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November 21, 2006 > Alaska or bust

Alaska or bust

You may think of Alaska only as another state, a great place to fish, or a memorable cruise, but history reveals a few other interesting connections with our area.  The search for gold and silver ore appeared to provide the main connection.

John Lowrie was a successful Centerville farmer and stockman.  His home is pictured in the 1878 Atlas of Alameda County.  Samuel Marston was a pioneer sea captain.  Together they organized a gold expedition to Alaska in 1882.  John Lowrie built the steamer “Lady Anne” at Jarvis Landing and loaded her on the deck of the steamer “Alaska” and their company headed to Alaska.

Marston and Lowrie located their mine in Alaska and transported silver ore they mined down the river on the “Lady Anne” to the steamer “Alaska.”  Lowrie, Marston and several other men started for home with the load of ore in the fall of 1883 and were lost at sea.  James Hawley and others who had remained at the mines came home and the company dissolved.  John Lowrie’s will was probated in 1884.  His Centerville estate included 490 acres of land worth $75,000 at that time.

The local papers carried news of the Alaska gold rush in November 1897.  One story noted that Jack Stanley of Mission San Jose had just returned from Skagway.  The Washington Union High School alumni roll indicated that Joseph Jarvis had mined in Alaska.  Some scenes in Rex Beache’s book, The Spoilers, were based on his claims.
J. J. Sanac, Jr. left Irvington in December 1908 to take a position with his brother, Manuel, who had a prosperous restaurant business in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Mollie Stevenson shared a letter from Theo Bergman to his mother and sister written at Skagway, Alaska, February 11, 1890.  Theo was doing general work and shoeing horses in a blacksmith shop for 50 cents per hour.  The town was crowded with workers, horses, mules and dog teams heading for the gold fields.  Most people were in some way connected with the rush for gold.

The Thane and Whipple families developed close ties with Alaska.  Bartlett Lee Thane, his sister, Laura Thane, and James Whipple attended Washington Union High School together and then graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.  Bart and James were members of the famous football team of 1898 that defeated Stanford for the first time in three years, and both became famous mining engineers. 

Bart’s departure was noted in a Niles newspaper dated May 25, 1898.  “Bartlett Thane sailed for Alaska Saturday morning where he will be employed in the famous Sum Dum Chief mine during his summer vacation as a part of the practical work required in the mining college at U.C.”   He was unable to attend his grandparent’s 50th wedding celebration because he was working near Sumdum, Alaska.

Bart became a world famous mining engineer, traveler, writer, scientist and geologist.  He was described as an empire builder.  He transformed a quiet mining district in southeastern Alaska into a commonwealth that employed thousands of men.  The city of Thane stands as a monument to his skill as an engineer and builder.  He was featured in the September 1916 issue of Sunset Magazine.  His research work on the distillation of oil from shale and coal earned him a place among the premiere scientists of the world.

Laura Thane and James Whipple were married at Niles in 1898.  They soon went to Alaska, near Juneau, where James was employed as a mining engineer.  She described life in the mining camps near Juneau in a letter dated July 1903.  Local newspapers sometimes recorded her visits from Juneau to Niles. 

Bart Thane married Fay Blaine, and they established a home in Juneau.  They often came back to Niles to visit family and friends.  Some of these visits were combined with Bart’s business trips.  A news item in 1916 told of a visit by Mr. and Mrs. B. L. Thane and daughter and Mr. and Mrs. Pond, son and daughter to Mrs. J. E. Thane in Niles.  Della Crane went to Juneau, Alaska, with the Thanes in June 1912.  She was apparently quite well and strong but died there in August of tubercular meningitis.

James Whipple died in 1914 from injuries he received in a mine accident.  Laura founded a memorial library in Thane, Alaska in memory of her husband, James R. Whipple.  A local writer noted in December 1916 that Laura had acquired about 6,000 volumes and that a building had been erected by the town to house the books and make them available to residents.

Laura Whipple came back to Niles and organized the Toyon Branch of the East Bay Children’s Hospital in 1916 “in loving memory of her late husband’s birthday, October 21.”  She continued to direct her energies into public and social work and earned the title “the Grand Old Lady of Washington Township.”

Bart Thane went to New York in 1927 to work on the amalgamation of some manganese mining interests of the Balkans.  He died there on November 7, on the same date that his close friend, James Whipple, had died 13 years before.  His death came after being sick with pneumonia only three days.

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