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Robert Bruce Banks
and the Clara Nevada Disaster

by Murray Lundberg

Originally posted on November 27, 1998

      This week, I have the pleasure of bringing you a private collection of letters written during the Klondike Gold Rush. This is an exciting collection, one that brings history alive, as the drama of a hard-working family of pioneers facing difficulty and tragedy unfolds. The original letters are still in the family, and copies were sent to me by Malcolm Haner, the great-grandson of Mr. Banks.

Robert Bruce Banks, ca.1890       In January 1898, Robert Bruce Banks (known by his middle name, Bruce) was living near Thorp, Washington (100 miles east of Seattle) with his wife and family. He and his wife, Josephine ("Josie") Jones Banks, had six children; Daisy aged 15, Waldo 13, Lillian 9, Harold 6, Clyde 3, and Lyman 21 months.

      As with many people trying to get established in a pioneer area, the 39-year-old man worked at many jobs, including teaching school, operating a produce commission business, carpentery work, and any other jobs that would supply cash for the family.

      When news of the discovery of huge amounts of gold in the Klondike hit Washington, he quickly planted his winter wheat crop, and then went to Seattle, where he boarded a ship bound for Skagway, Alaska. Being winter, there was not much work to be had around Thorp, so he and a friend decided that Alaska was the place to go - not for gold, but to work for wages or on contracts which they hoped would bring in more cash than they could earn in Washington.

      Bruce Banks was not particularly successful in Skagway, and made a tragic choice of ships to return home on. A few hours after leaving Skagway, during the night of February 6, 1898, the Clara Nevada exploded, killing all those on board.

      He had apparently never received any letters from Josie while he was in Alaska. Some of her letters were undoubtedly lost, but Mrs. Baker finally received and returned to Josie the ones in this collection.

      The first letter was written to his wife, who remained in Thorp with their children. The editorial notes are by Hazel Haner.

Seattle, January 13, 1898
Dear Josie and Children,
I arrived in Seattle 2:30 yesterday. Hans
[Peterson] met me at the train. Am not sure I can get a ticket for Saturday but the chances are I will. Leon Baker and Delbert have tickets to go Saturday. They have no money nor grub. Hans handed me 50 cents this morning and without conditions. He is going though as fast as he can.
Ed Raymond goes on the Alki Sat. Herb Raymond says he left Dawson 28 Sept. that Pratt was in the best of health, had a good claim, and was fixed for grub for the winter. Another man who went up with Herb R has just come back, says he has been in same cabin with Pratt and he is all right. He farther says an able bodied man can surely make 6 to 15 dollars per day up at Dyea or Skagway (?). Other people say there are too many there now. I mean to know for myself. The rush has begun and I believe I can do well to go up.
Charlie's address is 212 Wall St. They are all well. If I cannot go on this boat I can go in one week. No snow here, a little snow at Skag. I can get a good pair of Blankets for $6.75. Write me to Charlie's address.
Yours loyally,
[ signature ]

The next four letters in the collection are those from his wife and three children - Daisy 15, Waldo 13, and Lillian 9, written immediately after he had left for Skagway, Alaska.

Thorp, Washington Jan. 17, 1898

Dear Bruce,
I am so sorry we did not get a letter to you before you took the boat but I supposed you would go before another mail. The children are all well now and Lillie went to school again today. Clyde still insists on carrying out his threat to you, says he will get a cannon that will shoot to Seattle but I guess it would hardly hit you away up there. He thinks to scare you into submission so you will come back. I told him what you said in you last letter and it pleased him. He has taken your place at the table and tries to act just like you. The baby feels all over my face every morning and then says Where's papoo? Waldo tends to his chores good and we are getting along all right as far as the work goes.
There were twenty four came out to singing school last Friday and tho the books had not come we put in the time profitably. Miss Cager said there were five more who had promised her to come. I don't know just how many of those there the other night but nearly all I think. The organ came Sat. morning so we have to wait till tomorrow morning to get the way bill back as the bank was not open til this morning. The organ is nice and I think they will all be pleased. The freight was $7.30.
The singing books came yesterday and with the $5.50 from Morgan (he said that was all) and some paid in advance on Singing Books had a little more than enough to get them from the express office and will get that back as fast as the books are taken. It is too bad you have to be so long on the way and I hope you will all get there safely. I am glad Hans is the same old sixpence. Wish he was going to be with you after you get through. I suppose he heard from that girl before he left. What about her, anyway?
I suppose you and Leon will camp together. I am glad he is with you, I think he will be good company. Have you written to George and Barbara and Harve? The folks here are very kind and we are not left much alone except during the day while the children are in school.
The children are all writing too and I must stop now and go to work.
Lovingly yours,

Thorp, Wash. Jan 17, 1898

Dear papa
All the rest have told all the news, so I will tell about the basket social to be next Saturday. It is to pay the freight on the organ. It came last Sat. morning. Miss Cager will pay now and the social money is to pay her. We will hear the organ in school tomorrow.
They are getting up one of their contests, and will pay mamma for training the singers.
I got a letter from Ethel today. She said maybe she would have to go to Whatcom when the folks go.
Mr. Briggs has been quite sick with something like pneumonia, but he is better now.
I will have to stop and tend to the supper.

Thorp, Wash. Jan. 17,1898

Dear father,
We received your letter today from Tacoma. I have good times skating yet there is little new snow now, about three inches, I think. The organ came the next day after you left and we will hive it in school tomorrow morning and I have got to speak a piece the 20th of this month and so has Lillian and Lillian and I are going to sing the moon song. We are on the half moon side, the side they call the crescent side. We'll beat them all to smash.
I dout if you can read this scribbling of mine. The baby won't let me have the led pencil so I had to take the next best, the pen I got the baby broke.
Last evening Frank Halverson spent the evening with us and we played games that is all the games we have dominoes and authors and we popped corn too.
Did you take any popcorn with you or not? Mamma said she dident think you did.
Everything is going all right now. We are going to have a basket soshel to rase enough to pay the freight on the organ. Well I think I will close for now and tell the more next time if I can think of any then.
Your son,

On the back of Waldo's letter was a little letter from Harold, aged just past 6.

Dear Papa
We are reading about over to Susy and her chickens in my reader now.

Thorp, Wash. Jan. 17,189

Dear Papa;
I would have written in the letter before but my head ached and Mamma was in a hurry. We got a letter from Ethel this morn along with your's and the COMPANION.
They are going to have a basket social here to get the rest of the money for the organ. We will have it in school tomorrow morning. Frank Hutchinson came in last night and we play authors for a while then he went home.
The Cresent's side is going to have their entertainment. (I guess that is what you call it.) next Friday, and Waldo and I are going to sing "The Moon song". They want me to speak a piece but I don't think I will.
Did you see Sema?
Well I can't think of anything more to say.
So Goodby,

Lillian had just passed her 10th birthday - (12-27). So much for modern school, audio-visual and tortured methods of teaching! This child and the others had probably never had a full nine-month school term.

(Skagway in sight) Steamer Alki Jan 21, 1 PM
Dear Josie and children,
I sent you a letter from Wrangle. We then expected to be here yesterday but owing to getting a little to one side of the channel the steamer stuck in sand and we were 24 hours waiting for the tide. We get our board with ticket so we only lost a day time, The weather is not cold, some snow here 4 or 5 in. Mountains look like those at Easton only timber is smaller. Skag. is about 2500 people. A man on bord talks of starting a wood yard thinks he can give me a job. Will write more as soon as I can determine what to do. I am not going inland.
Ashore, First man to meet me was Elihu Baker. He is teaming here and we Leon and I go up to his place for a short time. We have a tent and stove and will soon set it up. I got a job for 50 cents and hour for tomorrow and am asked to figure on a job this evening. I am hoping to hear from you by Monday. Do keep well and try to not worry about me.
The buildings here are generally cheap and not much contracting done. Most all is day work. I am told some are offering to work for 30 cents and hour but that won't do for me and won't hold me here. The symptoms are that all lines of work will be overdone. Most all the people coming in now are coming to work. I cannot say now it will be for packing.
Don't fail to write me as many as can from baby up. You know I shall be very lonesome and a letter will help me. If I cannot make big wages I shall come home.
There was a great fight here on the landing. The ship broght some Siwashes from Juno to unload freight and the people here drove them off and got 50 cents per hour to help unload. No one seriously hurt. Mrs. Baker is very friendly but we do not intend to impose upon her.
Hans is rather sorry he outfitted for Dawson and may not go in anyhow not at once.
If you need anything call on Mr. Rann as he assured me of his own accord he would see that you did not want. Tell me of your music class.
Clyde, I will bring you some money be a good boy.
Papa RBB

Skagway Jan 24, 8PM 98
Dear Josie and Children
I will try to get a letter out to you on next boat. Adelber got here this evening. I expected he would bring me a letter for I told you to write me to Charles address. We have not been to post office here yet, but will go tomorrow. We have to stand in line for our turn to get mail here. I sent one letter from here. Leon and I worked Sat. I made $4. today $3.50 and can work at same job tomorrow (shingling). Yesterday we fixed our tent. We put three logs down, hewed top and inside and set tent over it. The logs make shelf all around our house. We have our bed up 2 ft. from ground in one end of tent. No floor yet we are comfortable and well. While we were fixing up our tent a man came along and engaged us to make 20 or more cords of 4 foot wood at $4 per cord. The timber is mostly larch. I may bid on 500 cords of wood yet for the electric light. There is not much rain here generally they say.
I miss you all when night comes. Write me often. I will send some money home soon.

Letter from Waldo Banks, aged almost 13, to his father.

Thorp, Wash. Jan. 26th 1898

Dear Papa,
We got your letter this morning we are all right now the cow is getting along all right too. That little owl is here yet and in the evening when I go out to milk the cow it sits up and winks and blinks at the light. Mr. Miles brought us a sack of apples to pay for Addah's singing lessons. I wish you had some of them to night and some popcorn to eat.
Lillie has gone to stay all night with Pearl and Rosa. Today Clyde took two sents and went down to Beache's store and got a mouth organ and the right price was five sents. The other eavning when I went out to milk the cow there were some chickens in the feed box and I put the lantern on the wheat box and when I pulled the old roster out he tipped the lantern of and as it happened the burner dropped out and the started blase but I put it out so it did not hurt any thing.
Your son,

The next letter was not to his own family from Bruce Banks, but from him to a friend or relative whom he called "Brother" Snyder, reporting on conditions in Skagway at the time.

Skagway, Jan. 29, 98
Brother Snyder and Family,
I have been a little slow about writing because I wanted to look at all sides of the question.
In regard to teaming would say the roads are good here now for sleds but there is but very little to do for the teams here. Hay is $100.00 per ton. Many horses for sale here. When a thaw comes the road will be very bad again about 6 in. snow here in town and deeper up the trail, about as cold as Kitti-tas. Packers if they get a job make pretty good pay. But you can see notices up on some buildings where there has been some packing let. "No packers wanted." On the road office a notice says "No men wanted." I have worked most of the time since coming here a day here and there, but hundreds are hunting work.
As for wood there is no regular market and it cannot be got without going up the mountain and schuting it down or going down the bay and rafting. The price is now as low as $2.25 for cutting. The town takes all the level land between the mountains for 3 miles from the bay. This I think is the town of Alaska, but it is too big now. I saw Bob the other day coming down the trail with his blankets. Said he was going to Dyea to drive team. He was in a hurry so I did not talk much with him.
You may want to come here, but certainly you are better off than the best of them here.
I heard there was a snow slide at Dyea yesterday that killed three men. That is at Chilcooot Pass.
Best regards to all,
[ signature ]

Skagway Jan. 31, 1898
Dear Josie and Children
I get but little chance to send mail as the boats are so irregular. I have been working most of the time but had to lay off some on account of my wrist. It is better now. I am going up on the road to do chopping at $3.50 board. Seven miles from town.
I can hardly sleep at night for thinking "Are you all well?". I have not had a word from you since the letter I got in Seattle. Don't let Clyde go to sleep with cold feet. Daisy Don't let Mama over work if you have to stay out of school.
If you think best, or rather if the strain is too great for you, I will come home in March. I can have some work near home in the spring. The Corona ran on a rock two days ago all are safe camped on shore. The Oregon is expected in today with the mail that was on the Corona and I hope to get a letter then but I am going up the road now and Mrs. Baker will send my mail up. You are in my mind all the time.

Skagway Feb. 2,1898
Dear Josie,
I sent out a letter Monday on S.S. Noyo but we hear she is on a rock between here and Juno. I had hired out then to go on the wagon road to work but when I got out there they said they already had too many men. There are ten carpenters for every days work here.
The weather has been very cold and windy for 4 days. We are very healthy,, but I did not come here for health or poverty. Had plenty of that before. Wood cutting is $2. per cord now, and buck our own timber, pay uncer-tain. In fact pay here is generally uncertain. I have not had a line from you to date except letter in Seattle. Unless something good turns up soon, I will return to Seattle. I can earn a little money there before spring. Alki is expected Friday, then I surely shall hear from you and return on her unless things look better.
With much lonesomeness
[ signature ]

Thorp, Wash. Feb. 13,1898

Dear Papa:
You never saw any snow go so fast as this does! Last night the path from here to Burlingames was all snow but this afternoon it is all gone. Yesterday in the afternoon I went over to Currie's with Edna and Maggie. We played colors, and hide the spool quite a while then ______ her lesson and I went home.
We are going to begin next week to take a pin and put after your name for not using good grammar (not the whole school, of course, but just those in Waldo's grammar class). Were you in that fight with the Indians?
Do you remember that well that you filled up? This morning Harold was jumping up and down on the snow and ice and come to find out the snow that was with the dirt had melted and left it all hollow. Then Waldo took the ax and cut the snow away ____________

This was Lillian's letter, now torn and incomplete. (She was just past nine.)

Letter of Feb. 13, 1898
Mr. Peck acts kind of queer about paying that three dollars in vegetables. The other day, Mamma asked him about cabbage and he said it was all buried up and then she asked about potatoes and he answered the same.
Miss. Cager went to Ellensburg last Thursday and Friday to the teachers' examination and Georgia and I helped Mr. Butcher to teach. I enjoyed it quite well and didn't have any trouble to speak of. Friday afternoon was not the day for either of the societies and so we had a debate on the question Resolved "That the gun is more useful to man than the dog". Rosa led in the affirmative and Fred Newman in the negative. Myra was chairman and all the school had the priviledge of speaking on either side. I spoke on the affirma-tive also Madeline Davis and Willie Ellison helped Fred. The others did not speak at all. It was decided by a vote of the school and Myra didn't talk loud enough for all to hear and so about one third didn't vote on either side. It was decided in favor of the negative. Then Mr. Butcher made a motion that we have some recitations and as quick as a flash Myra called on him. At first he seemed to be ____________

Although the last page was missing, we could identify the letter by Daisy's handwriting.

Thorp, Wash. Feb. 13, 1898

Dear Papa:
We got your letter this morning and when I heard that you had not heard from us since you left Seattle I couldn't think why you didn't get a letter for we have written a half dozen letter since you left Seattle.
We are going to send our letters in care of Mrs. Baker this time and see if it will reach you.
The other day Mr. J. Burch was here with hay for Mr. Crandall and Mama told me to go and tell him she would like to see him about getting some hay for the cow and she made a trade for one ton of hay paying for it in music lessons, Roy and Mrs. Burch, hay is only $10.50 now the hay we got is fine hay the cow has gained on her milk a little, but not much.
The ice pond is all most dry now and where that ditch runs from the pond there are lots of white fish. Yesterday I took my spear and went up to the pond and caught three fish. Jim Gorden took his 22 rifel and when they would come up in shallow water he would shoot them and as quick as the bullet struck them they would come to the top of the water and he would wade in and get them out. Charley Ramm caught twelve in all and lots of what he hit would get off his spear and swim away and the other fellows would get them. The snow is all most gone it comenced to rain this morning and is all gone in the flat now.
Well, I think I will close for now. Waldo

Waldo later added, above the heading of the letter - "If you can come home soon come, for I don't think I will get the crop in right." (Waldo had just turned 13)

No date, probably Mar. 3rd.
Dear Bruce:
We haven't heard from you since the 2nd Feb. when you thought you would return on the Alki and since reading of the storms on the ocean and the sick-ness and death at Skagway we are very anxious. If you are alive and able come home for I cannot stand this much longer. I can send you some money if I knew how to reach you. I addressed the two last letters in care of Mrs. Elihu Baker since you said she would send you mail out to you.
We are well as usual but very uneasy about you.
Your loving wife,

Josie L. Banks

Thorp, Wash. Mar. 3, 1898

Dear Papa,
We have not heard from you since the letter you wrote the 2 of Feb. I went and got the horses the other day they are pretty poor and we have got to get plowing soon Mr. Peek thinks he will not have time to help me and I am going to try to get some body else to help me everything is all right now but I expect I will have to stop school soon to go to work.

Thorp, Wash. Mar. 6, 1898

Dear Papa,
We haven't had a letter or any kind of word from you since the letter that was written Feb. 2. You had just failed to get the wood job. We are awfully anxious about you since that sickness broke out up there.
Mamma has had all the daily papers for nearly a week and tried to find out about the Alki's trips. She found that the boat had been delayed on account of storms, and having to be repaired.
We want you to come home as soon as you can, no matter about what wages you may be getting there. If you need money to come with we can get some and send you if there is any safe way of sending it. It is fine spring weather here, some buttercups in blossom. You could get work here all right.
All usually well, tho Mamma has headache a good deal. I must close. It is nearly mail time.


Thorp, Wash. Mar. 9, 1898
Dear Bruce
We are very anxious about you in view of the sickness and the Clara Nevada disaster about the time you said you might return on the Alki. I learn that the Alki did not come that trip so am afraid to think what may have come to you. The last we heard from you was you letter to Mr. Snyder. O I pray that if you are alive you may come home as soon as possible only do not any risk on a boat of uncertain reliability.
The wheat will be put in next week all right.
We are well as our anxiety will permit.
Your loving wife
Josie L. Banks

We can send you money of you want it. - -

Letter from Rober Bruce Banks' youngest sister, Barbara Thomas (Mrs. Sheldon) to his widow, Josie Banks.

Alzada, Mont. Apr. 1st, 1898

Dear Sister Josie
I will try to write to you a few lines, to let you know I can't forget you in your sorrow. I got a paper from Windom (Minn.) today telling of the terrible accident about Bruce, I can hardly believe it, and yet it seems true all that is given in the paper, everything is so plain. I do hope he has escaped and will be all right and reach home once more.
I hardly know what or how to write it has upset me so. Ma has been dangerously sick the last three weeks and I have worried more than a little. All I have learned was in the home paper, we take, the one today said she was out of danger, and gave the sad news of another.
It is terrible, and yet we have to learn it sometime. Did you get a letter I wrote to Easton with a letter from Phoeby? She had lost her baby girl, about two years old, I got that just before Ma was taken sick, she came very near dying. Well I can't write anything more, hope you will get this. I will address this to Thorp as I see it given in the paper. As you might have moved since last I heard from you.
                        Your loving sister, Barbara,
Write and let me know when you can.

In this letter, I do not know to whom Barbara refers to as "Ma". Her own mother died at the time of her birth. This may have been an adoptive mother or her mother-in-law.

Skagway April 8.
Mrs R.B. Banks
Dear Friend,
I have received your letter of March 9th today but know that by this time you must know of what we consider Mr. Bank's untimely end. I hunted up all of the facts as near as I could and sent them to your Uncle sometime ago, just as soon after the disaster as I could. We feel sure that he met his death on that boat because he left our house expecting to go on her, and that is the last we have heard from him. And Mrs. Banks, you have our heart felt sympathy. He was here with us so much and we felt so sorry for him because he was so home sick all the while he was here. And he felt as though something was to happen with his family. and the last thing he said to me, was if I get home and find all of my folks as I left them, I will never leave them again. He thought so much of our baby that was three years and a half old, he seemed to be a comfort to him. We have lost him since Mr. Banks left. Baby died Feb 28. It was an awful blow to us. And Mr. Banks' death also in so short a time, it did seem terrible.
I think this is all now thinking you know what I know by this time, I will close.
But if there is any inquiries I can make, or anything I can do let me know and I will gladly do.
I remain a true friend,
Mrs. E. Baker

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