“Go west young man, and grow up with the country.”
So said an Indiana newspaperman in the mid-19th century and that sentiment stayed strong through the rest of the century.
The draw of the West attracted an ambitious young man named Frank Israel. He left his family behind in Lykens, Pennsylvania when 20 years of age and journeyed over the continent toward the Pacific Ocean. He traveled the coastline, worked the mining towns of the interior, and found his way to the Klondike in search of fortune. He even crossed the wide Pacific to Australia and sailed the coastline of South America.
And through it all, he never once communicated with his family back in Pennsylvania. Why he failed to do so is unclear, but he went 15 years without sending a single word to his parents or brother.
But then in October 1900, something remarkable happened. A letter arrived for the Israel family from their long-lost son. The following is the emotional, exhilarating note he wrote to his parents, later published in the Lykens Register.
A Letter From Their Son.
Mr. Daniel Israel, of Wiconisco, was joyously surprised, last week to receive a letter from his son Frank, of whom he has heard nothing for many years. They had almost given him up for dead, and the receipt of this letter was a message of joy to them. They anxiously look forward to his return home in the near future. The following is an extract from his letter:
Oct. 8, 1900.
Dear Parents: – After these many years of silence and time has worn down my hard shell, death has finally broken it, and now I am eager and anxious to hear from home and to let you hear from me. I can hardly write a letter, tor I have had no practice for many years. I don’t know what to say, for what can I say after fifteen years?
Three years ago I tried to write, but I couldn’t, for it seemed to me that I must be entirely out of your thoughts, like one not worth remembering. Then I came near going back, but I didn’t have the nerve to face you all after these years of hiding away; but for all, I am determined to write, even if it is only my name, and send it to you. I have just returned from Alaska, where I have been for three years. Last winter in the Klondike country a young man who was a partner with me, died, and I very dutifully looked up his affairs and wrote to his mother. I read all his mother’s letters to him. They were hard on me but they did me a world of good, and I have been thinking of my mother ever since. When I returned here I saw Harry Harper and knew him instantly, but he didn’t recognize me. I made myself known to him. He is in the middle of a successful career. He told me of my brother James’ death, and I decided to write.
This sad news was no surprise to me, for somehow, I have had the impression or presentiment, since last winter, that poor Jim was no more; but then you might have all died inside of fifteen years, and taken your time, too. Sometimes I take a notion to burn this letter and start home by the next train, but I am too thin skinned to face you after all these years of silence. I have not got the front or nerve.
I am doing nothing here; just trying to get information on the best mining districts in the West to go to. I have prospected in many of them; but winter is coming on and most places in the mountains will soon be snowed in, and little can be done until next spring. A man in the saw mill business wants me to stay here and locate and sell him some timber land on Puget Sound, but he does not offer me enough for my right. I am thinking very strongly of going into Spokane, Washington, which is in the centre of a large mining country and agriculture, too, and try to settle down and grow up with the country. I have been there before and like it very well, but above all I would like to make a trip home to see you all again.
Harper may go back yet for the winter and I may be able to brace up and go too, as I am free footed with nothing to hold me. This is a great thriving country on this Pacific coast, but the climate does not agree with me and I am always careful of my health, for without that all we get is worth nothing without good health. I am in good health in every way.
I have been in Australia and South America and all over the West in the mining countries, and I feel that it is all folly running up and down the earth, although it is nature. I am a traveler by nature and it seems as if I can’t stop anywhere very long. I believe I could hold it down in most any country for I am careful and steady, with no bad habits as drinking or gambling. Sometimes I think I am too tame to a fault, but we are all getting old, even I am quite bald and I am in my 35th year and single. Mother must be 65 and father must be about 62. It is appalling to think what fifteen years will do and it only seems like last week to me for I was young, and strong, and very healthy, and feel that way yet.
Oscar Harper is in a camp that I used to have claims which I sold when I went to Alaska; and he has lately been married, so they say, and the woman who he married I know well. I have written a fair sized letter after I got started but it is hard work to start. I wish it was as easy a job to go back and see you all. I’d do it in a minute but I’ll wait to see if you think enough of me even to write to me after I have neglected you so long.
Frank E. Israel.
He returned home a few months later and spent the winter with his parents. Their bond kept him in Lykens. He opened a successful hotel, married, and had a son, Frank, Jr.
Israel continued his travels and spent time between Florida and Pennsylvania, before eventually resettling in Spokane, Washington, where he died on February 27, 1920.
His letter from October 1900 endures as an artifact from a time of adventure at the dawning of a new century.
Featured Image: Klondiker washing clothes with bucket and washboard in front of tent, Dawson, Yukon Territory, ca. 1898. (University of Washington)