollable wanderlust, which seized them at the slightest whisper of a new strike, however preposterous. They were men whose natures craved the widest possible freedom of action; yet each was disciplined by a code of com­radeship whose unwritten rules were strict as any law.

"They were all individuals, as their nicknames (far commoner than formal names) indicated: Salt Water Jack, Big Dick, Squaw Cameron, Jimmy the Pirate, Buckskin Miller, Pete the Pig. Ec­centricities of character were the rule rather than the exception. There was one, known as the Old Maiden, who carried fifty pounds of ancient newspapers about with him wherever he went, for, he said, 'they're handy to refer to when you get into an argument.' There was another called Cannibal Ike because of his habit of hacking off great slabs of moose meat with his knife and stuffing them into his mouth raw. One cabin had walls as thin as matchwood because its owner kept chopping away at the logs to feed his fire; he said he did it to let in the light. Another contained three partners and a tame moose which was treated as a house pet. Out in the river lay Liar's Island, where a group of exiles whiled away the long winters telling tales of great ingenuity and implausibility.

"Fortymile, in short, was a community of hermits whose one common bond was their mutual isolation. 'I feel so long dead and buried that I cannot think a short visit home, as if from the grave, would be of much use,' wrote William Bompas, a Church of England bishop who found him­self in Fortymile. ...

"By the peculiar etiquette of the mining camp, a man who bought a drink bought for everyone in sight, though such a round might cost a hundred dollars; while a teetotaler who refused a drink offered a deadly insult -- unless he accepted a fifty-cent cigar in its place. Hootch, like everything else, was paid for in gold dust, and the prospector who flung his poke upon the bar always performed the elaborate gesture of turning his back while the amount was weighed out, since to watch this ritual was to im­pugn the honesty of the bartender.

"Fortymile thrived on such unwritten laws, its residents enjoy­ing a curious mixture of communism and anarchy. It had no mayor or council, no judges or lawyers, no police or jail or written code. Yet it was a cohesive community. No man went hungry, though many were destitute. Credit at Harper and McQuesten's store was unlimited. If a man had no money, he could still get an outfit without payment. There were few 'bad men' in Forty­mile; on the contrary, it was a community that hewed sur­prisingly closely to the Christian ethic. Men shared their good fortune with their comrades, and it was part of the code that he who struck a new creek spread the news to one and all. Each man's cabin was open to any passer-by; such a traveler could enter, eat his fill, sleep in the absent owner's bed, and go on his way, as long as he cleaned up and left a supply of fresh kindling. This was more than mere courtesy in a land where a freezing man's life might depend on the speed with which he could light a fire."



Pierre Berton


The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush


Basic Books


Copyright 1958 by Pierre Berton


18-19, 23
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