Clayson, William H.

1868-1950 | Merchant, City Councilman, and Mayor of Anchorage (1927-1928)

William H. “Will" Clayson was born on June 24, 1868 in Port Gamble, Kitsap County, Washington Territory, to English immigrant parents, Edward and Anna Quinton Clayson. His father was an English seaman who had jumped ship in 1864 and who brought his family to Washington Territory three years later, where they first settled in a logging camp near Seabeck. He attempted to support his family as a lumber merchant, hotel manager, newspaper editor, and farmer.[1]

Clayson’s family settled in a logging camp near Seabeck, Washington Territory, when he was a small child. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, where he attended school. He went to college at Pacific University at Forest Grove, Oregon, and then completed one year of medical school. By 1892, he was working as a clerk for A.J. Praeger & Sons in Portland, Oregon.[2]

Business Career in Alaska

After confirmation of the discovery of gold in the Klondike reached the West Coast in mid-July 1897, it touched off a euphoric excitement not seen since the California gold rush. [3] Clayson’s younger brother, Frederick “Fred” Hughes Clayson, left Portland for Skagway, Alaska, and William followed in September, bringing a “huge” cargo of merchandise, particularly shoes; he helped his brother open an outfitting store, F.W. Clayson and Company, in Skagway.[4] Their mother came in October, and two sisters in December. A third sister, Esther Pohl (later Lovejoy), arrived in 1898.[5] By the fall of 1899, Fred Clayson’s business had been especially profitable, as he had saved about $40,000, enough to make him a millionaire by present-day standards.[6]

In the early winter of 1899, Clayson’s brother, Frederick, went inland to Dawson, Yukon Territory, to buy gold. On his return trip (he was riding a bicycle over the snowy trails) from Dawson to Skagway, he and two acquaintances were going to visit friends for Christmas Day dinner when they were “bushwhacked,” or ambushed by surprise by men lying in wait to kill them for the purpose of robbery. The three men were attacked by a bad character, George O’Brien, and his partner, Thomas Graves, about whom little is known, on the trail near Minto. O’Brien and Graves shot all three men, dragged their bodies to the Yukon River, cut a hole through the ice, and stuffed them in, after rifling the bodies for any articles of value.[7] The Clayson family hired a private detective who worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to locate the bodies and then to doggedly track down the killers, one of whom—George O’Brien--was located, tried, and executed. The murders were widely reported and were among the more sensational crimes that occurred during the Klondike gold rush era.[8]

Clayson opened a clothing store (“Clayson the Clothier”) in Seward in September 1905 but left in 1909 to start a store in Cordova. While he was in Seward in August 1907 he prospected for copper above Sunny Bay with several other men; this prospect became known as the Featherbed Group. In September 1907, with E. Finch Pittman, one of the men he had prospected with the month before, he located ore near the north end of Fox Island, although little was done on either of these prospects.[9]

By 1910, Clayson was a merchant living in Cordova with his wife Cecilia and five-year-old son William Clayson, Jr.[10] He had a clothing business in Cordova[11] and also maintained F.W. Clayson and Company, the store in Skagway. By 1923-1924, he was operating a men’s furnishings store in Anchorage. He was an initial investor in Anchorage Air Transport, Inc., which was founded on December 29, 1926, and served on its board of directors.[12]

In early April 1925, Clayson was elected to the Anchorage City Council, but was not sworn in until May 20, 1925. Clayson served on several standing committees: Finance; Police and Jails; and Streets, Alleys and Buildings. After the April 1926 city election he remained on the Police and Jails Committee and on the Streets, Alleys and Buildings Committee, and was appointed to Fire Department Committee rather than the Finance Committee. He also served on two special committees to consider parks and beautification and to discuss acquiring the Alaska Railroad’s Ocean Dock on the Anchorage waterfront.[13]

Mayor of Anchorage (1927-1928)

On April 5, 1927 William Clayson was elected mayor of Anchorage in a close race for a one-year term, receiving 319 votes to the 278 of his opponent, W. B. Dean.  The following day, Anchorage Daily Times reported that voters had displayed a “keen interest” in the race, with 699 votes cast by the 705 voters who had registered for the election.[14]

During Clayson’s term as mayor, he sought to improve water and sewer lines, streets, and sidewalks. Several members of the city council expressed interest in obtaining legal title to 225 empty city lots owned by the federal government and controlled by the Alaska Railroad. They hoped to sell the lots to increase the tax base and also to broaden levies for sewer and water lines.[15] During his term, improvements were completed on the city’s docks.[16] .

During Clayson’s term as mayor, the most controversial and divisive issue was the control of the city’s electrical and telephone systems, which were owned by the Alaska Railroad. Since the incorporation of the City of Anchorage in 1920, electrical power had been purchased from the Alaska Railroad. The Anchorage Light and Power Company under Frank Ivan Reed proposed building a hydroelectric power plant using water from Eklutna Lake and River, and wanted a franchise for providing power to Anchorage, as well as providing power to the Alaska Railroad. By the time William Clayson was elected mayor in 1927, voters had turned down Reed’s proposal twice, in August 1924 and in April 1925, the second time decisively. Several of the city council members elected in 1925 had campaigned as anti-franchise candidates. The Eklutna proposal did not die, however. On June 2, 1926, Chamber of Commerce members lobbied the city council to bond Anchorage for $350,000 to pay for the project. The first reading of Ordinance 68, on June 15, 1927, essentially granted a franchise to the Anchorage Light and Power Company’s project. A public information meeting was held on June 20, 1927, with grocer and city council member U. G. Crocker being the only person against the project. The Alaska Railroad supported the Eklutna project, as did Henry Emard, owner of a cannery located on the Anchorage docks and a major employer. On July 18, 1927 the city council unanimously approved Ordinance 68, giving municipal approval for the Eklutna power project.[17]


Clayson decided not to run for a second one-year term in April 1928. Grant Reed was elected mayor on April 3, 1928 and was sworn into office on April 9, 1928. William Clayson left Anchorage to move to Portland in 1929, where he worked as a dry goods merchant.[18] He returned to Alaska every year until 1942 to look over his business interests in Anchorage and Cordova.

William Clayson died on September 28, 1950. Clayson was married twice. His first wife was Cecilia and his second wife was named Mabel. He had two sons, William Clayson, Jr. and Edward. 


[1] Biography, “Dr. Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy,” Changing the Face of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, (accessed July 21, 2016).

[2] .“Ex-Mayor of Anchorage Dies at Portland Home,” The Oregonian, September 30, 1950, 7, in U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600-Current [database on-line], (accessed September 27, 2014); and William Clayson, Oregon Death Index, 1898-2008 [database on-line], (accessed September 19, 2014).

[3] Paula Mitchell Marks, Precious Dust: The American Gold Rush Era: 1848-1900 (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994), 47.

[4] In 1936, while visiting Anchorage for business reasons, William Clayson was interviewed about Skagway and about Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, a confidence man who ran the criminal underworld in Skagway where he and his crooks fleeced thousands during the Klondike gold rush.   Clayson said that “he knew Soapy during the height of his reign,” and that when Soapy was killed, “he [Clayson] was only a short distance away when the shooting occurred.” Clayson maintained that Frank Reed had not killed Soapy Smith; that Smith had been shot by Jesse M. Murphy, who was with Reed. “Alleges Famous Soapy Smith Posed as an Enemy of Gamblers When They Were Henchmen,” Nome Daily Nugget, November 19, 1936, 3. See also, “Jefferson Randolph (Soapy) Smith,” in Dan L. Tharp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, Volume III, P-Z (Glendale, CA: A.H. Clark Company, 1988; reprint ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 1331.

[5] Biography, “Dr. Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy,” Changing the Face of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, (accessed July 21, 2016).

[6] “Fred Clayson, the Christmas Day Murders 1899, and Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland,” Kimberly Jensen’s Blog: A Blog by Kimberly Jensen, Professor of History and Gender Studies at Western Oregon University, with a Focus on my Research and Writing Projects, August 2010, .

[7] Ken S. Coates and William R. Morrison, Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon Territory (Montreal and Kingston: Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 152-154. Coates and Morrison mention that an entire book has been written about the O’Brien case: Murray J. Malcolm’s Murder in the Yukon: The Case Against George O’Brien (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982).

[8] According to Ken Coates and William Morrison, the police never found any trace of Graves and they concluded that O’Brien had killed him to keep him quiet. See, Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon Territory, 153.

[9] Mary J. Berry, Seward, Alaska: A History of the Gateway City, Part I: Prehistory to 1914 (Anchorage: M.J. Berry, 1986), 22-23.

[10] William Clayson, 1910 U.S. Census, Cordova, Third Division, Alaska Territory, 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line], (accessed September 19, 2014).

[11] David A. Hales, Margaret N. Heath, and Gretchen L. Lake, An Index to Dawson City, Yukon Territory and Alaska Directory and Gazetteer, Alaska-Yukon Directory and Gazetteer, and Polk’s Alaska-Yukon Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1901-1912, Volume II: C-E (Fairbanks: Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1995), 73.

[12] Robert W. Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume I: 1897-1928 (Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, 1990), 407.

[13] Minutes, May 5, 1926, Anchorage City Council Minutes, Volumes I-II, November 26, 1920-May 27, 1933 [microfilm edition], Alaska Collection, Z.J. Loussac Library, Anchorage Public Library; Minutes, December 17, 1926 and January 8, 1927.

[14] “Will Clayson Chosen Mayor in Tight Race,” Anchorage Daily Times, April 6, 1927, 8.

[15] Minutes, August 5, 1925, February 4, 1927, and October 19, 1927.

[16] Minutes, May 4, 1927 and May 18, 1927.

[17] Minutes, June 2, 1926, and June 15 and July 18, 1927.

[18] See, “Carlson High Man in Council Race; Reed Elected Mayor by Big Margin; Morrison-Van Vooris Almost Tied,” Anchorage Daily Times, April 4, 1928, 1; and “Ex-Mayor of Anchorage Dies at Portland Home,” The Oregonian, September 30, 1950, 7.


No entry was included for William H. Clayson in John Bagoy’s Legends & Legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publication Consultants, 2001). By Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, September 2014.

Preferred citation: Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, “Clayson, William H.,” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940,

Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501 or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website,