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Caswell Creek

Steamer on the Susitna
Dena’ina: (possibly) Q’uch’u’itnu (‘Stone Point Stream’)[7]
Published 10-20-2021 | Last updated 10-20-2021
61.941, -150.080


GNIS Entry

History Named for a local prospector and reported on 1917 Alaska RR. manuscript map.
Description flows SW, through Caswell Lake, to Susitna River, 14 mi. N of Willow and 50 mi. NNW of Anchorage, Cook Inlet Low. 12 miles long.

“Mr. H.P. Gallagher, who is now station agent at Curry, informs me that […] Captain Swift, who subsequently ran the stern wheeler Chulitna for the A.E.C., was on the Susitna in 1906 with a stern wheeler known as the Caswell (named after a locating engineer of that name in the employ of the Alaska Northern, I believe). He named Caswell Creek after his boat and also named Sunshine Creek.” - Frederick D. Browne (Engineer in Charge, A.E.C.) 1922[1]

Before the invention of the screw propeller in the 1830s, a paddlewheel was the only form of propulsion available for motorized vessels. Even after the screw propeller became the dominant design for the high seas, paddlewheels continued to dominate shallow river travel due to simplicity of machinery, less vulnerability to shallow banks and debris, and an engine configuration which allowed weight to be distributed to minimize draft. By 1900, when choosing between boats driven by propellers, paddlewheels on the sides of the vessel, and paddlewheels at the stern, “stern-wheel vessels are almost invariably recommended by the builders when a steamer is desired […] for exploring purposes, or for the navigation of rapids or narrow rivers.”[2]

That description fit the bill for the major rivers of Alaska as tens of thousands of settlers flooded to the territory. The Klondike gold rush began in 1897 and by 1900, shipyards “on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi river were engaged simultaneously upon the construction of craft designed for Yukon river navigation.”[2] The prevailing design for Yukon service at the time was a sternwheeler roughly 150 feet long with a maximum of 4 feet of draft, capable of carrying 300-400 tons.[2][3, p.43] But in practice anything that could float was rushed towards the gold fields and, in 1898, an observer at Dawson City recorded 7,080 ships passing through.[3, p.8] No amount of muscle power from dog teams, horses, porters or rowers could possibly compete with the ability of motorized riverboats to move freight. In Alaska’s Interior, the steamer reigned supreme.

The Yukon got the lion’s share of the attention in 1897 but elsewhere in Alaska prospectors were also eyeing the Susitna River. Although it is among the thirty largest rivers in the United States by flow rate,[4] visitors encountered “a broad shallow stream, divided into many channels, and with a very swift current [...] full of snags.”[5] “The channel changes with great frequency, so that the channel followed in ascending will not usually coincide with that used in descending.”[6] Its name, in all the Athabascan language family, literally meaning ‘Sand River.’[7, p.82]

In 1899 Captain E.F. Glenn recorded prevailing sentiments among “all persons who were at all familiar with this stream from actual experience,” including W.G. Jack and Paul Buckley, two members of the first recorded non-Native party to ascend the river to its headwaters in the Alaska Range.[8] Glenn found a consensus that “a properly constructed boat, drawing not to exceed 2 feet of water, can navigate this river (Sushitna) from its mouth as far as the forks [modern Talkeetna], and from that point up the middle fork for a distance of about 37 miles, or to Indian Creek,” as Jack stated. “I should think about a 50 or 60 ton steamer – sternwheeler” added Buckley.[6, p.107-108]

Of course, those with gold fever did not always care about informed advice. The distinction of the very first steamboat on the Susitna may have gone to an oddball craft which appeared in 1898, “a sort of house-boat, propeled partly by steam and partly by saild. It was named after the State from which its captain hailed, but when it appeared on the river someone dubbed it Noah's Ark, and by this name it was known until the end.”[5]

Even professional firms experimented or used what was available, with varying success:

“The small steam launch of the Boston Company […] managed upon one occasion to go about 5 miles above the station, but was unfortunate enough to break all but two blades of her propellers and was forced to return. The small stern-wheel boat went up quite a distance farther without serious accident of any kind.”[6]

Economic incentives to get things right reached a boiling point in 1904 as prospectors struck commercial quantities of gold in the Susitna Basin.[9] By 1905 Captain E.A. Swift, who commanded the steamer Neptune in Prince William Sound, vowed to enter the Cook Inlet market.[10] He did as promised, purchasing the Caswell in 1906 and announcing service from Seldovia to Fire Island with the Neptune, and from there up the Susitna with the Caswell.[11] The actual transfer point between the appears to have been Tyonek rather than Fire Island, and the Caswell’s original bread-and-butter run went up the Yentna to Lake Creek.[12]

The first season seems to have been particularly risky. On its very first trip upriver the Caswell’s fireman, R.E. Blaikie, fell overboard and drowned after striking his head.[13] Within the next few months the ship was first damaged by “contact with boulders on the beach”[14] and then caught in a storm off Tyonek[15] But Swift stayed in the game, and the Caswell was steaming up the main branch of the Susitna around 1914.[1]

Considering Browne’s statement and numerous records of the Caswell, the “prospector” who is credited in Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names and the GNIS seems to have been a speculative guess based on the most likely profession for anyone with an English name far upstream on the Susitna before the railroad was constructed. It is currently unclear who the Caswell was named for, but whether it was an individual in Seattle where the boat was constructed, a railway engineer as Browne suggested, or a prospector after all, the ship itself appears to be the namesake of the creek. And, with at least eight years of service on the Susitna, the Caswell likely stuck around for longer than most transient miners and railroad construction crews.

Records of Dena’ina placenames and living patterns in the region are also sparse. Shem Pete’s Alaska speculates that Caswell Creek may have been named Q’uch’u’itnu (Stone Point Stream),[7, p.192] but notes that there were no known settlements in the area.


Sources


[1] Correspondence from Frederick D. Browne (A.E.C.) to H.M. Gilman (Dept. of the Interior), 10 April 1922, Folder 60-40-3151, U.S.G.S. Technical Data Unit, Anchorage, Alaska, United States.

[2] Fawcett, Waldon. “The Increasing Demand for Light-Draught Steamers.” In Engineering Magazine 19, no. 16 (July 1899): 186-204. New York. https://books.google.com/books?id=Eb1MAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA195

[3] Thomas, Lindsey Hall. “The A.J. Goddard: Reconstruction and Material Culture of a Klondike Gold Rush Sternwheeler.” In Occasional Papers in Archaeology no. 16. Accessed October 17 2021.https://emrlibrary.gov.yk.ca/Tourism/occasional%20papers%20in%20yukon%20archaeology/aj-goddard-reconstruction-material-culture.pdf

[4] Kammerer, J.C. “Largest Rivers in the United States.” U.S.G.S. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1992. https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1987/ofr87-242/

[5] Smith, A. Beverly. “Into the Wilds of Alaska.” In Wide World Magazine 3, no. 16 (July 1899): 424-433. London: George Newnes, Ltd. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015084011561&view=1up&seq=208

[6] Glenn, E. Report of Captain Edwin F. Glenn on Explorations in Alaska. In Reports of Explorations in the Territory of Alaska (Cooks Inlet, Sushitna, Copper, and Tanana Rivers) 1898 Washington: Govt. Print. Off. Accessed December 14 2020. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=wQAlAAAAMAAJ

[7] Kari, J., and J. Fall. Shem Pete's Alaska (rev. 2 ed.). Fairbanks, Alaska: The University of Alaska Press, 2016.

[8] Cole, Terrence. The History of the Use of the Upper Susitna River: Indian River to the Headwaters. State of Alaska, Dept. of Natural Resources, Division of Research and Development, 1979. https://www.arlis.org/docs/vol2/hydropower/APA_DOC_no._2551.pdf

[9] Chronology of Alaska Mining. In Railway and Marine News 16, no. 6 (June 1918): 17. Seattle : Railway and Marine News Pub. Co.. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112114045328&view=page&seq=183

[10] [News Briefs] The Alaska Prospector, April 13, 1905. Accessed October 16, 2021. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84021905/1905-04-13/ed-1/seq-1/.

[11] “To Bring Up The Caswell.” The Seward Weekly Gateway, March 31, 1906. Accessed October 16, 2021. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98059811/1906-03-31/ed-1/seq-1/.

[12] Paige, Sidney, and Adolph Knopf. “Reconnaissance in the Matanuska and Talkeetna Basins.” In Report of Progress of Investigations of Mineral Resources of Alaska in 1906: 104-125. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 314. Washington: Govt. Print. Off. 1907. https://dggs.alaska.gov/pubs/id/4904

[13] “Fireman Falls From Caswell and Drowns.” The Seward Weekly Gateway, June 30, 1906. Accessed October 16, 2021. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98059811/1906-06-30/ed-1/seq-1/.

[14] “Caswell Running Again.” The Seward Weekly Gateway, August 18, 1906. Accessed October 16, 2021. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98059811/1906-08-18/ed-1/seq-3/.

[15] “Caswell Running Again.” The Seward Weekly Gateway, September 15, 1906. Accessed October 16, 2021. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98059811/1906-09-15/ed-1/seq-1/.