Jack Dalton


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portrait of Jack Dalton
Photo courtesy of Kathleen (Mike) Dalton.

Jack Dalton's life of nearly ninety years spanned an era of almost unparalleled change. In his role as Alaska's premier freighter during the Gold Rush days in the Klondike and Alaska he observed, directly, the replacement of men and horses by machines. In his old age, Dalton saw the encroachment of aircraft on railways and steamships, the earlier prime-movers.

Accounts of Jack Dalton's early life are sketchy at best and sometimes misleading. His birth has been variously placed in Oklahoma, Kansas, or the Cherokee Strip in 1855 or 1856. Most probably, he was born in Michigan about June 25th, 1856, the place and date of his birth given on Dalton's California death certificate. Published accounts of Dalton's life indicate that Dalton had only one or two years of formal education. The same accounts often describe him as a self-educated man who enjoyed reading and writing. Moreover, Dalton had many valuable pioneer skills. It is perhaps universally agreed Jack was not a man to cross as he had a hair-triggered temper, and strength that belied his stature. He was a good shot and was usually armed.

Dalton began his travels as a late teenager when some scrape caused him to move to Texas and change his name, temporarily, to Jack Miller. Under that name, he worked his way north and west and gained a reputation as a hard working and versatile ranch hand, but also as a formidable fighter. In about 1882, Jack moved to Burns, Oregon where he ran a small logging company. Trouble began when Dalton fired his cook. The cook returned to camp and at first opportunity pulled a concealed pistol on Jack who grabbed the cook's arm deflecting the shot. The two men struggled; Jack pulled his own pistol, and in the ensuing fight, the cook was shot fatally. The cook had numerous friends in the area, and Jack thought it prudent to leave the country for San Francisco, where he shipped northward on a sealing ship bound for Herschel Island and other points along the Siberian and Alaska coastlines. Trouble followed Jack, as the entire crew was arrested for illegally hunting fur seals and jailed in Sitka.

Dalton gained his freedom in the mid 1880s and immediately began to augment his earlier reputation as a man of great ability, but dangerous. At that time Dalton, about thirty years old, was an expert at anything related to horses, a skilled hunter, excellent rough cook, and adept with small boats of any type. He made a reputation as a negotiator with the southeast Indians. Dalton quickly learned "the Chinook Jargon," the trade language used along the north Pacific coast and he used it effectively. Although lacking in formal education Jack wrote well. His virile good looks made him attractive to the opposite sex. A Haines pioneer who first met Jack in 1906 described him, whom she had known as a frequent guest at her girlhood home, as a "dapper, well-dressed, ladies' man."

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Dalton participated in several noteworthy expeditions. In 1886, Jack signed on as roustabout and camp cook with the Schwatka-New York Times expedition to climb Mt. St. Elias. The party began their ascent at tidewater in Icy Bay on July 17, 1886. They traversed rugged terrain for twenty-five to thirty days, crossed fast coastal rivers, and reached an elevation of about 5,700-feet before Schwatka's health failed, which terminated the first recorded attempt on the difficult mountain. At the conclusion of the trip, Dalton elected to stay in the Yakutat vicinity prospecting for coal, possibly for Sitka businessman Edward DeGroff. In one later evaluation, pioneering ethnologist Fredricka DeLaguna believed that Dalton was the premier explorer of the coastal region near Disenchantment Bay. In 1888, Dalton discovered a coal deposit not far from Bancas Point.

In 1890, Dalton joined the "Frank Leslie Newspaper Expedition" which was formed to explore the largely unknown land between the Alaska Coast and the Yukon. The expedition was led by E.Hazard Wells, and included E. J. Glave, A. B. Schanz, F. B. Price, and Dalton. Jack used both negotiating and practical skills for the expedition. Access to the interior over the so-called "Grease Trails" had always been controlled by the Chilkat band. In his earlier years the Chilkat chief, Kohklux, adamantly opposed the whites and had been in the party that burned the post at Fort Selkirk in 1852. By the late 1880s, Kohklux realized that the military power and sheer numbers of invading settlers could not be opposed. At odds with some of the Chilkat leadership, Kohklux proposed that the Chilkats open the trails and act as packers. With agreement on access and payment of considerable fees, the Leslie expedition began to make the ascent of Chilkat Pass. Each Chilkat packer carried about 100 pounds, ascending the Chilkat to its headwaters, snowshoeing across a glacier at the head, and then descending downstream to Kusawa Lake. Except for one Chilkat Indian, who remained as guide, the rest of the Chilkats returned to the coast.

The remaining expedition divided near Kusawa Lake. Most of the expedition continued to the Yukon on a raft. Dalton and Glave, however, went westward on foot until they encountered Lake Klukshu, south of Dezadeash. They then followed the Tatshenshini, the main tributary of the Alsek, to the settlement at Neskataheen, the principal trading center on the Alsek. At Neskateheen the local Indians were Athabascan; usually called the Stick Indians. Glave and Dalton left the village and walked sixty miles downstream to a fish camp where they bought a dugout canoe and hired Shank, a local guide. Later Glave wrote, "Dalton and an Indian called Shank are the two best men I ever saw handle a paddle." Today the one-hundred mile stretch of the Alsek River from the fish camp to the mouth at tidewater is considered a major white water challenge. Dalton and Glave were the first white men to boat the lower Alsek. Detailed accounts of the expedition in popular articles greatly increased interest in Alaska. Israel C. Russell, who headed the National Geographic Expedition in 1890-91, recognized Dalton's local prominence, naming the large glacier into Disenchantment Bay as Dalton Glacier.

In the spring of 1891, Dalton and Glave returned to the Haines area determined to try a new way of freighting. They brought four sturdy pack horses, each of about 900 pounds. The party arrived at Pyramid Harbor near modern Haines in May 1891 and found pasture near Klukwan. The consensus of other freighters, Indians, and miners was that horses would fail. Glave and Dalton, each leading two horses with 250-pound packs, followed the traditional trail to Neskataheen, where the Stick people had never seen a horse and doubted their practicality. At first, the Sticks showed no interest in helping Dalton and Glave. But after watching Glave and Dalton handle the horses, a leading Stick elder proposed that they use the horses to haul their trade goods and equipment northward toward the Yukon. Dalton and Glave agreed to haul the goods, and the Sticks were soon converted when they saw how easily and quickly the horses moved loads.

Dalton spent most of 1892 and part of 1893 in finding and improving a trail to the Yukon that could be used by his packhorses. Starting from Pyramid Harbor, Dalton's trail crossed the coastal mountains at the head of the Klehini and continued northward near Dezedeash Lake and within a short distance of Neskataheen. Dalton Post was established some eighteen miles south of Dezadeash and Champagne near Neskataheen. A post called Dalton Cache was established near the Canadian border near where the trail divided. One branch followed the Nordenskjold drainage to the Yukon then along the Yukon past Five-Finger and Rink Rapids to Fort Selkirk. Another branch went from Champagne to Aishihik Lake to Selkirk. Dalton found that the tough little pack horses could winter over near Dalton Post and Champagne.

The Dalton Trail was completed and in operation when the Klondike was struck in 1897. It remained in constant use until the Yukon and White Pass Railway was completed in 1900 and had some use for the next decade.

In its early days, the trail, sometimes with as many as 250 pack horses in a train, was not universally popular. Storekeeper Don McGinnis tried to stop Dalton by appealing to the Chilkat Indians to deny access. Matters came to a head on March 6, 1893 when Dalton went to McGinnis' store. In a fight, probably over the possession of Dalton's pistol, McGinnis was shot and died the next day on the way to the hospital at Juneau, where Dalton was jailed. On June 18, 1893, a jury held that the shooting was accidental and acquitted Dalton. Deputy Marshall Sylvester commended the jury, but a large group of Juneau citizens were dissatisfied and denounced both Sylvester and the verdict. Dalton paid little attention to a written notice from the group to leave Alaska or face the consequences.

Jack did have a circle of friends in Juneau. Probably the most influential, and a business associate for decades, was attorney John F. Maloney. The two men, often with other partners, established several businesses, usually with Dalton as operator and Maloney as part owner supplying management, legal, and accounting services. In order to keep expanding, Dalton typically would find someone that he trusted as manager, give him necessary start up supplies, then leave the manager to operate the business.

Dalton and Maloney were notably successful in the Haines area. In 1894, Dalton, with Maloney's backing acquired land from the widow of George Dickinson, the first trader in the area. Dalton built a warehouse, a store, and later the Hotel Haines on the Dickinson tract. Dalton continued his freighting business leaving hotel management to Jack Lindsay and later Charley Hackett.

In the summer of 1894 Dalton and Joe Kinnon, on speculation, assembled mining equipment and supplies to sell in the thriving Forty-Mile placer camp in Alaska. The men found a buyer long before reaching the Forty-Mile; the entire outfit was sold at the Pelly River. Kinnon elected to return to Haines; Dalton decided to visit interior placer camps in Alaska and return via the lower Yukon. He visited Forty-Mile and Circle then continued down the Yukon to St. Michael where he expected to gain passage to Seattle on the Revenue Cutter Bear. The vessel's legendary Captain, Michael Healy, recognized Jack from his illegal fur seal operation back in the mid-1880 and refused him passage. By January 1895, however, Jack was in Seattle where he acquired fourteen more horses for his freighting business.

Operations on the Dalton Trail were formalized when Dalton and Maloney signed articles of partnership under the name of J. Dalton and Company on March 9, 1895. They also set up the Dalton Trail Company (active from 1895-1903), at Pyramid Harbor, the Dalton Trading and Transportation Company, and, in 1898, the Dalton Pony Express Company. The first recorded herd of cattle was driven over the trail in 1896, when the Willis Thorpe party drove 40 steers, each with a pack load, to Carmacks from there they were rafted to Dawson. With the discovery of the Klondike, the trail became very busy in 1897. In June 1897, Dalton delivered forty oxen, two milk cows, and sixty white-face Herefords, of which forty head belonged to the North American Trading and Transportation Company, and the rest belonged to Dalton. On the trip north, only one animal died; the rest were delivered in good shape to Fort Selkirk on the Yukon. In the same year Dalton advertised pack horse and saddle horse service from the coast to Fort Selkirk in ten days; the trip from Selkirk to Dawson by steamboat added one more day to the trip to the goldfields.

Dalton had the part of the trail in United States Territory surveyed in June 1898 from Pyramid Harbor to the approximate Canadian boundary which was marked by a post as the Dalton Trail International Boundary Line. The surveyors noted some bridges and trail improvements, but otherwise the trail followed the stream beds. Dalton received U.S. government approval for charging a toll with the stipulation that the Chilkat people need not pay. Canadian historian Robert Coutts summarized Dalton's venture:

"The only man to control a major transportation route into the Yukon and Klondike, Dalton ran pack trains and delivered livestock to the miners, he allowed others to use his trail on payment of a toll and backed his authority with his reputation and a gun. One group that refused to pay was accompanied for the whole journey by Dalton who kept them well away from his route . . . They lost most of their stock. No one else tried to travel without paying."
The peak year of the trail was 1898, when thousands of head of cattle were delivered to Yukon destinations. The use of the trail as a major transportation route was doomed with the completion of the White Pass railway to the summit in February 1899 and to Dawson in 1900. The trail, however, continued to be used for several years, especially for livestock. The last recorded use of the trail was in 1906 when Dalton, E.B. Hanley and six cowboys drove 200 head of cattle to Ft. Selkirk.

Dalton had an inventive streak; he made improvements to the sleds used for commercial freighting, working with the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company. By 1897, the improved sleds were widely advertised along the Pacific Coast, as in the Weekly Examiner in Dawson: "The Studebaker Jack Dalton bobsled built to stand the rough hard usage over the almost impassable Alaska trails."

Perhaps because he was so tough, Jack was continually challenged. As the Klondike traffic increased, a notorious tough proposed to build a bar near a Dalton business. He told Jack that his proposed drinking establishment was legal and there was nothing that Dalton could do about it. Jack beat the man so badly with his fists that the tough decided to take his business plan elsewhere. In the winter of 1896, Jack and one 'Stick Indian' packer snowshoed to Dawson Post, caching supplies for the return trip along the way. The caches were necessary as men on foot could not carry enough food and supplies to survive. Some of Dalton's enemies among the Chilkats followed the men and removed all the caches. Dalton had anticipated this and had made a secret cache. He still had to make a fifty mile snowshoe run to find the cache, but on his return to the Haines area, Dalton casually remarked that he was a bit hungry because he could not find his caches. He accused no one and did not reveal the location of the secret cache for years. One Chilkat chief known as Cutewait or 'Indian Jim' shot Dalton but only nicked a finger.

In 1898, Jack commenced an important surveying job for Bratnober and Onderdonk related to the London Exploration Company, then active in Juneau. Bratnober's aim was a railway into the interior. Dalton found a good route that followed the present Haines Cutoff and Alaska Highway, which may have been superior to routes adopted latter. However, Bratnober could not find sufficient ore to justify the project and the venture died.

Dalton and another outside a cabin

Bratnober (left) and Jack Dalton (right), circa 1898.
Photo courtesy of the Alaska State Library.

In 1898, prospectors Mix Silva, Edward Findley (sp?), and Perry Wiley, grubstaked for Dalton, discovered placer gold on Porcupine Creek north of Haines near the Dalton trail. Subsequently, the Porcupine mining district was organized on October 22, 1898. On November 5, 1898, Dalton and his three prospectors located the Discovery Claim; additional claims were located by Dalton and his business partners E. B. Hanley and John Maloney. The district was stampeded in 1899 and prospectors found gold in the nearby creeks and gold or copper in areas as much as sixty miles distant, including the Rainy Hollow district in Canada. The first-years gold production was reportedly worth $50,000, of which about $40,000 came from Dalton's Discovery Claim.

The deposits in the district were rich but fairly deep and needed complex infrastructure. Miles of ditches and flumes were built to supply water to hydraulic lifts, sometimes called gravel elevators, where miners recovered the gold. Commercial support to the new district was conveniently supplied by the Porcupine Trading Company which was organized by Dalton, Hanley, and Maloney on August 1, 1899. The company brought in mining equipment and extended liberal credit to other miners. In 1900, Dalton and party shipped in 300 tons of equipment and supplies. The mines operated profitably until about 1905 when a major flood washed out a considerable amount of the mining infrastructure. Recognizing that they had probably extracted most of easily won gold, Dalton, Hanley, and Maloney sold their interests, profitably, in 1907.

The discovery of rich copper deposits in the Wrangell Mountains in 1900 led to a major move for Dalton and his operations. In 1901 Michael J. Heney, the legendary rail builder of the north, undertook a reconnaissance survey for a railway from the south Alaska coast to the interior. He found a rough but useable route up the Copper River, beginning near modern Cordova. Heney, however, knew of nothing rich enough to justify the construction of a railroad which would need three major river crossings and butts against two advancing glaciers.

In 1905, Heney was at the London office of Close Brothers, a major financial house. The financiers had quite good information about the richness of the Wrangell copper deposits and promised to finance the road if it was feasible to build. Heney thought of his earlier survey and immediately wired his New York office to engage Dalton and Sam Murchison to reexamine the Copper River route. The route was particularly controversial as engineers for rival routes starting from Valdez and Katalla had stated that the Copper River route was impossible. Furthermore, Stephen Birch of the newly constituted Alaska Syndicate had already begun construction from Katalla.

In September 1905, Dalton, Murchison, and surveyor J. R. McPherson undertook a new evaluation of the Copper River route and pronounced it feasible. The men returned to Valdez in late October of 1905 and sent their conclusions to Heney via a coded telegram. Heney met Dalton and Murchison in Juneau and filed a right-of-way application with the General Land Office. The Copper River route had no competition and was approved. Heney and Murchison went to Seattle to purchase supplies and equipment for the railroad. Dalton, McPherson, chainmen, and several of Dalton's Chilkat natives from Haines immediately began the detailed survery. Secretly they bought an abandoned cannery in Cordova for the south terminus of the railway line. Construction on the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (C.R. and NW) began in the winter of 1905-06. It soon was apparent that Close Brothers could not finance the line but the Katalla-based route initially favored by Birch and the Alaska Syndicate proved impossible, and the Syndicate bought Heney's group out and proceeded to construct the line which was completed to the mines in 1911.

Dalton and Cordova prospered in the construction years of the C. R. & NW Railway. Steel, gravel and other construction material had to be delivered timely to the 3,000 men working on the roadway and bridges. In 1907, after the sale of the Porcupine gold claims, Dalton moved his operations to Cordova and set up sawmills, trading and transportation companies that largely duplicated those that he had operated out of Pyramid Harbor and Haines.

Dalton's later ties to the C.R. and NW project are clouded by controversy. He staked three lode claims which, in part, underlay the Cordova terminus of the railway and docking facilities. In 1911, a court held that Dalton's claims were valid, but granted right-of-way to the C.R. and NW Railway

Dalton's later work also extended westerly into the Cook Inlet area. The U.S. Navy had searched the west coast for steaming coal with little success. In the summer of 1913, Dr. Holmes, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Mines and George Evans, a mining engineer consultant to the Navy went to the abandoned Watson Mine near Chickaloon at the east limit of the Matanuska coal field, Cook Inlet region. Dalton provided guide service and transported Holmes, Evans, their helpers, equipment and sampling gear to the site where Holmes and Evans concluded that a sufficient amount of coal could be mined from the Watson workings for the naval test shipment of 900 tons. Dalton took Holmes back to the coast and signed a cost-plus contract to deliver the large sample to a site near Knik, Alaska, where the coal could be loaded in boats.

The haul distance from Chickaloon to the coast was only about seventy-five miles but there were no roads to follow. Dalton went to Seattle to hire workers, buy supplies and equipment, and charter a steamboat since there were none available in wintertime on Cook Inlet and Dalton had concluded that the sample should be sledded out in the winter. He purchased 500 tons of bob sleds, harness, forage, tents and other supplies. Dalton hired nine men in Seattle and about twenty-five more as the expedition passed through Ketchikan, Juneau, and Cordova on the voyage north. The party offloaded at Knik, where he hired every available man and horse, on November 17, 1913. Sample bags were no small part of the off-loaded freight. Each sample bag, 800 in total, would be loaded with somewhat more than a ton of coal (nominally 1.125 tons).

Dalton commenced work immediately. To expedite road construction, Dalton took a small party with supplies to Chickaloon and began to work back toward Knik. A hired teamster and most of the crew and supplies began to work easterly from Knik. By the end of December, 1913, the last batch of forage and supplies had been cached along the route. January of 1914 was devoted to sampling the coal and road construction. By February 21st, 1914, Dalton's horse-drawn No. 5 Bob Sleds delivered 100 tons of coal every three days to the coast, and all 900 tons of coal were at tidewater by March 4. The crews had constructed about forty-three miles of road and numerous bridges.

Beside physical difficulties, Dalton's task was made difficult by bureaucratic interference. An auditor appointed by the Navy, a Mr. Swift, would not approve expenditures for wages and for supplies at Knik. Swift was appalled at Dalton's expenditures and operation. Dalton dispensed with Swift, who wasn't overly quick with his fists, and paid wages and bought supplies out of his pocket. Knik businessmen interceded on Dalton's behalf with the Bureau of Mines and Navy. At the final analysis, Dalton completed the job for $63,000, a job that the Navy had estimated would cost more than $80,000.

Chickaloon coal passed all steaming tests on the battleship U.S.S. Maryland. Coaling facilities were built and a narrow gauge railroad was constructed at Chickaloon. Some 8,000 tons were mined, but the coal was badly faulted and folded, and the mine proved too expensive to operate. Most of Dalton's trail work, however, was not wasted. The coal twenty-miles to the west at Eska and Wishbone Hill proved satisfactory in quality and existed in mineable quantities. A spur rail line from the Alaska Railroad to the mines at Eska and Jonesville on Dalton's route operated successfully until 1970 supplying coal to Anchorage, the railway, and to Anchorage military bases.

When the Chickaloon contract was completed, Jack returned to his work as chief freighter for the Alaska Engineering Commission, then beginning work on the construction of the Alaska Railroad.

Dalton also maintained his operations at Cordova until about 1915 when the Alaska Syndicate, forerunner of Kennecott Copper Corporation, purchased all his Cordova interests, including his fine home on Three Tree Point, which became the Kennecott manager's home. Dalton was out of Cordova by December 1916 as partner E. B. Hanley's wife Elizabeth wrote to attorney John Malony in Juneau: "Dalton sold out at Cordova and is now a Capitalist. Jack feels pretty big."

Dalton, earlier described as a ladies man, married twice. The first marriage, during the Porcupine boom at Haines, ended in divorce, after the birth of Jack Jr. and Margaret to the couple. In 1911, Jack married Anna Krippeahne in Cordova, and Anna bore two children, James in 1913 and Josephine, in 1916 about the time the Daltons left Alaska for the Seattle area. At least three of the children from the two marriages were notably successful. Jack Jr., from the first marriage, was a long-time General Motors executive. Josephine married U. S. Grant, a descendant of the Civil War general and President of the United States and became a well-known citizen of San Francisco. Dalton's second wife, Anna, died in 1929.

Dalton's second son, James W. Dalton, followed his father's career and earned his own Alaska fame. Jim returned to Alaska in the 1930s and earned an engineering degree from the University of Alaska in 1937. During World War II, young Dalton first worked for the Army Corps of Engineers in Fairbanks. James served with the Naval Construction Battalion (SeaBees) at Dutch Harbor and other locations in the Pacific theater of war. After the war (1946-1953), Dalton worked with the quasi-government Arctic Contractors on exploration of oil reserves held in trust for the U.S. Navy, then called Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4, on Alaska's North Slope.

James W. Dalton married Kathleen (Mike) Fitzpatrick in 1950 in Barrow. The Daltons had two children, George and Elizabeth (Libby). James Dalton had a fatal heart attack on May 8 1957 in Fairbanks. The North Slope haul road from the Yukon River to Pt. Barrow was named the Dalton Highway in Jame's honor. James Dalton's widow continues to live in Fairbanks, where she is a well-known civic figure.

Jack Dalton himself lived a long life. His adventures continued after he left Alaska, as he prospected for diamonds in British Guiana in the early 1920s. In 1929, Jack's long time physician and friend Dr. F. B. Whiting wrote, paraphrased, that Jack, although about 75, looked 55, and if attacked, the attackers would think that he was 25. Jack Dalton died in San Francisco on December 16, 1944 at the age of eighty-nine. In 1942, the U.S. Army reopened the Haines Cutoff part of the 'Dalton Trail' and completed it as part of Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway system, originally built as part of the U.S. Lend Lease Program.

by the late John Mulligan

Jack Dalton's biography was abstracted from a well-researched and documented manuscript by John J. Mulligan of Juneau titled, Jack Dalton: The Pathfinder. Mining Engineer Mulligan, a member of the Honor's Committee of the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation, in turn, particularly credited help that he received from Katherine (Kay) H. Shelton, Gladi Colp, and Anne Laura Wood of the historical section of the Alaska State Library in Juneau. Mulligan also noted research at Whitehorse in the Yukon, and aid from historical scholar Mark Kirchoff of Juneau, long interested in Dalton. Mulligan's original manuscript is in the files of the Foundation and the State Library.


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Tower, Elizabeth A., 1988. Big Mike Heney—Irish Prince of the Iron Rails.

Van Brocklin, Thomas, 1987, Historic Homes of Old Valdez.

Wier, Gary, 1989, The Man Behind the Dalton Trail, Old West, Fall 1989, v. 20.

Wright, Alan A. (1976, 1992) Prelude To Bonanza: The Discovery and Exploration of the Yukon

__________, 1892, Pioneer Pack Horses in Alaska, Century Magazine, September and October.

__________, Second Expedition to Mt. St. Elias in 1891, U.S. Geological Survey 13th Annual Report, Pt. 2, p. 1-9.

Newspapers from Anchorage, Cordova, Dawson, Douglas, Juneau, Porcupine, Seattle, Sitka, Skagway, and Valdez.

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