History: Haynes expedition to Alaska

The Haynes Expedition to Alaska, 1898-1899

From: “John James Hollister Sr. Working Notes compiled from Personal Interviews by Walker A. Tompkins” Manuscript from 1960.

In the spring of 1898, the young men of America, like their ancestors in the days of the gold rush to California in Forty Nine, could talk of nothing else but the Klondike.

For Jim Hollister, the temptation to head for the northern gold fields was especially tempting. He was a mining engineer by training. Now 28 years of age, he was in his physical prime.

His matrimonial plans were for the moment in a state of abeyance, since his beloved fiencee, Lottie Steffens, was over in Germany studying for her Ph.D.

But Jim was also a practical man, a cautious man, and many of the reports filtering back to civilization from dawson and Sagway and Juneau were to the effect that where one prospector might strike it rich, a doaen failed to make any wages.

Then there came to Santa barbara a bit of confidential information: a rich strike had been made on the Kobec River, which lay on the Arctic circle, far to the West of the Klondike diggings. Anyone who could outfit an expedition and get in on the ground floor at the Kobec strike would return to the states a rich man.

In Santa Barbara, a man named Alston Haynes came into the possession of this confidential mining tip and proceeded to gather together a party of 25 husky young blades and the necessary equipment to go at the Kobec in a business like fashion. Among the rugged young Westerners in Hayne’s party was John James Hollister.The expedition officially got under way from san Francisco aboard an old three -masted whaling bark of 600 tons, the Alaska, skippered by Captain Cogan, who also owned the vessel. The alaska sailed through the Golden Gate in adance of her sister ship, the Northern Light, one morning in May. The latter ship caught up with the Alasa at voage end.

Three months were to elapse before Jim Hollister saw land again after the Marin County peaks vanished astern. Although the bark encountered some of the roughtes weather in the world in the “roaring Forties,” with waves as big as housetops threatening to founder the ship. Jim Hollister, dry land cowboy that he was , proved to be an excellent sailer. Not for his tortures of mal de mer.

One evening in late August Captain Cogan said to Jim, “Get up about five tomorrow morning and sight down the boswsprit and you’ll see Unimak pass.”

Not having seen a glimpse of land for 90 days, needless to say Jim Hollister was out of his buk at dawn next morning. Unimak Pass, according to the map, was a narrow inlet of water through which ships could breeach the jutting peninsula of the Aleutian Islands. It seemed impossible that the ship could pinpoint such a narrow target, but promptly at five o’clok, as the Alaskan mists cleared, Jim Hollister caught sight of the low-lying mountains on the horison northward, and the tiny gap of Unimak pass directly n line with the Alaska’s bowsprit.

Before going through the Pass into the Bering sea, th Alaska hove to a small bay near Dutch Harbor to get water. Small whale boats were road ashore by sailors and their boats themselves were filled with water almost to t the gunwales. Then the sailors, siting in waste-deep water, would row the waterlogged boats back to the ship where suction hoses would pump the water out of the boats into the tanks.

“My coffee never tasted quite as palatable after that,” Jim chulkes, “knowing our drinking water had been tinctured with the sailers’ socks and boots.”

Two sailors deserted ship at this anchorage.

Beyond Unima Pass was the 1,100-mile voyage across the icy waters of the Bering Sea, out of sight of land again.

Past Nunivak Island and Cape Romanof the Alaska plowed her way, finally making landfall on St. Larence Island south of Bering Straight. This island was a hundred miles long.

At this point the prefabricated parts of a steam-propelled smallboat were put ashore and assembled for future use on the Kobec Rover. The craft had small decks, a cabin, and space for stowing firewood. It was christened the George M. Stoney in honor of a pioneer Alaska surveyor.

While this work was in progress the Alaska’s sister ship, Northern Lights made port with the bulk of the Haynes’ party. This was the first time since the two ships had spoken each other out of the Golden Gate.

The Hayne party, Jim noticed, had been outfitted with furs, a luxury not extended to the party aboard the Alaska.

While on a hunting trip on St. Lawrence Island, Jim saw his first silver fox. He and a compaion determined to catch the magnificent little animal for its pelt, which was ery valuable in trade. They managed to drive the fox into a small hole between two boulders.

“You go around back with a stick and poke him out,”  Jim instructed, “and I’l bash him with a club when he comes out.”

The other man did what he was told, but whe the white fox emerged it was like a bullet from a gun and the intended victim was fifty feet out on the snow before Jim’s reflexes got the club started downard from its poised position. Within an instant the natural camouflage of the fox’s fur made him invisible. The two mighty hunters ruefully followed the animal’s trcks back toward the camp.

It was during the stopover at St Lawrence Island that Jim Hollister saw his first spectacular Aurora Borealis—great curtains of pink and other fast-changing pastel colors forming draperies over the Arctic skies.

Leaving the Island with the Stoney in tow, the Alaska crossed the International Date Line and the Arctic Circle changed course from north to almost due east, bearing around the Cape of the Prince of Wales to enter the iceberg-infested waters of Kotzebue Sound.

An especially severe storm made it seem made it seem inevitable to the landlubbers aboard that the elaska was going to sink. The frightened passengers, including Jim, began maing preparations for abandoning ship.

One of Jim’s cabin mates, a Stanta Barbara carpenter named Gibbs, began his preparations by strapping on a heay gun belt and Cold revolver.

“If you jump overboard with all the hardware strapped around you,“ protested Jim, „you’ll sink like a rock!”

Gibbs replied, “A friend of mine gave me this gun for good luc and said it would také care of me in emergencies, and I promised to take it wherever we went.”

Luckily, the Alaska reached quiet water at the mouth of the Kobec River and the rigors of the long voyage were forgotten in the business of heading inland to where the reported gold strike was located.

The boat they had christened the George M. Stoney proceeded up the Kobec river as far as navigable water permitted, Jim Hollister’s job being to stand in the bow and také soundings. The skipper was a timid soull. Although the center of the river was deep water, that was where the current was swiftest, making it almost impossible to gain headway.

The George M. Stoney could make good speed upstream by keeping just off the current, where the wter was slack; but this posed the danger of being near the bank and the skipper had a phobia about grounding his vessel.

Landlubber Jim discovered that if the soundings were less than six feet of water uner the keel the skipper would keep the boat to a snail’s pace; if over six feet he would open the throttle..

Knowing that they had a long way to go and winter was about to close in, Hollister decided they’d never get anywhere at this rate, so he bega falsifying his soundings. If the measuring rope showed only three feet of water under the keel, he would say „nine feet.“

It was a gamble, but not once did Jim’s deception get the boat into trouble. Finally they reached a point some miles inland where the George M Stoney would have to tie up for the winter. Here the party felled trees and built a cabin.

It was decided to send Jim and three others as an advance party to „track“ upstream, building cabins every so often for use of the main party behind them, at the same time prospecting for gold.

Tracking a small boat upriver consisted of one ma staying in the boat with an oar for a rudder. The other three towing the boat by means of a rope from the bank.

Before leaving California, the members of the party had paid Alson Haynes $600 each for which they received their provisions, clothing, rifles and other gear. This equipment had to be stored, and for this purpose Jim and the other three scouts constructed several cabins along the Kobec for the use of the following party.

Winter north of the Arctic Circle was a rigorous thing for a Californian, there being twenty-four hours of darkness with only a faint twilight low on the horizon at noon. The temperature dropped to 60 degrees belo zero. Mercury freezes at 62 degrees. So the party took their reading with spirit thermometers.

On one occasion a sout fell into the frozen river, breaking new ice. There was only one match in the crowd. With this, Jim Hollister by some miracle managed to get a bundle of wet kindling afire. The ice was melted off the man’s clothing and he recovered, otherwise he would have frozen to death within minutes.

It was so quiet in the Arctic that one morning when Jim emerged from his cabin it was to sea twelve inches of flaky frost piled up on the frozen clothes line, frost which was feather fragile, vaporizing at a breat; the air was that quiet. At other times savage blizzards blew, piling up terrible drifts.

Reaching the headwaters of the Kobec river, the four scouts built their last cabin, which they would use for their own winter quarters. From this base camp they made frequent snowshoe trips to explore, prospecting for gold in likely canyons and frozen creek beds, but without success.

One day a group of Eskimos came to inspect their boat. Gibbs—he of the Colt and six-shooter episode aboard the ship—just for a joke gave the Eskimos the secret challenge signal of the Masonic Lodge, and to his astonishment it was returned. These aborines in mukluks ad parkes were Masons!

On one of his exploring trips into the interior, Jim caught sight of a man clad, like himself, in furs and mukluk boots, standing on the trail with apick on his shoulder, in an attitude of listening. Hollister shouted to the man but got no reply; apparently the heavy ear muffs kept him from hearing.

When Hollister reached the man, he found that he was frozen stiff in a standing position and had probably been dead for weeks. He left the course to its solitary vigil.

With the coming of spring a new difficulty presented itself—the glare of sunlight on the snow. Jim Hollister, not having dark glasses or other protection, received a severe case of snow-blindness wich lasted several days.

Meanwhile the main party under alston Haynes of Santa Barbara was having its difficulties at a base camp. For one thing, no gold strike was made and the men were suffering from scurvy.

The last cabin was 700 miles inland, 35 days travel.

It was decided in early April to give up the expedition as a bad deal. With nothing to show for their agonizing months, with the North Star almost exactly overhead, the Haynes Expedition decided to quit.

Jim Hollister and three companions—Al Eubanks, Otto Myer and Jack__ decided to strike off on their own across the Seward Peninsula. They accordingly resigned from the expedition.

With a dog team of eight huskies, they set out into the white void. Jim, with his engineering eduction was aware that at this latitude there was a 45 degree deviation of the compass needle off true north– i. e. The magnetic pole was almost northeast instead of due north. Through some incredible stupidity, the navigator for the main party led by Haynes were not aware of this deviation and did not correct their needle. Much later Hollister learned that the Haynes party  wound up at the Koyubuk River, farr off course, and had to follow it laboriously to reach the sea at Norton sound. Starvation threatened them and they were reduced to eating their dogs alive. One doctor managed to hang on to his pet dog, but in the end had to eat him as the only alterative to suicide. They finally made it to the coast by log raft on the river.

Meanwhile Jim Hollister was leading his party westward toward Prince of Wales Cape. When they reached the coast near the mouth of the Kobuk, they were faced by an endless white expanse of ice-overed ocean. Here, the compass was their only hope.

Jim later had that old compass in his bedroom cabinet at 924 Garden Street., Santa Barbara.

A  blizzard caught them somewehre out on the ice and they were forced to také refuge in a small igloo where dwelt an Eskimo family. The chief was not happy about sharing his igloo with the four adults, but made room for them along one wall. They had to lie so closely together that when one man wanted to turn over, all had to turn with him.

A hole had been chopped in the ice in the middle of the floor to serve as a toilet for the Esimo babies. Since there was no ventilation in the igloo, the ammoniac reek of urine was a stench which made the white men ill, but they knew they would perish if they ventured out of the igloo into the howling blizzard.

Otto Meyer could speak a few words of Eskimo. The chief pointed to one of his daughters whose nursing baby was obviously begat by a white father. The chief indicated that for this breach of tribal taboo, the daugter and her baby could remain in the igloo until the ice broke in the spring, but then she was out on her own.

When the blizzard had spent itself the four men continued on, heading for a prtage across Seward Peninsula toward the known gold strike at Anvil City (Nome). They not only had Hollister and his compas to guide them, but a crude map sketched by George M. Stoney, the surveyor.

Thanks to Jim’s skill with the compass, they hit the portage „on the nose.“ The first cracks in the ice floes had appeared by the time they bypassed Prince of Wales Cape, and they had to be extremely careful not to be caught on the seaward side of this crack when the ice break-up began.

When they finally reached Anvil City, Jim was welcomed by his first “ship letters” from his fiancee Lottie Steffens in Germany.

There they had built a cabin of driftwood wehre Hollister lived for several months until the coming of summer broke the ice and permitted the steamer Roanoake to arrive from Seattle. Jim booked passage on her and upon arrival in Seattle in thelate August of 1998, partook in the first reception for the “Sourdough Stiffs“ as the returning goldseekers were called.

It seemed as if everyone in Seattle was down at the docks to welcome them, forming a double line of people from the ship to the street. The sourdoughs were bewhisered, dirty and many in ill health. Jim Hollister had oworn the sae buckskin suit for almost a year without changing. For the first and only time in his life he also wore a shaggy full beard.

His first port of call in Seattle was a barber shop. Then he booked lodgings in the best hotel in town, the Rainier Grand, and hurried out to a Jewish clothiers where, in bucksins and muklucks, he said, “I want a complete outfist from the skin out.“

The Jew took one look at hi, threw up his arms and said, “Help yourselff friend!“ So eager was Jim to get out of his Alaska-clothing, he changed into his new outfit in the store. He donated the bucksins and mukluks to the Jew, who exhibted them in his window as a real souvenir from alaska.

July 1899



Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 97, Number 148, 19 July 1899

A Party of Twenty-Four Have a Narrow Escape From Death.

SEATTLE, July 18.— J. J. Hollister, a civil engineer of Santa Barbara, Cal., who arrived here last night on the steamer Roanoke from St. Michael, Alaska, tells of the narrow escape of a party of Kotzebue Sound prospectors who started overland this spring to Cape Nome. He gives only the following names of the party of which he was a member, and which was composed of twenty-four men: Dr. Gale of Oakland; Dr. Glearas, Los Angeles; A. A. Eubanks, Portland; Otto Myers, San Francisco, and J. V. Baird, Oakland.

The party got lost, ran out of food, and were forced to kill and eat sixteen of their dogs. At the headwaters of Fish River they constructed boats and rafts and floated down to Golovin Bay. A letter from St. Michael announces the arrival at Cape Nome of J. D. Tallant, a well-known San Francisco banker, and George Warn of San Rafael. They made the trio overland from Kotzebue Sound. It was reported several weeks ago that Tallant had died while making the trip.

For funds, Jim had to wire a friend in San Francicso, George Martin, who sent $500-which Jim spent in a matter of days.

Three days after arriving in Seattle, Jim gained so much weight his new tight-fitting outfit was useless, so he had to return to the Jew’s and re-outfit himself a second time.

It was here that Jim heard for the first time that the Spanish American War was in progress—a state of war had in fact existed since April 25, about the time Jim and his party were returning to the mouth of the Kobec River–and that his younger brother, Stanley, was dead. He had been called by Col. Theodore Roosevelt for duty with the rought Riders regiment.

24 July 1899

J J Hollister, from Alaska, at the Grand Hotel in San Francisco