Thousand-mile ride from Dawson to Nome
The journey of Edward Jesson during the Alaska gold rush era North of 60 Mining News – January 1, 2021
Last updated 1/18/2021 at 12:32pm
Over a century ago, a gold rush pioneer set out on an incredible journey of more than one thousand miles across the breadth of Alaska upon his two-wheeled iron steed, braving the brutal winter weather and untamed wilds in search of fortune. This is the story of Edward Jesson, who biked from Dawson City to Nome in the year 1900, a journey, all thought, he would never return from.
Before the Alaska gold rush era, the world-wide bicycle craze of the 1890s was in full swing, with millions riding upon "wheels" for the first time. Men as well as women had begun riding in comfort and the bicycle had quickly become practical for commuting workers as well as fashionable for the well-to-do.
The craze began with the development of the then called "safety bicycle", the earliest model of the now modern chain driven bike. This new bicycle was quite unlike the original penny farthings, also known as high wheels, with the design being closer to the hobby horse, a bicycle frame whereupon the rider scooted around with their legs and had even sized tires on either end.
The safety bicycles were an improvement upon the jarringly named "boneshaker", that implemented cranks and pedals but with solid rubber tires that provided a less than memorable riding experience.
It was the implementation of pneumatic tires, that provided shock absorption, that made for a much smoother ride and was able to retire the boneshaker and allowed adventurous trendsetters or wheelmen to begin traveling about searching for gold on their bicycles.
This well-timed invention is what allowed early wheelmen to think of foregoing pack animals or dog sleds by traveling upon what became known as the "iron steed" with one of the earliest known pioneers of this mode of transportation, Ed Jesson, undertaking his crazy voyage from Dawson City to Nome.
Today, we are fortunate to have a surviving first-hand account from a journal Jesson kept during his journey to Nome.
The story was preserved for history by Ruth Reat, a woman who worked for Jesson in San Francisco during the 1930s, and once heard him tell the story of his famous ride.
Unfortunately, the original journals, which filled roughly 10 books, were lost to the ravages of time, however Reat was able to salvage the story from a surviving journal and a letter from Jesson describing his venture and later published a transcript that was subsequently issued in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly in July 1956.
This is his tale.
Learning to ride
First arriving in Alaska in 1896 to prospect for gold in the Cook Inlet region of southern Alaska, Jesson made his way to the Yukon after the Klondike Gold strike and began running a trading post at Star City – an outpost that once resided at the mouth of Seventymile River – about 120 miles downriver from Dawson, when the stampede to Nome began in 1899.
"The Nome stampede had been on all winter." Jesson starts in his chronicling. "Many had started in boats in the fall of 1899 too late to reach Nome and by February 1900 the Yukon river trail was alive with dog teams and stampeders with and without dogs. Any old way to get there or part way. They bought any old dog or pup and stole what they couldn't buy and were on their way."
During this time, Jesson details his store at the mouth of the Seventymile river, the men that had come down from Dawson, broken yet frenzied and it is clear as he describes it that, he too, was feeling the fever of the gold rush.
Jesson first pondered the idea of riding a bicycle to Nome while selling two buildings he owned on Bonanza between Eldorado and Skookum Gulch in the Klondike.
"It was a cloudy day about 4 PM as I reached the riverbank going up into Dawson. A young fellow at a waterhole near the trail yelled at me and said, the war is all over, United States win," Jesson penned in his journal. "Where did you get the news, I asked. He said that a young fellow just got in on bicycle with a lot of the latest San Francisco and Seattle papers with big red boxcar letter headings all about the finish of the Spanish Phillopean war. I asked him, where is the bicycle."
It was here that Jesson would buy the so-called bicycle and for a whopping $150 dollars, which would be the equivalent of nearly $5,000 dollars today.
Telling his half-brother, Billie Zeilor, of his idea to purchase a bicycle and receiving no small number of criticisms, it was the next day he suddenly realized he may have been too eager in his plans as he had no idea of even how to ride it.
"Any way I got 7 of the latest papers with the big red headlines and next morning I went down to the A.C. store and got the wheel. I could not ride it and I began to think perhaps I was a little off mopping up the streets of Dawson trying to learn to ride it," wrote Jesson.
After his spontaneous purchase, Jesson would stay in Dawson for a little over a week, learning to keep his balance and to keep his tires within an 18-inch sledtrack.
The merciless trip begins
An Alaskan bicycle ride was a rugged and merciless trip, albeit frozen rivers and dog team trails made traveling easier, severe cases of frostbite and snowblindness were common among wheelmen. The bikes would often break down in the worst weather, far from any town or supply point for spare parts. In lower temperatures, bearings would freeze, tires would stiffen, and the overall metal frame would collect into a heap of frozen ice and as Jesson would describe it, "it looked like a white elephant."
It was during this week, Jesson finished the sale of his buildings, kept himself preoccupied with odd jobs here and there and set off to Eagle City.
"I believe it was 23 of February and the thermometer down to 48 below zero," Jesson wrote. "The rubber tires on my wheel were frozen hard and stiff as gass pipe. The oil in the bearings was frozen and I could scarcely ride it and my nose was freezing and I had to hold the handlebars with both hands not being able to ride yet with one hand and rub my nose with the other. I threw the wheel in the sled."
Edward would not officially start his journey until March 1 from Eagle City, there he would bid some friends goodbye and trekked the first 20 miles of his more than 1,000-mile adventure to the Montuck roadhouse, stopping for dinner. He then continued along his way for another 35 miles, arriving at the Charley River roadhouse. All along, meeting many stampeders and several friends all traveling to Nome for the rush.
Hazerdous trails, anxious stampeders
The next morning, running into a mail-carrier, he was met with the unfortunate news that the trails to Circle were hazardous and difficult, leading him to carry his wheel most of the way there.
The anxiety of many of the miners is shown often during the run-ins Jesson had with the inland prospectors racing to stake their claims on the golden beaches of Nome. Many staying up through the night for word of stampeders leaving San Francisco and Seattle traveling by boat. Hoping to arrive before there was nothing left, as it had been said that every boat on the Pacific coast was being outfitted for transportation to Nome.
Jesson arrived in Circle on the third of March and left the next morning, traveling 75 miles in a single day to quickly reach the Interior Alaska gold rush town. With barely any time to thaw his bones, he was off again traveling 50 miles until he arrived at another roadhouse, called Halfway Island. There he supped and stayed over for the night, entertaining the stayovers and a local group of Alaska Natives, bewildered by the bicycle.
"Next morning Mar 5 I began to enter the great Yukon flats. Left the roadhouse 7:30 AM and arrived at Fort Yukon at 12 noon," Jesson logged in his journal. "I left at 1:30 PM with a crowd of about 200 on the heigh bank watching me go down the river. I arrived at a mail cabin 4:20 PM and slept on the floor with 8 others as the bunks were all full. 66 miles for Mar 5th."
This routine would continue for Jesson, as he was following the path set by the trailblazers before him and aimed for mail cabins and roadhouses along the way. March 6 he would travel 63 miles and the next he would travel 65 miles, yet the weather was only getting colder.
"Next morning March 8th it was very cold," Jesson recalled. "The only thermometer that they had there was a little bottle of quicksilver which had frozen solid. They claimed it was 45 below and when the quicksilver freezes the old timers claimed that it was too cold to work and that your ax would break if you chopped wood."
That day, the bike riding pioneer was lucky to make even the 25 miles that he did to Fort Hamlin, yet upon arrival he describes the pleasant experience of warm bread and an even warmer house, though not without the displeasure of one Big Murphy from Dawson, whom the stampeders decidedly called a sawmill man.
From each location, traveling an average of a little over 50 miles per day, from one roadhouse, tent city, mail cabin or makeshift campsite under a spruce bough if it could be found, Jesson continued along his way, meeting friends and acquaintances. Once breaking his handlebars in a nasty spill, several times being turned back due to fiercely strong headwinds, soiled clothes soaked through from frigid and wet winds and even a slight sickness he managed to ward off from a night of rest, deciding to not travel for a day.
From Fort Hamlin, to Rampart City, Rampart to the Tanana station. Traveling through his birthday on March 13 to Cochrans trading post to the Koyukuk station. Then to Coltag portage with 25 pounds of provisions to last him until Unalakleet, sleeping under the stars and in the frigid cold many nights until he got there.
Treacherous last leg to Nome
Once in Unalakleet, he moved north to Skaktolik, where he stayed with some Alaska Natives who kindly warned him of the treacherous icy paths over the Bering Sea. Nearly there, he found a roadhouse with many other stampeders on 25 March, staying over until fierce winds died down and he could continue on.
The night of 27 March, Jesson was told by some returning stampeders that he met at a makeshift "Egalo" (igloo) that there was nothing left at Nome, however, at this point Jesson had a mission to make it to Nome on his bicycle and continued onwards the next day.
Finally, at 4 p.m., with almost an entire month of bicycling over icy trails and frozen paths, on March 29, Edward R. Jesson arrived in Nome.
"A big crowd was on the beach looking for dog teams and the latest news. With field glasses they could see dog teams as soon as they came around the point of Cape Nome. When I came around the news went around that a dog team was coming. Someone said that it was a fast team then someone with better glasses saw it was someone on a bicycle and by the time I arrived a big crowd was there."
In the end, Jesson successfully made the journey from Dawson City to Nome, winding along from checkpoint to tree side, through blistering winds and blinding whiteness, traveling more than 1,000 miles. There he shored up with a friend and ends his writings of his journey, mentioning tales of his time there in, perhaps, a journal that is long gone.
However, in the fashion that was the seemingly Jesson, optimistic and spirited, he finishes his tale with this.
"The wheel stood the trip in splendid shape and to my great surprise I never had a puncture or broke a spoke the entire trip."
Perhaps the chilly trek cooled his gold fever and the initial slighting from his half-brother and associates lit a different kind of fire inside him, all in all, an incredible journey by an incredible human being.
For the full detail of the adventure of Edward R. Jesson and others, you can find his writings in the book "Wheels on Ice" by Terrence Cole.