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Captain E. W. Johnston

CAPTAIN JOHNSTON has been identified with the lighterage business in Alaska since the first stampede to the Klondike in 1897. When the news of the gold discovery on the upper Yukon electrified a large part of the civilized world, Captain Johnston was a resident of Seattle and was engaged in building lighters, operating a stone quarry and conducting a general freighting business on the Sound. He immediately saw the business opportunity of lightering freight and landing passengers from steamers at Skagway, and was the first man to engage in this business at that place. The smallest lighter that he took from Seattle had a carrying capacity of 400 tons, and when he was preparing to sail with his equipment, horses, men and supplies, there were people who talked loudly about invoking the law to prevent his departure. They knew that he was taking the poor dumb brutes and deluded people to certain death.

At that time the public's knowledge of Alaska was very indefinite, and the conception of conditions in the far North was hazy or distorted.

Captain Johnston conducted this business during the seasons of '97 and '98. He worked almost incessantly. Only a person of extraordinary physical stamina could have stood the strain to which he was subjected. He made money and made friends. Probably there is no man in the North who knows more of the Klondikers than Captain Johnston.

The Nome gold discovery and the development of these gold fields in 1899 convinced Captain Johnston that there would be another business opportunity in his line of work on the waterfront of Nome. He fully understands and appreciates the wisdom of the old Spanish proverb: "Opportunity has a long forelock, but is bald behind." Being a man of prompt decision, he immediately set himself to the work of constructing a lighterage plant to take to Nome in the spring of 1900. Every year since that memorable season he has been in Nome, and has handled a great many thousand tons of freight that have been shipped into this country. From the beginning of his work at Nome he saw the necessity of a harbor to provide better facilities for discharging cargoes and to provide a safe anchorage during storms for the small craft of the sea. He held this idea in abeyance, knowing that the time had not yet arrived for the inauguration of such an enterprise. The public questioned the permanency of the camp, and educated wiseacres said that a pier could not be built to withstand storms and the impact of the ice.

In 1904 a better general sentiment about the Nome country prevailed throughout the United States, and Captain Johnston concluded that the time was auspicious to undertake the work which he believed could be successfully done, the value of which if consummated was obvious. During the session of Congress in the winter of 1905, a charter was secured to build jetties from the mouth of Snake River into Bering Sea, the work to be done under the supervision of the war department. This work involved the expenditure of a quarter of a million dollars, and to secure the necessary funds was the next task. The plans proposed required the construction of rock-filled cribs covered with edge-bolted timbers, the cribs extending from the mouth of Snake River out into the sea a distance of 750 feet; the construction of wharves and the building of necessary warehouses. Captain Johnston believes that "Where there's a will there's a way," and by using the facts of Nome's commerce and all available information concerning the sea and beach at Nome, he was able to secure the organization of a company which subscribed the necessary funds and gave him the contract to perform the work. He is making a Nome harbor this season. He believes that the Nome harbor will effect a saving to the residents of Seward Peninsula of $200,000 the year. It will furnish a facility for landing passengers in roughest weather; it will lessen the danger of longshoring and will be a great benefit to the town of Nome, and should be a profitable investment to the men who have shown faith in the enterprise by subscribing the money to perform the work.

Captain Johnston was born in Chicago November 30, 1860. He is a son of Dr. Johnston, a well-known citizen and pioneer who settled in the "Windy City" in 1834. Captain Johnston is self-educated. When a small boy he was sent to school, but had the misfortune in the very early part of his scholastic opportunities to be challenged by the bully of the school. He gave the bully an unmerciful thrashing and the paternal rebuke caused the independent youngster to leave home. He began life for himself by catching minnows and selling them to the fishermen for ten cents the dozen. He got a berth on a sloop sailing on Lake Michigan and worked for a year at a salary of two dollars and fifty cents the month. When he was sixteen years old he and his elder brother bought the schooner El Painter and sailed her on the lake. At the age of twenty he was in command of the lumber schooner Dan I. Davis. He sailed the lakes for many years, and has built piers on Lake Michigan and is consequently familiar with the kind of work in which he is now engaged.

In 1 886 he went to Seattle and engaged in the hardware business for two years prior to resuming the line of work on Puget Sound with which he has been familiar from his early boyhood.

Captain Johnston possesses great force of character. In the lexicon of his youth there was no such word as fail, and in the brighter days of successful manhood there is no impairment of his courage and energy.  

Source: Nome and Seward Peninsula by R. S. Harrison. Seattle: The Metropolitan Press, 1905.




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