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Accumulated Fragments: The mother of the North

Posted: November 11, 2012 - 12:01am
Mrs. Harriet Pullen stands on garden path with the Pullen hotel in Skagway in background around 1900.   Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection,ASL-P01-4343
Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection,ASL-P01-4343
Mrs. Harriet Pullen stands on garden path with the Pullen hotel in Skagway in background around 1900.

On Aug. 13, 1860 in Hope, Wisc., Harriet Matilda Smith was born; no one at the time could have known that this child would grow up and become a significant part of the early history of Southeast Alaska, in particular, the town of Skagway.

On Feb. 23, 1881, she married Daniel Webster Pullen in Clallam, Wash. Pullen and her husband started a horse farm on the Washington coast, had four children and, for a while, did well. Then in the mid 1890s Pullen’s husband ran off, leaving Pullen with a farm to run, mounting bills she was unable to pay and children needing to be supported.

It wasn’t long before she had lost everything but her children and seven horses; her cook advised her to head for the Klondike as there was a gold rush going on there.

In 1897, after placing her children and horses with friends in Seattle, Pullen used the last of her money to travel to Skagway. She arrived with just $7 in her pockets. There were hundreds of “stampeders” who, along with Pullen, were put ashore in small boats; as yet there was no wharf built in Skagway.

Undoubtedly feeling frightened and alone, she tried to make up her mind where to go — a man touched her on the shoulder and asked her if she could cook.

When she answered in the affirmative he hired her for $3 a day which, at the time, seemed like riches to her. She eagerly followed him across the beach and up a tented and crowded street to a tent under a tree. It was stretched over a frame of rough timbers.

“Here’s my layout,” said my employer hurriedly. “Grub’s in a tent alongside. My men are cutting piling for a new wharf. When they come in tonight they’ll be hungry enough to eat raw dog. You’ll have eighteen for supper.” And with that, he rushed out.(1)

The ridge pole was too low to stand straight because of hams and sides of bacon hanging from it. The previous cook had left everything a mess along with a dirt floor that was littered with scraps of food and a table heaped with soiled tin dishes. The situation was enough to make her cry; though the thought of her four children at home gave her courage enough to start cleaning up.

“She raked the scraps from the floor, scoured the dishes with ashes, and by evening had a fairly good supper ready.” Remembering how her small boys liked pie, she made some dried apple pies for her new boarders. Pies were almost unknown in Skagway and were hailed by the boisterous crew with delight when they came in. The gratitude of those rough men for such a small treat was so touching that she determined right then she would try to bring a touch of home to whatever work she was called to do in this wild country. (1)

Cooking in a tent is extremely hard work and it wasn’t long before her hands had cracked and bled and, because of the low ridge pole with the hanging meat, her back felt as if it would break. It took her three months before she had enough money to send for her children. However, because she felt that Skagway was no place for a little girl, she left her in Seattle.

By the time the boys arrived she had found a tiny log cabin on the waterfront with a small stove in one corner and a bale of straw for a bed in another. It was a happy moment for Pullen when she was able to see her three red-headed boys asleep in the straw. The boys had no idea how desperately poor they were. They were just happy to be with their mother and play in the straw. Though they were small, they helped by bringing boxes from the beach. After work, Pullen would make the boxes into rough furniture — chairs, a table, cupboard, and shelves. She became so handy with a hammer and saw that she built bunk-beds to save space.

Pullen invented all sorts of games to keep the boys occupied in front of the cook tent so she could keep an eye on them. Skagway was not an ideal spot to raise children as the town was filled with gold hunters on there way to the Klondike. All forms of gambling were going full blast. At any one time, as many as 20,000 people crowded the beach in tents and shacks.

To top it off, one of the most prominent and influential citizens was the proprietor of the Smith’s Parlours; a saloon. He was called Jefferson Randolph Smith or Soapy Smith. He was the titular head of organized crime in Skagway. Every day he would ride by the cook tent on his white stallion; if he saw the boys out playing in front of the cook tent, he would rein in his horse to give them a cheery word and a nugget or coin.

It wasn’t long before Pullen realized that $3 a day was not enough money to support herself and her family. Although her boarders were loud in their praises of her cooking, her boss believed she needed more experience before he would give her a raise. Her fame concerning her dried apple pies, had spread all over town and a woman who was running a restaurant, specializing in home cooking, asked Pullen if she would bake some for her. She worked at night after she was done at the cook tent. She cooked hundreds of dried apple pies and, in the process, made enough money to not only care for her boys but to pay the freight on the seven horses she had left behind in Seattle.

When the ship with the horses showed up she had to swim each horse to the beach herself. When she finally had her horses landed, she drove them to her cabin, blanketed them, fed them, and then went back to the ship to pick up her harnesses. Every harness had been stolen. She had to rent her horses to a man for 10 days to get enough money to buy new harnesses and packing equipment. At that point she was ready to run a pack train on the White Pass Trail.

Today, many of us have traveled on the old train through the White Pass or driven over to White Horse but few are left alive who saw the old trail as it was. It was named the White Pass Trail but many knew it as The Heartbreak Trail or The Worst Trail This Side of Hell. Only one woman, Pullen, ever ran freight over that trail. Few men were successful in this endeavor; most lost courage and turned back or committed suicide.

The creaking, laboring pack trains went out from Skagway, struggled through the spongy-bottomed tundra, forded rivers that swept the unwary off their feet, scaled the wall of the canyon where footing was chiseled out of sheer rock, and skirted the edge of precipices. Beside the lines of loaded horses plodded the footsore gold-seekers with provisions on their backs. They pulled themselves up the steeps by clutching scrub spruce growing in the crevices — spruce so precious as handholds that it was a capital offense to cut one of them.

In twenty miles the trail, climbing along the canyon wall, ascended two thousand feet to the summit of the range where glaciers glittered and tiny lakes lay between the peaks. The height was the watershed of the great Yukon River.

The entire length of the White Pass was crowded with horses and mules; Single file, driven by cursing men, many of them unspeakably cruel in their greed for gold. Often when accidents caused the line to halt, the animals stood under their burdens for hours, unable to move a foot. Some, half starved and over-laden, died in their tracts and were shoved over into the canyon. Others, in human-like despair, leaped from the crags, preferring a quick death on the rocks below, to the lingering misery of life. At one time there were twenty-five hundred bodies of animals in Dead Horse Canyon.(1)

Some say that it was closer to 3,000 bodies.

Pullen’s horses never suffered and only one horse of her original seven came up lame. Pullen tried to treat the horse but in the end she sent it back to Seattle to be cared for.

Pullen’s main competitors were some of Soapy Smith’s henchmen. They were truly “rip-off artists” and generally did not deliver as expected. Along the trail were shell game men who were spies for Soapy and kept him informed about everything happening along the trail. Her freight was quite profitable and she was making $25 per day. But by May of 1898 she knew her freighting days were numbered as one of the greatest engineers of the time (M.J. Henry) was working crews to develop Alaska’s first railroad.

On the evening of July 8, Soapy Smith and Frank Reid met on the wharf. In the ensuing gun battle Soapy was shot through the heart and died and Reid was wounded and eventually died. Both men are buried in Skagway’s graveyard. The Vigilance Committee, that Reid was in charge of, scoured the hills looking for the rest of Soapy’s gang. Eventually, fourteen suspects were rounded up.

The railroad was completed soon after and Skagway’s drunken prosperity came to an end. Pullen’s horses stood idle and she was out looking for more work. She had spotted a large house on the outskirts of town that had been built by a sea captain for his large family. The family had not been happy about living this far north and had moved, leaving the big house empty. She was able to rent the house for $150 per month and also found a warehouse with new furniture that she could rent. She again advertized her homemade pies and before she was able to move in, she had every room rented.

More than 30 years passed and the Pullen House became the most famous hotel in Alaska. Pullen entertained more distinguished guests than any other woman in Alaska’s history. After the town of Dyea died out, she started a 320 acre farm. She ran her own dairy, vegetable garden and fruit orchard to feed the people who stayed at the Pullen House. She was a one woman army that literally fought off “jumpers” who wanted to take over her farm.

Pullen sent her boys to the best schools in the United States, including Universities. After her oldest boy, Dan, graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Engineering she managed without pull or money to have him appointed to the Military Academy at West Point. He was the first cadet sent from Alaska, all-American football tackle of West Point, finishing with more honors than had ever been accorded a cadet at that point. He was a colonel of engineers and a tank commander in WWI.

“I wish I had a regiment of Pullens.” General Pershingis said to have exclaimed. Dan died of sleeping sickness attributed to his war effort around 1923.

Royal Pullen came back from the war an officer with wounds and citations for gallantry. He later became a very successful mining engineer. He died in 1990.

Chester Pullen, while a student at the University of Washington, was drowned at Ketchikan on his way back to Washington after a summer at home in 1912

We do not know exactly when the oldest child, a daughter, Harriet Mildred Pullen came to live in Skagway. However, she married and had three children that her mother later adopted and raised. One great granddaughter may still live in Skagway.

Harriet Pullen died on Aug. 9, 1947. In 1990, the remains of the old Pullen House were torn down after the long-abandoned relic was deemed unsafe. All that is left is the rock chimney and fireplace. If you visit and follow an old path across the tracks of the railroad, you will find the grave of Harriet Pullen, now known as “The Mother of the North”.

•••

Acknowledgements:

1. Alaskans All by Barrett Willoughby

2. Mark Whiting Pullen Genealogy Home Page

3. Old and Sold, Soapy Smith and Mother Pullen

4. Soapy Smith, Bandit of Skagway by Harriet S. Pullen

5. Skagway History, Compiled and edited by Jeff Brady

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