Skip to main content


The Way To Alaska

July 2024
14min read

Among the visitors who tour Alaskan Way, the noisy street that arcs the Seattle waterfront, a few may wonder how to get to Alaska from there. Ships from Wrangell, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway used to berth there, but their last passengers crossed the gangway in 1954. Until then Seattle harbor was the jumping-off place for the North, steamships heading up through the Inside Passage and schooners coming down with yellow deckloads of spruce and hemlock. Now the takeoff is from the Seattle-Tacoma airport, where jets roar up into the rain. They touch down at Juneau three hours later, with breakfast on the way. A half century ago it was a week’s voyage to Alaska, and the lumber schooners took four times that long.

In 1923 downtown Seattle was beginning to spread northward and up the hill, and Pioneer Square with its tall totem pole in the little triangular park was not yet abandoned to skid row. Between voyages I lived down there in the three-story North Star Hotel, and I hung out in the Shipping Board’s hiring hall near the Colman Dock on Alaskan Way, or Railroad Avenue, as it was then called. One assignment I wanted was a run to Alaska. There were two regular services to what the travel literature called the “Top o’ the World,” the Alaska Steamship Company and the Admiral Line. When ships docked at Pier a, next to the Colman Ferry, I watched men come ashore—loggers, fishermen, old sourdoughs, young cannery hands, a few Indians—and wondered about the little towns up there under the huge mountains. Having made the China run in an Admiral liner, I was hoping for a job on one of their Alaska ships. There were four of them: Admiral Dewey, Admiral Rogers, Admiral Evans , and Admiral Watson . These “modern, fast and commodious vessels” were pictured in the Admiral Line’s window on Second Avenue. The Dewey was the newest and largest, but they all looked fine to me.

A recent reading of Ernest Gruening’s account of “Alaska: The Last Frontier” led me to unearth some old notebooks, and I found a grubby item called Pheasant Pocket Notes. Beneath a faded picture of a ring-necked bird are lines for Name and School. My name is inked there, less dimmed than one would expect after fifty-one years, and my school also. The school is “Pacific Ocean.” I think I remember buying the notebook in a secondhand bookstore on the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way, but I had forgot about the pheasant and the school. At the top of the inside page is my word “Log.” In 1923 I was compiling thoughts rather than actualities—a literary error common to the young—and the log makes queasy reading now. It begins with the spacious observation that the countries of the world are encircled by the unknown, just as the continents are but islands in the encompassing sea. Box the compass then, it exhorts me, to all the horizons of truth and understanding. These transcendental notes, I find, mostly ignore the daily encounters on the skid road and the harbor. But memory holds on to a few of them.

On one of my visits to the Admiral Line window, where I studied the big map of Alaska, I saw a towering man with long white hair under a Texas hat greeting everyone on Second Avenue like an indulgent king among his people. He spoke to me: “God bless you, young man,” and a bit startled in my paint-stained dungarees, I said “Yes, sir.” After he had passed, someone said, “That’s Mark Matthews, the greatest preacher in America.” On Sunday morning, in my shore clothes, I barely got into his church; he had a huge and hearty congregation. My log calls the sermon “dull and patronizing,” but all I remember of the Reverend Mr. Matthews is his benign greeting on Second Avenue.

My blessing came promptly. “Monday morning, March 18,” my log says, “shipped on lumber schooner for Alaska.” I had learned to get to the hiring hall early on Monday mornings. When I came in the agent was writing on the blackboard ”4 O.S. Schooner Snohomish towing S.E. Alaska for lumber.” I was the first man to ask for the job, and while he wrote out my assignment to the schooner at the Connecticut Street pier, my mind filled with pictures of the rugged coastline and the storied towns at the Top o’ the World.

I went to the North Star, stuffed my shore clothes along with Shelley and Dante into my seabag, and walked through a thin drizzle to the Connecticut Street basin. It would be a slow run, but I would really see the Inside Passage and have a good payday at the end. Ordinary seamen drew sixty-five dollars a month in 1923.

At the foot of Connecticut Street the Snohomish stood above the clutter of lumber and fishing docks. She was an old four-master, tired and dirty, her topmasts lifting into the fine rain. She still had her rigging but no canvas. Like other West Coast sailing vessels, she had become a barge. Instead of leaning white sails into the wind she would plod behind a grimy tugboat. But as I crossed the cleated gangplank she looked good to me.

The deck was littered and lifeless, but a wisp of smoke came from the galley. I looked in there. A morose, dark, dishevelled man was spooning coffee into a battered pot. “Keep out of the galley,” he said sharply. I asked for the mate—a sailor reports to the mate with his assignment notice. He shook his head. “No mate here. Captain Olson’s in his cabin.” He opened the stove door and poked in a piece of slabwood. “Where’s the fo’c’s’le?” I asked. He pointed through a small square opening in the bulkhead—the slot through which would be thrust all the meals I would eat for weeks to come.

I went around the deckhouse, ducked under the door, and stepped down into the fo’c’s’le. It was dark and clammy and smelled of damp straw mattresses. There were eight empty bunks and a bare mess table. I threw my bag into an upper bunk dimly lighted by a glassed porthole. Then I went aft to the cabin. A voice answered my knock, and I said, “Seaman reporting.” The door opened and I handed my slip to a stocky, gray, unshaven man in a flecked gray undershirt with suspenders dangling from his trousers. “Keep out of the cook’s way,” he said. “It’s hard to keep a cook on this run.”

My log, I find, says little about things that would interest me now, over a half century later. After observing that the schooner tugged at her lines like a mind tied to tenets in a classroom (in 1923 I was enjoying a grudge against college), it says “Worked by for two days, mostly cleaning out the hold, and in the Wednesday morning rain I steered out behind the Canadian tug Coutli .” During those two days the other three seamen came aboard, and I would like to know what wary things we said to each other at that dim mess table and how my shipmates struck me at first sight. Instead of such reporting the log remarks: “Every vessel outward bound is a microcosm, a small, uneasy world seeking its own destiny.”

Memory, however, has held on to the plain facts ofthat rainy Wednesday morning. Fuming and churning, the Coutli came alongside. She whistled, a big blast from a small craft, and Captain Olson came out of his cabin. The Coutli threw us a heaving line, and we hauled up a big hairy hawser and made fast. Probably because I was wearing my baggy Admiral Line sweater, the captain said to me, “You take the wheel, Slim.” I immediately ran back to the pilothouse while the tug whistled again.

On the raised deck astern the wheel was enclosed by a slant-roofed shed—except for a wide front window it looked exactly like a privy. As the towline stretched out, water rained from it onto the gray harbor. Then the Snohomish began to move, and I pulled on the old steering wheel. We crept by some anchored ships in Elliott Bay, past a big gray battlewagon heading in to Bremerton, and on up Puget Sound. My job was to follow the tugboat, and with that six-inch towline I couldn’t have done anything else. Off Point No Point we were overtaken by the Admiral Dewey . As she swished past us, “modern, fast and commodious,” two sailors at the bow beckoned me aboard. I waved them on. They would be in Juneau long before we were beyond Vancouver Island, but I wouldn’t have traded places.

Years later I put a schooner and a tugboat into a story. I named the tug Samson , but she was just the Coutli , a battered little workhorse with her stern in white water and a smudge from her funnel. The Coutli carried four men, a cook, and a captain, just like us, and I soon knew them all by sight. On that small craft there was no place to go. When they came out of their messroom, they stood in the stern, staring at their tall-masted burden. We stared back. Day and night, for two thousand miles, we were just three hundred feet apart, and we never even waved to one another.

Captain Olson lived a solitary life in his cabin. The cook carried his meals aft on a tray, and every morning I filled his lamp with kerosene and trimmed the wick. He kept a neat cabin, with a pile of old Capper’s Farmer magazines on the floor and some limp clothes on a line of sail twine. He always stood on deck after supper, feet apart in the chill wind and a pinch of snuff under his lip, scowling at the Coutli . Every time they threw coal on the fire, we had a rain of soot and cinders. I suppose he was thinking that with all that smoke they had warm quarters and could dry their clothes. Our main heat was in the galley, and the cook lived there; his bunk-room opened off the pantry. We had a donkey engine on deck, and we kept a fire in the boiler. It gave us hot water and a place to warm our hands after a cold wheel-watch.

Two men to a watch, we spent four hours on and four off. The daytime watch meant two hours in the pilot shed and two hours poking around with a scraper and a paintbrush; at night it was two hours steering and two hours lookout—looking at the Coutli ’s riding lights through the rain and once in a while at the glimmer of a Tlingit village under the mountains. The only instruments in our wheel house were a dry compass and a marine clock that chimed the halfhours—which the wheelsman answered with taps on the schooner’s bell. The lookout station was on the bow, but we generally stood the watch beside the donkey engine or in the pilot shanty with the wheelsman.

Captain Olson had been in the Lighthouse Service, he told me, and sometimes the Snohomish must have seemed as stationary as the Blind Channel Light. With a tide against us in the narrows the Coutli labored, the towline stretched out, and the mountains stopped moving. For four hours you could hear the same waterfall. At other times the tide swirled us through. In the tiderips we came charging after the Coutli , our topmasts tossing and the towline under water.

In the wide waters of Dixon Entrance, where the long Pacific swell comes in, we met a liner, perhaps the Admiral Dewey , on her return voyage. She was ablaze with light. “Ships that pass in the night,” my log says. “Does anyone there wonder what men and what thoughts are in this old schooner with a lantern flickering at her masthead?”

I find a few notes on my shipmates. The cook was morose and talkative; that is, he talked to himself. We would hear him through the galley bulkhead, his voice rising and falling in fervor and intimacy. We called him Frenchy; I don’t know why. One night he let me in the galley. He poured some coffee beside the stove and said that in Seattle he walked all night, all over the city, thinking. He thought about the world, how it was drowning in delusion and darkness and couldn’t find the light. My log approves him as “a man against the world, as all men should be.” He was already beat, back there in the careless 1920’s.

The three other seamen were Rowley, Gibbs, and a Swede we called Donkey—he claimed to understand the donkey engine. Rowley was just out of the army and wearing GI pants and wrap puttees along with a two-ply logger’s shirt and a corduroy cap. He was dirty, lazy, boastful, and lying. My log notes that the captain called him “’a damn hoodlum’—which he is.” That was the night when the captain found the wheel seesawing in the empty shanty and Rowley tending a coffeepot in the firebox of the donkey engine. Rowley wanted to go gold hunting in Siberia. He had heard of a bonanza there, and with that vague objective he was heading north. I agreed to go with him, for the sake of conversation in the night hours.

Gibbs was as solid and steady as the mast that grew like a spruce trunk through our fo’c’s’le. He was older than the rest of us, thirty perhaps. One midnight when I relieved him at the wheel, he stood for a while in the shanty door. It was a clear, still night with a moon just past the full. Above the gleaming waters rose dark mountains, and the moon gleamed again on their icy summits. Half to me and half to the mystery around us Gibbs repeated, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, they see God’s wonders in the deep.” I find pasted in my log a card he gave me:

Educational Meetings Every
Thursday Evening
Seattle Hall
512½ Second Ave. Seattle, Wash.

The other side is more emphatic.

Gibbs was a surprising man. One night he startled me by quoting Shelley’s “Masque of Anarchy,” his steady voice keeping those rhythms above the creak of the steering gear.

Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you— Ye are many—they are few.

I wanted to say something about Shelley, living at Villa Valsavano in the gnarled old olive groves of Tuscany, not knowing that his words would be repeated under the mountains of Alaska—a name he never knew. But Gibbs had begun talking about money, the myth of money, the printed paper that won’t feed a man who is hungry, or warm a man who is cold. The things produced by human toil are real, he said, but money is a myth perpetuated by the few in order to control the many. Then he told me he had been a homesteader on the Peace River above Edmonton, until a forest fire burned him out. (I could see him winterbound in his cabin, sitting by the stove with his black hair freshly combed, reading a Bible and a book of poems while the snow piled up outside.) Since then he had worked in sawmills and on lumber wharves—up and down the coast from Vancouver to San Pedro. He had joined the Wobblies in Seattle, and he sometimes spoke at street meetings. Again I had a picture of him, standing bareheaded in the drizzle on Western Avenue, holding out his big square hands and promising that in the coming revolution the poor would inherit the earth.

The Swedish donkey-man I dubbed “a Puget Sound roustabout.” He was methodical and self-contained, except for one angry encounter with the cook. We had finally crept into Spruce Inlet, about thirty miles south of Juneau, in the long northern twilight and tied up to a wharf beside a sawmill. Out in the harbor was our twin, the four-masted Skykomish , with a high deckload of lumber. We were to transfer to the laden vessel, leaving the Snohomish to be loaded by some Indians with the help of the donkey engine.

Before leaving the Snohomish we had to rig the cargo gaff for loading, and it took longer than we expected. When we finished, Donkey was hungry. Out of the galley came the cook, transformed in his hat and overcoat and carrying a straw suitcase. He had locked up the pantry and was ready to board the other vessel. But Donkey demanded food. He threatened the cook with a piece of hatch batten, and Frenchy stepped back into the galley for a bread knife. It was a cat-and-dog fight, all snarling and spitting. Frenchy won, as usual. We went ashore to the Northern Lights Café, the only night spot in that one-street town, and ate sandwiches and pie with the tide slapping at pilings under the floor. The only Alaska towns I saw were built on tideland at the foot of sheer mountains. There were no roads to these coastal towns; each one was like an island.

When we left the Northern Lights, the twilight was gone and stars glimmered in the dark still water. The Coutli had gone whistling off somewhere to load bunker coal. We got cur gear and pulled off in a skiff manned by a silent Indian. It was unaccountably impressive, oars creaking, cigarettes glowing in the dark, a few lights showing the lost little town, and from somewhere the steady roar of a waterfall. No one said a word while we crossed the black harbor and groped along the schooner’s bow. With seabags on our shoulders we climbed a rope ladder onto the deckload.

The fo’c’s’le, buried in lumber, was like a cave. We stumbled down the makeshift stairs, our feet loud in the ship’s stillness, and found a lantern hanging from the foremast. Gibbs struck another match and turned up the flame. As we peered around, something stirred in a corner bunk and a low voice said, “Cheero, mates. Give us a cigarette?”

We had a stowaway. He was from Glasgow, he said, by way of Montreal, Whitehorse, and Skagway, and he wanted to get into the States. He had lost his “papers” in Juneau and had bribed an Indian to put him aboard our schooner after she was loaded. I wondered how he had got to that blind inlet and why he chose such a slow passage to the U.S.A. Actually it was a shrewd choice. The U.S. Customs had never searched a lumber barge at the end of a towline.

Next morning the Coutli came, with Captain Olson aboard. We hauled up some pantry stores and took the towline. The tugboat’s whistle saluted the encircling mountains, and we started homeward. From shore came the snarl of the sawmill and the snorting of the steam engine. The first slingloads of lumber dropped into the Snohomish ’s hold. A month later the empty Skykomish would arrive back at Spruce Inlet, and the laden Snohomish would tie on to the tugboat.

The Skykomish , with her deckhouses walled in lumber, was more somber than the Snohomish , and the laden schooner moved more slowly than the light one. We were not a happy crew. Four men could not combat the gloom of that creaking old vessel. We had no jokes, disputes, quarrels, or arguments, no card or crap games. We never raised our voices. But we had a refugee, and that drew us together.

Our stowaway called himself McKillan; we called him Sandy. He was a small, quick-moving, watchful man, perhaps twenty-five, with narrow eyes and a stubble of blond beard. There must have been some hazard behind him, but he never spoke of it. To keep out of sight of the cook and the captain he lay in his bunk all day. At night he paced the deckload like a prisoner. At first we resented him, an intruder in our gloomy fo’c’s’le, but he soon became our common cause. We shared our meals with him, gave him cigarettes, told him when to crawl out of his hole and when to keep under cover.

One night, off Porcher Point near Prince Rupert, our towline parted in the tide-swept channel. We shouted, but our voices were lost in the mist. The Coutli kept going, straight for Seattle, and we were drifting toward the reef. At that excitement Sandy came across the deckload. “What’s up, mates?” he asked.

“Lost our line,” I began, when Gibbs warned: “Get out of sight, Mac. Here comes the Old Man.”

Sandy ducked into the pilothouse, where I was tugging at the heavy wheel. Captain Olson came to the doorway. “Ring that bell,” he said without looking in. “Keep ringing!” He went forward while I yanked the bell cord.

Ahead of us the Coutli swung around, her whistle banking off the mountains. She churned alongside of us, and a line slapped across the deckload. While they fumbled for it Sandy stepped outside. Spraying a flashlight past him, Captain Olson said, “God damn it, Slim, get back on that wheel.” Sandy slipped in beside me while they hauled up the new hawser and snubbed it around the foremast. (Our bollards were buried under ten feet of lumber.) With a short whistle blast the tugboat took a strain on the line, pointing us away from Porcher Ledge. We were under way when the fog closed in. Then the Coutli slowed to half speed, and Sandy crawled back into the buried fo’c’s’le.

On the last morning, with the hills of Seattle looming through the rain, Donkey brought him a bucket of shaving water, and Rowley, who had forgot the gold of Siberia, offered him a partnership: they could get an old trawler and smuggle Chinese into the States from Vancouver at fifty dollars a head. Sandy agreed that was a good deal, but he had other fish to fry. He just wanted to get ashore in the States.

Crossing Elliott Bay we made our plans. One of us would keep watch on the captain, another on the cook, another at the gangway, and the fourth would give him the word when the coast was clear. Sandy would be the first man off. So we ate our last meal together, triumphant over the Immigration Service. Gibbs said that in the new society men would not be enclosed by artificial barriers.

Now in 1974, with jets flying far above the tiderips and the little tidewashed towns, the Top o’ the World is just next door. But we had been to remote places, a long time on the way. In the Connecticut Street basin the Coutli shortened up the towline and eased us to the dock. We cast off the hawser, and they gave us a long blast of the whistle. It echoed from Alki Point, my log says, telling the world that we were back from a far country.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.