Our Alaska Pioneers
The Salvation Army was born in 1865 in the poverty-ridden London East End, when young minister William Booth chose to begin his new 'Christian Mission' there, with his wife, Catherine. Rather than cultivate the comfortable middle class, the ministry "reached for the worst."
In 1878, the name of this ministry changed—to The Salvation Army.
The paramilitary nature of the movement—complete with ranks and insignia—soon captured public imagination, spreading throughout the British Isles. In addition to preaching, Booth became involved in providing food and shelter for the hungry and homeless and alcohol rehabilitation for the addicted. (Such practical ministries remain a hallmark of today's Salvation Army, which provides basic social services in 124 countries worldwide.)
In 1880, the first missionary, George Scott Railton, was sent to New York. He would be the first of many U.S. missionaries.
Staking Claim on Alaska
The Salvation Army first arrived in Dawson City, Alaska in 1898, with Commander Evangeline Booth, daughter of Salvation Army founder General William Booth, and her pioneering party of nine Salvation Army soldiers. Booth had set her sights on the Last Frontier because of the tales of heartache and lawlessness, which emerged from boomtown camps with far greater frequency than stories of overnight wealth.
Like the miners who had gone before them in search of gold, the traveling party (seven men and two women) endured a long, treacherous journey from Canada to get there, including trekking the Chilkoot Trail, notorious as “the meanest 33 miles in history."
According to The Salvation Army’s New Frontier magazine: "The Salvation Army’s Klondike party arrived on the SS Tees from Vancouver in April 1898, creating a sensation in Skagway, as the officers marched from their ship to Sixth and Broadway, led by Commander Evangeline booth.
"They conducted their first open air meeting near Jeff Smith’s Parlors, where they played a small portable pump organ during their lively meeting. Jeff ‘Soapy’ Smith, notorious leader of Skagway’s underworld, observed the service from the edge of the crowd and added gold coins to the collection.
"Eight Salvation Army officers, including two women, climbed over the Chilkoot Pass and continued on to Dawson City. Said Ensign McGill, ‘We had two detachable canoes and our packs and we carried the lot over the pass on our backs. That was the heaviest job I ever had in my life.’
"Tlingit Indian packers were hired by the Army team to help carry the required supplies the team would use in Dawson City. Many among the Tlingit community became active in The Salvation Army in the years following the gold rush. On Christmas Day in Dawson City in 1898, the Army served 300 dinners to those in need. By February 1899, The Salvation Army post cared for stranded and sick gold seekers. The Army held regular services in Skagway until the town went dry during Prohibition."
Today’s Alaska Army
Since 1898, Alaska's Salvation Army has grown into one of the largest social service providers in the state, providing a wide array of services, from housing and meals for the homeless, to Christmas gifts for needy children, to residential addiction treatment.
Today, The Salvation Army has local Corps Community Centers in 17 communities: Anchorage, Angoon, Cordova, Fairbanks, Haines, Homer, Hoonah, Juneau, Kake, Kenai, Ketchikan, Klawock, Kodiak, the Mat-Su Valley (Wasilla), Petersburg, Sitka, and Wrangell.
[Above: Some of the earliest Alaska Salvationists, circa 1890-1920.Salvation Army Museum of the West; Top left: Salvation Army founder General William Booth; Bottom left: Evangeline Booth.]