True North – Tim Fanning on Thomas Gaffney, an Irish-Alaskan legislator

Gaffney and three fellow legislators left in the middle of a blizzard to begin a journey of thousands of kilometres to take their seats in the assembly

Thomas Gaffney, an Irish-born member of the first Alaskan territorial assembly

Long-suffering members of the Oireachtas from constituencies a long distance from Leinster House may wish to spare a thought for Thomas Gaffney, an Irish-born member of the first Alaskan territorial assembly whose commute to work was anything but straightforward.

Born in Bellananagh, Co Cavan, in 1864, Gaffney had already emigrated to the United States when he heard news of the Klondike Gold Rush. Finding little success in Canada’s Yukon, Gaffney decided to cross the border to Alaska.

Along with tens of thousands of other gold-hungry adventurers, Gaffney was lured by reports of prospectors picking nuggets out of the beach at Nome, a town on the Seward Peninsula, which along with Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula overlooks the Bering Strait.

By 1909, the Nome Gold Rush was coming to an end (although gold-mining in the area continues to this day). But Gaffney decided to stay, becoming a game warden and a special officer for “suppression of liquor among the Indians”. Such was his standing in Nome that he was chosen as one of the town’s representatives in the first Alaskan territorial legislature. It sat for the first time in Juneau, the current state capital, in 1913.


On January 7th of that year, Gaffney and three fellow legislators left Nome in the middle of a blizzard to begin a journey of thousands of kilometres in sub-zero conditions. The winter ice prevented the Nome legislators from making the first part of the journey by sea. Instead, Gaffney and his fellow politicians travelled across the frozen ground in sleds pulled by teams of huskies. At Valdez, some 1,000 kilometres away as the crow flies, they continued their journey to Juneau by steamship.

It took Gaffney and his colleagues the best part of two months to make the journey – the first session of the legislature did not meet until March 3rd. And their travel expenses? Fifteen dollars a day while the assembly was in session and 15 cents per mile travelled. A reasonable bounty given the gruelling nature of the commute.

Gaffney was the only Irish-born emigrant among the 24 (all-male) legislators who formed the first legislature but there were plenty of other members of recent Irish origin. Among the surnames were Boyle, Collins, Driscoll, Kelly and Kennedy.

The federal Congress had given limited powers to the Alaskan assembly, but the members were still able to pass some important legislation. Their first act was to give women the right to vote. The assembly also introduced legislation governing mine safety and compulsory education for children aged between eight and 16.

Tom Gaffney was a well-known character in Nome, even featuring in a children’s book, Baldy of Nome, about one of the town’s most famous residents, a sled dog by the name of Baldy. Baldy had led the team that pulled local dog breeder and musher Scotty Allan to three victories in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a forerunner to the annual Iditarod dog sled race. Allan, a native of Dundee, would later train and supply sled dogs to the French army during the first World War for service in the Vosges.

Allan’s commercial partner, Esther Birdsall Darling, with whom he had opened a dog sled kennel in Nome, was the author of Baldy of Nome, one of a series of books about dogs on the Alaskan frontier that followed upon the commercial success of Jack London’s tales. In one passage, a character recalls hearing Tom Gaffney reciting Robert Emmet’s last speech on St Patrick’s Day in the town’s meeting hall, at which point he says, “an’ I near cried at the end; an’ I don’t cry easy”. To which Scotty Allan replies, “that speech makes me cry too”.

The scene was drawn from real life. Gaffney and other Irish emigrants living in Nome were members of a fraternal organisation called the Knights of Robert Emmet. Every year, the Knights organised a celebration of Emmet’s life in Nome’s Eagle Hall, during which Emmet’s Speech from the Dock – wildly popular in Irish America at that time – would be a staple. After the Knights’ 1912 celebration of Emmet, the local newspaper, the Nome Nugget, reported that Gaffney had spoken for 20 minutes about the Irish patriot, reciting with “considerable ability”.

In 1933, the recently elected President Roosevelt rewarded Gaffney’s steady service to the Democratic Party by appointing him a US marshal. His knowledge of the Alaskan wilderness was now a crucial asset in tracking fugitives from federal justice across the territory’s rugged landscapes. It was while bringing a party of prisoners to Seattle in 1937 that he fell ill from diabetes, dying in the city on December 8th.

And it was a long journey home. His body could not be returned to Nome until the following spring when the winter ice had melted.