The Alaska Commercial Campany in History

 *  George's Blog 'Life in Bethel, Alaska'  is HERE 


---- 2012 Calender picture of Alaska Commercial Co.


  ----Meegan's review on



By L.D. KICHERNER, Superior Publishing, Seattle - 1954

Between 1901-1977Alaska Commercial (AC) went under the name Northern Commercial (NC)

In this review AC is used throughout




   When you walk through the doors of Alaska Commercial you are actually walking into history. Can you imagine: AC is the most historic functioning retailer in all the United States!


   Alaska Commercial takes 1867 as its beginnings, just after the Civil War, but its true roots reach back to 1776 and Imperial Russia; when all the physical asset of the Russia-America Company (in Alaska) were passed across to Alaska Commercial. It was a key part of the St. Petersburg sale of Alaska to the United States of America. The initial plan however, had been quite different. Alaska was to join Canada, whose culture is closely linked. However, the Tzar had other ideas. To spite London, he decided to contact Washington DC. That is why the good People of Bethel are today American, rather than having been subjects to the British Empire!


   Indeed, among the very first to the Kuskokwim estuary was Captain James Cook, FRS, RN, who named your own Cape Newenham on the 16th July 1778, claiming it for the British crown. As regards Bethel itself, it is generally thought that Moravian missionaries were the first outsiders to this location. Not so. Though Moravians did (rename) the area: [Genesis 36 “And God said unto Jacob arise go up unto Bethel and dwell.”] A good 15-years before, a chap from the AC arrived. He had trade goods, which he’d taken off an AC ship out of San Francisco. These sorts of things:- pocket knives, (double-edged) red flannel and calico shirts, metal buttons, line thread, silver rings, overcoats, pilot bread, and set for exchange at 18 beaver pelts, one rifle. Furs were much sort after in the salons of high society Paris and London, and over time Bethel become world famous for the unmatched quality of its animal pelts. It took 32 Bethel muskrats to make one, good winter parka; and so AC took this as the unit for its skins. (32) In sum, all useful trade for AC’s newest potential customers!


   By far the most valuable animal was the sea otter, taken from the waters off the Aleutian chain. This is what initially attracted the Russians, who would soon earn a reputation for brutality. However, by 1885 Alaska Commercial with decency and fairness had 90% of the sea otter trade pass through its books. The company was well known at the time ‘for the expression of humane policy and practice Alaska Commercial endeavor to hold to.’ By 1880 the US sealing contract was won by Alaska Commercial! Pretty soon its democratic dealings allowed them to gain 75% of the world’s seal skin trade. This was the first time to see the famous AC flag, that which appears on the shopping bags. It flew over Alaska, just below that of the stars & stripes!


   The Company first setup among the Pribiloff Islands. The inhabitants survived in the most desperate circumstances. Their word, for example, for the month of March was “khisagoonak” (when straps are eaten) and April was “Agliooigak khisagoonak” (when strap eating stops). Shocked, the new company brought in a doctor, whose diagnosis was bleak: ‘Ill-health is such, that it is tending towards their extinction.’


   Throughout its long history Alaska Commercial’s greatest asset has always been its people. Starting in 1873 the company paid regular stipends to adventurers, who would trade and prospect as time allowed, and explore. Alaska Commercial was also called by some the ‘Alaska Exploration Company.’ Indeed, they made the first navigation of the Upper Yukon. On one occasion a cache of AC stores was broached. Unbeknownst, local natives took out a white powder, which they took to be flour, and made into bread. Tragically, two elder ladies died, along with a young blind girl. It was rat poison. The AC man, name of McQuesten, was horrified upon learning and rushed to the tribe. They asked compensation: 10 beaver pelts for the girl (though blind) but asked “nothing” for the ladies. This man was among the group who in 1887 went on to build the town they named Forty Mile. It comprised some 200 log cabins, California dancing girls and even an opera house! McQuesten, once more alone but still under the AC banner, founded the town of Circle, Alaska. His pal Mayo did similar service and has to this day his name on the map -- Mayo, Alaska.


   Such was the role and fame of Alaska Commercial on the remote corner of the still forming USA, that by 1890 AC had its own museum, in San Francisco where they were headquartered. This was a place where old AK hands would meet around a wood stove and yarn in the provided ‘spit box room.’ In 1906 the company hired one of ‘em, a Scot, on the strength of his yarns. The Company’s belief shows through in this report: ‘In the case of native customers the Company has always maintained a policy of aiding employment opportunities.’ Throughout the Company annuls, trading was never carried out solely for profit, but also for the service of Alaska’s People. ‘Friendship and welfare had the complete backing of the Company.’ This tradition has carried into the present day.


   This is how BETHEL has been variously described:- ‘a remote Alaskan river town on the edge of a desolate, windswept waste / bleak mileages of boggy morass, swamps and unnamed lakes / a barren land’… and Bethel is famous for mosquitos! Covering 114,975 square miles, the delta region is bigger than Arizona, but the dwellings are described as: ‘more comfortable than the weather-tumbled exterior might indicate.’ Throughout the ongoing 20th century Bethel was developing into a hub, and with it the Company.


   Expertise developed in Alaska was second to none in all the USA. Unique, it was, in parachuting orders to isolated bush cabins. In Bethel the business blossomed into a wide range of services; such as developing snapshots, toys by the truck load, pilot bread (handy for a folk mostly outdoors) and banking … with no charges! There was also a movie palace and for the younger set, why not the “Kuskokwim trot” at the AC dance hall!


   The Bethel store fitted a drum stove for the friendly group always around the cash register. Benches were built on either side, so the customers could ‘gather and exchanging news.’ Paternalism was in the corporate DNA, and so “Asthma” Nelson - sole purchaser - always got his medicine!


   The glory days of Alaska Commercial could well be immortalized by Charlie Chaplin’s famous film “The Gold Rush.” The sheer bravado and madness of it all might be this banner headline, which hit the Seattle streets: “GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!”


   The gold rush was on!!


   Right from the earliest day America’s great rivals were the British. Indeed, even today they are intimately involved in the Alaska story. From the very beginnings of the 20th Century it was such as Hudson Stuck, a Church of England archdeacon, who first summited Denali. And what about the dour presence of Roald Amundsen, turning up at the AC store in Eagle, Alaska! He had sledged over from his first traverse of the fabled North West Passage. You may know, he was the Norwegian who would go on to beat British hero Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole.


   Alaska Commercial was not the only rival. From 1779 the Canadian North West Company was a fierce competitor and arch-enemy to Hudson Bay. That was until 1821 when government ordered the two into a merger. It was galling for NW to now themselves go under Hudson Bay Company banner. But a reversal eventually came in 1990 when the North West name came back, having themselves taken over Hudson Bay! Leading to the happy union of today, of Alaska Commercial and the North West Company.


   On a personal note and as pertaining to the Americas: In 1788 Sir Alexander McKenzie was an employee of North West Company. On the 22nd July 1793 he completed the first crossing of the North America continent. [The only other latitudinal crossings belong to Balboa (1517) in Central America & Orellana (1541) in South America]The last longitudinal continental crossing was my own privilege; from Southernmost to Alaska (1977-83) … and like McKenzie before me -- ‘an employee of North West Company!’


   Hudson Bay Company was at the leading edge of British influence. Trade with, and under the Union Jack, brought in such as silk handkerchiefs, Parisian neckties and hard tack biscuits at half a crown per pound. They also traded their famous Hudson Bay double barreled gun, and the bullets sold at 28 to the pound.

It was a porous border. Inside US territory HBC ran the trading post at Fort Yukon, situated at the headwaters of the great Yukon River. In 1901 you would have found the Americans celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday. Indeed, some of AC’s best customers included the Imperial Order the Daughters of the British Empire! You see, though it was well inside Canada’s Yukon Territory, Alaska Commercial was vital to the survival of Dawson City. The very life and death of the thousands of stampeders literarily hung on AC and its river boat system. Their vessels must get through, but it could never be certain, what with the icing up of the mighty Yukon.


   NOME Gold was picked up on the beach!! The sudden boom town exploded -- becoming THE place on the planet. Soon enough shootings became a daily occurrence, fights broke out all the time, call girls attentions being a usual cause. Inland Circle had had enough, and a gibbet was thought the just the thing - for topping miscreants right there on the AC roof, under the famous flag! AC also served as the court house. Wells Fargo commented on how it was all like the Wild West all over again! Jack London was in town, rubbing shoulders with Wyatt Earp, by that time a saloonkeeper; and who was arrested for drunkenness twice.


   AC’s regularly shipped in from America’s Pacific coast; 10,000 gallons of whisky, 2,000 of brandy, with 1,000 of gin. The gold stampede increased this by ten-fold, to 120,000 gallons of hooch. This created a demand for medical attention. Dawson had over 6o doctors all charging one ounce of gold dust a visit! The AC manager was expert in pulling teeth! {A thought for our own manager David Hicks!}


   Much to the chagrin of the Canadian Government, most of the claims and gold being dug up in Dawson was by the Americans, who were using gold dust for currency. Brass fillings were being passed and so Alaska Commercial not only weighed, but also assayed the glittering mineral.


   Alaska Commercial was the leading mercantile outfit of the gold rush era - period. Over a 12-year period Alaska Commercial sent out 7 million dollars in gold, all sledged and boated in the brutal conditions. As well as captaining sternwheelers. (One vessel was even transferred to the Yukon from the feted Mississippi River.) AC also ran stage coaches, and stage sledges were being advertised to passengers: ‘dainty food and a heater under the moose skin.’ (The gold was often under the seats.) Fairbanks to Valdez cost $125 one way. Expensive people felt, but after 10/14 days on the trail, it was a good AC “marked down” bargain! In 1908 a team of horses froze to death. And only one lady ever died of fright! One AC bookkeeper embezzled $5,000. Another, absconded with 40 gold bricks weighing 4,300 troy.


   In those glorious Klondike days Alaska Commercial also ran the US Mail Service. AC mail-men often travelled alone; one ran a 27 dog team. Dogs were running all day on a lump of tallow for each animal, sometimes a whole or half salmon. AC built specially stocked cabins at 25-miles distances, to provide shelter for man and beast. Shavings were always left as kindling, and most vital of all - matches.


   ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ And Alaska Commercial won the US mail contract! Whenever, an eagerly awaited AC mailman was late, desperate search parties would be sent out. Some routes meant crossing the formidable Yukon, perilous, especially during breakup. The sourdoughs would carry ropes to haul the mail-man to safety. {Today, ice jams on the upper Yukon are blown free by bombs dropped, courtesy of the US Air Force.}


   WHITEHORSE Yukon Territory, was another frontier hot spot. And so - of course - American’s Alaska Commercial was right in there. They put in a huge store, one block long. Folk came in from miles around to await the grand opening. For some that was 2 and half hours of waiting at 40 below.


   No matter where you are, shopping’s the favoured pastime. The book ‘Flag over the North’ mentions that Macy’s of New York were pushing through its cash registers no less than one third of a billion dollars … in a single year. (1950) Retail then, one of the great engines of Society. And last year (2011) the US economy entire was ‘saved’ by none other than retail. This year (again) Wal-Mart was declared ‘World’s most profitable company.’


Thank you for shopping at Bethel’s very own retail store

Alaska Commercial






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