Bound for Alaska

75th Anniversary poster by Douglas Girard

75th Anniversary poster by Douglas Girard

On March 14, 1935, Colonel Lawrence Westbrook, an engineer, agriculturalist, and director of FERA’s Division of Rural Rehabilitation, called social workers from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin to a meeting in Washington, D.C., where planning sessions were laid out and criteria explained for selection of the settler families. The Minnesota contingent of the Colonist families would be traveling west to depart from San Francisco, while the families from Wisconsin and Michigan would board the ship at Seattle two weeks later, in an effort to mollify the Seattle businessmen who complained that the San Francisco stores and businesses were reaping all the financial rewards of supplying the Colony.

As the social workers returned home to their respective states and set about their task of screening and selecting suitable families, there was an unmistakeable air of urgency. Because of the short Alaskan season for building and farming, any delays in the hastily arranged plans would mean postponing the project for a year, so time was of the essence, and most families had to make almost immediate decisions about whether or not they wanted to be part of the project. If they did, they had precious little time to ready themselves for the life-changing trip, and for some, that meant a matter of only a few days.

OrlandoMillerOrlando Miller described the cross-country travels of the first group of families in his book, The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony:

“Before leaving home, the colonists disposed of inadequate or unsuitable clothing and furniture and were supplied with replacements by the state relief authorities. Those from Minnesota gathered at St. Paul, where they heard a lecture on Alaska by a former member of the faculty of the University of Alaska. They traveled across the country in railroad day coaches, followed and interviewed by newspapermen, and were greeted in San Francisco with speeches and dinners. Before they sailed on May 1, they were given toys for the children, a motion picture projector and film to amuse them during the voyage, and a farewell concert by a hillbilly band. Newspaper accounts described the excited children, tearful women, and grave men, all facing a great adventure, a little frightened but determined.”

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Chicago Daily Tribune, April 28, 1935 – “270 Minnesotans Depart for New Homes in Alaska.”

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Chicago Daily Tribune, May 2, 1935 – “274 Board Transport for New Homes in Alaskan Valley.”

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Anthony and Alys Vickaryous, from Bandette, Minnesota, boarding the train with two of their four children [SERA photo]

Anthony and Alys Vickaryous, from Bandette, Minnesota, boarding the train with two of their four children [SERA photo]

In October, 1920, fifteen years before it would be pressed into service for the Matanuska Colony, the transport ship St. Mihiel was launched for the United States Shipping Board, destined to be operated by the United States Army Transportation Corps. Built by the American International Shipbuilding Corporation in Hog Island, Pennsylvania, the St. Mihiel was 448 feet long, weighed 7,500 tons, had a capacity of 800 passengers, a speed of 15.5 knots and a cruising range of 24 days.

Named for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, France, a World War I battle fought in September, 1918, under the command of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the ship saw frequent travels to Alaskan waters. In the spring of 1935, the St. Mihiel was chartered for six months and dispatched to San Francisco to await arrival of the Matanuska Colony families.

The North Star was a Bureau of Indian Affairs ship which, among other duties, delivered supplies for medical and educational services to isolated villages in Alaska. Chartered for service along with the St. Mihiel by Colony manager Don Irwin, the North Star sailed from San Francisco on April 23, 1935. Aboard were Irwin and many other officials, several assistants, an architect, a photographer, several construction supervisors, and 118 transient workers who would be starting construction of the Colony buildings. Tents, stoves, trucks, tractors, well-drilling equipment and other necessities for creating the new colony were supplemented by massive orders of lumber from Alaska’s southeastern forests, brought aboard at Ketchikan and Juneau.

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The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1935 – “San Francisco: Midwest Exodus to Alaska Valley Is Under Way. The motorship North Star, loaded with picked men and farm equipment, ready for first trip to ‘promised land’ for impoverished farmers on marginal lands of several states. Planned Economy Forty Acres Each. Creaking winches and groaning cargo booms hummed the overture here yesterday to another American epic of adventure and pioneering– the impending departure of a new band of pilgrims for a promised land.”

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Colonist families at the train station.

Colonist families at the train station.

Ironwood, Michigan is the westernmost city in the state, an iron mining town close to the shores of Lake Superior. In the late spring of 1935 the local newspaper, the Ironwood Daily Globe, reported that 67 farm families in neighboring Wisconsin were ready to begin the long trek from their homes to the Matanuska Valley in far-off Alaska.

“Mrs. Winifred Ferguson, field representative of the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Administration, selected the families after a long survey throughout the state. ‘They are all very eager and exceptionally enthusiastic over the prospect of carving out new and better homes in Alaska,’ she said. ‘I painted a not too bright picture of Alaska to many, but virtually all were ready and eager to gamble hard work and hardships against a chance to become independent.’

“Tomorrow the prospective Alaska settlers will load their choicest belongings on freight trains. They are limited to 2,000 pounds so most are expected to leave behind inexpensive furniture, machinery, etc., and to take musical instruments, and any other articles having a monetary or sentimental value.'”

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Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 26, 1935 – “Get a New Chance in Alaska – New hope has come to this Arcadia, Mich. family, a chance to escape from relief rolls and start life over as pioneers in far-off Alaska. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Synder are among the first of 200 midwest families to be chosen for the United States rural rehabilitation colony in the Matanuska valley and will leave San Francisco in May. Son Billy is all ready and wherever Billy goes, his lamb is sure to go, too.”

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The Washington Post, May 12, 1935 – “Green Bay, Wis., May 11. 67 Wisconsin Farm Families Off to Alaska. Party Numbering 317 in All. Pioneers New Land in FERA Project. With hopeful visions of the future eclipsing the sadness of hurried farewells, a group of sturdy Wisconsin families today severed bonds of kinship and friendship and started the first lap of a journey to Alaska — their land of promise.”

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UP MichiganIn the 1930’s there was no bridge spanning the five mile wide Straits of Mackinac which connected the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. In late April, 1935, the Ironwood Daily Globe detailed the impending departure of the settlers’ train from St. Ignace, at the southeastern tip of the Upper Peninsula. The specially chartered train had begun the trip in Sault St. Marie, in the far northeastern end of the peninsula, across the border from its twin city of Salt Ste. Marie, Ontario. The train would make its way westward along the Upper Peninsula, making scheduled stops to take aboard groups of families along the route:

“One hundred fifty-nine members of 36 Michigan families will leave here (St. Ignace) at 3 o’clock this afternoon for Alaska. Twenty-nine other Michigan families will entrain at Manistique to make the trip with the Wisconsin contingent. Two other Michigan families will leave with the group going from Rhinelander.

“Four baggage cars were packed with provisions and personal belongings of pioneers in the train here. Dogs, cats, and one canary were brought to the train and put in a baggage car.”

The Ironwood Daily Globe continued explaining the complex logistics in an article datelined from Green Bay, Wisconsin, the same day:

“The nine families of about 80 men, women, and children from the northeastern section of the state will entrain tonight at 8:45 o’clock (central standard time) for St. Paul. Meanwhile, another train starting from Sault Ste. Marie with emigrants from Michigan, the third state participating in the project, will be speeding westward to Superior, Wisconsin. Another train will leave with colonists from north central Wisconsin from Rhinelander at 2 a.m. tomorrow. The Sault train will pick up others from northwestern Wisconsin at Superior at 8 a.m., and all trains will meet at St. Paul from where the group will travel on to Seattle.”

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Colonists en route to Seattle selecting Washington apples from a vendor in Wenatchee.

Colonists en route to Seattle selecting Washington apples from a vendor in Wenatchee.

A staff reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Carolyn Anspacher, was one of the many writers who wrote glowing reports of the Colonists’ trip across the country. Evangeline Atwood wrote about her in We Shall Be Remembered; Anspacher joined the families in St. Paul and rode with them to San Francisco, penning these memorable lines along the way:

“The last of the covered wagons is rushing through the night. The great trek from America’s main street to Alaska’s wilderness is on. Sixty-seven drought-stricken families, 285 men, women, and children are jam-packed into 21 coaches–a modern version of yesterday’s ox-drawn wagon. They sit here now, in endless diaper-hung coaches, wearing trappings of a civilization that has swept them to ruin. The same spirit to motivate their fathers and forefathers in seeking out new land is driving them onward. They hope to hew for themselves an economic freedom in a new land.

“The picnic gaiety which crept into the departure from the railroad station, as the brass bands were playing, began to fade as the gas lamps of the old-fashioned cars were lighted and the small children were wrapped in blankets for the night. Then men and women sat silently, their faces chiseled into masks of weariness and frustration. Some complained loudly that the government had promised them Pullman sleepers and here they were having to ride in plain day coaches.

Passenger train interior

Passenger train interior

“Of this group, 128 are children, 62 under 12 years of age, 66 under five. There are 21 babes in arms, the youngest being 15 days old. Small grimy faces peer from behind high plush chairs and laugh at life and the splendid excitement of choo-choos.

“In the baggage car where H. L. Richards, in charge of the government project, and his assistants are headquartered, are six dogs that couldn’t be left behind. ‘We’ll need ‘em,’ said a blond young man crisply. ‘We’re going to have cattle, and dogs know how to round ‘em up better’n men do. As a matter of fact, we need six more collies or shepherds or police dogs, who can stand the climate and who’ll work with us.’

Already the colonists, recruited from all parts of the state, have become a closely knit community. During the day, women, until last Friday strangers, are planning how they’ll make comfortable homes. A few read, but for the most part they talk quietly, seriously, about a tomorrow that is almost with them.

“Of the group, six are registered nurses who have already been pressed into service by the government physician aboard. Two are college graduates and upper grade teachers.

“For the children, the trip so far has been crowded with excitement. They have eaten enormously in the diners and have been pampered and petted by train officials. They are wearing new clothes provided in most cases by the government and for the moment baths are out of the question.

“Besides, every night in every car just before bedtime, there’s a concert. It’s not a regulation orchestra, but zithers, mandolins, guitars, mouth organs and accordions do very well.

“Little by little the train quieted down for the night. Upright chairs miraculously became beds. Flowered quilts and striped pillows appeared. A pleasant lassitude came over the colonists–a bride of four days hid her face on the shoulder of her young husband, yawning prodigiously. ‘Abide with me,’ hummed a sad voice. ‘Fast falls the eventide–the darkness deepens. Lord with me abide–when other helpers fail and comforts flee–help of the helpess–O, abide with me.’”

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Colonists abord the St. Mihiel.

Colonists abord the St. Mihiel.

In We Shall Be Remembered, Evangeline Atwood described what happened when the train reached California:

“In preparation for their arrival in San Francisco, tall John S. Givens, Jr., government sociologist and rural rehabilitation expert who was to accompany the group to Alaska, entered each car accompanied by officials of the Federal Transient Bureau in San Francisco. Families were tagged, each toddling child properly identified, and baggage carefully marked. The group was divided into three parts, each going to a different hotel and each family supervised by a federal social worker.

“The colonists were told that San Francisco was set to give them a warm and enthusiastic welcome. The children were carefully washed and dressed in their shabby best. Red, blue, and yellow berets found their way out of gaping suitcases. Suits were brushed, shoes polished, babies nursed, and an unnatural calm settled over everyone. The camaraderie and gaiety of the past days disappeared as they realized they were reaching another significant milestone on their long trek to their new home.

“The train pulled into the Southern Pacific Station at Third and Townsend streets, and a SERA band was playing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ The waiting crowd sent up cheer after cheer as the colonists appeared on the platform, lugging suitcases, bird cages, guitars, and other personal effects.

“Mayor Angelo Rossi, wearing a frock coat, accompanied by Police Chief Quinn and Fire Chief Brennan, stepped forward and began shaking hands, extending the city’s official welcome. Hundreds of townspeople crowded forward to wish the colonists good luck.”

Atwood shared a few lines from the Mayor’s enthusiastic greeting: “I regard these good people making this long, arduous, yet thrilling journey with as great respect as I would were one of the forty-niners to rise from his grave and tell me he had sailed around the Horn to these sunny shores so long ago. They are valiant, every one of them, and I want every moment of their two days’ stay in San Francisco to be filled with delight and pleasure.”

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In Brigitte Lively’s book, The Matanuska Colony, Fifty Years, Colonist Laurence Vasanoja, writing after their departure aboard the St. Mihiel, described the reception they had received in a letter to his brother and sister in Minnesota:

“They sure gave us some welcome signs all over (Welcome Alaska Colonists), the city band, the Mayor and Chief of Police met us at the depot and escorted us to our hotel. They gave us street car tickets, theater tickets, fruit and presents for the kids, and again yesterday on board ship the captain and nurse dished out birthday cake, candy and presents to the kids, and movies were taken of the whole performance. We have several news agents and Paramount Sound Movie operator on board. When we left Frisco there must have been at least eight movie cameras clicking and fifty newspaper cameramen; they shot 3-4 pictures at a time. Must have been some 3500 or 4000 people seeing us off, mostly curiosity seekers and newspapermen. Someday you may see us on the newsreels in moving pictures.”

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Colonists lined up to leave the St. Mihiel.

Colonists lined up to leave the St. Mihiel.

In 1990 a report was written for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places, titled The Settlement and Economic Development of Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Prepared by Fran Seager-Boss, Archeologist; and Lawrence E. Roberts, Historian, the report opened the door to permanent protection for many of the Colony buildings and related structures. Seager-Boss and Roberts deftly explained the fascination factor of the Colony families:

“Seizing on the romance of pioneering, the media provided extensive coverage on the colonists. Newspaper editorials commented that the ‘eyes of the world’ were upon the colonists. Entertained by big city mayors and interviewed by journalists while traveling from the Lakes states to California for their departure, the colonists became overnight celebrities.”

“Part of the colonists’ appeal to America was a result of the then strong Agrarian/Frontier myth. Many Americans believed that a simple agrarian existence was more virtuous than other types of labor. And the Great Depression, still going strong, presented a powerful case against free market industrialization. Perhaps Alaska, in spite of Fredrick Jackson Turner’s pronouncement that the frontier was closed, could provide a safety valve for the population.”

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Writing in an unusual third-person format, Colony Manager Don L. Irwin wrote of his unexpectedly complicated trip north in his book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley:

“Irwin left Washington April 20 and flew to San Francisco. He took passage on the North Star, Bureau of Indian Affairs boat, along with several people on his staff. Colonel Frank U. Bliss and his staff, in charge of the transient workers, were also on the boat. In addition, 150 transient workers from the California transient camps were being brought to Alaska to help with the land clearing and home construction of the colonists. The North Star was delayed, it stopped at Ketchikan and Juneau to take on lumber, kitchen ranges, and other colony supplies. It arrived in Seward almost at the same time as the St. Mihiel, bringing up the Minnesota colonists.

“Irwin was detained in Juneau for three days conferring with the three incorporators of the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation. The incorporators were hostile at first because they were not being advised by the Washington officials of F.E.R.A. what was being done. Finally, after a particularly heated session, Mr. E. W. Griffin, Territorial Secretary and one of the incorporators, said ‘Mr. Irwin, it is our fault that we are not handling the affairs of this project. The incorporating papers came in February during the legislative session. They didn’t get out of the Governor’s office until after the legislature adjourned in April. I wasn’t so busy but what I could have taken care of that matter. We owe you an apology.’ Irwin had the full cooperation of the Incorporating Board for the remainder of his stay in Juneau.

“On May 8, Miss Gladys Forrest, Secretary for the Alaska Relief Office, L. N. Troast, Colony architect, and Irwin flew to Fairbanks on the PAA. They came by rail on a gas car from Fairbanks to Matanuska on May 9. Next day they were at Palmer on the location of camp site No. 1 helping prepare for the arrival of the Minnesota colonists’ families.”

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Colonists boarding the train in Seward for the trip to Anchorage and then to Palmer.

Colonists boarding the train in Seward for the trip to Anchorage and then to Palmer.

As the Colonists, project officials, and other contingents gathered and made their way north, there were rumblings from pioneer Alaskans who voiced misgivings about the whole idea. The Alaska Territorial Chamber of Commerce actually passed a resolution stating that if the Colony failed the state would be saddled with hundreds of indigents needing food, clothing, and shelter. The territorial legislature insisted that Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Alaska Delegate Anthony Dimond take steps to provide adequate funds for the potential failure of the project–including return passage to the west coast for the would-be settlers.

The Anchorage Times weighed in on the side of the Colonists, saying the project might prove to be the most economically constructive idea for the territory to ever come out of Washington. Publisher Robert Atwood was a strong supporter of the Colony Project, and the Anchorage Times chided the nay-sayers by pointing out that Alaska had been exploited many times over the years by absentee interests, but the Colonists were cut from a different cloth and they were coming to Alaska to build homes and help settle the land.

When the legislature balked at appropriating funds to build schools for the Colonists’ children, the Anchorage Times took them to task, asking: “Is the territory going to establish a precedent against expanding its school services to additional population? Where would other states be if they called a halt on schools after they received their first pioneer settlers?”

The legislature subsequently approved the expenditure of $100,000 for additional school facilities in the Matanuska Valley.

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Ironwood Daily Globe, Ironwood, Michigan. May 15, 1935 – “Mr. and Mrs. Walter Anderson and families left Monday night by special train for St. Paul, Minn., where they joined others on the trip to the Matanuska Valley in Alaska. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson have five children, the youngest being six months old.

“On Friday evening the community gave a farewell party at the town hall for the Anderson family. Music was furnished by Camp 662 orchestra. Dancing and games were enjoyed. At 11:30 lunch was served to a large number of friends. Supt. H.O. Johnson gave a farewell speech. A purse of money was given to Mr. and Mrs. Anderson from the community.”

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night_trainBakersfield Californian, May 15, 1935 – Green Bay, Wisc., May 14. “400 Persons on Their Way from Wisconsin and Michigan to Alaskan Valley. Spirits high as they envisioned the thrills of starting life over again in a strange land, more than 400 pioneers from Wisconsin and upper Michigan today were rolling westward in a steam-driven Mayflower toward new homes in Alaska. While crated dogs barked and whined in coaches up front and children of all ages roamed from seat to seat through the long train, the adults chosen by the federal government to colonize the Matanuska Valley under a FERA project were acquainting themselves with new neighbors. Nine families from northeastern Wisconsin and six from Minominee County, Mich., 103 persons in all, left here last night. The remainder of the 67 Wisconsin families entrained at Rhinelander and Superior, and those from Michigan at Sault Ste. Marie. Tears were shed, but mostly by kinfolk gathered for farewell on the site of old Fort Howard. Their noses flattened against windows, the children received adieus from those on the platforms while parents waved happy responses.

St. Mihiel coming into the dock at Seward.

St. Mihiel coming into the dock at Seward.

“‘It’s a chance that comes once in a lifetime,’ said Kenneth Foster, of Menominee County, Michigan, as he sat in the coach with his wife, Marlon, and one boy. Some were from farms, others from small towns, but all were vigorous, sturdy, and high spirited with the prospect of earning a livelihood of which they had been deprived in the states. Leaving st. Paul with the remainder of the Wisconsin and Michigan group, the colonists will embark from Seattle Saturday on board the U.S.S. St. Mihiel for the six-day trip on the Pacific to Seward.”

Ironwood Daily Globe, Ironwood, Michigan. May 15, 1935 – “Biggest Brood Among the Alaskan Pioneers.” The new ‘pioneer colony’ in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley is going to thrive, prosper, and grow if the family of Williams Bouwens of Rhinelander, Wis. is any criterion. The Bouwens, in taking all their 11 children with them, make up the largest complete family among the emigrants. Bouwens is a skilled butcher, and a deputy sheriff.”

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In Brigette Lively’s book, Matanuska Colony Fifty Years, the daughter of Colonists Irving and Lila Newville, Dorothy Woods, described what it was like to set off from Seattle, voicing a feeling and an experience which was undoubtedly shared by many of the colonists:

“Boarding the boat was exciting. A lot of us had never seen an ocean, even the boat was something I had not seen. It was all very wonderful until we started to pull away from the pier with the band playing and most of Seattle at the dock seeing us off. Then came the thoughts of how final this adventure was. My Mom tells of her misgivings, there were tears and second thoughts.”

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The award-winning 2008 documentary 'Alaska Far Away' tells the story of the Matanuska Colony.

The award-winning 2008 documentary ‘Alaska Far Away’ tells the story of the Matanuska Colony.

The trip to Alaska was formally underway and there was no recourse now. Six mothers remained in Seattle with their children because of illness, while their husbands traveled ahead with the other Colonists on the St. Mihiel to be present for the drawing of land tracts. The women and children would later make the trip to Alaska on the North Star.

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One of the most compelling and detailed publications on the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project is a study undertaken for the government’s Interior-Agriculture Committee on Group Settlement in Alaska, which was intended as a factual, objective appraisal of the project.

The report, Alaskan Group Settlement: The Matanuska Valley Colony, by Kirk H. Stone of the University of Wisconsin, was published in 1950 by the United States Department of the Interior. A 95-page side-stapled booklet, the publication offers valuable insights to the project, such as this commentary on the transportation expenses:

“Moving the colonists possibly cost about $70,000. Exact figures cannot be obtained. It is known that $18,436 was paid by the colonists’ home states for transportation to the west coast. The Corporation’s expense for chartering the St. Mihiel was $60,000 and for the North Star was approximately $10,000; however, each ship was used to haul equipment and supplies as well as colonists and possibly half of the expenses are chargeable to general organization of The Colony. What the ARRC paid the Alaska Railroad is not obtainable but it is estimated that shipment of the colonists and their effects cost about $12,000. Originally these costs of transportation were to be paid by Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin with funds from the F.E.R.A. However, the records indicate that the Corporation assumed all of the expenses of the colonists after they reached the west coast. Although the funds for colonization eventually came from the same source, the Corporation’s assumption cost probably $50,000 that were not budgeted in the plans for The Colony.”

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