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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Alaska Tales

Reminiscences of Alaska by Capt. Thomas J. Maher, C&GS

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During one winter the Steamer "Gedney" anchored at different places in the Straits of Fuca and Puget Sound, making continuous current observations, day and night. The work was hazardous, as we lay in the lane of heavy traffic, and thick fog and gales were quite frequent. The sole protection then consisted of a well-lighted ship and the ringing of the ship's bell. During a rather severe storm, about seven bells one evening, our anchor chain parted. We headed for Port Townsend, where the ship lay at anchor for several days until the wind moderated. The crew was turned to tarring down the rigging, when an accident took place, one of the type which made life interesting for the Commanding and Executive Officers. A Norwegian boy was tarring down the starboard shrouds. A big Finn who was not on friendly terms with the Norwegian passed beneath the rigging. Somehow the tar bucket got upset. A tame Finn is a pugnacious customer, but a wild Finn is a bad hombre. Up the starboard shrouds went the Finn - down the port shrouds went the Norwegian, all followed by the big Swede Bo'sun, who wasn't interested in the tarred Finn except that he was dripping tar on the freshly holystoned deck. The Swede did not like the Finn, anyway. However, these little international squabbles were usually settled in a satisfactory way. I don't remember the details, but as the services of the Medico were not called for and as there were no blackened eyes nor swollen faces, there was probably a peaceful compromise. Perhaps the Norwegian bought the Finn a quart of gin, which may have been taken over by the Bo'sun. These were the days before the Court of International Relations.

Another winter assignment consisted of carrying triangulation across Deception Pass. Captain Derickson instructed Mr. Coleman, the Executive Officer, to see that a line was cleared across one of the heavily timbered hills. The orders went down the line and being low man on the totem pole, I got the job. I went ashore with several men and found these trees to be six to eight feet in diameter. Where I came from, a tree two feet in diameter was a big one. This was a problem beyond by grasp and I thought of the old Army routine: The General ordered the Colonel; the Colonel ordered the Major; the Major order the Captain; the Captain order the Lieutenant; the Lieutenant ordered the Sergeant; the Sergeant ordered the Corporal; and the doughboy got the job. I was the doughboy - the flea on the tail of the dog. In this instance the doughboy knew nothing about cutting down trees of that size and he wondered if the General did, either.

Fortunately there were two Swedes, ex-lumber jacks, in the party. One said, "Pete, I guess ve vill haf to get the big saws, the vedges, and sledges from the ship." We got those. Well, the General observed from the quarterdeck through a pair of field glasses, which, of course, was the proper place for the General. I picked out the trees, then got out of the way and learned something about the lumber business, acquiring knowledge which was quite useful years later when clearing a line across Montangule Island, just north of Borneo, where the trees were just as large but of hardwood, and where there were no lumber jacks. That job was ordered by the Big Boss in the Manila Office, 1000 miles away, where no trees would fall on his corns. I learned early that the best way to get good results from sailors is to leave them alone and keep away when they are doing their work well. I am referring to sailors.

The making of a plane table survey of the Tacoma waterfront was another winter job. The C. M. & St. Paul Railway was making, or contemplated making, some extensive changes. A survey of a section of Skagit Bay developed some interesting incidents. Some years earlier there had been talk of establishing a steel mill in that area and the property owners were living to some extent on hope. While doing the plane table work I was often questioned as to whether this survey was in any way connected with that steel plant. They were skeptical concerning my veracity when told, "No." However, they were not going to be fooled and apparently thought of the old saw, "If you can't get information from the cabin, try the scuttlebutt." They sought the low-down from my two Norwegian rodmen. After the day's work, these boys borrowed the dinghy and went ashore. Months later I heard that they got big feeds at practically every farmhouse in the area. Those boys had good imaginations.

During the fall of 1910 and the spring of 1911, I was in Washington, inking in the field sheets of the Portland Canal Boundary Survey, assembling tidal data and computing tidal planes, so copies could be made for transmittal to Ottawa, Canada and London, England.

The next assignments were in the Philippines and I did not return to Alaska for some years. The Bering Sea and Northern Alaska assignments were not in favor, but I found them exceedingly interesting and not at all disagreeable. However, in all fairness I think the views of others are given in a lamentable ditty written by George Wilcox, one of our Chief Engineers, composed to the rhythmic squeaks of the feed pump, the odor of lard oil, cup grease and cylinder oil, which he thought superior to the odors of rancid seal oil and blubber.

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