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A Broken Chain and 

a Busted Pedal

Max Hirschberg's 1900 Bicycle Ride to Nome

by Max Hirschberg

Unlike others, Max Hirschberg knew how to operate a bicycle before he rode his "wheel" from Dawson to Nome in 1900. Hirschberg was born in Ohio in about 1880, and went north at the time of the Klondike gold rush "to see what he could do." He ran a roadhouse in the Dawson district, but sold out in 1900 to join the stampede to Nome.

Hirschberg followed a "two inch trail" with his bicycle much of the way to Nome. It was a rough trip. The journey took him about two-and-a-half months, during which time he suffered from snowblindness, exhaustion and exposure. Crossing the Shaktoolik River he nearly drowned. He was in the water for almost two hours, and during that time he lost his watch and his poke with $1,500 in gold dust. He saved his bicycle, however. Just east of Nome on the ice of Norton Sound his bicycle chain broke. A strong wind was blowing and he made a sail with his coat that he rigged on the bike. Hirschberg then sailed across the ice the rest of the way into Nome.

At the request of his wife, Max wrote the story of his bicycle ride to Nome in the 1950s, so that his children and grandchildren would know the true story. He died in 1964. Hirschberg's granddaughter, Penni Busse, submitted his account of the ride to Nome to ALASKA® magazine, which published the story in February 1978.

In January 1900, I secured a dog team and an outfit to go over the ice, down the Yukon from Dawson to Nome. I sold my share in a roadhouse and my mining claims in Dawson. My partner, Hank West, however, did not believe the reports about the gold strike in Nome were authentic. I did, so we parted.

In Dawson I got my outfit and dog team, and I stayed at the Green Tree Hotel. About midnight, I was awakened by the smell of smoke -- the hotel was on fire. I jumped into my clothes and rushed outside. Hundreds of people had formed a bucket line from the Yukon River to the hotel. I joined the line, and we passed buckets of water to quench the fire and to wet blankets on adjoining buildings. The fire department was helpless because the fire hose froze in the extreme cold. Every available man joined the bucket line, but the building burned to the ground.

Broken boards were scattered over the snow. It was pitch dark and I stumbled on a board that contained a rusty nail. I went to the hospital with blood poisoning. It was March before I was up and around again, too late to get to Nome by dog team. With the spring thaw under way, the Yukon would be unfit for travel on the ice. I knew the news of the gold strike at Nome would-bring thousands of people from the States to Nome by boat, so I had to get there quickly. I decided to travel by bicycle. I had been an expert bicycle rider for years, and I figured I could reach Nome before the Yukon became unfit for travel.

Many dog teams, driven in single file, had preceded me down the river, and had made a hard trail about 2 inches wide where the sled runners cut deep troughs in the snow. I rode this narrow road, stopping at Indian villages or roadhouses.

The day I left Dawson, March 2, 1900 was clear and crisp, 30° below zero. I was dressed in a flannel shirt, heavy fleece-lined overalls, a heavy mackinaw coat, a drill parka, two pairs of heavy woolen socks and felt high-top shoes, a fur cap that I pulled down over my ears, a fur nosepiece, plus fur gauntlet gloves.

On the handlebars of the bicycle I strapped a large fur robe. Fastened to the springs, back of the seat, was a canvas sack containing a heavy shirt, socks, underwear, a diary in waterproof covering, pencils and several blocks of sulfur matches. In my pockets I carried a penknife and a watch. My poke held gold dust worth $1,500 and my purse contained silver and gold coins. Next to my skin around my waist I carried a belt with $20 gold pieces that had been stitched into it by my aunt in Youngstown, Ohio, before I had left to go to the Klondike.

A number of friends, including my old partner, Hank West, waved good-by.

The road out of Dawson was broad and well packed, the was cold and exhilarating, and the Sky was clear and calm. There were numerous dog teams headed for Forty Mile, Circle City and points farther down the Yukon. Whenever I approached a dog team, the driver would accommodatingly pull off the trail and restrain his howling, snapping dogs from nipping me. I passed many dog teams before reaching Forty Mile. At the combination bar, gambling room and roadhouse, I thawed out before a roaring wood fire in an oil-tank stove. Eight or ten whiskered men were sitting and smoking, talking about the rumor of a nearby gold strike

The Yukon River at Dawson, was about 1,500 feet wide. When the river froze, huge cakes of ice, some standing on edge, others slanting, formed a barrier to the opposite shore. As the final freeze occurred, cakes of ice from the lowered river caused the trail to resemble a sidehill slope. There were overflows covering the ice in places, some frozen over with newly formed ice, which broke when stepped on, leaving a few inches of water over the solid ice beneath.

The trail led along this slanting ice, then along the bank of the river, across frozen cracks winding in and out from the tundra, and back to the sloping ice along the riverbank. Creek overflows were numerous, and by the time I reached Forty Mile, my socks were wet and ice covered my felt shoes. It took me quite a while to orient myself to my 2-inch trail and I had many spills on this early part of my journey.

A few miles below Forty Mile I crossed the boundary line · between Canada and the United States. A thrill shot through me as I caught sight of Old Glory waving on U.S. soil.

Eagle City was my next stop, about 100 miles from Dawson. Calico Bluff was about 10 miles farther and at the mouth of Seventymile River was the mushroom town of Star City. Bold, rugged mountains, conspicuous by their height, were visible for a considerable distance. About 180 miles from Eagle City is Circle City. There were many log cabins, saloons, a hospital and an Episcopal church. Adjoining Circle City was an Indian village.

Here the river widened into the Yukon Flats for about 250 miles down the river. Not even a hill was in sight, just scrubby, stunted spruce along the shore.

Twenty miles· or so below Circle City was Charley Creek, where I came to a Native village and a little farther on was a roadhouse. Some 10 miles farther was Charley River, where I saw hundreds of caribou.

The most dangerous and difficult parts of the flats were between Circle City and Fort Yukon. Save for a portage land trail of 18 or 20 miles out of Circle City, the trail was on the river, which split into many channels without landmarks. The current was so swift that I encountered stretches of open water and blow holes. Snow storms completely obliterated the trail.

At last I made Fort Yukon, the most northerly point reached by the Yukon River, and about a mile north of the Arctic Circle. There were several saloons, Native cabins, a church and stores displaying marten, fox, wolf and bear skins. It is a site of the oldest English-speaking settlement on the Yukon River. The oldest' white man's graves in Alaska, with the exception of Nulato, are those in the little

Hudson's Bay cemetery near Fort Yukon; the headboards were dated 1850 and 1860. In 1862, the Church of England had a clergyman here, a Mr. McDonald, who married a Native girl and translated the Bible and prayer book into the Native tongue.

Next, I reached Birch Creek, and the end of all mountains for the first time. Down the Yukon some 75 miles, I came to the upper Ramparts, where there was a trading post. Then I came to Rampart City and another Native village. Rampart City consisted of stores, log cabins and saloons. It furnished supplies for the placer gold mines on adjacent creeks. About 40 miles farther I came to the rapids, where the ice was free of snow, and' for 20 miles my bicycle skidded on the slippery ice, causing me numerous falls.

I arrived at the mouth of the Tanana River, where there was a trading post. I saw Mount McKinley far to the south, as the day was clear.

About five miles out of Tanana I skidded on the glare ice. When I picked myself up, I found I had broken a pedal. I returned to Tanana, and, with the help of the storekeeper, cut out wooden pedals and drilled a hole through the center of each. I also bought bolts, nuts and washers. The pedals wore out about every 75 miles.

Two hundred and fifty miles farther on, I came to the Koyukuk River, and 20 miles beyond that I arrived at Nulato, where a Russian trading post had been established in 1822.

As I wheeled into Nulato, a Jesuit priest met me outside of his home and invited me to stay with him overnight. Next day he took me to his workshop and fashioned a new pedal for my bicycle out of galvanized sheet metal and riveted it together with copper rivets. Luckily, I had the extra bolts I had bought at Tanana, for he had none. This pedal lasted until I reached Nome.

About fifty miles out of Nulato, I reached the Kaltag cutoff and headed overland to the Bering Sea, away from the Yukon, which wound its course to St. Michael. The days were warmer and the trail had begun to thaw and at times became indistinct. Water was flowing in the creeks and rivers. As I crossed the Shaktoolik River, I broke through the ice. Water was running under the surface ice, although there was still ice on the bottom of the river. I succeeded in breaking the surface ice and, hanging on to my bicycle, reached the opposite shore.

As I neared the Bering Sea, I saw what appeared to be glare ice off the shore. I headed for this and before I could stop, I found I was in calm, open water. I succeeded in wading back to shore and, although wet, continued on toward Nome.

Near Norton Bay was a roadhouse, where I dried off and had lunch before continuing. The boys at the roadhouse warned me that the ice would shift in Norton Sound but I started across it anyway. Just as I was nearing the opposite shore, the ice shifted, leaving about 8 to 10 feet of open water between the ice and the shore. I took a chance and leaped to the shore, where I picked up a piece of driftwood, jumped back on the ice floe and poled myself and my bicycle back to the shore, and went on my way. Just east of Nome, I skidded on glare ice. When I picked up my bicycle, I discovered the chain had snapped and broken

There was a fair wind blowing toward Nome, so I picked up a stick, put it on my back inside my mackinaw coat, and began sailing for Nome. At times the wind was so strong that was forced to drive into some soft snow to stop my wild flight. Without my chain I could not control the speed of my bicycle. However, I finally arrived at Nome, May 19, 1900, without further incident. I had had my 20th birthday on the trip.

Excerpted From Wheels On Ice - Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1908 Alaska Northwest Publishing Company.
Last Updated 02/01/06 04:57:46 AM