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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p156  Chapter XI

My Marriage in Alaska

My Marriage in Alaska — Home — "The Hannibal Journal" — At the Naval Observatory — Back to Alaska — More Territorial Exploits — Death of My Father — Cruises and Expeditions in Alaska — John Blake Saves My Life on Davidson Glacier — Detached.

Early in the fall our old crowd began to break up. Hodgson had left us in July, being relieved by Lieut. George T. Emmons, and "Jim" Smith was detached in October.

Both Terrell and I had become engaged to be married. He was on duty in Portland and was ordered to come up and relieve me. He arranged to be married in Juneau, while I was to be married in Sitka and start for home. A day and hour for my marriage could not be set, because we did not know when the mail steamer would arrive. Moreover, being under mail contract, it remained there only twenty-four hours. It came in on Friday morning, October 31, 1890, and I was married at eight o'clock that night. At daylight the ship steamed out for the south.

My wife was the only woman passenger on board. The first day of sailing we got into rough water in Chatham Straits, and she feared she would be seasick. I told her I had never heard of a bride getting seasick — certainly not when the run between ports was so short, and I persuaded her that it was the wrong thing to do.

At Victoria, B. C., a Canadian Pacific Railroad man induced us to go East over that route, by way of Winnipeg. We were three days in getting to  p157 Winnipeg, and had to remain there overnight before leaving for St. Paul and the South. My wife says that at our first meal in the dining car I ordered canned salmon, although I had been eating it three times a day for three years in Alaska.

On the train was a passenger named Ross. He was twenty-eight years old and had been mining seven years in the Yukon, where he had accumulated a fortune of fourteen thousand dollars, which he carried with him in nuggets and in checks. In spite of the privations he had endured he said he intended to return to the gold country.

In Sitka I had read of people wearing money belts, so I had one made. I placed one thousand dollars in gold pieces in it, and when I began walking around with the belt strapped about me I realized how inconvenient and uncomfortable the weight of it was. So on reaching Victoria I exchanged most of the gold for international money orders. This was fortunate, for the second night on the sleeper something happened. I had my money in my vest pocket and placed the garment at my feet in the berth, and my orders and other papers under my pillow. The latter disappeared during the night, and I have never heard of them or seen them since.

We reached my home in Missouri about the middle of November, and all my kinsfolk within a hundred miles were there to meet the girl I had married in Alaska. In turn we visited all the relatives in three counties.

My father was out of business at this time and wanted to enter the newspaper game once more. Accordingly on January 1st we purchased a half interest in the Hannibal Morning Journal, and incorporated it as a stock company.

That winter influenza made its first appearance. While it raged I had to fill in succession each job on the newspaper.

 p158  There was a shortage of naval officers at this time. I was wanted as inspector of ordnance; at the Naval Academy; at the Naval Observatory; and as Assistant Commandant of the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri, for discipline and drills. The result was that my orders were held up for some time, and I did not report at the Naval Observatory until March. The Bureau of Navigation had settled on that duty for me.

I often wonder at the courage of young naval officers, remembering that the pay of an ensign on shore was then only one hundred dollars a month. On reporting I was placed at work with Ensign Hoogewerff,​a who was in charge of the magnetic instruments at the old Naval Observatory. This building still stands at the corner of 23rd and E streets, northwest, in Washington, and is used as a Naval Medical School. Many complaints were made regarding the unhealthful and miasmatic condition surrounding the Observatory, and the result was the purchase of the land which is the site of the present Observatory. Later the medical authorities asked for the old grounds, and the excellent Washington Naval Hospital is built on the location that was once abandoned as insanitary.

A part of our work at the Observatory was performed under­ground. It was interesting for a month or two, and then the terrible sameness of it made it monotonous.

After some experiences in seeking quarters my wife and I rented a large front room at 1922 I street, northwest, for twenty-five dollars a month. We found a colored woman, named Amos, who brought us breakfast and dinners for six dollars a week. I ran home and ate bread and butter, tea and bananas for lunch. One of our pleasures was to eat ice cream at Demonet's.

There were two or three houses exactly alike on  p159 our square in I street, and one afternoon on going home as usual at four o'clock, I found a front door open, went up one flight of stairs, and entered, as I thought, my room. There on a couch lay a strange woman, partly dressed. I was so embarrassed that I ran out without attempting an apology. I had entered the wrong house.

In the spring of 1891 we received the shocking news of the death of my friend and shipmate, Ensign Terrell, who had relieved me when I left Sitka.​b Admiral Ramsay, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, asked me if I would like to return to Alaska for further duty. I had already made my reputation as a pilot in those waters. After consulting Captain McNair, the Superintendent of the Observatory, Ensign Hoogewerff, and my wife, I told the Admiral that I would be glad to go back at the end of June. This was satisfactory, and we planned to sail on the Mexico from Tacoma.

We made the trip across the continent by way of Missouri and the Northern Pacific, but were delayed by floods and barely made the steamer at Tacoma. The fare to Sitka was fifty dollars — the round trip seventy dollars. The people who were with us had seventeen days' board, beside their passage, for seventy dollars. I wish it could be done now! Among the passengers I found my old friends, the Hixsons and the Pettibones, of Hannibal.

I rejoined the Pinta the middle of July, just in time to get settled before one of the summer cruises. Captain Farenholt was relieved by Captain Washburn Maynard, whom I had known in Washington. There were two new bachelor watch officers on board now, Ensign Guy Brown and W. W. Gilmer. The latter was my classmate and I was destined to see much of Brown in later years.

During the following winter we made several excursions and explorations in the vicinity of Sitka.  p160 I was not much of a hunter, but went along and looked after the commissary and had a good time. Duck hunting was a popular sport.

In January we learned that a steamer was missing in the Gulf of Alaska, and it was arranged that as soon as the weather abated we should start to her rescue. We were out only about thirty miles when we found a shortage in our coal bunkers. It was fortunate that the discovery was made. We returned to Sitka immediately, coaled up and started once more. When only a few miles out we sighted the missing steamer coming in under her own steam. Had we continued on at first we would not have seen her, and would have been searching the coast, perhaps, for several weeks.

We had another similar scare when it was reported that a number of miners were stranded at Yakutat Bay. The bay is narrow and hard to enter, and the tides are strong. The first boat that Vancouver sent in was overturned in the surf and all hands were lost. A cenotaph was placed on an island in the bay to mark the scene of this accident, and the island was named Cenotaph Island. We reached the mouth of the bay and the captain told us he had not decided whether to send Gilmer or me through the dangerous entrance. Each was willing to go, but before the question was settled we sighted some Indians on the long spit to the westward. Our glasses failed to disclose any white men among them. We proceeded to Yakutat Bay and from the white traders there learned that they had heard nothing of any miners being stranded in that section. We then headed back to Sitka.

Upon our return we attempted to reach the Indian town of Hoonah to make arrests in a murder case. We had on board District Attorney Johnson and Deputy Marshal George Kostrometinoff, a Russian well known in the history of early American  p161 occupation. Proceeding up Cross Sound we encountered a solid block of ice extending entirely across the fifteen-mile inlet. Up to this point we had battled our way through the icebergs, and just as we had expected to turn south for Hoonah we were stopped by this formidable wall of ice. The only thing to do was to turn back for the open Pacific. At the eight o'clock watch I took my stand as far forward as possible and dodged the bergs all the way out to sea. At midnight I was so cold that I could scarcely get to my bunk and send for hot water bottles. Icebergs generate a cold that penetrates to the marrow of one's bones. We continued on to Sitka without making any arrests. Later those accused were captured and tried.

Dr. Young, Gilmer and I also made a trip toward the mountainous center of Baranof Island, following up the Indian river, but were obliged to abandon our exploration, as Gilmer had to return to duty on the ship.

In March I was advised that my father was seriously ill and would not recover. He had been injured in two railroad accidents. As I was associated with him in business, it was necessary for me to go home. I mailed my application for leave, and asked the Department to answer by wire to the collector of customs at Port Townsend, so that it could be forwarded to Sitka by return steamer.

My son, Benton, was born in Sitka on March 11, 1892, and on April 6th came the answer to my request. It authorized the captain to detach me, but the Department could not order me home. I was in a quandary, but decided to take my detachment, leave my family in Sitka, and attempt, after my father's death, to get back. I reached home on April 20th, found my father still living, and able to discuss business matters with me. He died on May 2nd, and I remained four weeks in Hannibal  p162 settling his estate. A large part of our newspaper holdings were sold.​c

I submitted my case to the Department, and Admiral Ramsay was kind enough to change my detachment to three months' leave of absence. As the pay of an ensign on leave of absence was only $83 a month, I returned to Sitka as soon as possible. Fortunately I caught the fast steamer Queen and made the voyage from Seattle in six days. She carried a party of Presbyterian clergymen and their families on an excursion to Alaska. My old friend, Judge L. L. Williams, of Boonville, Missouri, United States Commissioner at Juneau, was also on board.

One of our officers brought a comparatively recent bride to Sitka. Since his marriage he had had only shore duty, and his wife had never heard of the "ration," which amounted to thirty cents a day and which we received while on sea duty. This officer liked good whiskey and had been what might be termed a "moderate plus" drinker. His wife insisted that his pay be brought home to her as soon as he received it. When he came home from duty, however, and appeared weary she would say,

"Have you had a hard day, Billy?"

"Yes, I have."

"A little tired?"

"Yes, I am."

"Would a little drink do you good?"

"I think it would."

She would mix him a drink, and later in the evening would give him another one.

All this time he was utilizing his ration for liquor. One day the wife of the paymaster was discussing pay and "rations." The bride expressed the opinion that there must be some mistake; she was confident that her "Billy" received no "ration," as he had never brought it home to her at the end of the  p163 month. It was decided to leave the question to "Billy," and when he returned home that afternoon she asked him about it and what he had done with the money.

"Billy" confessed that when he received his "ration" money of nine dollars each month he laid in nine quarts of Canadian Club whiskey, which he kept on board ship for his own use. His wife gave him no more drinks on shore.

From July to September, 1892, we had a wonderful cruise. Again we attempted to go to Muir Glacier, but were prevented by the ice from reaching it. At Bartlett Bay, however, we went ashore in small boats. Alongside the glaciers grew fine big strawberries. Returning, we lassoed a small iceberg, as there were no refrigerators on the vessels in those days, and towed it to the ship. With the strawberries, the ice and canned milk we made delicious ice cream. Few people realize that many luscious berries grow in Alaska.

In August we went to Pyramid Harbor, where we visited Jack Dalton, the famous guide, after whom was named the trail that leads to the interior.

It was customary at the time of national elections for the north-bound mail steamer, when sighted more than five miles away, to hoist the flag at the fore, if the republicans had won, and at the main, if the democrats had been successful. The marines on shore always fired a gun when a steamer was in sight, and the people would rush to the big wharf. In November, 1892, the captain of the incoming steamer played a joke on the Sitka people. He raised the flag at the fore, and there was great rejoicing among the republicans. Just before the vessel docked the district attorney summoned all "good republicans" to congregate on one side of the dock, and all except about a score out of the entire population did so. When the steamer landed, however,  p164 and the captain told of the hoax, there was some ill feeling. That night the democrats hired a hall and a band and celebrated with music and speech making. As if by some miracle, the score of democrats had increased to two hundred or more. When it came time to pay for the band and the hall silver dollars and half dollars were thrown upon the stage, and more than enough money was raised to defray the expenses.

I was made assistant postmaster at Sitka in November, and served without pay.

Lieut. Commander William T. Burwell succeeded Captain Maynard in command of the Pinta. I had known him in my early days at the Naval Academy when he was aide to the Superintendent in charge of buildings and grounds. He was a live wire and a very active man considering his age. We mapped out a delightful cruise for the summer of 1893, extending from Mt. St. Elias, in the north, to Tongass, in the south, and visited practically all the ports and inlets of the entire southeast coast of Alaska. By this time I regarded myself as a qualified pilot, and I often am amazed at my nerve in taking the ship into uncharted waters. One of our ports on this cruise was Shakan. There we discovered that another witch doctor had been practicing. We decided to arrest him and give him a hearing. When it was over we erected a small platform on the quarter deck, brought out the barber's chair, and, while two sturdy bluejackets held him fast, his long, black, flowing hair was removed with the barber's clippers. The inhabitants thronged on the nearby beach and watched the operation. When shorn of his locks, the power of the witch doctor vanished!

The paymaster of the ship and I were strolling in the woods there one day when we were surprised to come upon a habitation that looked as if it had  p165 been imported from the States. We knocked at the door, and upon being admitted found that the interior of the house was well furnished. Its occupants seemed to be cultured and of German extraction. We reported the discovery to the captain, but as we had to leave at daybreak we never saw them again.

The captain, the commissioner, the marshal and I made the inside passage by steam launch from Howkan to Klawakº to investigate the question of the violation of the Indians' fishing rights by the white men. We had as pilot a wonderful Indian, known as Skookum Bob. We found the claims of the Indians to be correct and made several arrests at Klawak.

The inside passage at that time was unsurveyed. I often think what a delightful summer place southeastern Alaska would be for yachtsmen. Game and fish are abundant, and the scenery is truly marvelous. Captain Burwell insisted that we visit Behm Canal and see Eddystone Rock, which stands on an island in the canal. We also went to Rudyard Bay in the afternoon of a long summer's day, and saw it at its best. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the world — a long narrow inlet, bounded by high bluffs covered with luxuriant trees and flowers. At that time it was entirely uninhabited.

After one of our summer cruises I had an opportunity to climb Mt. Verstovia, which I had often longed to do. This celebrated mountain, with its arrowhead shaped peak, lies back of Sitka. My wife desired to go and we took an Indian guide. We had to go up the coast about three miles to Jamestown Bay. From there the ascent is about as straight as is possible, yet it is much easier to go up than it is to come down. We reached the top and had a wonderful view of the surrounding country. We could hear the cow‑bells in Sitka, and the  p166 children playing their games of ball. I went up to the arrowhead alone while Mrs. Coontz wandered about, gathering flowers. The guide strolled off, and she accidentally stumbled upon a grave and an iron cross. She called to me. Owing to the rarity of the atmosphere I was able to hear her distinctly at top of the arrowhead, and went down immediately. We subsequently learned that during the Russian occupation, a young Russian officer who was in trouble wandered from Sitka and did not return. His body was found on Mt. Verstovia, and there his remains were interred and the cross erected.

In June Captain Burwell, Dr. Young and I made a trip under sail in a whaler from Pavloff Harbor to Hoonah Hot Springs, famous for their medicinal properties.

I also made several trips to Davidson Glacier, near the head of Lynn Canal. It is two and one‑eighth miles wide. The rise begins a half mile back from the beach, and muddy streams pour out from that point, making shoal in the canal. On my last trip I was accompanied by Ensign Gilmer and five men. We climbed the glacier in single file. The rise was slight and I was leading. Suddenly, stepping into snow and mud that acted like quicksand, I began to sink. Quickly John Blake, the master-at‑arms, seized me by the collar of my coat. Gilmer caught him, and together they rescued me. Blake, undoubtedly, saved my life. On investigation we found the depth of the snow and mud to be thirty-five feet. We attached our climbing rope immediately, and gave up further work for that day, returning to the ship, which was some miles away.

In September the Pinta made an unusual cruise, going up the west side of Chichagof Island as far as Cape Edward. Many deer were killed, and our firemen had an amusing experience. Once when I  p167 was out gunning with Captain Burwell, I shot at, and missed, eight deer and was voted a prize.

I had long anticipated an excursion to Haley's gold mine on a mountaintop, southeast of Sitka, at an elevation of 6,000 feet, and the opportunity came. Our party consisted of three officers, two men and a guide. We were out for bear also. It was late in November, and the days were short. After leaving Silver Bay we found the trail and the ground covered with snow. When darkness came we lighted a lantern. We were crossing a small stream at an altitude of about 3,000 feet when someone shouted, "Bear tracks." We stopped and examined them, and found that the distance between the impressions of the bear's paws was about ten feet. The indications were that it was a grizzly, and I confess that we were frightened. We concluded we did not want to see that bear.

We were bound for an abandoned camp, and after going up to about five thousand feet one officer became exhausted and we divided his pack. Five hundred feet farther another officer and one of the men gave out, and the others shouldered their burdens also. Our situation was now serious. I was junior, but had to take charge and force the three weakened men up the last five hundred feet of the climb. Repeatedly I fell in the snow and wanted to stay there. I realized how easy it must be to freeze to death, and the pleasant sensation that steals over one. Each time I had to exert myself to rise.

At last we reached the hut, broke in, made a fire, and one of the quartermasters cooked us a wonderful supper, which included hot biscuits. We slept on the floor of the cabin. I had brought along my wife's handsome watch, because it was small and not heavy, and had placed it on the floor beside my pillow. About two o'clock in the morning  p168 we were aroused by a terrible noise! There was a crash in the cabin and someone yelled, "Bear!" It took several minutes to get a light. There wasn't any bear to be seen, but the officer sleeping beside me had had a nightmare, and in warding off the imaginary beast had brought his fist down on my wife's watch, practically demolishing it.

At this altitude one finds ptarmigan and grouse. Never having been shot and not knowing what it was all about, these birds were easy prey. They would come back and look at the blood of their kind on the snow, so that we had no trouble in getting plenty of game. Ptarmigan and grouse are delicious food.

Three of our party, who had not succumbed to the rarefied atmosphere, continued up for two hundred feet farther to some mountain lakes, and then on to the summit, where we had a superb view of the surrounding country and the mountain ranges.

Captain Burwell decided that he wanted to visit Muir Glacier, and on our next cruise we entered Glacier Bay and steamed well up toward the glacier, missing the smaller icebergs. I had the deck, with the captain directing the conning, when suddenly a darker mass than usual loomed before us. We shifted the helm, but it was too late, and before we were aware we were on top of an iceberg, which proved to us that six‑sevenths of a berg is beneath the surface of the water.

We stopped the engine quickly; the ship settled down and rolled over on her port side, smashing her bow anchor, and then slowly slid back, on the slope of the berg, to deep water. She rolled so while settling down that I thought her masts would break and go overboard. We had previously lost one bow‑end anchor at Bartlett Bay, and now were entirely without ground tackle. The captain took the situation  p169 coolly, and turning to me asked if I could pilot the ship back to Sitka Harbor.

I had now been in Alaskan waters for nearly six years, and concluded that the time had come for me to seek other fields of endeavor. My classmate, Gilmer, and I were detached at the same time. My family and a Russian girl, whose guardian I had become, went down to Puget Sound two weeks ahead of me to visit relatives at Olympia, and it was fortunate for them that they did! Gilmer and I traveled together on the old Topeka and occupied the same stateroom. In Dixon's entrance we ran into a rough blow, and for forty-eight hours made practically no headway. The second morning the water washed in on our stateroom deck. Gilmer thought we ought to wait until noon before getting up, and I agreed. At twelve o'clock I told him I thought one of us ought to get up, or they might think we were seasick, and that as he was the senior he should go. He went to the dining-room, had some hard tack and coffee and then turned in again. At dinner time a Sitka merchant, named Jack, came by with a pint of champagne. He had purchased it for seasickness, but was unable to drink it. Gilmer was a teetotaler, but I was willing to try the wine. It did me good for I went down and ate a full meal! The blow ended on the third day and we arrived safely in Puget Sound. I picked up my wife and family, and we reached home in Missouri about the end of October.

Thayer's Notes:

a John Adrian Hoogewerff, b. Nov. 27, 1860, d. Feb. 13, 1933. Elsewhere on site (Admiral Yates Stirling, Sea Duty, p189), we meet him briefly late in life, as an admiral. A biographical sketch with a photograph of him, and of his gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, can be found at Michael Patterson's site.

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b Ensign Terrell's obituary, written by our author in Annual Reunion and Register of Graduates, Seventh Annual Reunion (1892), p59:

Douglass Fugua Terrell
No. 1764

Douglass F. Terrell was appointed a Cadet-Midshipman in the Navy, September 22, 1880, and graduated at the Naval Academy, June 4, 1884, and was the same day detached and ordered to the Galena, North Atlantic Squadron; was at the Isthmus during the Columbian troubles; April 26, 1886, detached and ordered to the Naval Academy for examination preliminary to final graduation. July 1, 1886, commissioned an Ensign, and placed on waiting orders; September 16, 1886, ordered to the Pinta, Alaskan Station; January 9, 1889, detached and ordered to the Branch Hydrographic Office, San Francisco, California; March 25, 1889, detached and ordered to assume charge of the Branch Hydrographic Office, Portland, Oregon; October 31, 1890, detached and ordered again to the Pinta; died April 15, 1891, at Sitka, Alaska. Sea service 4 years, 11 months; shore duty, 5 years; unemployed 8 months.

Ensign Terrell was a Mississippian born, having first seen the light of day at Crystal Springs, in that State, May 27, 1863. His youth, up to the time of his entering the navy, was passed in his native State.

It was the writer's privilege to be thrown much with Terrell throughout his career; first at the Academy; on a practice cruise; in 1886 I took his place and duties on the Galena; in 1888‑89 we cruised together on the Pinta, and in 1890 he was, at his own request, ordered to the Pinta as my relief.

In the far-off Alaskan expeditions we made to mountain and glacier, I grew to know him thoroughly. Of a highly reserved and sensitive nature, I believe only his friends knew the man. With him the proper and complete performance of his duty was absolutely a part of his life. He was prized by his commanding officers as an able, efficient and zealous officer. Morally he was stainless. What better record could any of us wish to leave behind? Ensign Terrell was married October 29, 1890, to Miss Kate Belle Delaney, at Juneau, Alaska. His death was caused by peritonitis, and after one short week of illness he left his bride of five months a widow. He was buried in the little graveyard at Sitka, on a knoll that faces the open Pacific, with only the wild winds to chant the dirge, lamenting his early death.

R. E. Coontz, '85.

Ensign Terrell was reburied in his hometown; the removal of his body from Alaska required an act of Congress, passed Dec. 19, 1892 (Congressional Record, 52d Congress, 2d Session, Vol. XXIV, pp210‑211). A photograph of his grave is online.

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c The writer named his son for his father, who in turn (Chapter 1) was named for Sen. Thomas Hart Benton. The elder Benton Coontz was buried in Hannibal (photograph of his gravesite).

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