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Captain Backland was Santa Claus to people of the Arctic

By Keith Conger - Published in the Nome Nugget newspaper 12/22/2016

In 1889 American Magazine stated, "to give up one's very self — to think only of others — how to bring the greatest happiness to others — that is the true meaning of Christmas.” Although we currently mark Christmas during a cold winter, the essence of the holiday can be, and has been, celebrated all year long.

At the turn of the 20th century, John Backland Sr. began making trips from Seattle, Washington to the far north. Captain Backland's long career as an Arctic trader was centered around his giving, Christmas-like spirit.

In 1906 Backland purchased a 125-ton, two-masted vessel called the Volante and then spent the remainder of his life bringing supplies to the people of the Arctic. In 1907 he deemed the Volante too small and purchased a 547-ton, four-masted schooner named the Transit. Sadly, this boat became trapped in the frozen seas off Barrow in 1913, forcing the crew to seek safety by trekking over the ice to shore.

Undeterred, the next year Backland purchased a 480-ton, four-masted schooner called the C.S. Holmes, a boat for which he would become well known as being the captain of. The people living on the remote Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas relied on Captain Backland and the Holmes to bring them their entire year's worth of supplies.

In 1923, John Backland Jr. began accompanying his dad on the annual trip from Seattle to Barrow. Backland Jr. became captain of the C.S. Holmes in 1928 after the elder Backland's death. The younger Backland continued the good will trading of his father.

Both Captain Backlands played the part of Santa Claus for the northern inhabitants, and the Holmes acted as their sleigh. The ship had no on-board, mechanical means of propulsion, but instead relied on sails for maneuvering through open water and two, 24-foot motor tugboats to guide it through the labyrinth of ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. As the escorts towed their burden, the long ropes resembled tug-lines pulling Santa's sled.

Just as the elves of the North Pole take all year creating toys for Santa, the job for the crew of the C.S. Holmes in making repairs and preparing for each upcoming trading season went on for months. Many suppliers including the Seattle Hardware Company, Pacific Coast Coal Company, National Grocery Company, Schwabacker Hardware Company, and Stuart and Holmes Drug Company delivered goods to fill the orders placed by Captain Backland.

When the Holmes set sail each May, she often carried the only outside items the northern villagers would receive for the next 12 months. Some of the many articles stowed in the ships cargo bays were radios, groceries, coal, guns and ammunition, clothing and cloth, motors, tobacco and chewing gum.

Added to the usual freight in 1936, as the C.S. Holmes set sail on its typical five-month voyage, was an entire disassembled structure capable of seating 400 to 500 people that would become the Presbyterian Church in Wainwright. It also carried a shipment of shelter cabins being delivered to the Alaska Road Commission in Pt. Lay.

“Backland's Back,” was often heard in the C.S. Holmes' ports of call. The arrival of the boat triggered a celebratory, holiday spirit in each settlement. On the voyage in 1936, this cry could also be heard in Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, in Wales, Shishmaref, Kotzebue, Point Hope and Barrow.

The C.S. Holmes did not have a common carrier permit to bring freight south. For the most part, other than furs and ivory that was received in trade, it returned empty. On the 1936 voyage, however, Captain Backland was contracted to retrieve the engine from the plane crash in Barrow involving Wiley Post and Will Rogers.

The sailing of the C.S. Holmes represented a transitional period in the history of maritime travel to the Arctic. She was the last sailing vessel to make the trip north for purposes of trade. Although the Holmes sailed in summer, the Arctic weather may have seemed Christmas-like to the crew. The ship had no electricity and the only heat was provided by a small coal stove in the quarters.

Captain Backland Jr. and the C.S. Holmes made their last trip to Barrow in 1938. The ship was then laid up for use during World War II.

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