Zarembo Island mineral water had a short life a century ago

It began with a bottle, not in the usual way as a tragedy, but a mystery. Tinted blue and clearly old, the heavy glass bottle is imperfect with numerous bubbles frozen forever in the medium.

It had an embossed brand on its body: Zarembo Springs Mineral Co., Seattle. After an impulse purchase, I still wondered, what was its story? Here is the answer.

Zarembo Island is west, southwest of Wrangell. Its Tlingít name is Shtax-Noow, and before the arrival of settlers, the area Shtax héen wáan, or Stikine people, preserved Zarembo as a hunting sanctuary. In a 1946 report on Tlingit and Haida land rights and usage, Walter Goldschmidt and Theodore Haas quote Tlingit elder Willis Hoagland, "Zarembo Island belonged to the whole of the Wrangell people. No special clan owned that."

The Zarembo name is a relic of the Russian period of Alaska history. Dionysius Zarembo, captain of the Russian-American Co. ship Chichagof, surveyed the area in 1834 and 1838. When British explorer George Vancouver passed through in 1793, he called it Duke of York Island.

As settlers entered the area, they used the island for deer hunting, logging and as a sort of nearby vacation destination. Early 20th-century Alaska sources are rife with tales of multi-day trips packed with picnics, food and even some mild frolicking.

From a 1909 Wrangell Sentinel article: "It took half a dozen boys, more or less, 14 guns, the schooner Plymouth Rock and one Scripps motor, etc., to capture one poor little motherless deer on its way home from Sunday School last Sunday on Zarembo Island. The story the boys tell of the incidents of the trip would fill a Sunday edition of the Seattle Times, and their description of the midnight fishing for sandwiches would be a seller anywhere."

And sometimes, if a local was feeling somewhat under the weather, they might partake of the island's renowned mineral waters. From a 1909 Sentinel article: "Phil Haught and Leo McCormack left for Zarembo Island Monday morning, there to rest for a few days and fill up on the fine mineral water for which the island is so famous."

Or, from a different 1909 article: "The first thing upon arrival was a visit to the spring house where for the first time we tasted the wonderful Zarembo mineral water, rightly named 'The Sparks of Life.'"

The Zarembo Island spring is conveniently located on the shore by St. John Harbor, on the island's northwest side. The water possesses a relatively high mineral content, primarily calcium, carbonate and sodium, in addition to some sulfur and iron. Covered at high tide, the water bubbles from the spring's release.

As is the way with much of modern Alaska history, someone finally looked at the spring and thought, "I could make some money off that." The Zarembo Mineral Springs Co., based in Seattle, was incorporated on Nov. 4, 1904. Frank Wadsworth, one of the few fortune hunters to escape the Klondike gold rush with an actual fortune, was the founder and president. While sales likely began earlier, the product was formally introduced to the public at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition that ran from June to October 1905 in Portland.

To prevent contamination from salt water, the bottling company built a small structure over a 10-foot-high concrete box surrounding the spring. A wooden wharf connected the spring building to the dock. The company bought a small launch, also named the Zarembo, to ferry the water from Alaska to Seattle, where the bottling was done at a building owned by Wadsworth.

From the few contemporary photographs of Zarembo Mineral Springs Co. products, it appears that they produced several types of bottles. The most unique was a torpedo- shaped Hamilton bottle with rounded bottoms that could only be stored on its side. These Hamilton bottles would have been corked instead of metal-capped. Cork stoppers dry out over time, which, for carbonated drinks, would allow air to escape and the bubbly drink to go flat. William Hamilton designed the first torpedo bottle for carbonated beverages in 1814.

In Seattle, a town built in part upon the mining of prospectors, fortune hunters, traders and tourists to and from Alaska, the clean, refreshing water of Zarembo Island was one more way to consume the wealth of the farther north.

In particular, the Zarembo company built a brand based upon the lasting cachet of Alaska, in this case, that any water from there would be the purest and best exemplar of its type. A postcard from this era, titled The Morning After, shows a man in the throes of a hangover seeking a cure from a mineral water cooler labeled "Alaska."

The Zarembo Mineral Springs Co. made this association, of intrinsic Alaska quality and their own product, explicit in their advertising. A May 1906 Pacific Monthly magazine advertisement declared: "Alaska produces HEALTH as well as WEALTH." The July edition of that magazine included a different advertisement that targeted female consumers. A woman who tried their product, "Blooms with new health at every sip of pure Zarembo water."

Faith in the curative powers of mineral springs is an ancient human belief. And the practice of bottling spring water is centuries old. The first record of bottled mineral water is from 1622, at the Holy Well outside Malvern Wells, England. Bottled mineral water soon became an internationally traded product as advocates chased one outlandish medicinal claim after another.

In 1767, the first American commercial water bottler opened in 1767 Boston. If anything, it is surprising that it took until 1904 for an Alaska-sourced mineral water company to enter the crowded field.

There are a few signs of success. A 1908 note in the Douglas Island News claimed Zarembo Mineral Water sales were "five times greater than a year ago." There was an impressive display at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, where judges awarded the company a gold medal for their mineral water.

And in August 1909, the mineral water was featured during Made in Washington Day, a celebration of products from the state of Washington. At least the bottles were from Washington; the water's Alaska origins were apparently downplayed when it suited company interests.

However, there are far more signs of a product struggling to survive, with the flavor being the foremost. Per the Aug. 5, 1915, Wrangell Sentinel: "We would judge from the taste that the principal ingredients are soda, iron and sulphur, and being heavily charged with gas bubbles and sparkles when first taken from the spring, like freshly opened champagne. The first taste gives one the impression that the flavor might be improved by the addition of other ingredients, possibly rotten eggs, but after a few drinks and the effect is partially realized you forget the first uncomfortable taste, a feeling of rejuvenation comes over you and almost at once you feel certain that you are on the road to being restored to a normal and healthy condition."

The iron content was also reportedly low enough to escape taste but high enough to stain bottles.

And the Zarembo company entered a market already rich in competitors, each with its own medicinal claims and romantic origins, clogged Seattle grocery store and pharmacy shelves.

The company struggled financially throughout its brief existence. A significant early investor, H. Stuart Brinley, sold his interest months before the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Wadsworth, the prime mover of the entire enterprise, died suddenly in 1906 at only 36 years old. In 1909, a relatively lavish display at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition might have been a last-ditch effort to save the company.

Outside Seattle, the company and product received almost no notice. Even in Wrangell, the bottler received only passing mentions. From 1906 to 1908, the product went nearly two years without mention in the Sentinel.

In the aftermath of Wadsworth's death, the company may have temporarily ceased operations. In January 1910, Wadsworth's widow sued for a divorce from her second husband, accusing him of "gross cruelty" and fraud. In particular, she claimed he had stolen a significant amount of property from her former husband's estate, primarily from the Zarembo Mineral Springs Co. holdings.

By the time of her lawsuit, the company was already bankrupt. On Jan. 25, 1910, all remaining company assets were auctioned off. And, to offer a sense of finality, a fire gutted the Zarembo bottling facility on Dec. 2, 1912 - it was arson.

The source facility, such as it was, on Zarembo Island quickly fell into ruins. By 1915, the concrete retaining wall had failed, allowing salt water in again.

In all, the Zarembo Springs Mineral Co. came and went with barely a dent in the historical record, some advertisements, too few pictures, and some scattered bottles like mine. Perhaps the bottler was late to market, underfinanced or kneecapped by the sudden death of its founder. There is too little evidence to speculate further and no lessons to be learned.

Few prospered from the company's brief existence, most notably a scoundrel second husband and the occasional eBay merchant preying upon innocent historians.

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Alaska. He loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian


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