The Scottish Soccer Pioneer Who Joined the Alaskan Gold Rush

Alf Doig was a football trailblazer in Scotland, the US, and Canada, but his greatest adventure was a perilous journey in search of gold

Paul Brown
Jul 28, 2020 · 8 min read

Ned Doig went to Blackburn in 1889 and came back with a bag full of gold. The Arbroath and Scotland goalkeeper had agreed to play for Blackburn Rovers against Notts County for the handsome sum of £25. Blackburn won the match 9–0, and Ned had “very little to do.” It was a nice afternoon’s work for an amateur player who usually earned his crust as an apprentice baker. Scottish Ned was unfamiliar with English banknotes and, wary of being ripped off, insisted on being paid in gold sovereigns.

Ned would soon become much more familiar with English banknotes of every denomination. He joined Sunderland in 1890, for £3 a week and a £75 signing-on fee, and became one of the most successful and highly-paid soccer players of the era. He was part of an exodus of “Scotch Professors” who left the amateur game in Scotland to play professionally in England. Ned won the league championship four times with Sunderland. He signed for Liverpool, for £150, and played until 1908, when he was 41. By then, English soccer had implemented a maximum wage cap, and moving to England was no longer such a lucrative career path.

In 1909, another Arbroath player — also named Doig, although not a direct relation — left to find his fortune. Alf Doig was a center-forward, and a good player, if not a great one. While Ned Doig is remembered as Sunderland’s greatest-ever player and one of the most successful of all Scottish exports, Alf Doig is almost entirely forgotten. Yet Alf was a soccer trailblazer and a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Alf didn’t go to Blackburn for a bag of sovereigns. Instead, he crossed the Atlantic, loaded a pickaxe, a shovel, and a steel pan onto a packhorse, and set off into the snow-covered wilderness to join the Alaskan gold rush.

Alf was born in Forfar on 17 July 1885. He made his debut for Arbroath in 1906, aged 21, and got off to an impressive start. Although not particularly big for an Edwardian center-forward, at 5 feet 6 inches and 154 pounds, he was regarded as a neat finisher who showed “much promise.” “Doig must be watched,” remarked the Arbroath Herald, after a match that November. “The manner in which he drew and tricked the half and back opposite to him was that of an experienced player and stamped him as a player with head. He is a player who is likely to go a long way.” Two weeks later, the club announced that he had signed as a professional — although “semi-professional” would be more accurate. Alf earned his living as a plumber.

At the time, Arbroath’s “Red Lichties” — then more commonly known as “the Maroons” — played in Scotland’s Northern League, alongside the likes of St Johnstone, Dunfermline, East Fife, and Forfar. In January 1907, they took famous top-division side Queen’s Park to a replay in the first round of the Scottish Cup, only to be beaten 4–0 at Hampden Park. Then, in April, they reached the final of the Forfarshire Cup against Dundee. Despite having scored in a league match against Montrose in the previous week, Alf was considered to have “not shown his best form recently.” He was dropped for the final, which Arbroath won 1–0.

Alf re-signed for the following season, but his time at Arbroath was coming to an end. He would not get the opportunity to move to England, but he did have the chance to go further afield and start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. Several Arbroath players had already emigrated “across the herring pond,” including Jim Petrie, a “wonderful” half-back, who sailed to Canada in the summer of 1907. (“Big Loss to Maroons” was the headline in the Dundee Evening Telegraph. Petrie continued to play soccer, for the Scots-rooted Calgary Caledonians, and won the Canadian championship in his first season.)

Alf sailed to the US in December 1908, arriving in Boston, then heading for the Pacific Northwest, to Seattle, Washington. He worked as a plumber in Seattle’s shipyards, and by 1911 was a naturalized US citizen. And he resumed playing soccer, for Seattle United in the Northwest Soccer League. The Northwest League was an affiliate of the newly-founded United States Football Association and was considered noteworthy by the annual Spalding’s Soccer Guide for the “high-class article of football played by the teams.”

Alf’s Seattle United was regarded as the strongest team in the league, enjoying unbeaten runs against rival clubs Carbonado and Black Diamond — both of which were made up of players from the local mining community. Alf played inside-left for Seattle, and also for the representative All Northwest Soccer Team.

Americans had only recently started calling football “soccer” — a slang word that originated at Oxford University and was popularized by the New York Times in the early 1900s to distinguish association football from its US relative. But the association game had been played professionally in the US since the 1890s. It remained popular, despite the rise of baseball and US football, particularly in the working-class immigrant communities on the east and west coasts.

Alf also played soccer in Canada, for the Vancouver Island Thistles, during several months living north of the border in Victoria, British Columbia. Scottish ex-pats had formed the Thistles in 1912. A team photo published in the Daily Colonist newspaper in February 1913 showed Alf wearing the club’s blue jersey with a thistle sewn on the breast. He moved back to Seattle that September and went back to Seattle United. But he would shortly be on the move again, to undertake his greatest adventure.

Alf set off for Alaska at the beginning of April 1914. Players and officials, plus a party of “fans and fanettes,” gathered at the home of team manager Jim Ross to see him off. Alf, described as “the great inside-left of the United,” was presented with an inscribed watch fob by the team’s mascot, Miss Ethel Kotelman. His departure was reported in newspapers in Seattle and back in Arbroath. “Old Maroon for Gold Fields,” announced the Arbroath Herald, describing Alf’s Alaskan expedition as “An Adventurous Journey.”

His exact destination wasn’t reported, but it was most likely Chisana (or Shushanna), a log cabin settlement around 40 miles west of the border between Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory. Gold was found at Chisana in 1913, in a strike that was proclaimed as the richest since the Klondike of the 1890s. Alf might have read about Chisana in the Seattle Star, which, in January 1914, called it “the new Alaskan El Dorado,” and predicted that the coming spring thaw would trigger “the greatest stampede in the history of gold mining.” The “Chisana Stampede,” as it became known, attracted up to ten thousand prospectors. It was the last North American gold rush.

Alf was accompanied by another Scottish footballer, Joe Gray, a native of Dundee who played for Northwest League team the Celtics. Newspapers reported that the men had hired Native American guides to help them find their way. Chisana’s gold fields were regarded as the most inaccessible in Alaska. The likely route — a journey of more than 1,200 miles — was via Canada, through British Columbia, and across the Yukon, traveling by riverboat and steam train, then on foot along the perilous Kluane Trail.

It would be cold and dangerous. Even in spring, temperatures would fall below zero after sunset. The spring thaw could trigger avalanches along the mountain passes. Bears (grizzly, black, and polar), wolves, and cougars roamed the Alaskan wilderness. But the most prominent threats were starvation and illness. Many prospectors failed to bring sufficient supplies and starved to death along the way. Hundreds died of typhoid, pneumonia, or tuberculosis. Skeletons of men and their pack animals littered the gold field trails.

Alf did survive the journey and is thought to have arrived at the beginning of May 1914. By this time, Chisana had become “the largest log cabin town in the world.” Prospectors and those who made their living from them had built 450 cabins in the wilderness, including hotels, bars, and general supply stores. It was a wild and lawless place, and tales of armed robberies and knife murders spilled out of local newspapers.

“Stampeders” had staked claims on every creek within a 50-mile radius. They set out each morning with pack horses or dog sleds and worked the creeks with their pans, sieving through gravel and sand, looking for tiny nuggets. Teams of prospectors built dams and diverted creek water through wooden troughs designed to sluice for gold.

Some prospectors got lucky. More than $11,500 worth of gold was found at Chisana — equivalent to around $1.3m worth today. But Alf was too late to claim his share. Chisana’s gold fields were not as rich as had been reported. The finds dried up and the prospectors drifted away. By September, there were only 200 men left at Chisana. Within a few years, it was a ghost town of abandoned cabins. By then, Alf was back in Seattle without his gold. Claim records suggest he never found a single ounce.

Alf, now in his 30s, went back to work as a plumber. He married a Minnesota girl, Edith, and they had three children. He no longer played soccer. In 1918, he registered for the draft for the Great War, although he never saw active service. He did have one more adventure left in him. In 1920, the Californian city of Inglewood was flattened by a devastating earthquake. Tens of thousands of people traveled to see the damage, and many of them stayed as Inglewood rose from the debris to become the fastest-growing city in the US. Alf and his family were among the newcomers. Alf worked as a plumber in the construction industry as Inglewood was rebuilt.

He lived out the rest of his long life in California — the Golden State. His wife, Edith, died on 5 August 1973. Alf died six days later, on 11 August, aged 88. Five thousand miles away, back in Arbroath, the Red Lichties were enjoying a spell in the Scottish top flight. In Seattle that same year, a North American Soccer League expansion saw the formation of a new club — the original Seattle Sounders. And in British Columbia, the original Vancouver Whitecaps club was formed. All three of Alf’s former footballing homes were enjoying a soccer revival.

Alf played no direct part in those revivals but his story remains a small, colorful part of the patchwork of the history of soccer in Scotland, the US, and Canada. Back when Alf made his debut for Arbroath, the Arbroath Herald remarked that he was a player who was likely to go a long way. He may not have found the fame or the fortune of his namesake Ned, but few soccer players of his era ever went as far as Alf Doig. ⬧

A version of this story appeared in Nutmeg: The Scottish Football Periodical.

Paul Brown is the author of The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp.

Soccer Stories

Tales from football history

Paul Brown

Written by

Writes about sports, history, true adventure. The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Longreads, etc. www.stuffbypaulbrown.com

Soccer Stories

Tales from football history

Paul Brown

Written by

Writes about sports, history, true adventure. The Guardian, FourFourTwo, Longreads, etc. www.stuffbypaulbrown.com

Soccer Stories

Tales from football history

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store