Elections have always been a part of our lives. Even with all the hustle and bustle of the great Klondike Gold Rush surging about them, the good citizens of the newly emergent town of Skagway, Alaska took time off from their hectic daily lives to participate in local elections. I thought it might be instructive to examine a few articles from Skagway’s early newspapers on our town’s first couple of elections to indicate how far we’ve come or perhaps how things have not really changed at all.
From The Skaguay News of Dec. 10, 1897 (page one), under the headlines: “Skaguay’s First Election, Seven Good Men Chosen, To Act as Councilmen for the Next 12 Months — Good Natured Rivalry Prevailed” we find that:
“Skaguay’s first municipal election created not a little excitement, notwithstanding the fact that it was simply a voluntary act on the part of the citizens. The friends of the different candidates did some lively hustling in order to roll up a good vote for their favorites.
“The voting began promptly at 1 o’clock on Saturday afternoon [Dec. 4, 1897] and continued until 8 o’clock in the evening, the total number of votes recorded being 605. Good nature prevailed everywhere, the rivalry between the opposing fractions being marked only by the very best feeling…
“A feature of the election was the voting of the ladies, who, to the number of twenty, cast their votes just like men, but probably with not so much noise, which may be considered as something remarkable, in view of the well-known propensity of the gentle sex to talk.
“Counting the ballots was not completed until nearly 2 o’clock in the morning, when the judges announced the following result, the seven men receiving the highest number of votes being declared elected:
H. E. Battin – 441, H. R. Littlefield – 375, F. H. Clayson – 366, J. Allen Hornsby – 361, Frank E. Burns – 325, H. Foster – 261, Chas. Sperry – 254, J. H. Lilly – 230, F. E. Clark – 220, J. H. McCourt – 179, John Kalem – 178, [and] T. M. Word [Ward] – 169.”
In a follow-up article The Skaguay News, of Dec. 31, 1897 (page eight) commented a bit more on the election and the duties of the newly elected men:
“Skaguay held its first election on Saturday, Dec. 4, when seven ‘councilmen’ were elected to look after all matters appertaining to the welfare of the town. It will be the duty of the councilmen to originate measures for the material and moral welfare of the town; to arrange for police and fire protection; look after the sanitary condition of the town; and in shot [short], to discharge every duty falling upon the shoulders of a city council of any incorporated city or town. In discharging their onerous duties the seven wise men of Skaguay will have as their staff and comforter the moral and financial support of the citizens, and it is safe to say their edits and ordinances though lacking the legality which law is supposed to give them will be strictly enforced and observed.”
As hinted at in the above quote, this election and the resulting government were technically illegal. Alaska had been governed by the U. S. Army from 1867, the date of its purchase from Russia, to 1877 and then by the U. S. Navy from 1877 to 1884. In 1884, Congress finally got around to establishing a civilian government for the new “District of Alaska.” Alaska’s Organic Act of 1884, however, was a far cry from representative government. For example, the act expressly forbade a legislature and the President of the United States, with the consent of the Senate, appointed all district officials including the governor and communities were not allowed to incorporate or form governments.
In spite of all the good feelings at the beginning, not all went well. Shortly after the gunfight that killed Soapy Smith and Frank Reid on July 8, 1898, The Daily Alaskan of July 11, 1898 (page three) had the following to say about the recently-elected city council:
“A special meeting of the council was called for this morning at ten … The object was to have a majority present and all to resign so that a new election might be had and a governing body chosen by the people… When the subject was discussed President Sperry declined to resign, but he showed no … object[ion] to the resignation of the other three members and Lokowitz, Foster and Burns immediately handed them in.”
Apparently it was felt that some, perhaps all members of that first city council had been a little too friendly with Soapy. Indeed, on July 12, 1898 two council members were deported from Skagway as undesirable citizens. In The Skaguay News of July 15, 1898 (page three) reporting on that same meeting, we find that:
“At a special meeting of the city council, held at ten … Monday evening, Members J. H. Foster, Frank E. Burns, and W. F. Lokowitz, tendered their resignations, each of which was accepted. All the members were present except Hornsby and Spence[r]. After the resignations were accepted, there was one lone member, Chairman Sperry, left to make, second, put before the house and vote on a motion to adjourn.”
Once the first city council members had resigned, a new acting city council had to be appointed until new elections could be held. The Daily Alaska of July 23, 1898 (page four) briefly reported on that.
“A citizens mass meeting is hereby called to meet in Myer’s hall at 8:30 … Tuesday July 26th, 1898 for the purpose of nominating candidates to fill the vacancies in the City Council, caused by the resignation of F. E. Burns, W. F. Lokowitz, and J. H. Foster. Also to make arrangements for holding an election to fill said vacancies.”
Then, in The Daily Alaska of Aug. 3, 1898 (page two), under the headlines: “Public Records Missing…” we find that:
“There was not such enthusiasm shown by the new … members of the council last night as the general public had a right to expect. One member was absent who sent in no excuse for his failure to attend. But there was a majority, composed of Messrs. [John] Sperry, [J. C.] Price, [J. A.] Dick and [Thomas] Whitten, and the council proceeded as far with public business as they could. Mr. Sperry was elected chairman, and the first thing to do, in the minds of everybody present, was to get the records and papers of the last council, so as to continue upon the lines adopted for that body at a public meeting … The chairman … and the other members of the council discussed the situation. The night watchman volunteered to search for Mr. Charles Sperry, the late president of the [previous] council, [but] the discussion was put an end to by Mr. Sperry’s appearance.
Mr. Sperry walked up to the table and deposited thereon a paper box containing a number of documents. He said here [are] all the papers that could be found, and from his explanation it seemed that they were principally bills to be met. The code of declarations [and] … the minutes … [were] not there. Why they were not there, he could not say. ‘Your guests,’ he said, ‘broke into the cupboard containing our papers and scattered them on the floor. I picked up what I could.’ What had become of the book containing the minutes of the council [or the code of declarations] he could not say. Mr. Sperry then left the room.
Mr. Price said it was impossible to go on until the council had these records or made new regulations, and he therefore suggested a committee of three to further examine Mr. Sperry and, if possible, trace …the missing records. The motion was carried and the chairman named Messrs. Price, Whitten and Dick as the committee.”
We are not sure what happened to the missing records but almost a year after the first election, the citizens of Skagway voted in a second election for a new city council. The Skaguay News of Dec. 9, 1898 (page two) reported on the results and the men who would lead the city for another year:
“Pursuant to previous notice, an election was held in the city last Monday at which seven members were chosen to serve on the … city council for the ensuing year. There were fifteen candidates from which to select seven councilmen. A good total of 903 votes were polled, the relative strength of the candidates being as follows:
John Stanley – 654, John Laumeister – 611, Frank Clancy – 577, John Hislop – 665, F. T. Keelar – 453, Lee Guthrie – 602, Chas. O’Brien – 493, W. F. Matlock – 316, A. L. Remick – 224, E. O. Sylvester – 237, L. S. Kellar – 103, Will Clayson – 211, E. I. Niskern – 142 [and] Ben Moore – 102.
The first seven of the above named candidates are those who will preside over the destinies of our city until their successors are chosen, which will be on the first Monday of December, 1899.
The election was by no means an exciting one. All those whose names appear above are good men. There was a great deal of apathy manifested by the majority of the candidates, and such expressions as “if you are a friend of mine do not vote for me” frequently heard on and several days previous to Election Day…
The seven men chosen are all alive to the matter of building up Skaguay and advancing her interests. There is not a ‘chump’ in the body, and the residents of our city may repose on their virtuous or otherwise, couches at night with the full assurance that the trust reposed in the ‘city dads’ will not be betrayed.
Everybody known and likes John Stanley. He is a blacksmith by trade and a good one. Young, active and energetic, he never wearies in well-doing. As president of the preceding council, he made a record for general worth of which any man might well feel proud. He is a worker, a rustler and honest, conscientious man.
John Laumeister is the good looking man of the new board, the same as was of the old. John is a butcher by trade, and it may be that his experience with a meat saw has made him so that he is not afraid of a buzz saw. John Laumeister will do what he believes to be right, even if the heavens fall. His past record is without blot or stain and his future records will be equally bright.
Anyone that don’t know Frank Clancy was born only yesterday. Frank has a heart inside his vest bigger than a Cincinnati ham. He has had much to do with men and business. All his interests are in Skaguay and under his care and guardianship our interests are safe. Frank Clancy has never been known to give anybody ‘the worst of it.’ He is a friend to all, and especially to the poor and needy.
John Hislop, the ‘top notcher’ when the votes were counted is a man whom to know is to honor and respect. He is first assistant engineer of the Yukon & White Pass Railway and Navigation Co. [White Pass & Yukon Route railway], and is a man who does business straight up to the handle. No mistake was made in Mr. Hislop’s election. He will be president of Skaguay’s council.
F. T. Keelar is one of the best known men in the city. He is a merchant, broker, auctioneer and money lender. He is a thorough business man, fully awake and alive to the need and interest of Skaguay, and through him we may confidently expect much needed municipal legislation. He is an orator of no mean attainments, and will shine as a member of the municipal Sanhedrin.
Who is Lee Guthrie? ‘Well, I wonder!’ he is one of the pioneer businessmen of Skaguay. He owns some of the best property in the city, and is always ready to help along every worthy cause. He is one of the most charitably, liberal and at the same time one of the most solid and conservative of all Skaguay’s business men. Guthrie is a philosopher, and his clear and shrewd business instincts will be a great assistance in dictating the policy and in presiding [over] the destinies of our city.
Chas. O’Brien is another landmark in Skaguay. He was here among the first and has been here ever since. As a packer and forwarder, he has no superior in Alaska. True, honest and faithful, he has never yet betrayed a trust reposed in him. Broadminded and liberal, yet with an eye to economy, he will make a first-class councilman. Charley O’Brien is one of Skaguay’s solid citizens, and his election was no mistake.
Now that a new …city council …has been [chosen], it behooves every resident of the city to stand by and hold up the hands of the members in every cause that is for the advancement of the public interest. Without the aid of the citizens, our city fathers can do practically nothing [but] with the required aid and assistance many good things can be brought about [and] the interests of the city [will] materially advance. It is the duty of every man who has at heart the welfare of the city to assist the council in every way possible. If we would thrive and prosper, we must all pull together.”
And so another election becomes history.
Information for this program was compiled from The Skaguay News, of December 10, 1897 (page one), December 31, 1897 (page eight), July 15, 1898 (page three), and December 9, 1898 (page two) and The Daily Alaskan, of July 11, 1898 (page three), July 23, 1898 (page four), and August 3, 1898 (page two). An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.
• Karl Gurcke is a Skagway historian who works at the National Park Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.