Swineford's inventory

Combating the myth of the icebox

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2003

After the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, many politicians and citizens Outside criticized it as "the national refrigerator" - refusing to believe it had any value at all.

It would take lecture tours by missionaries such as Sheldon Jackson and books by enthusiasts such as Alfred Swineford and Judge James Wickersham and others to convince the general populace that it was worth populating and developing.

Lawyer and journalist Alfred Swineford was Alaska's second territorial governor. Born in Ohio in 1834, he was one of 10 children, early apprenticed to a printer. At age 17 he traveled by steamboat and stagecoach to Wisconsin. He was admitted to the Minnesota Bar in 1857. He gave up practicing law to become a newspaperman, founding papers in Oshkosh, in Fond du Lac and in Minnesota. He was Michigan's second mineral statistician and ran a publication called The Mining Journal. He also held public office.

Swineford was appointed Alaska's governor by President Grover Cleveland for his work with the Democratic Party. Swineford arrived in the territorial capital, Sitka, in September 1885, by steamship. Since the ship made several stops en route, he took the opportunity to familiarize himself with Loring, Kasaan, Wrangell, Juneau, Douglas Island and Kilisnoo.

Alaska governors were responsible for a huge chunk of real estate but had no transportation network to access it. Yet they were required to write an annual report to the secretary of the Interior. Swineford's first report was dated Oct. 1, 1885, barely two weeks after his arrival in Sitka. He requested a hospital to treat Natives and recommended granting Natives citizenship "in proportion to their educational progress."

His subsequent reports were designed to impress Washington that Alaska was worth developing. He urged larger appropriations for schools, the appointment of a delegate to represent Alaska in Congress, better mail and transportation service and the development of natural resources. He noted that when governors had to depend on the fixed scheduled and limited routes of commercial steamers, they would be absent from Sitka a full month in order to hold a one-day term of court in Wrangell.

Swineford was able to use federal revenue cutters to visit outlying ports. These cutters were armed ships used for patrol or to pursue smugglers; they also towed disabled whalers to port and made geographical surveys.

The revenue cutter made available to the governor was the Thetis, a three-masted steam vessel sheathed with Australian ironwood and able to maneuver among ice floes. In 1887, Swineford and his wife Minnie made a short voyage on the Thetis around the major ports of call in Southeast Alaska.

In 1888, Swineford joined the Thetis for a major cruise, a four-month, 10,000-mile survey of the Alaska coast. During this survey the Thetis visited Sitka, Yakutat, Nuchek, Kenai, Afognak, Kodiak, Karluk, Unga, Belkofsky, Unalaska, the Pribilofs, Nushagak, Point Hope, St. Paul, King Island and other villages or towns. He had two interpreters. George Kostrometinoff spoke Russian, English and "most of the Native languages." His second interpreter, Arlinga, was an Eskimo who served on many cutter cruises.

Swineford undertook this journey in order to assemble an inventory, to collect information personally about remote regions of the territory. He was the first district official to undertake such a tour, accessing smaller villages by Thetis' steam launch, Achilles. During the trip he appointed justices of the peace, considered sites for schools, examined canneries and mines and calculated the advisability of industrial development.

Back in Sitka, Swineford commented to a local reporter: "I return more than ever impressed with the magnitude and inestimable value of the undeveloped resources of the territory, having seen during my inspection evidence of almost every known mineral. Until I made this trip I had only a faint idea of the extent and value of the fisheries."

As a journalist and a booster of Alaska, Swineford took full advantage of what he had learned. He wrote "The Cruise of the Thetis," a series of articles published in the Detroit Free Press in 1889 and excerpted in Sitka's Alaskan. This series became the basis for his book, "Alaska: Its History, Climate & Natural Resources," published by Rand, McNally in 1898.

In his book, Swineford hailed Juneau as "the mining and commercial metropolis of Alaska, as well as the center of white population."

He described it as "situated at the base of a mountain some three or four thousand feet in height, between which and the town flows Gold Creek, a stream which is fed by the melting snows of the mountains in which it finds its source. This mountain forms the background to the site, which rises gradually from the waters of Gastineaux Channel to a height of perhaps 500 feet, to where the ground again abruptly falls away to the creek, the area of available building space on the east being limited by a mountain of lesser height, while to the south and west lie the waters of Gastineaux Channel, with a Native village intervening on the west."

The population of "thousands," says Swineford, "is constantly coming and going in either direction ... (but) there is no other conceivable barrier in the way of Juneau ultimately attaining rank as one of the chief cities of the North Pacific coast." By 1887, when he visited, Juneau already had a water system, electric lights, telephone service, churches, schools and theaters.

Swineford also describes Douglas, Metlakatla, Wrangell, Skagway, Dyea, Killisnoo and Sitka before he goes further afield to Cook Inlet and Kodiak. Few governors followed his example until airplanes made visits easier.

Ann Chandonnet is a writer and former Juneau Empire reporter living in Juneau.

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