Sunday, March 01, 2015

Klondike Gold (Part 3); Starling B. Riggins' hard luck

Prospectors ascending the final approach to Chilkoot Pass in 1898.

This third installment of "Klondike Gold," which began with a post entitled "The Klondike, gold fever, foolhardiness and disaster," picks up where Part 2, "John Bentley's homecoming," left off. Prospecting partners Charles W. Rose and Starling "Starl" B. Riggins had just returned to Sheep Camp, Alaska, after placing the remains of their friend, John E. Bentley, aboard the steamer City of Seattle, bound for Seattle, then Chariton. John had died of meningitis on March 23, 1898, at Sheep Camp.

As always, much of the detail here is taken from a series of remarkable letters written by Charley and sent to his wife, Jennie, in Chariton, and to his sister, Jessie (Rose) Myers, of York County, Nebraska. Many of the letters to Jennie and others were published in Chariton newspapers from 1898 through 1900. In 1916, a collection of letters written to Jessie was shared with Henry W. Gittinger and published as a unit in two issues of his Chariton Leader. Rose was a fine writer and a brilliant observer; these letters are just astonishing. But Charley spent six years and some months in the Klondike, many frustrating and the the final ones almost obsessive. As the years passed, his idealism diminished and fewer letters suitable for publication were sent home.


Rose and Riggins returned from Skagway to Sheep Camp on the 26th of March after seeing that John's remains, accompanied by Stephen Knight, were safely aboard the City of Seattle. On Sunday, most likely, they sold their late friend's gear --- it had been agreed between them that they would do this, then forward the proceeds to Theodosia in Chariton.

On Monday, the 28th, the men broke camp at Sheep Camp and began the four-mile trek to the summit and Chilkook Pass. Each had approximately a ton of gear. Most likely, a small amount of it was carried in their packs. Some may have been loaded aboard their recently acquired sleds and the six dogs brought from Chariton --- still fit and ready to go --- hitched, three to each. Most likely a pack service, and there were many of them, was employed to transport the rest.

Once at the base of the pass, gear would be reassembled and transported by aerial tramway over the summit (two tramways were operating in March of 1898), then dumped to await the arrival its owners.

The steady ant-like stream of stampeders over Chilkook was one of the wonders of the 1898 world, often photographed --- the view at the top here is half of a stereoscope view copyrighted 1898 by the Keystone View Co. of Meadville, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis, Missouri. And here's how Charley described Chilkoot in a letter to his sister, Jessie:

"The trip, and the view, along with the busy people met with on the trail going and coming like so many busy bees, is worth all it costs one to get there. From Sheep Camp to the summit is four miles. The first three miles the ascent is gradual, but is quite steep. After passing the 'store house' a short distance, the foot of the Scales is reached; here the ascent is very abrupt. There are just two steep hills comprising the Scales. Just why they are called so I never learned.

"We then come to the foot of Chilkoot Pass. From here the ascent is in an angle of about 45 degrees for a distance of about 800 feet. The scene here is indescribable, and must be seen to be comprehended. If you have ever seen an army of ants marching to and from their mound carrying provender, you may be able to form some idea of what the scene is on the trail going over the Pass. There are so many thousand people on the trail this spring that it seems like a crowded street in some large city. The trail to the summit is in a direct line, and is so steep that a succession of steps are cut in the snow and ice like one long stairway. There is a rope to hold to in climbing from the base. In fair weather the line of packers on this trail is unbroken, and each man must fall in and take his turn. I have seen the trail when there was a man on each step from the base to the summit."

Upon reaching the summit, paying duty to Canadian authorities on their gear and reassembling everything hauled by tramway from the other side, Charley and Starl loaded the first of several loads aboard their sleds and began the steep descent to Crater Lake. The Yukon sleds, as Charley described them, were 16 inches wide and 5 feet long, capable of carrying anywhere from 100 to 600 pounds --- depending. The descent was too steep to endanger dogs, so the men guided the sleds down the slope, relying on gravity and doing their best to avoid crash landings. At Crater Lake, the dogs were hitched up and did the heavy lifting along the trail to Lake Linderman, then along Linderman to Pleasant Cove Camp on Lake Bennett.

Pleasant Cove Camp was some 10 miles down from the summit, and once there a spot was found, tent erected and dogs and men alike fell asleep, exhausted. As weather permitted during the next few days, men and dogs headed back to the summit and made as many daily trips as it took to get all of their gear into camp.


Charley and Starl remained at Pleasant Cover through April and May, until the 1st of June. The remainder of the trip to Dawson City in Yukon Territory, roughly 500 miles, would be made by water. And so they built a boat --- or a glorified raft --- equipped with both oars and a sail. And that took time. They named it "Chariton of Iowa."

The two men set sail --- or set oar would more accurately describe it since they did not yet understand how use their sail --- on the 1st of June and reached Dawson City just after noon on the 17th after navigating Lakes Bennett, Tagish, Marsh and others, then a series of rivers feeding into the Yukon and finally the mighty Yukon itself. There were rapids, rough water, encounters with rocks and all sorts of other incidents during the trip through beautiful territory --- all described eloquently and in detail by Charley in his letters. I wish there were time to transcribe these in full.


Shortly after their arrival in Dawson City, Riggins set out to find his younger brother, Herbert L., who had reached the Klondike some months earlier and was working a claim. Although Riggins and Rose remained close and often shared quarters, Riggins' business and prospecting relationships hereafter were with his brother --- until Herbert got restless during 1899 and sold his stake to Starl, who then went into partnership with a Mr. Lucas.

Rose, along with countless thousands of others, had arrived in the Klondike too late to secure a good claim --- although he kept trying. Herbert seems to have arrived early enough and had had better luck. Although the Riggins brothers didn't by any measure get rich, they were in a position to employ other miners --- often Charley.

Much of the time, Rose worked for others --- usually in the early days for a wage in the neighborhood of $8 a day, which wasn't that bad.

A couple of weeks after arriving in Dawson, Charley ran into Will Smith, a cousin of his wife, Jennie, who was affiliated with a consortium that had its fingers in a number of enterprises. He went to work for Smith during mid-July, first outfitting a building the consortium had purchased, then cooking for consortium workers (Charley had operated a restaurant in Chariton, so he knew what he was about in the kitchen) --- at $8 a day, plus board. The Smith party had secured a contract to cut firewood and saw logs along the Yukon between Dawson City and Fort Selkirk --- gold of another sort in this cold climate.

When there was time, he prospected --- and by November wrote home that he had located a claim. Whenever he needed it, however, he was assured a job with the Riggins mining enterprises. He signed on to work for them during the winter of 1898-99 and again during 1899-1900. During prime prospecting months, he often was in the field.

At some point during mid-1899, Herbert Riggins decided that he'd had enough of the Klondike, sold out to Starl and headed for California. Once there, he married Laura Pitzer on Dec. 30 in Los Angeles County and They settled down to grow walnuts and citrus near Whittier, an occupation he followed for the remainder of his life.


Starling, whose full name was Starling Beuchamp Riggins, and Herbert were the only surviving children of James and Mary Riggens, who had come from Indiana to farm near the tiny settlement of Andover in Harrison County, Missouri --- just across the Iowa-Missouri state line southeast of Lamoni. Starling was born in Harrison County about 1867 and Herbert, during 1871. A little sister, Maggie, was born and died at age 3 months during 1870.

James Riggins died during February of 1877 at age 35 leaving Mary to raise their sons alone, which she did on the family farm.

Noah H. and Catharine Riggs and their much larger family lived at the time on the Iowa side of the state line south of Lamoni and as the years passed, Starling and their daughter Mary Ellen, always known as Nellie, became acquainted. About 1890, Noah and Catharine --- quite prosperous --- moved their family to Indianola so that the children could attend Simpson College.

Starling and Nellie were married in Indianola on the 17th of November, 1891, when he was 24 and she was 23.

They then returned to Missouri, perhaps to the Andover farm, where their two daughters were born --- Marie during September of 1892 and Ruth, during November of 1896.

It is impossible to say now how Starl became acquainted with Charley Rose and John Bentley. It appears that Starl did move his young family to Chariton, but that may have been only as preparations for the Klondike expedition accelerated. Once the men left Chariton on Feb. 1, 1898, Nellie and the girls moved to Indianola to live with her parents. She developed a relationship with Theodosia Bentley and Jennie Rose that endured for years, however.

It's impossible to characterize Starling --- no one remains to tell his stories. So we'll  have to accept Charley Rose's word --- and he described his friend and companion on more than one occasion as honorable, scrupulously honest and kind.


Word of Starling's death at age 33 on Nov. 22, 1900, reached Chariton during early December. The brief report, published in The Democrat of Dec. 13, reads as follows: "Word was received last Friday by friends in this city announcing the death of Mr. Starl Riggins, which occurred near Dawson City, Alaska, on Novemer 22. Mrs. Riggins resides with her parents at Indianola and the message received by her announcing his death was sent by his partner, Mr. Lucas. He gave no particulars but stated that the body had been embalmed and that they were awaiting orders. An effort will be made to have the remains brought back to Indianola for burial."

Later in the month, a letter from Charley, datelined Dawson, Yukon Territory, Nov. 3, 1900, reached Jennie in Chariton and offered more details. Charley had been working that fall for Riggins and Lucas and they shared a cabin.

"My dearest Jennie: This is the evening of a very sad day to me, and the intelligence I have to impart will cause you as much sadness as it has me. Oh, how my heart bleeds for poor Mrs. Riggins. This time it is she whom the Lord has seen fit to chasten, for the angel of death has laid his hand upon the one most dear to her heart, and bid him come and reap his reward.

"Mr. Riggins was taken six three weeks ago last night with severe pains in his right side which was the forerunner of a severe attack of Pneumonia, and for nearly a week we thought he could not live, but after the eleventh day he took a turn for the better, and from all appearances seemed to be recovering rapidly until yeasterday, the 22d, he was seized with severe pains in the region of his kidneys and suffered untold agony for three hours and then quietly passed away without a struggle, seemingly falling into a peaceful slumber. The complication of several diseases was more than his constitution could withstand. Inflammation of the kidneys was the immediate cause of his demise.

"Nothing was left undone that could be done to give him relief during his illness. The best medical talent to be had was summoned, but of no avail. As to nursing, never has sickness been supplied with better or more efficient attention. His partner, Mr. Lucas, would not leave him for a moment and was beside him almost night and day. A lady living near us was also called in to assist in nursing him, and no pains were spared to make him comfortable. He retained his full senses until the last moment, but I do not believe he realized the end was near.

"We will go to Dawson tomorrow with the remains and upon reaching there will telegraph to his brother in California. He can then communicate the sad intelligence to Mrs. Riggins and wire instructions to us as to what disposition they wish to make of the remains.

"I have written to Mrs. Riggins and have told her I would urge you to pay her a visit and extend to her your sympathies and words of consolation which you know so well how to express and I wish you would go to her just as soon as the information reaches you, for I do think you are better fitted to convey the sad news to her than any one else in the world. I have thought of sending you a telegram but I remember how you are so frightened at only the sight of a message that I hesitate to do so for fear of harm to you.

"Your letter written Sept. 28 just reached me last Sunday. Nearly two months since you wrote it. I am looking for more letters soon. Give my love to Bert and Kate (The Roses' son and daughter-in-law) and tell them to take good care of the babe. Good-bye, love. Yours affectionately, C.W. Rose."


Starling's remains were claimed by his brother, Herbert, but were transported to Whittier, where Herbert lived, rather than to Iowa. It's not clear when this occurred, but the death certificate that accompanied the body from Canada to the United States was recorded in King County, Washington (Seattle) at the end of July 1901. This may have resulted from delayed transfer of documents from another department --- July-August would not have been, in 1901, an auspicious time to transport remains long distances. Pneumonia was the cause of death given on the certificate.

Whatever the case, he was buried in Clark Cemetery, later known as Broadway, which was Whittier's oldest burial ground and contained the remains of many of its pioneer citizens.


Nellie, Marie and Ruth moved from Indianola to the greater Los Angeles area some time prior to 1909, when fate had another hard blow in store for the family.

Ruth, then 12, was riding a pony --- apparently at her uncle Herbert's farm near Whittier --- on April 1, 1909, when she fell. Her foot caught in a stirrup, she was dragged a considerable distance and kicked several times by the pony. Critically injured, she died a half hour later. Her remains were buried at Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach rather than in Whittier, however.

Daughter Marie grew up, married twice and lived long, dying during 1980 at age 88 in Durham, North Carolina, where she perhaps was living near a child. Her body was returned to Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier for burial.

Herbert L. Riggins died during September of 1950 at Whittier and was buried at Rose Hills. Nellie survived until October of 1952, when she died in Orange County. I have not been able to find a burial record for her.


Even Starling's burial place ran into bad luck at the end. By 1958, the Clark/Broadway Cemetery and its neighbor, Mount Olive, contained between them 1,281 documented burials (and most likely undocumented burials, too, since no one was sure how long Clark and been used for interments). What was certain was that it contained the remains of many of Whittier's founders, but had become unkempt and was subject to occasional vandalism.

Rather than fix the cemeteries up, the city declared them a public nuisance in 1958 and decided to clear them. Years were spent attempting to contact relatives of those interred, offering opportunities to remove the remains of their loved ones to other cemeteries. Some bodies were moved, but most were not. Finally, all of the tombstones were removed (families were given five years to claim these rather weighty souvenirs) to storage.

State law prevented disinterment of unclaimed remains, so a majority of those buried here remain. But fill dirt was applied to smooth the grounds, original walking paths through the cemeteries were repaved, landscapers were called in and, during 1977, Founders Memorial Park was launched.

Find a Grave photo by "Sunny"

It's very pretty, but it seems likely that the founders themselves would have preferred that their graves and those of their loved ones be left intact.

Whittier Museum photo

The tombstones themselves are currently stored, stacked, in a fenced enclosure at the Whittier Museum. They have never been inventoried. There are reasons to believe that Starling had a stone and that it is among them.

"Starling B. Riggins," and the names of everyone else now resting anonymously under manicured turf, were recorded in bronze on a "Founders Memorial" within the park grounds. During 2012, however, the bronze plaques containing those names were stolen and the monument further vandalized.

There is some good news, however, for Starling and his eternal companions. The City of Whittier approved a new monument for the park during October of 2014, this time in granite rather than concrete and bronze. That project was scheduled to be completed early this year.

No comments: