Merton H. Marston
(1871 - 1935)
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Merton H. Marston was born in Indiana on July 22, 1871 to James and Alice nee Sweet Marston. He remained a mid-westerner until he was 27 years old, then he began the adventure that places him in the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame - mainly because of his involvement with John Beaton, a Canadian of Scot ancestry, and William Dikeman, reportedly of German descent, in the Flat district of southwest Alaska. Specifically, Marston represents the supporting cast of characters necessary to successfully carry out a prospecting venture in an unmapped wilderness.
The Marston syndicate of LaPorte, Indiana, a small city 50 miles or so southeast of Chicago, was one of dozens of mining syndicates that were assembled to seek gold during the great Klondike gold rush of 1897-1900. Marston attended La Porte schools but there is no record of his graduation. Marston served as a clerk in the store of Barnes & Company (dry goods, carpets, millinery, etc.) during his teenage years and then went to work for the LaPorte Daily Herald, eventually becoming City Editor.
The Marston syndicate seems better qualified by the skills of its organizers than many, but none of the Argonauts had any mining experience. One of the group, James Walter Davis, was a Civil Engineer; another, John Merton Davis, a blacksmith. Eugene G. Neff was a carpenter. Although James Davis was and remained a well-regarded engineer throughout his life, the only member of the syndicate known to have struck it rich in the north was perhaps the least likely by background - Merton H. Marston - a newspaper man.
On February 26 1898 the Daily Herald announced that Davis, Marston, and Neff were ready to depart for the northland. Two days later they left. A few days before the departure of these men from La Porte to Alaska, George McDonald from the Michigan City area started west �with a view of seeking his fortune in that far off country.� His plan was to stay in Tacoma at least a month and if he was able to obtain a good job, he would remain there. However, his main ambition was to continue north in search of gold and would do so probably after April 1. It was reported he would be fitting himself out with supplies and be prepared to engage in digging with a pick and shovel "for the yellow metal" but would engage in any enterprise that would bring him profit. He would join the La Porte party in their search for mineral wealth.
Word from newspaperman Marston was sparse, but of the group, at least James Davis and Marston remained in the north, drifting westward as gold was discovered in inland Alaska. James Davis seems to have done well in the Klondike, but as an engineer rather than a miner. By 1906, Marston was on Fairbanks Creek in the Fairbanks district of Alaska, both actively mining, and operating a saloon at 13 Below Discovery. By 1908, Marston had returned to his earlier career, and was writing for the Weekly Fairbanks News. The paper was renamed the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 1909, and it remains Alaska's oldest daily newspaper to this day.
While in Fairbanks, Marston met two placer prospectors, John Beaton and William A. Dikeman. Beaton and Dikeman had been prospecting in the Innoko region, near the present day City of McGrath. With limited success in the Innoko district, the men decided to move southwesterly into the wilderness drained by the Iditarod (not yet named). Before they left the relative civilization of the McGrath area for an all winter prospecting venture, they found a small river boat, and arranged for supplies and food through Marston, who was promised a 1/6 interest in any gold found by Beaton and Dikeman.
The Iditarod country is of general low relief, and is mostly underlain by frozen soils or permafrost. Though Beaton and Dikeman did do some panning for "color" in the Iditarod, they mainly prospected by shafting, burning and shoveling their way toward bedrock. Shafting is very hard work, and at times Beaton complained of the bacon and beans diet furnished them by Marston. Beaton, however, was an experienced prospector, and must have known that there would be little culinary variety, except for fish and game that they could take opportunistically along the way.
The key to the Iditarod discovery was the suggestion, from a local trapper, that Beaton and Dikeman prospect a stream known for an abundance of land otter — aptly called Otter Creek. They took the trapper's advice. On Christmas Day of 1908, at a depth of about 10 feet, Beaton and Dikeman encountered rich pay. The discovery area on Otter Creek would later become part of the Flat town site. The successful prospectors proceeded to mine their discovery, although it wasn't until thaw and breakup that they could wash their gravel and recover the gold. Word of the discovery slowly leaked, and by late 1909, a stampede was under way.
As reported in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Marston brought the first gold dust from the Iditarod mining district to Fairbanks on September 27, 1909. The results of thirty-two holes dug on Otter Creek indicated that the pay was shallow and the ground was rich. Marston owned two claims on Otter Creek, portions of which he leased out. Marston's share of the proceeds from the first operations, including leased ground, was $1,670.412.26. Overnight Marston, the reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, became a very wealthy man. According to the News-Miner,
"Marston took a pan from each dump of the nine holes running straight across the creek bed on [a leased portion of one of his claims] shortly before returning to Fairbanks]. The nine pans netted $2.32 or over 25 cents a pan. On the same day another of Marston's leasers took out a bucket which yielded $2.45."
Hensleey, Humo, and Peterson on Otter Creek, Alaska. Hensley and Humo were two of three men
who leased the middle 450 feet of 1 Above Creek, one of Marston's original two claims on Otter Creek in 1909.
Photo courtesy of Alaska's Digital Archives.
Marston had great faith in the new discovery. A new settlement, known as Beaton City, was under construction at Otter Creek, and Marston began building a large general store. He resolved to leave the News Miner.
An event occurred on April 4, 1909, before his trip into the Iditarod country, that could have sidelined Marston for a long time. Along with William James and John Butovich, Marston was involved in a violent altercation with Mike Stepovich on Fairbanks Creek — one that involved a shootout in Stepovich's cabin. According to the defendants, Stepovich and two others caught Butovich on a Fish Creek quartz claim that had been located by Stepovich, and beat him so badly that
"he had to be assisted to his home by his son."
In retribution for this and other transgressions, Marston held a lantern while James blazed away at Stepovich with a rifle, and Stepovich answered with his own six-shooter. Incredibly, no one was hit. Marston, James and Butovich were charged with "shooting with intent to kill." The three were taken into custody, but released on bail until the trial began in November, 1909; this allowing Marston to spend much of the summer in the Iditarod. During the November trial, about twenty residents of Fairbanks Creek were subpoenaed by the defense. The details of disputes over claim ownership between Stepovich and Marston (on Fairbanks Creek) and Stepovich and Butovich (on Fish Creek) were heard. In the end, the jury refused to convict the trio of the felony "shooting with intent to kill" that they had been indicted under, and, instead, found Marston and James guilty under the minimum charge, attempted assault, a misdemeanor. The judge on the case noted that:
"Marston and James should consider themselves exceptionally fortunate."and told them,
"You have been ably defended by counsel, who brought out all the mitigating circumstances of this case."He sentenced them to three months in the Federal jail and a fine of $250 each.
By 1912, Marston began to partner with another Iditarod millionaire, Henry Riley. They would, for a time, jointly own the Riley-Marston dredge that worked pay on Otter Creek. In May of 1913, The Iditarod Pioneer reported:
"Riley and Marston have about 40 men doing preparatory work on Otter Creek such as digging ditches."Also in May of 1913, The Iditarod Pioneer reported that
"The Mert Marston-Henry Riley partnership is the largest donor and contributor for road maintenance funds in the district."The partners also donated a team of draft horses for the road maintenance work.
Marston must have been a physically fit individual. As reported by the Fairbanks Daily Times (the last rival to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner), Marston, accompanied by well-known Alaskan gold miners Dan Kennedy, William Casey, and Tom Bullene, left Iditarod on November 15, 1912 and walked more than 150 miles to Kaltag, staying at roadhouses along the way. From Kaltag, the miners mushed via dog team onto Ruby, and then onto Fairbanks. They made the trip from Ruby to Fairbanks in 8 days, which was considered near-record time in 1912.
Marston was financially involved with John Beaton in the construction of the Alaska Theatre which opened in Seattle, May 14, 1914. This theatre later became known as the Strand Theatre.
Merton Marston left Alaska in 1918. Later that year, he acquired a chicken ranch near Pontiac Bay, Sand Point, Washington and operated it for four or five years. He started building chicken coops on his Pontiac Bay farm until he completed about 500 feet of them. The Marstons operated this business until the early 1920s when they left the chicken ranching and moved to the Columbia neighborhood of South Seattle. They continued as the owners until the land was purchased by the federal government for the establishment of Sand Point Naval Air Station, an amphibious aircraft base today operated by the U.S. Navy.
From 1924-1925, Marston and his wife, Stella, were managers of the Hotel Sorrento, located in downtown Seattle. The hotel was built in 1908-09 by Samuel Rosenberg of Kline & Rosenberg, Clothiers, who participated in the successful Chamber of Commerce campaign to make Seattle the outfitting and jumping-off place for gold seekers to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1897. A major remodeling effort completed in 1925 by Merton and his wife Stella earned the couple national recognition from the Hotel News of the West Magazine. Today, the Sorrento Hotel remains as one of the oldest operating hotels in Washington State. From 1926 to 1931, Merton headed the Terry-Madison Company, the corporate owner of the Hotel Sorrento.
The Hotel Sorrento in Seattle,
managed and remodeled by Marston and his wife.
Photo: Thomas K. Bundtzen, 2013
In 1932, Merton and his wife Stella moved to DeLake, Oregon where they built the DeLake Hotel. It burned in 1934, and they moved to Yachats, where they opened the Rendezvous Restaurant. They were still operating the Rendezvous at the time of Merton Marston's death in April, 1935.
Written by Charles C. Hawley and Ms. Fern E. Schultz, October 26, 2012;
Additions made by Thomas K. Bundtzen, 2012-2013
"Filled Cabin With Smoke." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 19 April 1909: page 6
"First Ounce Of Gold From The Iditarod" Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 28 September 1909: page 1
"Marston and James Sentenced To Jail" Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 20 November 1909: page 4
"'Wise Mike' Tells Of Raid On Cabin" Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 8 November 1909: page 1
"A Dream of the Iditarod," "Over One Million Dollars One Sixth Interest in Claim," "Oriental Woman in Sight:" Fairbanks Daily News Miner, September 20th, 1912
"Hotel Sorrento Wins Favor with New Furnishings" Hotel News of the West, November 21, 1925.