Side Trail Story
Tales of the Alaskan Gold Rush
Bacon Harold
Steve Levi

Side Trail Story

Bacon Harold was a squaw man. He didn’t care if people called him a squaw man. He could have cared less. The Eskimo jokes didn’t bother him either. That was because he knew what he had. He had a wife. Not a woman he called a wife that lived in some state far away but a wife to whom he went home each night. The same woman who slept with him every night. A woman who gave him three fine sons. He did not have to cook and clean because she did that. All Bacon Harold had to do was go to work and earn money; his wife, Sarah, would do the rest.

In many ways Bacon Harold was an aberration. First, he earned his money through honest labor which, in Hootlani, was odd because the terms “honest” and “labor” were rarely used alone or in sequence. Most everyone knew what “honest” and “labor” were and more than a few residents had come to the northland so they would never again have to be the first or do the second. Second, Bacon Harold had a wife in the active sense of the term.

Third, Harold and his wife were oddities in both of their worlds. When Sarah came to Hootlani she was shunned because she was not a trollop, pickpocket, cat burglar, filcher, panhandler or any of the other terms for a malefactor. Further, she was an honest woman, one of only four – maybe five because no one was sure about Jennie Cartwright who gave all the signs of looking but never did any choosing. Finally, she was a Native who did not drink or gamble. That put her in a class of her own. It was fine with Sarah that no one talked to her when she came to Hootlani to see her husband. Why she would walk all the way from the north end of town to the First Christian Church of Hootlani and a see a good dozen people she knew none of whom would give her the time of day. That was fine with Sarah because she knew the time of day and she knew where she was going when the fever, cancer or a stray bullet caught up with her. Even more important, she was saving the living. Once a week, snow or shine, she was at the First Christian Church of Hootlani ministering to the sick. She was nurse, tribal doctor, faith healer and mistress of mercy all wrapped into one.

She was blessed, it should be added, because she was married to Bacon Harold. Bacon Harold came to Hootlani the spring of the Year of the Steamship as Harold Henderson, with no sobriquet. He was known around town as one of the “change people.” This was neither compliment nor curse. It was simply a fact of life. Prior to the Year of the Big Snow, Hootlani had been in a time warp of civilization. Like much of Alaska, it was a community that was founded where it was for gold in the area. It was not established because the road led there. It was the other way around. The road led to Hootlani because there was gold there.

Or, rather, someone tramping through the Devil’s Club had got a flash of color on a small stream.

No one in Alaska can keep a secret and within the length of a breath of air the stream was lined with men with pans. The gold from the un-named creek passed through the hands of trollops, card sharps and whiskey peddlers so fast it was still wet. When the gold did not play out in a season, the trail to the diggings became a rut and thereafter a road. Rude shelters sprouted among the trees and, by the second season, trees were converted into taverns and the brothel.

The community was constructed on the banks of the Caribou River for the simple reason that everyone needed fresh water every day and, just as important, the river provided access into and out of the community. It was cheaper to ship items like hammers, nails, pans and beans in by steamship than by onesies-and-twosies in a wagon. The community, now named Hootlani, was doubly blessed by Mother Nature. The shores of the Bering Sea were 30 miles to the west and there was a natural bight that was deep enough for both whaling vessels and steamships to make landfall. From there items of value – and for “items of value” there was only one: bottles of whiskey – could be lightered ashore. All other items came up the Caribou River is shallow draft vessels. When there was cargo for Hootlani, it was lightered ashore.

Harold Henderson came to Hootlani from Bethlehem on the upper reaches of the Yukon River. He had been very happy living with his wife’s relatives which was odd because it was as easy for a white man to live among Natives as it was a Native to live among white people. There is a natural inclination among all peoples to be suspicious of those who are of a different ilk and small town people are the same in this regard whether they be Italian, Mongolian or Hottentot. Harold Henderson was triply suspicious in Bethlehem. He was not a religious man, drew a working wage from the Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate and was married to a Savage.

That is, he married into the Savage clan, Christian Natives in Bethlehem who took the sir name Savage. He married Sarah Savage and lived in Bethlehem and would have been more than happy to spend his days living the Native lifestyle. All would have been well in the life of Harold Henderson, Sarah Savage and their sons had not the Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate come a-calling in the spring of 1897. With the population explosion in Dawson and the expected boom along every brook, creek, stream, rill and runnel in Alaska from St. Mary’s to the Canadian border, every eye of every executive in every steamship company from Seattle to San Francisco was filled with $$. Bethlehem, capitalistically conveniently located on the confluence of two rivers which fed into the mighty Yukon, was the natural staging area for supplies into the Alaskan interior. So the Syndicate came to Bethlehem with pick-and-shovel and were more than pleased to find a white man living in the village. Harold Henderson was immediately hired to oversee the entire operation, from ground breaking through construction to the dispensing of supplies, food and equipment along with items of questionable content to be sold to stampeders. The items of questionable content included crates listed as canned peaches which came in bottles with nary a pit, fiber or skin to be seen in the golden liquid.

Returning to the third reason for which Harold Henderson was disliked in Bethlehem, when it came time to hire for day labor and stock work, every Savage to the third cousin found employment with the Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate operation. Putting up with a gussack when he had no money was one thing; it was another thing altogether when he was only hiring Savage consanguineals. Nothing binds a family more firmly than money in the bank, particularly if they own the bank.

But time, tide and boom time profits wait for no man. Or family. The Syndicate was managed by a family whose blood was as cold as the Bering Sea. Good that it was because the family could read tea leaves better than anyone else in the Portland and Seattle shipping business. They saw doom approaching well before any of their competitors did.

It was actually quite simply. To see it only took common sense. But common sense is not that common. All one had to do was add up the tons of cargo on its way to Dawson and then divide it by the number of people who were paying for goods. Not the number of people in Dawson, on their way to Dawson or prospecting around Dawson but the number of people buying goods. The problem was that the tonnage of food in Dawson was still in warehouses. There wasn’t that much money running around in Dawson so not that many people were buying anything. Particularly food. The price of food stayed high which meant only the rich were eating. Everyone else was just getting by; more or less doing what they had been doing in Denver, Cincinnati, Tallahassee, Atlanta, Wooster or Minot. They were waiting for things to get better – fast if possible. Now they were in Dawson, in the middle of nowhere with no money, no food and a winter coming that would freeze the toes off a Hudson Bay Company trapper.

Famine was setting in! There were thousands of men in Dawson who were starving because they didn’t have the money to buy the food that was already there! So the Canadian government asked the United States Army to help and the United States Army bought food in Seattle and Portland and shipped it north to feed the poor stampeders who could not buy the food that was already in Dawson! The Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate got a contract to ship United States government-bought food north, food that was in direct competition to the food the company had in its warehouse!

The company took the lesson to heart – in spite of the fact that they, being good businessmen, had none – and shifted their emphasis. There was a strike starting up in Nome but shipping companies were going to be having the same problem in Nome they had just experienced in Dawson. It would be worse because you got to Nome by boat. All you had to have was the price of a ticket. No one demanded that you take food with you. So with each boatload of people, the available food per person went down dramatically and the cost went up. It was not going to be long, the company bean counters believed, that the United States Army was going to do the same thing in Nome it had done in Dawson. Worse, the Syndicate might have to take some of the starving men back to Portland at cost! Basically this meant a financial wash: the company would be making enough money to pay the bills and that was it.

That was not the way the Syndicate did business.

So it tried to look a little further ahead. The money was not in the tonnage moved; it was in the poundage sold. The key word was poundage. Sales were made by the pound. So the Syndicate did what it should have been doing in the first place: not shipping tons of food and selling it to distributors who sold it to stores who, in turn, sold it to customers. They decided to cut out the distributer. The Syndicate convinced Sanderson Dry Goods and Sundries to establish a store in Hootlani. The Syndicate would initially provide goods only to Sanderson Dry Goods and Sundries and the store would sell beans, kerosene, candles, rope, pans, sugar, flour and candy to one person at a time. Now the Syndicate had a guaranteed sale of every ounce of its cargo and the store did not have to worry about competitors.

Hootlani was the perfect place to start the joint venture. It was a small collection of taverns and other structures on a meadow beside a river front deep enough to dock a steamship. The Noonan Trail ran through the community with Jabbertown, Fiddlehead and Holy Mission to the north and Nuggetville, Burnin’ Hot and Lotsaluck conveniently to the south. Everyone in those communities were stayers and had been buying their supplies from northward-bound river steamers that bounced irregularly up the Caribou River. But there were not that many river steamers because the Caribou River was not the Yukon and it was often more expensive to stop and sell merchandise than it was worth.

So the Syndicate gambled that an established store could sell to established customers and the store could be supplied every other week during the Alaskan spring, summer and fall. Hootlani was the perfect location because it had the three things that gave an Alaskan community life: taverns, nearby Native villages and a church that had been in operation more than a year.

So Harold Henderson, not yet Bacon Harold, was given the opportunity of leaving Bethlehem and coming to Hootlani. It had not taken Henderson that long to make his decision. Frankly, he did not have much choice. The Syndicate was pulling out of Bethlehem which meant he would not have a paycheck. His sons were grown and gone and his consanguineals along with their extended and extending families were demanding higher pay and more jobs. So Harold Henderson said “Yes” without asking where he would be going. His wife had no objection to the move either. She never said “Yes” as she was packing before Harold Henderson had time to finish the sentence.

Thus did Harold and Sarah Henderson come to Hootlani. The couple and the Syndicate and the general store immediately endeared themselves to the tavern owners by confirming that the Syndicate was a “Christian operation.” This was a code term which meant that liquor might come in on the steamship but it would not be sold in the general store. This was perfectly acceptable to the tavern owners because it meant that the store was not going to cut into their client base.

The tavern owners were further pleased that the Syndicate stated it would immediately hire a cadre of unemployed locals to build a dock. Local employment meant that the would-if-I-could non-working hangeroners in Hootlani would be paid to construct a dock on the riverfront. Men who did not have cash would thus have cash which, in turn, would end up in the taverns.

The third advantage the taverns owners saw in the new arrangement was that the general store would attract customers from out of town because of the increased spread of products and low prices. That meant a real town would take root. Thus went logic, the land which they had acquired at no cost by squatting would have a value. Over the long run, the tavern owners knew they would make more money on the land beneath their establishment then they would ever earn selling liquor – or what passed for liquor – in a lifetime. Less than an hour after Harold Henderson met with the tavern owners, they, without a dissenting vote, did exactly what every good Christian would do. They established the City of Hootlani, an administrative district that included the entire meadow on which all current structures sat. All those structures currently in existence were granted free-and-clear title to the land on which those structures sat. The First Christian Church of Hootlani was not only granted title to the square footage beneath the structure but “land upon which there are gardens, fish drying racks, outbuildings used for religious purposes and meditation areas.” This gave the Syndicate one of the two things it had required to establish itself in Hootlani. First, that the church be secure in its land because, as every businessman knew, churches drew good people to a community and good people were a stable business investment. Good people paid their bills and it was the volume of paid bills that would keep the Syndicate and Sanderson Dry Goods and Sundries in Hootlani.

The second requirement had been the establishment of a municipal body that would recognize and grant the Syndicate, free of charge, suitable footage for its warehouse and the Sanderson Dry Goods and Sundries store. This the City of Hootlani did instantly. But the newly-formed City of Hootlani did not include the dock that was to be built because, after all, the Syndicate had not asked for that acreage to be granted fee simple. Secondly, the tavern owners recognized the dock for what it was: municipal income. Just to be sure that the City could squeeze every possible dollar out of the Syndicate, they amended the City limits to “five miles into the forest in all directions from the eastern shore of the Caribou River” so that every log used to make the dock paid the city a stumpage.

The only downside to the arrangement was that the three tavern owners and Nellie the Pig had to use their real names on the land titles. This raised more than a moment of trepidation with several of the entrepreneurs as there was concern that somehow their real names would be associated with legal paperwork in the lower states. This was resolved by the establishment of a Miners’ Council – in spite of the fact that were no miners in the now-formed city – which would be “solely responsible for all administrative, legal and land-related issues which arise locally or require correspondence.” Thus did Nellie the Pig, Dave the Demon, Nigger Jim, Robert the Dude and Jakob Lefkowitz become proud owners of land beneath their establishments at no cost. Jakob Lefkowitz was a non-practicing Polish Jew with no legal track record in America. This was the sole reason he was elected Mayor: his signature on documents would fan no legal firestorms in the lower states. Nigger Jim, who was white and had been so named because he had a soft voice, played a guitar and spoke with a Southern twang, was the Vice Mayor while Robert the Dude, who was a Negro, became Secretary. The fourth position required to make the City bona fide was treasurer. That went to Dave the Demon because no one trusted Nellie the Pig. She was mollified by being named the head of a Miners’ Council with the sole directive to never find cause to establish or use it. This suited Nellie the Pig just fine.

All things free come with a curse. With ownership comes expense and such are called mill rates. The five new landowners certainly believed that they could milk the Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate forever without they, individually or collectively, being required to pay a dime of property tax. It was a fine dream, of course, but it burned brightly.

It burned brightly until July 4th when the first shipment of goods for the being-constructed Syndicate warehouse and store arrived at the being-constructed Syndicate dock, the latter being the highly anticipated revenue source for the city. In the midst of the celebration, a number of drunken individuals were smoking under the dock when their embers set off a fire. The local fire brigade was not called because one did not exist and the best efforts by those who were sober enough to fight the conflagration were helpless as the fire began licking the sides of the warehouse. Hell on earth was only halted when Harold Henderson ordered that the water hoses that were used for the steam engine on the Bella Ann be disengaged and water be sprayed on the dock, warehouse and taverns which stood every chance of being consumed. The Bella Ann’s effort was valiant and successful until the pressure from her engines became to falter. In a last ditch effort to save the city Harold Anderson ordered that several hundred pounds of bacon be tossed into the furnace and the subsequent increase in pressure allowed the hose of the Bella Ann to extinguish the flame. Harold Anderson had fought fire with fire, so to speak, or, rather, fought fire with bacon, and was thereafter known as Bacon Harold.

That was just the beginning of the bad news for the City of Hootlani. Bacon Harold charged the city for the bacon and demanded that the community establish a fire brigade to battle blazes, large and small. If the City of Hootlani chose to ignore his request, there were other communities on the Caribou River that would gladly have the Portland Steamship and Lighterage Syndicate bring business to their domain. These were words the City Council did not want to hear and with great reluctance, they assessed all establishments within the City – with the exception of First Christian Church of Hootlani – a mill rate. Thus was born the ugly head of civilization on the Caribou River.