February 21, 2013 Categories: 49 History
In recognition of Black History Month, we’d like to honor one of Old Valdez’s fascinating and influential early residents. Melvin Dempsey was a prospector of African-American and Cherokee descent and an educated man who remains an “unsung hero” in his accomplishments establishing the town’s early infrastructure.
|Melvin Dempsey, circa 1905
Dempsey was born a slave in 1857 in North Carolina, the son of a Cherokee plantation owner and an African-American slave. He moved around in his early life, living in the Michigan towns of Allegan, Holland, and Battle Creek. As a young adult, Dempsey moved to Colorado, where he became Deadwood’s first barber; one Deadwood newspaper described him as “…one of finest men in the hills” and a “model man.” It was around this time that Dempsey established the interests which would influence his life in Alaska: politics, business, firefighting, ministry, and mining. Becoming involved in various mining interests and the 1898 Klondike gold rush, Dempsey turned his attention to Alaska, arriving in Valdez in February of 1898 on the S.S.Alliance
Dempsey’s family was religious, which may have gotten him involved with the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor, a nondenominational evangelical society founded in Portland, Maine, in 1881 by Francis Edward Clark. Its professed object was “to promote an earnest Christian life among its members, to increase their mutual acquaintanceship, and to make them more useful in the service of God.” By 1906, 67,000 youth-led Christian Endeavor societies had been organized worldwide, with over four million members. Various causes championed by both the Society and Dempsey included the education of African-Americans, literacy, youth ministry, and temperance.
Months within his arrival in Valdez, Dempsey had founded the Valdez branch of the Christian Endeavor Society and was appointed a town trustee. Among Dempsey’s numerous accomplishments during his stay in Valdez were the founding of Alaska’s first free reading room, founding Valdez’s first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, establishment of a relief station on Valdez Glacier, and proprietorship of one of the town’s first restaurants, which also outfitted prospectors heading over the glacier route. In October of 1898, Dempsey was elected a marshal and justice, and was a member of both the town’s volunteer fire department and the Pioneers of Alaska.
|Dempsey in front of the Christian Endeavor meeting hall.
The relief stations founded by Dempsey’s group were modest 10’x12’ huts located both on the beach used as a debarkation point for prospectors, and on glacier’s 5th bench, with food, fuel, and bedding. Establishment of the relief stations was a town-wide effort, with contributions from corporations and the military. A 1906 publication by Reverend James S. Dennis, titled Christian Missions and Social Progress: A Sociological Study of Foreign Missions
, had this to say:
“Alaska has also seventeen Christian Endeavor Societies, the one at Point Barrow being, it is stated, the most northerly Christian Endeavor group in the world. An interesting statement is made concerning the heroic services rendered by the intrepid members of the Endeavor Society at Valdez. It was organized in 1898, and among its charter members was Melvin Dempsey, a Cherokee Indian. Nearby is the great Valdez glacier, twenty-eight miles long, with an average of over two miles in width. This became the pathway of the venturesome prospectors in their attempts to reach the Copper River Valley. It was a journey of terrible hardships and perils. Fierce winds, with the thermometer from fifty to seventy degrees below zero, bewildered the traveler, and in many instances doomed him to perish without hope of rescue. The brave members of the Endeavor Society at Valdez, acting upon the suggestion of Mr. Dempsey, built a series of rescue stations, with the Red Cross flag as a signal of encouragement and cheer. At these relief stations the society provided stoves, fuel, provisions, and medicines, for the imperiled travelers, and has thus been the means of saving hundreds of lives. When men are lost in the snow-storms this valiant Endeavor band attempts a rescue, but, alas! often too late to save life; in which case it provides for a Christian burial, and makes special efforts to communicate, if possible, with the friends of the deceased. It is a reproduction, in the wintry wilds of Alaska, of the humanitarian work of the Alpine rescue stations.”