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Feature Article on Charles Hess. Topic: GOLD RUSH & PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in January, 1995


Alaska in the year 1900. Virtually unexplored and uninhabited, little was known then about our 50th state. Who would consider a trip in the winter through the Arctic Circle in Alaska? The lust for gold can do strange things to a man.

Charles R. Hess, or Charlie, to his friends, was a successful lawyer in Sidney. As stories of the fabulous gold discovery on the beach at Nome sifted down to Shelby County, Charlie and his friends talked of going to Alaska to strike it rich. Hess soon realized he had been, in his words, "stricken with the gold bug fever."  His friends told him that he never should consider such a trip, especially with his handicap. But Charlie had the fever, so he left in the early spring of 1900 for Alaska.

He traveled by train to Seattle. Hess then boarded the ship Garrone for a tempestuous 30 day trip on the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea to Cape Nome, Alaska. When he arrived, he found the beach crowded with "30,000 white, yellow and black men from every nation on earth." Charlie found lodging with a fellow "sourdough," bought equipment and began prospecting.

After six months of hard work and no strikes, they heard of a great new find that had been made at the Cape of Good Cope on the north side of the Seward Peninsula within the Arctic Circle. It was estimated to be 300 miles from Nome. Giving little thought to how they would get there and less to how they would return, Hess and his friend set off across the vast white wilderness in search of gold. The date was January 6, 1901. There were just two hours of daylight each day.

Their equipment consisted of a dog sled, food provisions and utensils, a sleeping bag and a tarpaulin. They had no tent of any kind. Hess also packed what was for him a necessity - a large supply of chewing tobacco. Their most important resource was a number of Newfoundland, Siwsh and Esquimau breed dogs.

The men also had purchased a compass to use for navigation. They quickly found out that the compass was useless because of the magnetic fields near the Arctic Circle. Taking bearings on the mountains ahead, the men grimly moved on. Hess later remembered thinking the mountains were "20 or 30 miles distant."  They encountered average temperatures along the way of 50 to 75 degrees below zero. The temperature and commonly-encountered blizzard conditions often made it impossible to prepare food. Hess and his fellow traveler covered nearly a thousand miles in this manner without seeing another human being. When they finally reached the mountains, after eight exhausting weeks, the gold-seekers found they were almost impassable. Often, Hess and his companion had to travel more than 50 miles out of their way to find a draw or portage through the mountains. These draws often served as a flume through which driving wind and snow would pass, sometimes making them impossible to traverse. On these occasions, they would lie in their sleeping bags for days at a time until the winds and snow ceased.

After passing through the mountains, the men came upon a region filled with lava formations which generated sufficient heat to prevent the streams from freezing. Falling snow formed large arches over some of the streams which concealed them beneath. While traveling in this area, the men met up with two other dog teams. Because of the snow depth, the teams went in single file to break the trail. On the second day, Hess had just finished taking his turn in the lead, so one of the other teams pulled out to the front. No more than 10 minutes later, the team and the driver suddenly plunged through one of the snow arches and disappeared. The man and his dogs were never seen again.

Charlie and his companion had traveled almost three months and endured unspeakable hardships in the wilderness when they finally arrived at Good Hope Bay. In the words of Hess: "We found no gold at the other end of the rainbow. It was a wild goose chase. I dreaded to even think of my return to Nome." After a week of rest, the men began their return trip. The dogs started back as of they knew the trail homeward. Hess was much less certain. He did develop a keen appreciation for the extent to which his life depended upon the well being of his dogs, however. When the men stopped for the night, the first order of business was always to feed and care for the dogs. If the dogs' paws were sore or wet, they would be tended with great care.

Although he trusted his dogs and their sense of the trail back home, Hess was able to confirm they were headed in the right direction by occasionally spotting along the trail deposits of tobacco juice he had expectorated earlier along the way. The juice had frozen immediately into shards of brown colored ice. The continuos wind had blown the surrounding snow away, allowing the ice shards to be visible for as much as a quarter mile away. These spots were the only evidence that Hess was passing back over the same trail.   After almost a two month journey, the men arrived in Nome. It was late spring, 1901. Hess later remarked, "All the gold of the peninsula would not have induced us to repeat that fearful trip." Thankful his life and health were intact, Hess returned to Sidney without his fortune in gold. He resumed the practice of law in Sidney at 815 North Ohio with his brother, Andrew Hess. Andrew had gained notoriety for his successful defense of Buddie Shang, who had been charged with murder. Charlie was elected Justice of the Peace for Clinton Township and served for many years. Charlie Hess was a striking figure because he always wore a black cape around his shoulders, concealing from others what they might regard as a handicap, but what he never did. An accident in the printing business as a young man took a toll but did not deter him. Charlie Hess confronted the challenges in Alaska just as he had faced the challenges of everyday life - with just one arm.

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Charles Hess


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