100 years after my ancestors Frank and Nell Felter went to Alaska I went there too. When I was in sixth grade, I went on a week-long vacation with my grandpa from Seattle to Anchorage and back. On the flight from our home in Baltimore over to the West Coast, he showed me the 20 page letter Frank had written to my great, great grandfather describing his trip. Like most 11 year olds, I wasn’t terribly interested in the letter and just wanted to watch the in-flight movie. I vaguely remember skimming the letter and then forgetting about it entirely. My grandfather passed away 10 years ago, and I will always regret not getting another chance to explore Alaska and appreciate walking in Frank Felter’s footsteps with him.
I recently came across the Felters’ letter again and decided that the next-best thing would be to pour over his words and learn as much about the trip and what Alaska was like at the turn of the century. I can’t travel back in time but I can use history’s artifacts to re-imagine what the past was like.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve transcribed and annotated the letter and learned a lot about the places Frank and Nell traveled. There was a lot more to the Felters’ trip than what they put in writing. What route did the Felter’s take from Los Angeles to Alaska? What did those Alaskan towns look like? Who did they meet along the way? Digging through photographs, films, and archival documents created in the early 1900s, I’ve been able to fill in a lot of the gaps in the letter.
Inspecting the clues left in the letter have also opened a window into Frank and Nell’s personality and interests that was not clearly stated. The ways that the letter describes things like Chinatown, gold mining, Tlingit villages, Alaskan scenery, and fishing open up a window into Frank’s personality and values. I only wish the letter talked more about Nell, it would be great to know what she was like too.
Now that I’ve finished this project I’d like to do this again with the letters my grandfather wrote while he was in the Navy during World War II. For anyone who is fortunate enough to have their own family letters from generations past, I highly recommend you transcribe, annotate, and illustrate them! Its a good way to learn and share history on a personal level.
Below you’ll find links to each part of the Felter’s letter. Leave a comment below if you liked reading these!
Part 1: History of a Wandering Yankee
Part 2: Arrival in San Francisco
Part 3: Cliff House and Sutro Baths
Part 4: Chinatown
Part 5: Journey to the Santa Cruz Mountains
Part 6: Train to Portland
Part 7: Roast Horse- It’s What’s for Dinner
Part 8: Vacationing Among Oregon’s Salmon Canneries
Part 9: “Wild Sublimity and Weird Grandeur:” A Ride Up the Columbia River
Part 10: Alaska Really is a Great Country
Part 11: Tales of Gold and Tlingit Totempoles
Part 12: How Do You Pronounce Glacier? And Other Alaska Fun Facts
Part 13: Alaska: “Too Grand for my Weak Pen to Describe”
Part 14: Nome Gold Rush: Economics over Adventure
Part 15: Ice is Nice if You’re an Alaskan Tourist
Part 16: Trading with the Tlingit in Sitka
Part 17: “Generally Good and Enjoy-All Times” in Alaskan Waters
Part 18: A Brave Hike to the Top of Mt. Shasta
Part 19: The Traveling Yankees Return to the “Glorious Climate” of California