Letters from the Klondike

Written by Sidney Watson from Vancouver, Canada during the 1898/99 winter and later in 1899, just before he and his wife, Annie, returned to Australia after two summers on the Goldfields of Alaska and British Columbia.

Philip Sidney Watson, of Gregory Downs, married Annie Lister in January 1898. Annie was a suffragist with a BA from the University of Melbourne (there is also some suggestion that she may have been a nurse prior to attending university – Lew Blackmore re-called in July 1989 that he could remember his mother telling him about Sidney marrying a nurse).

As Sidney had been suffering from “fever and ague” (malaria), she immediately took him off to a complete change of climate and adventure in British Columbia and Alaska during the Klondike gold rush.

They travelled by ship via Vancouver to Wrangell and then up the Stikine River about 150 miles to Glenora before overlanding another 150 miles to Teslin Lake where they bought a boat for the 600 mile trip down river to Dawson City.

However, before setting out for Dawson, and hearing stories of people leaving Dawson, they decided to overland to Atlin, closer gold fields, where they built cabins and possibly set up a store/restaurant.

They stayed for two summers with Annie returning to Melbourne over the winter and Sid boarding in Vancouver.

Map from the book “The Suffragist and The Squatter” by Norman C Hutchinson.

We are fortunate that letters written by Philip Sidney Watson to his family while he and his wife Annie were away at the gold fields have been preserved and transcribed by Noman C Hutchinson for his book “The Suffragist and The Squatter”. The letters were typically written on both sides of the paper which made them fairly difficult to transcribe. Photos taken by Annie Watson, at the time, are also from the book.

Sample of the letters transcribed by Norman C Hutchinson

The first letter , from Vancouver, Canada, is dated 8 June 1898, and is addressed to his younger brother Greg..

Dear Greg,

I have just arrived back here from Wrangell a town on the Alaskan Coast on road to Klondike.  I have been up the River Stikine to a place called Glenora “The All Canadian route” as they call it.  I found I could not get further without horses so came back here and bought 6 head @ 30 dollars each and will have to pay about 40 dollars each for shipping besides other expenses.  I saw horses sold for 200 dollars at Glenora.  I left Annie at Glenora camped in a tent, there are thousands of people camped there and can’t get through.  We have 150 miles over land very bad road [“trail” written over], swampy & hilly and this is the worst track to take.  What they call the Dyea or Chilkoot Pass route is the easiest and best they only charge about 7 1/2 to 10 cents per pound to carry loading over the pass to waters that run into Yukon (lakes etc).  You build boats at these lakes and float downstream for 600 miles and over.  I don’t know what we will do if we can’t strike gold prospecting en route to Teslin Lake.  We may be frozen in for a winter and will require a lot of tucker and God knows when you will hear from me again when once I get away from Glenora.  It is the damnedest rot anyone trying to get to Klondike without money.  Anything under £1000 is no use, besides if you have money you stand a chance of buying something or getting ahead of someone else.  The packers wanted 40 cents per lb to pack to Teslin Lake and run no risks.  If we leave Teslin Lake we will have to build a boat and travel over 600 miles if we want to get to Dawson City.  In the snow time when all the rivers are frozen they use dogs and sleighs, horses etc, there is no feed for horses and I will get one trip out of mine and try to resell them, but the horses die in hundreds once the snow comes.  I expect to leave here in a day or so.  If you get this letter send it to others I can’t write.  Don’t let Klondike make you come into this country.  It is a terrible country in Winter.  Summer only lasts a few months and it only gets dark for about 2 hours, and is very hot some days.  In Winter it is dark all the while – at 11.30pm Annie read newspapers and at 2.30am it was quite daylight & the sun rising.  Customs are the very devil – duty is at least 30%.  All the Steamship Company’s are swindlers and liars and the papers never on any account report true.  Every man has something to lie about.  God bless you and best love, I remain,

Your affectionate brother, P S Watson

In a postscript scribbled over the top of the first page, Sidney wrote: ‘This is a rotten country and it takes so long to communicate anywhere.  Let others read this letter. I have no time to write.  P S Watson’

Sidney Watson at Glenora in 1898 (Image by Annie Watson)

Sidney spent a few more days in Vancouver and had time to write at least one more letter, on June 12, this time to his sisters.  It was written on the letterhead of the Queen’s Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia.

Dear Jessie & Exie & Lizzie,

I got to the place called “Glenora” where the riverboats get to, 150 miles up the Stikine River, where one has 150 miles to walk over very boggy & hilly country.  All the papers and Steamship Companies tell lies to induce people to go to where ever it will pay them best regardless of the thousands of people they will be responsible for killing etc.  I left Annie camped in a tent at “Glenora” till I get back with horses from here.  This is what is called the All Canadian Route, which is a misnomer, for one has 30 miles of United States territory to go through and a lot of trouble with customs.  Thousands of people are stuck and can’t travel.  If there was ice or snow they could drag sleighs and their supplies along.  The other route via Dyea & Chilkoot Pass is the only way open yet.  I would go that way but I think it’s better to go via Teslin Lake, or further into the Gold belt east of “Glenora”.  The rivers and lakes in this country surpass anything in Australia.  Mountains with perpetual snow and glaciers hundreds of miles long.  Goodness knows when I will ever get back to Australia once I get into this country.  It is no use anyone coming here without money £1000 at the very least and then he may lose it all and his life besides.  Every thing is a Dollar per lb out at Klondike and Teslin Lake.  At Teslin Lake we will have to build a boat and travel 300 miles to Yukon River and up some of the tributaries if we want to find gold.  The rivers run so swiftly in some places it is impossible to get up them with safety.  There may be finds closer than the Yukon and if so we will be in a better position to get to it than if we went right on to Klondike.  It does not get dark out where we have been till past 11 o’clock at night and daylight at 2am only about 4 hours dark and not that some nights.  Victoria is the Capital of British Columbia and a dead sort of place.  I wish I could have got my horses shipped on the last boat they could not take me all space being full which necessitated me staying here several days to get a rotten boat.  There is nothing doing in this country unless one got right out to Dawson City.  Shipping Companies, railways and telegraphs are owned by private Companies and the government’s own nothing.  There are plenty of salmon and other fish in the rivers etc.  The Indians are very quiet and peaceful.  They do the most wonderful carving and build beautiful houses and villages.  They carve great pine trees into all sorts of figures and bury their dead in them and under them.  These poles are called “totem poles”.  The Americans had the British flag, American flag and Cuban flag flying on the Queen’s birthday and sang “God save the Queen”.  It would take me weeks to tell you all our adventures etc and I am hanged if I can write.  I wish you would send me some thoughts along when ever you think of me.  Goodness knows when and how I will ever get back to Australia if I get snowed in for a winter.  Bear, Caribou, Moose, Deer are about the only game in this country.  Caribou is a sort of wild sheep, I think.  I never met that friend of Jim’s (brother in law Jim Ferrier) to give him that letter.  God bless you all and best wishes.  I remain Your affectionate brother, P S Watson

A post script, once again written at the top of the first page, says, ‘Address letters to “Glenora” Post Office, Stikine River, British Columbia.  We may get them some day’.  

On the shore of Lake Teslin in 1898, Annie Watson on the right.

Sidney’s next letter to his sisters was written five months later on November 18, 1898 from Vancouver.

My Dearest Jessie, Exie & Lizzie,

Annie and I arrived here 3 days ago and Annie started for Australia yesterday by the Orangi SS.  I had not time to write we were so hustled [or bustled].  I only wrote to Harry and Greg very short letters.  Well, to begin with we never expected to be back here so soon and we have never been to Dawson City yet.  Well we left Glenora 150 miles inland from Wrangel (a port on the Alaskan coast) and walked 200 miles to Teslin Lake, over every obstacle, bogs, logs, mountains etc.  We had 6 pack horses laden with ½ of our provisions, we were about 3 weeks getting through and then sent the horses back for the rest of our supplies, which should have only taken one month as trail was improving, but the man was 6 weeks.  When he did arrive, we found he had lost some of the horses and left our winter clothes behind.  Annie and I only had what clothes we stood in you might say.  I bought a boat 70 dollars and had everything ready for a start down Teslin Lake via Hootalingua River into Klondyke 600 miles by water when we got news of a new Gold Field 100 miles west of Teslin Lake.  As we had heard thousands were leaving Dawson, we struck out for the new diggins.  (It is no use any one unless with plenty of money going to Dawson for it is in a terrible state of corruption, the Police and Government Officials collar everything.  How the miners stand it, is a puzzle. However there is a big row on and the Government will have to get things altered.)  Well we got to Atlin Lake City and went out to the mines and saw that there was gold in country but every known creek was staked and you could get no information from the record office and things were nearly as bad as they are in Dawson, so we wasted a lot of time getting [indecipherable word] claims, but it was too late to do any work and besides we had no provisions or winter clothes.  We sent one horse back to get our clothes which were at Teslin Lake, but the man lost the horse and his also and we found our clothes had never reached Teslin Lake.  While we were waiting I secured two town lots and Annie and I built a cabin on Annie’s lot and I drew in logs for cabin on my lot and got a man to have a cabin built before we get back in spring to meet the big rush, when we will open some sort of shop, which Annie will manage and I will work on mines in [indecipherable word] prospecting.  We will sell claims we have if we get a chance. I don’t think they will be much good.  However it is a good country and if one has his head screwed on right can make money.  The only thing Annie was afraid of was bears, but we never met any wild animals.  I am glad I came to this country, it has taught me a lot.  In some parts of this frozen country there are millions of raspberries, red and black currants as good as the best cultivated.  You would imagine from all the reports that this country of ice did not grow anything.  It is not so for you could not see finer growth of vegetation in temperate country.  When the sun does shine its nearly as hot as Queensland.  The lakes are full of fish, but one wants a net.  Such rivers and lakes, my goodness I never dreamed of such a country – mountains and glaciers.  Annie and I would have liked to have stayed the winter but we had no clothes and the thought of being frozen for 6 months at least was not good enough, so we decided to come out and go back about March when the snow is hard and easy to travel over.  We took a boat from Atlin Lake, went 120 miles to Bennett Lake and walked in from there 50 miles over the snow, it was very tiresome, like walking in arrowroot[?] It used to squeak under our feet and was very soft and heavy walking.  We came in over the White Pass to Skagway ( a port on the Alaskan Coast).  After leaving the White Pass the snow became less and the ground was frozen hard and it was worse than walking on fresh broken metal.  We had no boots, so used moccasins. (These are like boots without soles, just a leather stocking made of thick chamois leather.)  They are first rate on snow, but not on hard ground.  The Indians always wear moccasins (pronounced “Moggasin”).  My goodness we have had some funny experiences Annie and I.  This is the greatest country in the world for salmon & fish.  In some rivers, the salmon are so thick in the water, you can kill them with sticks.  There are several kinds.  In the summer time from June to July it is always daylight which was trying on ones eyes.  In winter there is only 4 to 6 hours light.  I have gone into icy cold water for a bath and the water would freeze on your skin if there was the least wind blowing.  Just before I left I caught hold of a pair of harness to put on a horse and the iron part stuck to my hand and yet it did not seem cold.  The only clothes I have worn are wool singlet or Crimean shirt and blue serge suit.  One does not want too warm clothes most of the time.  Walking or working the perspiration used to pour out of me.  The people are always talking of hardships etc.  An Australian can stand more than they can and have greater hardships.  If one gets wet and it is cold weather he will freeze and this is the only xxxx. Everyone is told to be careful or you’ll get scurvy, and they are always looking for illness, it’s no wonder they get ill.    The people wonder how Annie has gone through it all.  Annie took photos all along but a lot have been spoiled from bad films and she could not develop them.  What a time Maud (Black) would have had and how she would have enjoyed it all.  Maud could make a fortune on the Gold Fields with her camera.  Annie is going to get a good one when we go back.  A restaurant is the best paying thing and if two or three good girls joined together to run the business they could coin money.  I often wished I had Jim (Ferrier) and some of his honey.  I think Jim and Lizzie (nee Watson) could make money over here.  Wages will be from 5 dollars to 10 dollars per day.  I don’t think I was ever built for making money.  We left all our provisions at Teslin Lake.  Goodness knows whether I will ever be able to sell them or get them, it, it will not pay to go for them.  I will find it very monotonous staying here till Annie returns unless I can find some accommodation.  However I will take it easy for a week or so and then strike out for something to do and I am boarding at a place 4 dollars per week and have a room at a place opposite I get good tucker.  The Americans and Canadians are the greatest liars on earth and they worship the “Almighty Dollar”.  The Americans can’t live without hot steam pipes in their rooms and are the worst people I have seen to stand hardships. I never saw a bigger and better lot of men as there are everywhere on the goldfields as “physical specimens”.  It is no use a chicken hearted person coming to this country.  Whenever I got chickenhearted Annie use to give me pats and make me sit up and inspire me with fresh courage. Annie got clean knocked out for the first time walking the last 15 miles into Skaguay over frozen mud it was so rough on the feet.  The traffic had cut up the trail and then it froze as hard as rock.  The Canadian Pacific Railway Company runs Canada now as nearly all Vancouver.  When Annie and I got to Atlin Lake there were two other people with us and 4 others arrived at the head of the lake same day, so we all joined forces and built a raft 10 feet by 28 and sailed down the Lake to Atlin City, the waves were as rough as at sea, but our raft ploughed through them and we got down safely, and we rigged up a big sail out of canvas.  There is plenty of wood in this country, but in the snow one has to use a stove to cook on.  Every one has a stove and they are very handy to keep one’s tent warm.  One day Annie and I were out staking claims and night over took us before we could get back, and it started to snow, we saw a fire and made for it and found two miners with a bit of a fly rigged.  They let Annie sleep with them and I sat up and slept near the fire.  I felt cold at times but would light the fire and warm up again.  I have not been able to think much about Metaphysics, but still I have improved a lot in health, now that I have time.  I must try and study it up.  I am hanged if I can write so will have to wind up for the present and with best love and wishes to you all at “Uppingham” and “Koorawatha”. I remain your affect brother P S Watson.

Log Cabin at Atlin Lake City with Sidney Watson on the right, with pick, panning dish, tea billy and drinking mug. (Image by Annie Watson)

Three months later, on February 17, 1899, with Annie still away in Australia, Sidney wrote to Jessie from Vancouver, however much of the letter is indecipherable, he seems a bit down, and speaks of his feelings at the time and it doesn’t relate to their time on the gold fields.

On the shore of lake Atlin in 1898. Sidney Watson second from left. (Image by Annie Watson)

Annie rejoined Sidney after the northern winter and together they returned to Atlin.  Early in August, after the best of the summer weather, they left Atlin to return to Australia.  On the way, Sidney wrote from Vancouver to his sister Jessie on August 20, 1899:

Dearest Jessie,

Here we are in Vancouver again on our way to Australia.  We will go to Frisco and take boat from there as we intend seeing a few places along the line to Frisco.  I guess I will stay in Australia if I want to make money for the future.  Some how, I don’t think I will ever make a fortune or ever be rich unless by accident.  We left Atlin a fortnight ago and struck an excursion boat full of Presbyterian Ministers on a trip and went to all the interesting places along the coast of Alaska as far as “Sitka” which is the capital of Alaska & used to belong to the Russians and the Americans bought it for ($1,000,000) dollars.  They got more that this in gold out of it before they owned it many years, besides furs etc.  There is an old Greek church there with a lot of old and most valuable curiosities.  The tourists ran all over the place and into every place seeing what they could buy from the Indians, who are a very intelligent people and do wonderful carving and fancy work.  I bought some fancy moccasins to wear instead of slippers.  We have such a lot of rubbish in our luggage in the shape of clothes that we can’t fill up with any more and want to get rid of some of it.  We will stay a few days here as I want to see a few of my friends whom I met last winter when I stayed here.  Atlin was pretty dull and I had nothing to write about, we were not able to do anything there.  It will be a good mining camp for some and the government officials an that’s about all at present who will get anything this summer.  It will soon start to freeze up again.  We visited a glacier called “Muir Glacier” we anchored 1½ miles from it.  Massive ice 250 to 300 feet high, now and again a big junk would crack and break off and fall into the sea causing the water to go up like a water spout and make waves which would rock the steamer as if she were on rough sea.  All the tourists went ashore and gathered wild flowers.  Fancy flowers, most beautiful flowers and berries growing alongside the ice just as well as in the tropics and better.  Fish of all sorts abound in the water and the colder it is the better they like it.  Salmon live in these waters by the million.  I wish I could land you a few choice salmon fresh.  This coast abounds with canneries for preserving fish.  Since being out here amongst the snow and ice I have got a better understanding of the One Life which permeates all things – even the stones.  I have some garnets and they are all the same shape, showing there is a consciousness in the stones (Garnets) that forms them all exactly the same.  All other stones form into the shape of their kind, showing its something in each of them that does it, a consciousness if you can call it that.  I think a couple of months will see us in Australia.  I only met one metaphysician at Atlin and I gave her Mrs Wilmans “O World” as she had no books.  Give my love to all the family and God bless you all.  I remain with best love and wishes your affectionate brother P S Watson

Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.

Sid and Annie returned to Australia in late 1899 and lived at Woodend near Mt Macedon in Victoria on a 69 acre property they named “Atlin”. Following the death of Annies’ mother in 1904 they returned to live at “Iona”, the Lister family home in Kew. They had no children of their own and involved themselves with the welfare of others and the healing practice of Christian Science.

Link to Wikipedia on the Klondike Gold Rush below:-



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