The Arctic Brotherhood

While walking down the streets of Skagway, Alaska you may notice an usual building. I myself had never laid eyes on such an intriguing edifice, a facade that was seemingly constructed with thousands of driftwood pieces. A gentlemen walking by noticed that we had stopped to take photos of this building, being a local he decided to inform us of the colourful history of said building.

In days long gone, it was a fraternal hall for gold miners, known as the Arctic Brotherhood. During the Klondike gold rush, Skagway was the primary starting point for the hoards of men looking to strike it rich. The group was founded by eleven such gold seekers while on board the ocean steamer "City of Seattle," bound for Skagway. They wanted to form a social "Brotherhood" of the North where men from all parts of the world could meet and get to known each other. Once they docked in August 1899 they formalized the arrangements, creating "Camp Skagway No. 1", as the driftwood sign on the front of the building displays. 

The Brotherhood began spreading outwards, as the miners started the dangerous journey in the search for gold. Their final destination, was of course the infamous, Klondike gold fields. Within just a month, the membership numbers swelled to three hundred and eleven men. With three new camps sprouting up: "Camp Bennett No. 2", "Camp Atlin No. 3", and "Camp Dawson No. 4". 

There were two routes for the gold seekers, the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass. During the gold rush many men were under the impression that the White Pass would be the easier route. It was not their fault, propaganda pictures showed the Chilkoot Trail as a dangerous and intimidating monstrosity. Having to journey up a steep, narrow, tortuous path, that was extremely difficult to climb. In addition, every person who attempted the Chilkoot Trail had to carry one tonne of supplies on their back, enough for a year’s survival. After a deadly avalanche claimed an estimated forty to one hundred lives, the Chilkoot Trail fell into disuse.

The White Pass was the "new" glorified route to the gold fields in Yukon. Newspapers even implied, why take the Chilkoot Trail when you could take the lower and less steep, White Pass and pack all your belongings on horseback. Even though the White Pass was advertised as the easier trail, it proved to be a nightmare. It may not have been as high in elevation as the nearby Chilkoot Pass. However, the White Pass trail became clogged with heavy wet mud in the fall months, which made it virtually impassable. Many men and their pack animals became stuck along the trail, and eventually ran out of supplies. It has been estimated, that over three thousand horses were killed or left for dead along the White Pass trail, earning it the grisly nickname, "The Dead Horse Trail." Eventually, the pass was closed until the ground and river were frozen over, allowing passage once more.

The Arctic Brotherhood created laws and rules for their members to follow. The introductory statement of their constitution was: "The object of this organization shall be to encourage and promote social and intellectual intercourse and benevolence among its members, and to advance the interests of its members and those of the Northwest Section of North America." Membership was strictly restricted to white males over age eighteen who resided in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territory or British Columbia North of the 54º Parallel. Candidates had to be nominated by members who were already in good standing, and then they were either approved or rejected by a membership committee. The initiation fee for the group was one dollar and the money was usually spent on a "royally good time" for all members. The Arctic Brotherhood's first members badges reflected their love for drinking. Officers wore champagne corks on their lapels, while ordinary member wore only beer corks. An emblem was eventually designed with the motto, "No Boundary Line Here." The emblem portrayed two crossed flags (the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes), a gold miner's pan with a crossed pick and shovel and the letters 'AB'.  The design was of course covered with gold nuggets. 

There were naturally multiple objections to the Arctic Brotherhood, from concerned local citizens. They even coined the term 'Arctic Bummers' for the gold miner members. However, local skeptics were eventually silenced when they realize that the Brotherhood looked after its members during sickness and health, buried its dead and improved educational and social conditions of the booming mining towns. Eventually more than thirty camps were established throughout the North. And during the boom of the gold rush, the Arctic Brotherhood boasted over ten thousand members. The Brotherhood, remained active into the 1920s. 

The Skagway building was constructed in 1899, with the creation of the Brotherhood. However, the driftwood facade was not created until 1900 by Charles Walker. It is said that over eight thousand eight hundred driftwood pieces were collected by Charles Walker and his fellow members on the shores of Skagway Bay. The driftwood pieces were then arranged in various patterns and constructions, with even tiny sticks arranged in a basket weave pattern to give texture, and then nailed to the front facade. The building is said to be an extraordinary example of Victorian Rustic Architecture. The outside facade of the Arctic Brotherhood building underwent a huge restoration during 2004-2005. All the eight thousand eight hundred and eighty three driftwood pieces were removed from the front of the building. Forty percent had become rotten and were replaced with newly selected pieces, however sixty percent were actually able to be preserved over one hundred years later. The building is now currently the home of the Visitor Information Center. 

As the gentleman, left us and wandered back on his way down the street. I had to stop and ponder how difficult life must have been for those early gold seekers, during Yukon's Gold Rush. Lured by the thought of instant wealth to place completely cut off from civilization. Many men, without previous wilderness experience would have faced extreme hardships in this desolate hostile new land. The Arctic Brotherhood, even though they may have been racist and sexist, gave men a social place in this new land. They grew from a small group of humble working men, to an aristocratic elitist society. Much of the history of the Arctic Brotherhood is still shrouded in mystery, however they have had a lasting impact on the Klondike Gold Rush. So, if you are even in Skagway stop and take your picture in front of the most photographed building in Alaska, and remember all those souls lost to the Gold Rush.

 



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The Arctic Brotherhood - Across the Blue Planet