The summer was so dry we could not get water to sluice our dirt with so we could not get out the dust until this winter and for that reason we could not get any money.
December 1909, Cleary City, Alaska
I have been very unlucky since I left Seattle in getting ahead financially.
September 1912, Ruby, Alaska
November 1913, Ruby, Alaska
When I was in Seattle . . . there was no roof so complicated but I could cut every rafter on the ground before the foundation of the building was laid, no stairs so complicated but I could get out every piece of them in the shop hence I think by trying to be exact seeking facts and science in my work is the reason I excelled so many of my craftsmen.
Among the placer miners who worked the goldfields of Cleary Creek, Iditarod, and Ruby, one strapping young man was known as Billy Bowers. In the early part of the 20th century, Bowers was one of thousands who gave their youth to the search for Alaska's gold. However, "Billy Bowers" wasn't his real name, although it wasn't unusual for a nickname to forever replace a man's legal name. But in the case of Billy Bowers, his given name was perhaps more colorful than the nickname: Bigger John Bower (minus the "s"), or "B. J." for short. His tragic personal history, and his role in Alaska's Gold Rush history, would be lost if not for the letters he left behind, all of them signed "B. J. Bower."
Born September 15, 1867, on a farm in Monroe City, Missouri, B. J. wasn't content to stay on the farm, and he headed for St. Louis as a young man. By the time he was 25, he'd roamed west and settled in Seattle, where he worked as a carpenter and an engineer. There B. J. met and married a dressmaker named Amelia Alexander and together they had three children in three consecutive years: Edwin, born in 1894, Loraine in 1895, and Gladys in 1896. But tragedy would soon tear apart the little family. Baby Loraine died at six months, and in February 1898, B. J.'s 26-year-old wife Amelia succumbed to peritonitis. Now a widower, B. J. relinquished the care of his preschool boy and baby girl to Amelia's parents in Seattle. Heartbreak visited again in 1899 when five-year-old Edwin died in a drowning accident.
By 1900, B. J. was working as a prospector in Alaska, and his only living child, Gladys, remained in the care of her grandparents. He had arrived at an opportune time. He was among the earliest to stake claims in the Fairbanks Mining District after other men, such as Felix Pedro, Tom Gilmore, and Frank Cleary, made discoveries in the first few years of the new century. By 1903, prospectors were pouring into the Interior. While most suffered disappointment or at best broke even, those with early claims on the three richest creeks -- Cleary, Fairbanks, and Ester -- had better luck.
Getting to the gold, buried deep beneath the overburden, proved more difficult than many imagined. Some reported that they had to dig through 200 feet of permafrost and rock to find the paystreak. And according to B. J.'s letters, contending with brutal weather and potential claim-jumpers were further challenges.
From Cleary, B. J. moved on to Iditarod and elsewhere around the Kuskokwim before heading onward to claims around Ruby. He stayed on in Alaska year after year, chasing one strike after another, while his in-laws raised Gladys. Yet B. J.'s letters to Gladys and a sister-in-law, Lucy, dated between 1902 and 1914, reveal a tender, fatherly side in which he encourages Gladys in her schooling, details problems at the mining sites, encloses money, and expresses hope to receive more letters. (Read B. J.'s letters to Gladys -- link at bottom of page.)
"Family legend says that B. J. only returned to Seattle four or five times for visits until returning for good sometime in the 1930s or 1940s," said his great-granddaughter, Sally Irvine. "When he came to town it was an event. He loved the opera and the theater, and he would treat the whole family to the arts, spend what was in his poke and then go back to Alaska to try for more."
In 1930, still in Alaska and now in his 60s, B. J. was hired by Frank and Emma Leach to oversee the construction of their hotel at Circle Hot Springs. In a taped oral history dating from the early 1970s, Emma Leach recounted the year they built the hotel, recalling the man known as Billy Bowers. "He was an elderly man at that time," she said. B. J. was living nearby and working a trapline for a living. And although he lived in a rough log cabin, he was not without his brand of culture, said his great-granddaughter.
"In that cabin he had a phonograph and a stack of records, mostly opera," Irvine said. "During the long, dark Alaskan winters he would invite his neighbors to take their phones off their hooks and while away the hours listening to the music."
B. J. never remarried, but had a lady friend in a neighbor named Mrs. Walker, Irvine said. "There was camaraderie but nothing else. My source of this information actually talked with Mrs. Walker up at Circle Hot Springs and was told that she -- Mrs. Walker -- had mushed along, with only her dogs, from Dawson to Nome. We do not know where she landed once she left the Central area."
According to Irvine, her grandmother Gladys grew up, married and had two children, a son and a daughter. And when B. J. was ready to leave Alaska for good, he went to live with Gladys in Seattle. By then she was a grandmother herself.
"He passed away when I was just two years old," said Irvine, "on July 17, 1949, at the age of 81. The cause of death was prostate cancer. He was cremated and his ashes are buried between the graves of his wife and his son in Lake View Cemetery in Seattle."
As for Gladys, Irvine remembers her as a "beloved grandmother" who lived to 95 years old. She died in Spokane, Washington, on November 24, 1991.
In the summer of 2001, Sally Irvine and her husband Rick visited Alaska for the first time. They drove the Steese Highway to Central and took the 8-mile spur road that leads to Circle Hot Springs. There they stayed one night in the hotel that Bigger John Bower, ever remembered as "Billy Bowers," helped to build.