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JOHN CLUM IN ALASKA
Chapter 1: Real-Estate Deals and Falling Dominoes
by Gary Ledoux
From the March 2009 issue
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John Clum in 1898   Most fans of the old-west know John P. Clum as the Mayor of Tombstone and the publisher of the Tombstone Epitaph during the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holiday era - the early 1880's. The "aficionados" know him as an Apache Agent at the San Carlos Indian reservation in the mid-1870's. But not everyone knows that he spent a considerable time in Alaska during the height of the 1898 gold rush, and the early settlement period that followed. Keeping a journal during his first trip in the summer of 1898, Clum provides some fascinating, first-hand accounts of that exciting period in American history.
This is the first of 12 articles chronicling Clum's adventures in Alaska, and what it was like to live and travel in a land with such weather extremes, in such an exciting time in history.

Alaska From The Beginning

   Secretary of State, William H. Seward under then-President Andrew Johnson had been negotiating for some time with Russian Minister Edouard de Stoeckl over the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Alaska was a cold, desolate place consisting of 586,000 square miles; twice the size of Texas. And as forbidding as Texas can sometimes be in the summer heat and dust, Alaska was an even more difficult place to live being socked-in by cold, snow and ice seven to eight months of the year.

   On March 23, 1867, both parties reached a tentative purchase agreement for the price of $7,000,000. On March 29th, Stoeckl received approval from Czar Alexander to sell the real estate with a few minor provisions. Seward ignored the Russian Minister's requested concessions and offered Russia an extra $200,000 if the deal could be consummated quickly.

   The Russians capitulated and the final agreed-upon price was $7,200,000 or about 2.5 cents per acre - the real-estate deal of a lifetime!

   Over the next few months, Seward struggled with Congress to appropriate the necessary funds. Meanwhile US newspapers began calling the transaction Seward's Folly or Seward's Icebox, thinking that Alaska was a worthless piece of property with little or no potential.

   Finally, on the afternoon of October 18, 1867 in the Alaskan city of Sitka, the Russian flag was lowered and the stars and stripes were raised marking America's latest land acquisition and newest territory.

   But few would brave Alaska's harsh climate in subsequent years; except those in the fur trade. In the early 1870's, gold was discovered there, but it did not turn into the rush and frenzy that marked the founding of places like Tombstone.

   The Wheels Fall Off The Wagon

The closing decade of the 19th century may have been revered as the "Gay 90's" for some, but certainly not for all Americans. In fact, for many, you could say it was a time when the proverbial wheels were falling off America's wagon and the country began to skid along on its axles. Almost from the first year of the last decade of the century, events were taking place, which would set the stage for the country's last big frontier adventure, the Klondike Gold Rush!

During the 1880's the US had experienced considerable economic growth through industrialization, expansion of the railroads and increased foreign investment. But the railroads expanded recklessly producing more track and more passengers and freight carrying capacity than was needed. This produced price wars and drove earnings down considerably. Further stock manipulation by various railroad barons for their own personal gain drove many rail lines to near bankruptcy.

Farmers were hurt as well. In farm-belt regions a deflationary dollar combined with overproduction impoverished many.

In July, 1890, US gold reserves dipped below the "magic" $100 million mark, a psychological barrier that, when breached, further eroded the public's financial trust. The US was quickly headed for a deficit.

The US economic picture began to look increasingly bleak. Then, in January 1893, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad failed. As the railroads fell, so too did all the businesses along the rail lines. With the railroad went the economic stability of many towns and businesses.

On June 27, 1893, the New York Stock Exchange crashed and the Panic of '93 was on. Visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago got a brief respite from the worsening economic conditions but when they returned to their homes, things were no better.

At the end of July, the Erie Railroad failed and the stock market went into deep decline. Not unlike a string of dominos, one failure led to another in 1893. Nearly 15,000 companies failed, 500 banks went out of business and fully thirty percent of the country's railroads were insolvent. Fearing further collapse, foreign investors pulled out of the US furthering the misery. But it did them little good as depression soon gripped the other side of the Atlantic.

Denver luminary and financier Horace Tabor found himself over $2 million in debt overnight. The agricultural depression deepened in the South and West and many people in the cities were out of work, many near starvation. To make matters worse, immigrants were pouring into New York in droves, many with no marketable skills and little or no command of the English language.

People in the northwest were especially hard-hit. Unemployed Seattle residents were reduced to living on clams dug from the sands on the beaches. Fear remained wide-spread while people horded gold coins. It was desperate times for many!

Money was scarce and credit so overstrained by 1895 that some of the most powerful businesses in the country went under. Despite four million unemployed, President Cleveland did little to relieve the suffering. Instead, he took the tact that most politicians of that time took; that economic conditions of the time were a natural occurrence of the business cycle and that eventually, things would turn around and the fittest would survive. The term "bailout" evidently had not been coined yet.

The nation had seen economic downturns before, but nothing this deep. The poorer strata of the populace believed, and perhaps rightly so, that they had been "abandoned" economically and culturally and needed a change.

Time dragged on and so did the depression. People were ready for a change - for a new beginning. Having struggled for many years in poverty they were ready for something more - something to lift them out of their doldrums. They were ready for a better life - for a way out of the merciless stagnation that held them fast.

Change sailed into San Francisco harbor on July 14, 1897 on a steamer named Excelsior…arriving from a land of cold… and gold!

...Continued next month in Tombstone Times

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