Berry: The Post Office on Ester Creek
A few miners began digging for gold on Ester Creek in 1904. Many more arrived in 1905, including the brothers Clarence and Frank Berry, who had already gotten rich mining in the Klondike. "Ester City" began to emerge on Discovery and 1 Below claims, on the creek. Miners here, as on other creeks around Fairbanks, began to clamor for government services. Principal among these were road improvements and mail service.
In August 1906 the Fairbanks Daily Times announced that "Miss Pidge has been named as post-mistress on Ester (Creek), the office being called Berry."1 This announcement was somewhat in error for two reasons. First, the office was open only provisionally; Pidge’s appointment wasn’t made official until October 26, when postmasters were also appointed for new offices in three other area gold camps: Gilmore, Meehan (on Fairbanks Creek), and Dome (later renamed Olnes). It took until December for that news to reach Fairbanks.2
Second, Elizabeth Pidge was a missus, not a miss. Her husband Ed was a woodcutter, and they lived in the little community that sprang up around the Berry brothers’ mining operations on claim 8 Below Discovery, Ester Creek.3 Clarence and Frank Berry presumably used their wealth and influence, previously accumulated in the Klondike, to get the new post office named after them and located at their camp rather than in Ester City, the valley’s hub, two miles upstream.
In September 1906 Berry’s initial ad hoc mail service was replaced by regular Tuesday and Friday deliveries from Fairbanks. Each delivery was limited to 50 pounds. The mail was carried on the narrow gauge Tanana Mines Railroad as far as Ester Siding (where Sheep Creek Road crosses the railroad now). Connecting stages met the trains to carry the mail (and passengers and freight) on up Ester Creek valley. The railroad subsidized the service, as the government was paying only for weekly service. That winter an average of about 130 pieces of mail went out to Ester Creek each month, and about half as many were mailed from the Berry office.4
Late that winter the post office took new bids for carrying mail to Ester and the other creeks around Fairbanks. The railroad’s bid was the lowest, but all were rejected as being higher than the maximum allowed by law. The railroad noted that it "costs three or more times as much to do business in (Fairbanks) than it does in the eastern states" and said "the railroad cannot at present see its way clear to pay a premium for the privilege of carrying the mail, and the maximum allowed by law would leave the company a long way behind." They quit hauling mail when their initial contract expired on March 31, 1907.5 This precipitated a crisis. Newspaper distributors and other volunteers carried first class mail out to the creeks, but second class material—most of the mail—piled up in the Fairbanks office. I haven’t yet figured out how that crisis was resolved, but it wasn’t the only time that the high prices in Fairbanks caused trouble in mail service.6
Another example came in 1910, when the maximum wage for postal clerks of any grade was $100 per month. "Of course this is not a living wage," the newspapers noted. (Mine laborers at this time typically earned $5 a day—$30 a week—plus room and board.) Congress appropriated special supplemental funds to pay higher salaries to Fairbanks mail clerks, but these ran out at the end of June 1910. A News-Miner headline in August read, "NO HOPE FOR BETTER WAGES—Postoffice Force Will Be Compelled to Quit at End of Month." This crisis was temporarily averted when local citizens collected donations to supplement the clerks’ salaries. Then the Post Office got permission to supplement salaries using box rental fees (ordinarily this went into the general postal fund). Finally in March 1911 news came that "through the passing of the sundry appropriations bill at the late session of congress, the salaries of the postal clerks of Fair-banks are increased to $2,000 per annum, ...the figure formerly paid."7
But I’m getting ahead of my story about the Berry Post office on Ester Creek. By July 1908 the Berry brothers were already preparing to close their Ester Creek operations.8 It became apparent that the days of Berry as a town were numbered. That October the news broke that the post office was moving: "Mrs. Pidge is having a large building erected quite near town (i.e. Ester City) for a mess and boarding house, post office and store. This will bring the postoffice much nearer the middle of the creek and will be much more of an equal accommodation to the people all over the creek."9
The new location on 5 Below claim would be only about half as far from Ester City as before, but this didn’t satisfy everyone: "The citizens of Ester are still making an effort to have the postoffice removed to the town of Ester where it would be more convenient for a larger number of people."10 Once the new Berry office opened, however, Ester residents were mollified: "The (new) location of the postoffice is much handier for all concerned and much more satisfactory than were the old quarters, so the agitation for an office in town is over for the moment."11 So the Berry Post Office was located in the "town" of Berry, on 8 Below claim Ester Creek, for only about two years.
By 1910, and perhaps as early as the summer of 1909, the office had moved again, this time to Ester City, and Mrs. Pidge was no longer postmaster. Although ordered closed at least twice, the office remains in Ester today. The post office’s name wasn’t changed from Berry to Ester, however, until 1965. But I’ll save all of that for future articles.
1."Major Clum Wants Bids," Fairbanks Daily Times, Aug. 24, 1906.
2. Tanana Weekly Miner, December 6, 1906, 2nd section p. 4 c. 2.
3. Tanana Directory, p. 90. Tanana Directory Co., Fairbanks, 1907.
4. Information in this paragraph is drawn from Fairbanks Daily Times, Sept 14 and October 13, 1906, and from the Tanana Weekly Miner, March 1, 1907 ("Creek Mail Service Due for Discussion").
5. "Must Kick Hard To Get Our Mail" and "Mail Kick Is General", Fairbanks Weekly Times, May 18, 1907.
6. "Times Will Get Mail To The Creeks", Fairbanks Weekly Times, April 13, 1907.
7. Quotations and other information in this paragraph are from "No Hope For Better Wages", Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 5 Aug. 1910, p. 4, and from "Postal Clerks Get A Raise In Their Salaries", Fairbanks Weekly Times, 8 March 1911, p. 10.
8. "Berry Brothers To Quit...", Fairbanks Weekly Times, July 11, 1908, p.7 c.3.
9. Fairbanks Daily Times, 23 Oct 1908, p.4.
10. Fairbanks Sunday Times, 25 Oct. 1908, p.2 c.3.
11. Fairbanks Daily Times, 19 Nov. 1908, p.4 c.4&5.