Lt. Commander Jacob William Britt

William Britt came to Skagway from Norway in the gold rush and worked as a druggist and was a member of the Arctic Brotherhood and City Council by 1905. He met and married Sophia and they had a son, Jacob William Britt born here in Skagway in 1905 or 1906.

Jacob lived in Alaska until about 1930 and then joined the Navy. He married and moved to San Diego by 1940. By 1942 Lt. Commander Britt was in the South Pacific in command of the Asheville (PG-21)

(The Asheville was built in Charleston N.C. and launched on July 4, 1918. It underwent several overhauls and was known as PG-21.)

On the morning of 1 March 1942, Vice Admiral William A. Glassford, Commander, Southwest Pacific Force (formerly the U.S. Asiatic Fleet) ordered American naval vessels to retire to Australian waters. During World War 2, Lt. Jacob W. Britt was in command of the Asheville (PG-21) when he was ordered to leave Tjilatjap, Java, on 1 March 1942, bound for Fremantle. At 0615 on 2 March, Tulsa sighted a ship, and identified her as Asheville—probably the last time the latter was in sight of friendly forces. During the forenoon watch on 3 March, Asheville radioed “being attacked,” some 300 miles south of Java. The minesweeper Whippoorwill (AM-35), heard the initial distress call and turned toward the reported position some 90 miles away. When a second report specified that the ship was being attacked by a surface vessel, however, Whippoorwill‘s captain, Lt. Comdr. Charles R. Ferriter, reasoning correctly that “any surface vessel that could successfully attack the Asheville would be too much” for his own command, ordered the minesweeper to resume her voyage to Australia.

Asheville, presumed lost, was stricken from the Navy list on 8 May 1942. Not until after World War II, however, did the story of her last battle emerge, when a survivor of heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30), told of meeting, in prison camp, Fireman 1st Class Fred L. Brown, 18 years old, had been in the gunboat’s fireroom when a Japanese surface force (Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake) had overtaken the ship on 3 March 1942. Destroyers Arashi (Commander Watanabe Yasumasa) and Nowaki (Commander Koga Magatarou) overwhelmed Asheville, scoring hits on her forecastle and bridge; many men topside were dead by the time Brown arrived topside to abandon ship. All 160 men were lost.
A sailor on board one of the enemy destroyers threw out a line, which Brown grasped and was hauled on board. Sadly, Asheville‘s only known survivor perished in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on 18 March 1945.

Lt. Commander Britt born in Skagway Alaska was killed in action in the South Pacific on March 3, 1942.; 1910 census for Skagway; family search. The Asheville is seen above.


Hardings cursed trip


President Warren Harding visited Skagway on July 11, 1923. Leaving here, he re-boarded the USS Henderson on his trip south to San Francisco where he died. Another ship in the presidential fleet was the USS Seattle. Both ships were involved in accidents in the days that followed: the USS Henderson was rammed by the USS Zeiler in Puget Sound and the USS Seattle ran aground in the Sound. Barely two months later, one of the biggest disasters in US Naval History occurred which I will summarize briefly here.

On September 2, 1923 there was a massive earthquake in Japan, the resulting tsunami and strong currents reached the California coast just as a heavy fog further complicated navigation. On September 8, in the dark of night, the passenger steamer Cuba went aground on San Miguel Island. My husband and I lived on San Miguel once, 30 years ago, and the remnants of that shipwreck were still visible on the beach at certain times when we lived there.

Tragically, on that same day there were 14 new sleek “flush deck” destroyers that the Navy was testing at full battle speed on a mission from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The Navy was anxious to prove their worth since President Harding had been a staunch supporter of Navy funding, but with his death, the subsequent administration was not. Unfortunately, that night, at 9 pm, a total of nine destroyers plowed, at 20 knots into the California coast, at a place called the Devil’s Jaw near Santa Barbara. Seven were completely destroyed and 23 sailors died. The dramatic full story of the crash, heroism and tragedy can be read here:



James William McAndrew


McAndrew was born June 29, 1862 in Pennsylvania and graduated from West Point and the Army Staff College and War College. He was said to be a brilliant infantry officer. He was a Captain with the 3rd Infantry when he arrived in Skagway in 1905-6. In 1911 he was promoted to Major and when the Great War broke out he was a Lieutenant Colonel. By May 3, 1918, Major General McAndrew was appointed Chief of Staff of the American Expeditionary Forces in France under General Pershing. He served in that capacity for a year and then retired back to Washington D.C. and died at Walter Reed hospital on April 30, 1922 at the age of 60. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


NY Times May 4, 1918

A Skagway kid in France 1918

Loring and Mary Wilkes came to Skagway from Nebraska  in the gold rush with their little son Mark Edward. Loring worked as a cook but in 1948  wrote: “Packers on the Dyea Trail” in the Alaska Sportsman (June).  His son Mark went to World War One and listed Skagway as his home town.

Mark Edward Wilkes disappeared on this day, November 13, 1918 in France, perhaps near Exermont or Nantillois. Many  officers – Majors Murray Davis and Fred A. Cook, Captains Joseph G. Duncan, Edgar Hayden Dale,  James C. Kenady all died as well as many Lieutanants, Sergeants, Corporals and privates.  Sadly, the Great War in Europe ended on November 11, two days prior to the announcement of the many deaths.

In September and October 1918, the 35th Division was attempting to reach the village of Exermont.  The church and town were nearly destroyed near the Chaudron Farm Road by a counter attack of the German Army on September 29, 1918. Seen above are some of the American soldiers in the church there.  There is a memorial in the town to the fallen soldiers which is perhaps the only marker that Private Wilkes has since he was listed as MIA. Below is the marker in Skagway which does not bear his name.

William Payne Jackson

Captain Jackson arrived in Skagway on July 9, 1904 with the Third Infantry. He was the Quartermaster. He was born on Feb 11, 1869 in Palmyra, Missouri and went to West Point where he graduated in 1891. After serving in Skagway for a year, he married Julia Carr in Galesburg, Illinois (seen above – Julia looks a little wiped out here).

Jackson stayed in the Army becoming a Major General. In World War One he received the Army Distinguished Service Medal for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the Government of the United States, in a duty of great responsibility during World War I, as Brigade Commander, 74th Infantry Brigade, 37th Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in operations against the enemy in France.

Brigadier General Jackson died on January 13, 1945 in San Francisco where he is buried.

Cartographer from Purgatory

William Yanert was born in 1864 in Prussia, or Poland. He was a cartographer with the 14th Infantry and arrived in Skagway on this day, December 16, 1897 to map things. He left the army and made his way to a remote spot in Alaska in 1901 where he built a cabin and called it Purgatory. When asked why he named it so, he said “It was a hell of a place to live.” It is 45 miles downstream from Beaver, Alaska on the Yukon River. In 1910 his brother, seen with him above, joined him and he lived there for thirty-seven years. During that time he hunted, fished, wrote poetry and created art carvings which he sold to tourists who happened by on steamships up the river. They were entertained by his harmless pranks, his wit and gentle spirit. How many times have you heard people say they just want to go live in a cabin in the woods? Seems he did and enjoyed his life there. He died in 1941 in Portland but was buried in Beaver, Alaska.

online obits; Lung-Trail to north Star gold p 323; “Sergeant William Yanert, Cartographer from Hell,” by Thom Eley, Professor at Univ of Alaska, Anchorage.

M.V. Wheeling

I happened to see a photo of the Wheeling online and wondered what it was, as it looked a bit different than the other ships.
Turns out it was a little U.S. warship that was sent around the Pacific to intimidate locals.
In October 1897 it arrived in Hawaii and gave the Hawaiians quite a shock, until they learned that the President had sent it with important communications for Admiral Miller, in command of the naval forces at Honolulu and Mr. Sewall the U.S. Minister.
Six months late, in March of 1898, Governor Brady was on his annual inspection of the Alaska ports aboard the Wheeling.
After leaving Dyea they sailed to Hoonah and found the local community all inflamed about a recent homicide and subsequent intentions to make the mother of the 6 year old child who had supposedly committed the murder pay up in blankets. Governor Brady told the local tribe that they could not do that anymore. At Yakutat he found another case of a witch hunt that nearly killed three people. To reinforce his word, he had Captain Sebree practice the guns of the Wheeling as an object lesson.
Governor Brady said that the trip had “done much good for the Natives as they dreaded a gun boat more than anything else.”
Shortly thereafter on July 25, 1898 it was reported that Canadian sealers were raiding the rookeries of the islands of St. Paul and St. George. Stationed at Unalaska, the gunboat Wheeler certainly had her hands full patroling the entire Bering Sea.
On January 26, 1911 there was a report that the Wheeling had suffered an explosion while enroute from New York to Cuba. She must have survived that because in 1915 she was at the ready in Haiti when President Wilson was having some problems with Mexico. That article mentions that the entire Atlantic fleet of 21 warships was at the ready.
Seems the little Wheeling got around!

The Morning Herald March 23, 1898; Evening Post, January 26, 1911; Clinton Mirror, March 13, 1915; The Philadelphia Record, Sept 25, 1897.

David DuBose Gaillard

Before the construction of the railroad, Gaillard led a team of engineers up to the White Pass to survey a route.
Gaillard was born in 1859 in Fulton, South Carolina. After graduation from West Point and promotion to first lieutenant in 1887, he married Katherine Ross Davis. The couple had one child, David St. Pierre Gaillard. By 1903 he was a Captain in the Army Corps of Engineers and in 1908 he led the Army Corps in building the Panama Canal.
Gaillard was in charge of the notorious Culebra Cut through the backbone of the isthmus. Men who worked with him said he gave 12 hours every day to the Culebra Cit, besides which, he took his share in the labor of general administration of the Canal Zone. He checked up expenses, even on small things and once it was computed he had saved the Government $17,000,000.
He succeeded, but did not live to see the job finished. Suffering from what was thought to be nervous exhaustion brought on by overwork, he returned to the United States in 1913. In fact, Gaillard suffered from a brain tumor.
Lieutenant Colonel David DuBose Gaillard died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on this day, December 5, 1913. He was 54 years old. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The Panama Canal opened nine months after his death, and Culebra Cut was renamed Gaillard Cut in his honor.

Skagit River Journal website; NY times article 1903.

The dubious story of M.C. Daly

“A thrilling story of starvation and death in the wilds of Northern Alaska is recorded in Skagway, Alaska. The victims were M. C. Daly of Boston, Mass., and two Frenchmen, names unknown. The story was brought to Skagway by William Lawlor, an Arizona miner.”

Although this appeared in the Seattle papers in November 1899, it is dubious in my opinion that it happened in Skagway or the Yukon because it is a year after the gold rush at a time when businesses and roadhouses had been set up. Further there is no record on this day of Mr. Daly or two Frenchmen dying here.
However there was a tragedy at Kotzebue where at least 48 people starved to death under horrible conditions in August 1899 until Lt. Jarvis and the revenue cutter Bear arrived to rescue the miners there. read that story here:
The photo above is of Kotzebue in winter-I think I will go get a hot cocoa now.

(Seattle, Washington, The Evening News, November 15, 1899, page 1)

David Legg Brainard

David Brainard was born in 1856 in Norway, New York. On Sept. 13, 1876, 19-year-old David Brainard left home to travel to Philadelphia and view America’s first successful world’s fair, the Centennial Exposition. After taking in many marvels of the Machine Age, Brainard boarded a train for home. At New York City, he changed trains and reached into his pocket for money to buy a ticket, but there was none. Too proud to write his family for funds, Brainard took the free ferry to the US Army Post at Governor’s Island and joined the Regular Army. He didn’t know it, but David Brainard was on his wasy to becoming one of those rare individuals in military history who rose from Private to General by pulling himself up by his bootstraps.
When Brainard joined the Army, it had been only three months since Custer’s command was mauled at the Little Big Horn, and in no time, Brainard was sent to Montana Territory, to serve with the Second Cavalry against the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux Indians. The square-jawed Brainard was a keen soldier, who firmly believed orders clearly issued should be obeyed.
On May 7, 1877, Brainard participated in the Battle of Little Muddy Creek against the Sioux under Chief Lame Deer, and suffered wounds to his right hand and a gunshot wound to his right cheek, affecting his eye. Over half a century later, in 1933, he received the Purple Heart for his injuries.
He was a Captain in the 14th Infantry when he arrived in Skagway in February 1898. Captain Brainard was appointed Purchasing and Disbursing Officer of the Alaska Relief Expedition and was based in Dyea. Brainard’s relief expedition was intended to address the “sufferings” of the Dawson miners during the Alaskan Gold Rush, but they found the miners well supplied and needed no relief. He is most famous for being the last survivor (in 1935) of the United States’ Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (1881-84), an ordeal of unimaginable hardship. Only six survivors were rescued in 1884 after being stranded in the Arctic for two years in the harshest conditions.
Brigadier General Brainard died at the age of 90 on March 22, 1946 in Washington D.C. and is buried in Arlington.

military rec; bio; “Duty Station Northwest” by Lymon L. Woodman