Skagway cabin a treasure trove of old newspapers

Part dedicated to women's suffrage, another to children

Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2005

SKAGWAY - William Moore saw the Klondike Gold Rush coming years before the first nugget was plucked from Bonanza Creek.

The former steamboat captain looked at the mountains near the Klondike, saw they were similar to other ranges where gold had been found, and figured it was just a matter of time, according to the National Park Service. But instead of taking up a pickax and heading for the Yukon, he eyed the sliver of land where the Taiya River meets the Skagway, correctly predicting that would be the jumping-off point for the prospectors making their over the Chilkoot and White passes.

Moore and his son Ben homesteaded 160 acres on that land and called their settlement Mooresville. It was 1887, a decade before the stampede, and the land that would become Skagway was unsettled, wild and isolated.

Waiting for the gold seekers they knew would eventually come through, Ben Moore and his Tlingit wife, Minnie Elizabeth, lived for two summers in a little 16-foot-by-15-foot log cabin he and his father built, the first home in Skagway.

To keep out the blowing wind, and perhaps to stave off the isolation, the Moores pasted newspapers over the interior of their cabin. Walls, doors, crossbeams, even the hatch to the loft above the 6-foot-tall ceiling - it was all covered.

Part of a wall was dedicated to women's suffrage. Another had a children's theme. There were collages of sports, animals and politics. Newer, more interesting pictures and stories were pasted over old ones. The newspapers all dated from the 1880s and 1890s and came from California, Canada, Ohio, New York, England. Pages from Harper's Weekly were juxtaposed with Scientific American and The Illustrated News of the World.

Outside, there was not a soul around. Inside, firefighters battled burning buildings. Over the bed, a naval fleet was being reviewed. In another part of the room, a posse searched for an armed bandit: "Dead or alive - They'll get him."

The newspapers and magazines have no real monetary value, said Gold Rush National Park curator Debra Sanders. But, she said, they are as much a slice of Gold Rush history as the cabin itself, providing insulation, decoration and education to Skagway's first settlers.

"If it was just newspaper on the wall, it probably wouldn't be worth it," Sanders said. "There was obviously so much thought put into this."

Alarmed by the decay caused by nesting rodents and the soggy Southeast Alaska weather, the National Park Service decided to save the arrangements of news items decorating the walls of the Moore cabin. The Park Service spent nearly $21,000 removing the hundreds of newspapers from the cabin's interior this August.

The Park Service hired Eileen Clancy, a paper conservator from Denver. For more than a month, she and Sanders slowly peeled off the scraps using Japanese kozo paper made specifically for conservation. They worked in the dim, cramped cabin, moving at a rate of about a square foot each hour.

"It's tough working because there is 120 years' worth of dirt coming down," Clancy said.

The doorway to the cabin was left open while they worked to let in light and air, drawing the attention of the thousands of tourists who shuffle by the site. The tourists peppered the women with questions and snapped photographs. The work slowed. They hung a question-and-answer sheet on the barricade to the door to ward off the more obvious queries.

"So far, there's been only one that has said, 'What a waste of taxpayers money,"' Sanders said.

The National Park Service keeps a storage room that is lined with cabinets and shelves filled with Gold Rush artifacts - everything from mining tools to diaries from the town's prominent residents. Here, the newspapers from the Moore cabin will be kept until money is raised for the next phase of preservation.

And Moore? Turned out he was right. The Gold Rush arrived in 1897 and Skagway became a boom town. But the Moores were overrun. William Moore's land claims were ignored and the settlement he called Mooresville became Skagway. The family lost their homestead and only later were they able to reclaim a portion of the land.

Sanders and the National Park Service figure the next fortune seekers will be looking for nuggets of history instead of gold. That's why the newspaper project, one of the more costly for the Skagway park, was undertaken.



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