From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.

Tale of Adventure in Gold Rush Diary

by Erma Young

KC Star or Times July 3, 1970

It may be chips of moon rocks from outer space in 1970 or a diamond willow sapling cut along the banks of Alaska's Copper river in 1897. Whatever the era or the chosen odyssey, it is man's delight to bring back mementos of his wanderings and a family's pride to treasure these symbols of pilgrimage.

A 3 1/2-foot staff of ridged willow, a vial of black sand flecked with a trace of gold and a time-dimmed diary are prized by a 77-year-old Kansas Citian, Frank Swartz, 4343 Tracy avenue. They are reminders of the gold rush adventuring of his father, the late John Adams Swartz.

Frank Swartz was five years old when his father left their home near Leavenworth, Kas., in the spring of 1897 to join the gold rush to Alaska. But the Kansas prospector was not one of the lucky ones who struck gold during the many months of digging, and he returned to his wife and young son in October, 1899.

The son remembers the day of his father's departure, the day of his return.

The diary, with daily notations in a 5-by-7-inch notebook that the miner apparently carried with him, is missing the cover and the first pages. Because of the lost pages, the first entry begins in the middle of a sentence. On October 16, 1898, the prospector wrote: "...without accomplishing anything except to find some very good colors, but failing to reach bedrock, we give it up until it freezes and start back for Tazlena camp, arriving there on the 16th. Today, the 16th of October, is the first snow we have had this fall. Fell to the depth of 5 inches on a level. First zero weather we had on 14th of October, 5 1/2 below."

Mention of Chitina, Copper river, Copper Center, Valdez and finally Prince William Sound, when the Kansan pulled away from the land of get-rich-quick dreams, indicates the area of exploration. The miners followed a path in the part of Alaska immediately above the Southeast panhandle.

Frank Swartz said that his father was in his 40s that springtime of 1897 when "he made up his mind he was going to the big gold rush in Alaska."

"Dad was assistant sexton at the Mount Muncie cemetery, which adjoined the Soldier's home near Wadsworth," he recalled. "We lived on the grounds. Dad was paid $30 a month, he had his house and firewood furnished, a garden spot...a good job for those days. He and the sexton, Howard Norton, both quit their jobs and left to make their fortune. But fortune went the other way. Norton came home after nine months. But Dad was an optimist and always thought everything would turn out all right.

"At first Mamma was not for it. Then she decided that if they were going to get so much money out of it, perhaps he should go. But she dreaded the risk and the day he left, she could not bear to go to the railroad station with him. She kissed him good-by at home. I climbed up on the neighbor's wagon and when to the station with him."

The mother and son lived on a 5-acre place in a Leavenworth County, Kansas, community called Fairmount while the head of the family was away. The mother's brother, "Uncle Joe" Howe, who had fought in the Indian wars with General Custer, came to live with them and his $6 monthly pension helped out on the family income.

In mid-November, 1898, John Swartz's diary tells how he almost froze to death after he broke through the ice and lost his way to the cabin of friends.

"November 16--Up and ready to start at 7:30 a. m. bound for Tazlena camp. I get along first rate 'til noon, then I stop on St. Ann river with Hosford and got my dinner. I strike out after dinner, feeling good. I move onto Lake Hudson shortly after 4 p. m.

"I had not gone more than 1 mile on lake til I went through hole, with one foot in the water above my knee. It being quite cold, it was not til my pants and boot were froze stiff. I pegged along fast as I could but could not make very fast time. I knew there was a cabin somewhere on this lake but did not know where, so I was trying to locate that. I did not have a match with me and it was 12 below zero. I knew I must find the cabin or freeze to death before morning.

"So kept on going til almost 8 p.m. when I found the cabin. My foot was froze and one ear was frost-bitten. The parties here taken me in and cared for me. Their names--H. Miller, Thomas Temple and Ed Lewis."

His friends did not permit him to attempt the trip to his cabin at Tazlena camp until the 18th, when Temple and Miller accompanied him.

"I thank God that I am here, as well as I am," he wrote. "Oh what a lesson this has taught me--I had Dr. Quick examine my foot and he does not think there will be serious danger if I keep quiet...last night was the coldest we have had, 42 below."

Later his family at home learned that a big black dog, Coalie, also figured in his rescue. The dog, a cross-breed of water spaniel and St. Bernard, had been bought in Seattle where Swartz and his party had outfitted for Alaska and was used as a lead dog.

Coalie was with his master when he fell through the ice. As Swartz wandered, searching for the cabin, the dog sensed that they were going the wrong direction. The dog balked. His master finally realized that there must be a good reason why the usually obedient Coalie was refusing orders, so he decided to follow Coalie's lead.

"Go home, Coalie, go home," Swartz said.

The dog struck out in a different direction and finally there was the welcome sight of the lighted cabin.

Swartz kept Coalie throughout his Alaskan stay and brought him back to Kansas with him.

The mercury kept tumbling in November, the diary relates. "November 21--Mercury down to 45 below--nothing of importance--two young fellows start to sled down the Tazlena river. "November 22--It was 46 this morning. My foot has been hurting quite a good deal. I start to write a letter to R. Bros, K. C., Mo."

Thanksgiving, November 24, was more cheerful, with the temperature only 18 below and apple pie for dinner!

"I and my friend Kromfitzer have apple pie for dinner. That is a luxury that we can't afford everyday."

Robert Kromfitzer, Blue Earth, Minn., had been mentioned in a September entry as one of a prospecting party of eight men that Swartz was accompanying.

Sundays and holidays always have special mention in the diary. These entries are typical:

"This being Sunday, I expect a pleasant day."

"It being Sunday, there was not much work done."

"Valentine's day, quite cold and we laid up."

"St. Patrick's day. I moved up the creek and found the boys all right."

Men far from home did much planning for Christmas. The December 22, 1898, entry says: "We have decided to have a Christmas tree and are preparing for it and we have one. Charley Collins cooking for us."

"December 24--Now it is evening and the three different have gathered together here at our cabin. I will give you our program of the eve."

A half-page was left blank, but no listings. Apparently the festivities were more entertaining than writing in a notebook.

"December 25--It being Xmas, there was nothing going on except a pleasant dinner with some company."

The journey with the sick man was resumed the next day. The party reached Copper Center December 28 and the patient was lodged with Dr. Quick. The travelers stayed over a day because the temperature dropped to 49 below. They arrived at their home camp on New Year's day, 1899, to find "the boys all anxious to hear all the news that we got which is not much as there has been no mail since October."

Bad weather and winter doldrums probably prompted the word "Nothing" repeated after carefully numbered date, January 3 through January 11. Then life picked up again.

"January 12--Now we have started to move to our claims, will go by the way of the Center."

There followed days of moving men and goods. Sometimes they made only one load a day six miles down the river. Cabins for overnight stands were found in camps along the way. Often these were crowded as this indicates: "Only 2 cabins in this camp, but we manage to get about 8 men in each cabin."

Helpfulness for each other is evident in many notations: "Some of the boys went to the Center to get our mail and took a man to the doctor to have a toe taken off that had been frozen--well, the boys have returned--brought me four letters--the man did not have his toe taken off."

"February 19--I moved my bed and stove and a little grub up to the Rapids. I secured Charley Weisman's cabin as he is going to start back to the States tomorrow--there is quite a number going back--12 men started for the Bay over the Glacier."

"February 22--8 men and 1 woman stated for Valdez over the Glacier."

Happy news on February 24 with "four letters from home." On February 27: "I write letter home that three claims on Quants creek have struck pay dirt."

Early March and two men traded six martin skins for a claim. A man went to the rapids to get meat for the dogs but did not get it. The weather was 52 below. Two men came down the Copper river on their way out and reported "things pretty bad up the trail...one man had frozen one of his thumbs and it had come off...quite a number sick on the trail...some being brought back and sent out...others remain to see if they get better...the young and strong have to be hauled out as well as older one."

A few days more and the report "that there has been a great storm on the glacier and seven lives lost." Their names are listed. A later word says that all the bodies of the seven "except Dr. Logan of Chicago" has been found. But the optimist from Kansas stayed on.

"March 18--We have been digging some today. We have got down 10 foot and we put up our winlas (windlass) today.

"March 20--We start digging today and take out about 1 1/2 feet, very hard.

"March 21--At work on our claim but make slow time.

"March 22--All feel tired tonight, very hard digging, only went down 1 foot.

"March 23--We have a little better digging--now are 16 feet and 4 inches.

The men dug to 19 feet, but found no change in the claim and still the same formation. They moved on and "staked out a quartz claim it was prospected some last summer and the rock that was taken out assayed at $109 per ton."

In April Swartz broke away from the digging to help a man and his wife over the Glacier to Valdez.

"April 15--It is a very dull here in town. There is one saloon, 4 hotels, 3 restaurants.

"April 16--It is the Sabbath and there was services at 3 p.m. There is but 1 church.

"April 17--A boat came in this morning, the Wollcott from Juneau. It brought mail. I received 4 letters with one from home.

"April 21--The Excelsior arrived today, Captain Abbercomby and about 40 men came with her, the government wanted to hire 30 men for $100 per day but they did not get very many.

"April 24--Busy all day getting ready to start across the Glacier. The boat pulled out last night, about 50 or 75 passengers went with her."

Back with his party, he told of days of snow, of hunting, of suffering snow blindness. Then the weather turned. He and a companion climbed to the top of a mountain, prompting the May 21 entry: "Sunday, I gathered some May flowers." June and rains brought mosquitos.

"June 6--Up on the claims this morning and got out some rocks that we want to send back to the States. Mosquitos bad. I sent a letter to my wife.

"June 22--Some prospecting today but found nothing.

"June 23--I went up the creek and staked out a claim for myself.

"June 29--Catch a few salmon.

"July 1--I baked bread and caught a few salmon but we don't try to catch more than we can eat ourselves and to feed the dogs--saw a caribou at 300 yards and shot at him but failed to bring him down."

On the way to Valdez, he told of a friend having a "codac" and they paused to take snapshots. During an August wait in Valdez, Swartz sometimes worked at "helping put up hay, $2 a day and my dinner." When rain stopped the haying one day, he wrote: "Set in raining so I came home and now I will take some addresses." Friends from Tacoma, Wash.; Alton, Ill.; Oxford, N. Y.; Sulphur Springs, and Jefferson were listed.

"August 28--Up and ready to start, as our boat has come. We are off at 11:35 a.m. About 75 passengers on board. We go out into Prince William sound.

"August 30--We expect to arrive at Juneau at 10:30 p.m."

In recalling his father's homecoming, the Kansas City son said: "Dad never struck pay dirt. He brought back some of the black sand that gold is found in. He borrowed $100 to get home. He came home with his Smith & Wesson 6-shooter, his hand ax, his diamond willow staff and his lead dog, Coalie. He had grown a heavy red beard that went down to his chest. I did not know him."

The little boy cried out, as his mother ran to greet the big man coming up the path, "Mamma, don't kiss him. That's a tramp!"

John Swartz took whatever job he could find at first and later went into various business ventures, including running a store in Leavenworth. Eventually, he settled down to farming on land purchased near Oak Grove. The son, Frank, also became a farmer and owned a farm in the Oak Grove community. John Swartz was making his home with the son when he died in 1934.

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