The Alaskan Missions of the Episcopal Church


"This book is sent forth with the full realization of its weaknesses and limitations. While its author has received every possible assistance from the officers of the Department of Missions, yet much of it was written remote from any books of reference and at such intervals of time as have worked against its organic homogeneousness. The author is conscious that the book lies open to the criticism that the work in the interior has been over-stressed as against the work on the coast. He would plead that at the hand of one who has spent his whole Alaskan ministry in the interior, this could not be avoided however he might strive. While the author is one of the only two persons--the other being the Bishop--who have visited every mission station of the Church in Alaska, yet his stay at the ice-freed towns of its Pacific coast--the most important points in the whole of the territory--has been brief, and at some of them he has touched only once. The plan of the book, which sought in the main to be chronological, presented another difficulty, for places once mentioned had either to be done with out of hand or else returned to again and again. Thus it has come about that the book is much more without consistent plan than was desired, for which, after all, inherent weakness in the organizing of material may be more responsible than the causes above alleged, the limitations of the book thus reflecting the limitations of its author."


"The white men come and go--but the natives remain. And the natives, with needs more urgent and appealing, are quite without resource for their own relief. The diseases which affect them are largely the importation of the white man. Whether or not tuberculosis, the chief scourge of the arctic peoples, be indigenous or exotic in origin is disputed, but the epidemic diseases that from time to time have taken sad toll of Indian life, are undoubtedly of white introduction--measles, smallpox, diphtheria, etc. The native people, though individuals wander widely within definite limits, is fixed and settled in its centres and established villages, and thus is more amenable to hospital treatment than the white. There is no danger that a native hospital, once properly placed, will find itself left high and dry without people to minister to.

"It is not more than ten years ago that we began a systematic gathering and tabulating of vital statistics from our scattered missions, and so soon as it was begun the resulting figures were disturbing, for they indicated a small but general preponderance of deaths over births, due chiefly to the ravages of epidemics and to tuberculosis.

"Our missionary nurses have done valiant service for the Indians. Many a babe has been saved alive that would have died but for their interposition; many a slight ailment has been prevented from becoming serious by prompt remedies; many an injury has been speedily healed. And the general village hygiene, the painstaking and patient supervision and improvement of domestic conditions--all this has been of immense value and permanent import. But in the face of serious injury, in the face, especially, of epidemic disease, a nurse with her little pharmacy, her few drugs and bandages, is a poor resort.

"The general health of the native people had long been pressing upon those engaged in work for them, and it began to be felt that a much more serious effort to cope with the situation must be made. An ambitious plan was drawn up for the establishment of three hospitals on the Yukon River: one at Fort Yukon, one at Tanana, one at Anvik. During the winter of 1913-14 the funds were raised, chiefly by the Bishop and the archdeacon, for the building of the first two of them, and in the summer of 1914 they were constructed.

"Dr. Grafton Burke has been at Fort Yukon since 1908. In 1910 he married Miss Clara Heinz, who, it will be remembered, accompanied Deaconess Carter to the Allakaket in 1907. A missionary's wife is not technically a missionary, yet few women who have served as missionaries in Alaska have been of more abundant and gracious usefulness than this self-sacrificing, capable lady. But Dr. Burke at Fort Yukon had been sadly handicapped by the lack of any place for the proper treatment of the sick. More than half of any medical treatment is regimen, and regimen can only be satisfactorily applied in an hospital; especially is this true of Indian people who frequently do not understand, and more frequently will not carry out, the most explicit directions. I doubt if primitive people anywhere can be relied on to follow faithfully a physician's instructions. If this be true of ailments in general, it is true in an especial disease, in its various manifestations, that any Indian hospital is primarily a tuberculosis hospital. Moreover, in many cases, segregation of patients is imperative.

St. Stephen's Hospital, Ft. Yukon"Dr. Burke returned from his furlough in 1916 to find a modern, well equipped, ample hospital at his disposal. It has become a house of relief for the inhabitants of many thousand square miles of surrounding territory. Fort Yukon and Tanana are places where other important streams are confluent with the Yukon, and this was one of the determining factors in selecting these sites. Fort Yukon, in particular, is a sort of native metropolis for all the people of the Yukon Flats, and, indeed, patients are constantly brought to the hospital, by dog-sled in the winter and by boat in the summer, from points far beyond this region. One white man, a well-known explorer, was brought nearly four hundred miles from the north coast of Alaska, and there is a room always maintained for white patients.

"But, of course, the hospital is primarily a native hospital, and it has been a blessing to the whole native population of the upper river. It is no longer true, in that region, that the deaths exceed the births; for some years the reverse has been the case. And the indefatigable and loving labours of Dr. Burke have extended themselves far beyond the precincts of the hospital itself, not only, or even chiefly, in making visits to the sick and the injured at considerable distances, often with much difficulty and hardship, but in the constant, detailed reiterated instruction which he gives to the people who come from villages within a radius of an hundred miles, and make Fort Yukon their base of trading and Church allegiance, as well as to those who live at Fort Yukon itself. Many an instance of the value of this influence might be given, at points remote from Fort Yukon, did not the nature of this book exclude anecdote.

"The hospital at Fort Yukon, situated just north of the arctic circle, has the present distinction of being the only hospital within the arctic regions of North America. The building of an hospital at the Presbyterian mission at Point Barrow, the most northerly point of Alaska, intended this summer (1920), will happily deny such description in future.

"This institution, as it has greatly increased the usefulness of our work, so it has greatly increased its expense. Conducting an hospital in the climate of the interior of Alaska is a difficult and expensive business. The twenty beds are often fully occupied, and it is rarely that there are not at least half a dozen patients within its walls. The two large furnaces relied upon for heating burn up more than a thousand dollars' worth of wood each year. The problem of supplying water to the hospital is not yet solved, although efforts have been made at no small cost to solve it; all water at present used is brought from the river by a tank set on a dog-sled. A shaft was sunk, a tunnel was driven, that the bottom of the river might be tapped and a well provided in the basement, but it froze up. Without a boiler and means of running live steam through, it is doubtful if the tunnel can ever be kept open--and the boiler and live steam are merely matters of additional expense that the state of the funds has not permitted us to incur.

"During the summer of 1920 it is hoped to erect a "solarium' for the better treatment of tuberculosis, part of the funds for the construction of it being given as a memorial to a nurse of this hospital who was drowned when the Princess Sophia foundered in the Lynn Canal in 1918. It will be call the Frances Wells Harper Solarium. Fortified by this means of exposing patients, and especially children, almost naked to the direct rays of the sun, without exposing them to the stings of venomous insects so abundant in the Alaskan summers, Dr. Burke believes that his fight against tuberculosis will be still more successful.

"Two years after it was built this hospital was in imminent danger of being destroyed. The current of the Yukon changed its course and threw its whole force upon the river bank. During the months of August and September, 1916, no less than an hundred and thirty feet of bank was cut away. The mission house had to be torn down and rebuilt far back. The building of long piers to deflect the current doubtless served during the next summer, to protect the bank, and the next season the current changed again and the cutting ceased. But the hospital stands no more than an hundred and fifty feet from the bank today, although when built it stood three hundred feet back. For the present the danger seems past, but no one can tell when it may resume; nor is there any spot in all the wide region of the Yukon Flats safe from similar invasion and erosion.

"The hospital at Tanana has not yet been as useful as that at Fort Yukon, because it has never had a resident physician. One who was under appointment just before this country went into the war, threw it up when that took place, and died afterwards, fighting an epidemic of influenza. No successor has yet been found. The presence of the army post with its surgeon, three miles away, has enabled the natives to receive medical assistance, for which the mission is much beholden, but the native hospital will never do its work until it has a resident physician. Indians are not admitted to the army hospital.

"At Anvik Dr. Chapman has built a convenient and useful infirmary, impelled thereto in part by some sort of promise that a government physician would be stationed there; but this has not been done. It is not easy to secure competent physicians of character for the interior of Alaska, either by the government or the Church."

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