The Arctic Brotherhood by Derek Stubbs

[The following was article was originally published in The Square (an independent magazine for Freemasons).  Honorary Member Leo Zenelli is the editor of the The Square and he gave us permission to use it.]

In February 1899, some 11 would-be gold prospectors sat in the saloon of a steamer bound for Skagway, Alaska, out of Seattle, Washington.  Skagway was the starting point for the White Pass Trail which led, over 500 hazardous miles, to the Yukon Goldfields at Dawson City.  Gold had been discovered there in the spring of ’98 by two prospectors, led by an Indian guide known as Skookum Jim.

From Lake Bennett – 60 kilometres from Skagway – they could begin to travel in relative comfort by canoe on the rivers.  But those first kilometers of the White Pass Trail (it was usually snow-covered) were almost straight up; a real test of endurance and courage.

Not only was the steep, narrow, tortuous path most difficult to climb, but every person who attempted it had to carry to the summit one ton of supplies; enough for a year’s survival in the Yukon.

The Canadian Government (which administered the Yukon), fearful of great loss of life from freezing and starvation, had made that ‘one ton of supplies’ a condition of entry to the territory.  Any who did not have this amount were turned back by the North West Mounted Police (which become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

Daunting Climb

Pack horses from knackers’ yards – sold for two dollars each – in Seattle were shipped to Alaska and were sold in Skagway for $20 upwards.  But the trail was so narrow that ever with the aid of these wretched, overloaded beasts, it often took 20 trips or so to get one man’s supplies to the summit.

The death toll among the horses, due to starvation and overloading, was such that more than 3,000 of them died in what became know as Dead Horse Gulch, about three-quarters from the top of the Pass.  When the temperature rose above freezing, the resulting stench was so great that at times the authorities had to close the Trail for days until the freezing weather returned.

Back to those 11 would-be prospectors on the steamer.  They decided to form a fraternal association:  the Arctic Brotherhood.  The members would be pledged to render assistance to each other, not only in reaching the goldfields, but in coping with the tough conditions once there.

Practical ‘Jewels’

We do not know the original constitution or ritual for admission; although some research along these lines is extremely promising.  But a lighthearted or pragmatic approach can be assumed by the fact that the ‘jewels’ of the Officers consisted of Champagne corks, while those of ordinary members were of beer tops.

Once formed – in Skagway – the Arctic Brotherhood spread rapidly throughout South Central Alaska and the Yukon Territory.  Nearly every populated centre had its own ‘Camp’ as their ‘lodges’ were called.  With this growth – which no doubt far exceeded the expectations of the original 11 founders – the aims and ideals took on a more serious and regulated aspect.

The City Museum at Skagway has a replica of the robe worn by members, as well as photographic portraits of Past Cam Chiefs.  These show that the original corks and bottle tops were later replaced by more conventional-looking jewels in medallion form, suspended by collarettes.

First Camp

In June 1899 the brethren of Camp No. 1, at Skagway, built themselves a two-storey hall for their meetings – this was only four months after founding the Brotherhood.  In 1900 they added a façade of reputedly 10,000 pieces of driftwood, forming a unique example of Victorian rustic architecture.

As the Order progressed to a more serious and socially conscious level, opposition was met from some of the early members.  The latter felt that life in the Yukon was already serious enough – and that the light relief which was originally a feature of the Arctic Brotherhood should be retained.  (They probably said something along the lines of “but we’ve always done it that way …”)

However the ‘sober’ view prevailed, and the Brotherhood began to concern itself with local good works, as well as regularizing its own activities.

Life was rough, violent, and sometimes short.  When three of the brethren died within a few days of one another  – one dropped dead during a Camp Meeting, another was murdered and the third committed suicide – it was decided to write an Arctic Brotherhood Funeral Service.  This was accomplished in one evening and subsequently used for many years.

A lapel pin was designed and made by a Skagway member/jeweler.  This mas a miniature gold-pan, in silver, filled with tiny gold nuggets.  Membership instead of being open to all aspiring prospectors, was now restricted to those who had already made the journey on foot – at least as far as the southern end of Lake Bennett, 65 km along the While Pass Trail and at an altitude of 860 metres above Skagway (sea level).

Change of Direction

So the Arctic Brotherhood, from being a self-help fraternity for relatively lowly working men, was now becoming somewhat elitist.

One event was subsequently used as a basis for certain mystical claims made by some of the members about their origin.  During the construction of the ‘AB Hall’ – as it is still known – a member noticed that the rock face of one of the mountains overlooking the town was clearly marked ‘AB’ and could be seen as the snow melted in the spring thaw.

This was exaggerated to such an extent that representations were made to the US Geographical Society in Washington to have the mountain named ‘Mount Arctic Brother’.  The locals know it as ‘Mount AB’ to this day.

At the start of the Gold Rush of ’98, there were two trails up to the Yukon plateau.  The other was the Chilkoot Trail, which was even more treacherous than the White Pass Trail.  After an avalanche which clamed 40 lives, on Palm Sunday 1898, it fell into disuse.  The town itself became, and remains, a ghost town.

It is difficult to imagine just how primitive life was in those early days of the Yukon Gold Rush.  Hardships had to be endured by men without experience of life in the wilderness – let alone such a hostile one.  They had been lured by the thought of instant wealth, to a place hundreds of kilometers from any vestige of civilization; where nothing but a desolate waste existed before their arrival.

The Brotherhood Influence

In such circumstances the Arctic Brotherhood was undoubtedly a good influence.  But this was comparatively short-lived due to two factors.  The first was the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad.  This was an incredible achievement which many had thought impossible.  It still stands as a monument not only to railroad engineering genius, but also man’s dogged determination against overwhelming odds.

Thus the railroad eased the lot of the prospectors; and to an extent undermined the reason for which the Arctic Brotherhood was initially formed.  But the real blow to the Brotherhood’s existence was the declining amount of gold in the Klondike field.  It lasted around four years in economically recoverable quantities – as least by the crude methods then in use.

With the decline in gold mining, the importance of Skagway as the main transit station also fell away – and membership of the Brotherhood took a sharp downward turn.  As Skagway was the site of the foundation of the Order, and therefore the focal point for the whole organization, this decline affected Camps through the region.

Sporadic efforts were made to keep the Brotherhood alive – such as the Initiation of US President Warren G. Harding into Camp Skagway during a visit in July 1923.

But the following year the Arctic Brotherhood finally gave up the struggle.  The fraternal organization which had been founded for a very specific purpose, was unable to carry on when that purpose no longer existed.

Today the AB Hall is used partly as a visitors’ information centre and partly for lectures and theatrical presentations.  The pedestals of the Camp Chief and his ‘Warden’ (we don’t know what titles they actually enjoyed) still exist in the main hall on the ground floor.  They are made in the same rustic Victorian style used on the façade of the building.

This paper was researched partly in Skagway, but mainly in the archives of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to whose very helpful staff I offer grateful thanks.

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