Thursday, November 19, 2015

Gold Fever, 1898

Under the headline "That Gold Plant" on April 16, 1898 the Gloucester Daily Times acknowledged that "as yet very little is known about the plant that is being set up at Halibut Point....Many think it is for the purpose of obtaining gold from the salt water."

Curiosity built. Two weeks later "a party of Lanesville bicyclists rode over to Halibut Point, Saturday morning, and one little girl asked the man in charge if he would please tell her the object of the building. 'Why, didn't you know it was for three cannons to fire on the Spaniards?' he asked. She apparently believed him, said 'Thank you,' and was leaving, when the man said, 'No, little girl, it isn't that at all, this is a contrivance to obtain gold from salt water.' She said 'thank you' and left."

On August  2  the newspaper printed an update. "The gold plant at Halibut Point is still running day and night. The people of the town have had a good opportunity to see the men who have been interested in the local plant and it must be admitted that the impression they have made here is very favorable."
Advertisement from the Gloucester Daily Times, October 28, 1897
Cape Ann was mightily stirred in 1898 by the allure of prosperity for the taking. Procter Brothers, the publishers of the Times offered a zestful account of the road to riches. 
On February 15 a letter had reached home from one of the crew of the Blackburn party that had rounded Cape Horn en route to the Klondike. "The seas [in the Straits of Magellan] rolled twice as high as our mast, and part of the time our craft stood on end....One of our men was washed overboard and by the same sea washed back." The drama gripped even (or especially) a hardened seafaring populace.

During the previous summer Gloucester's legendary Howard Blackburn had proposed and organized the first of the local expeditions to join the Alaskan gold rush. The Times boasted that "the announcement of Mr. Blackburn's scheme in the local papers was sufficient to have it heralded all over the country and in many metropolitan dailies appeared column articles and words of praise for Mr. Blackburn and his project."

Separated from the fishing schooner Grace L. Fears in an 1883 winter gale, Blackburn had rowed his dory for five days and nights with hands frozen around the oars to reach the Newfoundland shore. He returned to Gloucester having lost all his fingers, most of his toes, and the first joints of both thumbs. He founded a popular saloon in his home port.
Blackburn hand-picked members of his expedition to include diverse skills for the voyage, and to re-assemble the 50-foot flat-bottomed steam launch suitable for traversing the shallow Yukon River. The launch he had had built, taken apart and stowed on the schooner Hattie I. Phillips along with a cargo of coal to be sold in San Francisco. He expected to take on extra passengers on the West Coast and sell the schooner when no longer required.

      "Amid lusty cheers of the assembled thousands which thronged Perkins' big salt wharf Monday afternoon, the lines which held the good schooner Hattie I. Phillips were cast off and the party of enthusiastic and earnest Klondykers answered cheer for cheer as the tugboat Joe Call took her down the harbor--the first step on her long journey to the regions of gold....
      "The sightseers maintained a respectful silence while fathers and mothers parted from sons and wives and children said their good byes to husbands and fathers. All strove to be brave, but it was a trying moment and tears would come as the thoughts of parting filled the hearts of those little family groups."
Gloucester Daily Times, October 19, 1897
"The schooner Hattie I. Phillips, carrying the Blackburn Expedition,
clears Gloucester Harbor." Joe Garland, Lone Voyager.
Photo credit Sandy Bay Historical Society
All told eight Gloucester schooners were sold in 1897 to gold rush ambitions up and down our Northeastern coast. Other prospectors crossed the continent by train. They faced every manner of hardship and canny competition in the Klondike, but some said they preferred it to fishing. A Times reporter visited  28-year old Howard Wonson at his Mount Pleasant Street home during a brief return to Gloucester. "Mr. Wonson had been at Rampart City about two weeks when a report came that gold had been found in Munock, a few miles away. A great stampede followed, and Mr. Wonson says that the best way he can describe it is to imagine a large fire in a city and having five hundred people all running and crowding in that direction."

Albert Butler, shipwrecked on the coast of Labrador, returned to Gloucester to found the United Mining Company in January 1898 for pursuit of gold in another challenging northern land.

Six weeks later the discovery of gold on Cape Breton Island set off a mad rush into the Salt and Skye Mountains of Nova Scotia for  a lode reported to be "one of the richest ever made in North America."

Back on Halibut Point the enterprise to distill gold from seawater ended inauspiciously and apparently without a post mortem in the newspaper. In San Francisco Howard Blackburn resigned from the Gloucester Mining Company over administrative disagreements and returned home without reaching the Yukon.
The following summer Blackburn commissioned an eighteen-foot fishing sloop for a voyage more closely suited to his independent spirit. He sailed the Great Western single-handedly, with no fingers, across the Atlantic, reaching England in 62 days at sea. Two years later he sailed the twenty-five foot sloop Great Republic alone to Portugal in 39 days.
It was Howard Blackburn's destiny to make his mark with precious mettle rather than precious metal. 
"Tuning her up for Portugal, Howard takes Great Republic for a trial spin
out of Gloucester Harbor." Joe Garland, Lone Voyager.
Photo credit Sandy Bay Historical Society


  1. I thought Joe Garland told this tale in Lone Voyager, but your account puts flesh on the bones of his account. Thank you for this great reporting and research!

  2. Martin, Liked that "precious mettle" and then this came to mind.

    Charles Olson - Maximus Poems IV,V,VI

    I am the Gold Machine and now I have trenched out, smeared, occupied
    with my elongated length the ugliest passage of all the V
    running from the Rest House down the hill to the
    Tennis Court, the uncontaminated land which of all Stage Fort
    does not bend or warp into new expressions
    of itself as De Sitter imagined the Universe a
    rubber face or elastic bands falling
    into emergnt lines from which string the crab-apple
    tree is a dollyop on the lawn of the Morse house over
    Western Avenue...