Klondike Gold Rush Museum

Klondike Gold Rush Museum

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The Klondike Gold Rush Museum explores the history of Seattle as it relates to this 19th century gold rush.

History of the Klondike Gold Rush Museum

In the late 1890s – a time of great economic depression – gold was discovered in the Yukon gold fields and along the Klondike river in large quantities. In the summer of 1897, prospectors returned from their adventures with over $1.5 million of gold – the equivalent of over $1 billion today. The press exploded, and people from all over America flocked to the Klondike in what has been described as a stampede.

This was the Klondike Gold Rush – although rush is an interesting term to use given how long it took most people to make it to the area. Overland travellers were forced to bring a year’s worth of food with them by the Canadian authorities in order to ensure their survival in what could be harsh conditions. Cold winters made parts of the route almost impassable.

Very few of the 30,000-40,000 people who arrived during the Gold Rush ever made any money: it’s thought that less than 10% of these ever struck gold, and of them, only a handful became very wealthy from it. Nonetheless, the Gold Rush had a major impact on the area, including the development of of Dawson City. It was short-lived as a phenomenon: by 1898, it had become apparent that many were struggling to make a living in the area.

The Klondike Gold Rush Museum today

The museum is part of the wider Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. From the sense of optimism and adventure inspired by the gold rush to the hardship and adversity experienced by those wishing to take advantage of it, the Klondike Gold Rush Museum looks at different aspects of this event, using 5 local historical characters to explore the boom or bust nature of gold rushes.

The Klondike Gold Rush Museum has a range of exhibits about this event and is a good starting point for learning about this historic event. There are also walking tours of the historic district. The museum is open daily, with hours varying seasonally. There’s plenty of good activities for children in particular – the museum is very family friendly.

Getting to the Klondike Gold Rush Museum

The site is on South Jackson Street, Seattle. The light rail station S Jackson St & Occidental Ave Walk is a couple of hundred metres away and King Street Station, which has local and intercity connections is 5 minutes walk away.

There is parking in central Seattle, but it’s relatively scarce. You’re best off getting a cab from elsewhere in the city or using public transport rather than driving.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is a national historical park operated by the National Park Service that seeks to commemorate the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. Though the gold fields that were the ultimate goal of the stampeders lay in the Yukon Territory, the park comprises staging areas for the trek there and the routes leading in its direction. There are four units, including three in Municipality of Skagway Borough, Alaska and a fourth in the Pioneer Square National Historic District in Seattle, Washington.

A fuller appreciation of the story of the Klondike Gold Rush requires exploration and discovery on both sides of the Canada–United States border. National historic sites in Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon, as well as in British Columbia, complete the story. In 1998, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park joined with Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site, and "The Thirty Mile" stretch of the Yukon River to create Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park, allowing for an integrated binational experience.


The indigenous peoples in north-west America had traded in copper nuggets prior to European expansion. Most of the tribes were aware that gold existed in the region, but the metal was not valued by them. [2] [3] [4] The Russians and the Hudson's Bay Company had both explored the Yukon in the first half of the 19th century, but ignored the rumours of gold in favour of fur trading, which offered more immediate profits. [2] [n 3]

In the second half of the 19th century, American prospectors began to spread into the area. [6] Making deals with the Native Tlingit and Tagish tribes, the early prospectors opened the important routes of Chilkoot and White Pass and reached the Yukon valley between 1870 and 1890. [7] Here, they encountered the Hän people, semi-nomadic hunters and fishermen who lived along the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. [8] The Hän did not appear to know about the extent of the gold deposits in the region. [n 4]

In 1883, Ed Schieffelin identified gold deposits along the Yukon River, and an expedition up the Fortymile River in 1886 discovered considerable amounts of it and founded Fortymile City. [9] [10] The same year gold had been found on the banks of the Klondike River, but in small amounts and with no claims being made. [5] By the late 1880s, several hundred miners were working their way along the Yukon valley, living in small mining camps and trading with the Hän. [11] [12] [13] On the Alaskan side of the border Circle City, a logtown, was established 1893 on the Yukon River. In three years it grew to become "the Paris of Alaska", with 1,200 inhabitants, saloons, opera houses, schools, and libraries. In 1896, it was so well known that a correspondent from the Chicago Daily Record came to visit. At the end of the year, it became a ghost town, when large gold deposits were found upstream on the Klondike. [14]

On August 16, 1896, an American prospector named George Carmack, his Tagish wife Kate Carmack (Shaaw Tláa), her brother Skookum Jim (Keish), and their nephew Dawson Charlie (K̲áa Goox̱) were travelling south of the Klondike River. [15] Following a suggestion from Robert Henderson, a Canadian prospector, they began looking for gold on Bonanza Creek, then called Rabbit Creek, one of the Klondike's tributaries. [16] It is not clear who discovered the gold: George Carmack or Skookum Jim, but the group agreed to let George Carmack appear as the official discoverer because they feared that authorities would not recognize an indigenous claimant. [17] [18] [n 5]

In any event, gold was present along the river in huge quantities. [20] Carmack measured out four claims, strips of ground that could later be legally mined by the owner, along the river these including two for himself—one as his normal claim, the second as a reward for having discovered the gold—and one each for Jim and Charlie. [21] The claims were registered the next day at the police post at the mouth of the Fortymile River and news spread rapidly from there to other mining camps in the Yukon River valley. [22]

By the end of August, all of Bonanza Creek had been claimed by miners. [23] A prospector then advanced up into one of the creeks feeding into Bonanza, later to be named Eldorado Creek. He discovered new sources of gold there, which would prove to be even richer than those on Bonanza. [24] Claims began to be sold between miners and speculators for considerable sums. [25] Just before Christmas, word of the gold reached Circle City. Despite the winter, many prospectors immediately left for the Klondike by dog-sled, eager to reach the region before the best claims were taken. [26] The outside world was still largely unaware of the news and although Canadian officials had managed to send a message to their superiors in Ottawa about the finds and influx of prospectors, the government did not give it much attention. [27] The winter prevented river traffic, and it was not until June 1897 that the first boats left the area, carrying the freshly mined gold and the full story of the discoveries. [28]

Prices in this article are given in US dollars throughout. Equivalent modern prices have been given in 2010 US dollars. The equivalent prices of modern goods and services have been calculated using the Consumer Price Index (1:27). Larger sums, for example, gold shipments, capital investment, or land prices, have been calculated using the GDP index (1:800). [29] [n 6]

In the resulting Klondike stampede, an estimated 100,000 people tried to reach the Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually did. [30] [n 7] It formed the height of the Klondike gold rush from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898.

It began on July 15, 1897, in San Francisco and was spurred further two days later in Seattle, when the first of the early prospectors returned from the Klondike, bringing with them large amounts of gold on the ships Excelsior and Portland. [35] The press reported that a total of $1,139,000 (equivalent to $1 billion at 2010 prices) had been brought in by these ships, although this proved to be an underestimate. [36] The migration of prospectors caught so much attention that it was joined by outfitters, writers and photographers. [37]

Various factors lay behind this sudden mass response. Economically, the news had reached the US at the height of a series of financial recessions and bank failures in the 1890s. The gold standard of the time tied paper money to the production of gold and shortages towards the end of the 19th century meant that gold dollars were rapidly increasing in value ahead of paper currencies and being hoarded. [38] This had contributed to the Panic of 1893 and Panic of 1896, which caused unemployment and financial uncertainty. [39] There was a huge, unresolved demand for gold across the developed world that the Klondike promised to fulfil and, for individuals, the region promised higher wages or financial security. [38] [39]

Psychologically, the Klondike, as historian Pierre Berton describes, was "just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be accessible." Furthermore, the Pacific ports closest to the gold strikes were desperate to encourage trade and travel to the region. [40] The mass journalism of the period promoted the event and the human interest stories that lay behind it. A worldwide publicity campaign engineered largely by Erastus Brainerd, a Seattle newspaperman, helped establish that city as the premier supply centre and the departure point for the gold fields. [41] [42]

The prospectors came from many nations, although an estimated majority of 60 to 80 percent were Americans or recent immigrants to America. [43] [44] [n 8] Most had no experience in the mining industry, being clerks or salesmen. [46] Mass resignations of staff to join the gold rush became notorious. [47] In Seattle, this included the mayor, twelve policemen, and a significant percentage of the city's streetcar drivers. [48]

Some stampeders were famous: John McGraw, the former governor of Washington, joined, together with the prominent lawyer and sportsman A. Balliot. Frederick Burnham, a well-known American scout and explorer, arrived from Africa, only to be called back to take part in the Second Boer War. [49] [50] Among those who documented the rush was the Swedish-born photographer Eric Hegg, who took some of the iconic pictures of Chilkoot Pass, and reporter Tappan Adney, who afterwards wrote a first-hand history of the stampede. [51] [n 9] Jack London, later a famous American writer, left to seek for gold but made his money during the rush mostly by working for prospectors. [53] [n 10]

Seattle and San Francisco competed fiercely for business during the rush, with Seattle winning the larger share of trade. [54] Indeed, one of the first to join the gold rush was William D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle, who resigned and formed a company to transport prospectors to the Klondike. [41] The publicity around the gold rush led to a flurry of branded goods being put onto the market. Clothing, equipment, food, and medicines were all sold as "Klondike" goods, allegedly designed for the northwest. [55] [n 11] Guidebooks were published, giving advice about routes, equipment, mining, and capital necessary for the enterprise. [58] [59] The newspapers of the time termed this phenomenon "Klondicitis". [55]

Klondikers buying miner's licenses at the Custom House in Victoria, BC, on February 12, 1898

The S/S Excelsior leaves San Francisco on July 28, 1897, for the Klondike. [n 12]

SS Islander leaving Vancouver, bound for Skagway, 1897

The Klondike could be reached only by the Yukon River, either upstream from its delta, downstream from its head, or from somewhere in the middle through its tributaries. River boats could navigate the Yukon in the summer from the delta until a point called Whitehorse, above the Klondike. Travel, in general, was made difficult by both geography and climate. The region was mountainous, the rivers winding and sometimes impassable the short summers could be hot, while from October to June, during the long winters, temperatures could drop below −50 °C (−58 °F). [61] [62] [n 13]

Aids for the travellers to carry their supplies varied some had brought dogs, horses, mules, or oxen, whereas others had to rely on carrying their equipment on their backs or on sleds pulled by hand. [65] Shortly after the stampede began in 1897, the Canadian authorities had introduced rules requiring anyone entering Yukon Territory to bring with them a year's supply of food typically this weighed around 1,150 pounds (520 kg). [66] By the time camping equipment, tools and other essentials were included, a typical traveller was transporting as much as a ton in weight. [66] Unsurprisingly, the price of draft animals soared at Dyea, even poor quality horses could sell for as much as $700 ($19,000), or be rented out for $40 ($1,100) a day. [67] [n 14]

From Seattle or San Francisco, prospectors could travel by sea up the coast to the ports of Alaska. [69] The route following the coast is now referred to as the Inside Passage. It led to the ports of Dyea and Skagway plus ports of nearby trails. The sudden increase in demand encouraged a range of vessels to be pressed into service including old paddle wheelers, fishing boats, barges, and coal ships still full of coal dust. All were overloaded and many sank. [70]

All water routes Edit

It was possible to sail all the way to the Klondike, first from Seattle across the northern Pacific to the Alaskan coast. From St. Michael, at the Yukon River delta, a river boat could then take the prospectors the rest of the way up the river to Dawson, often guided by one of the Native Koyukon people who lived near St. Michael. [71] [72] Although this all-water route, also called "the rich man's route", was expensive and long – 4,700 miles (7,600 km) in total – it had the attraction of speed and avoiding overland travel. [71] At the beginning of the stampede a ticket could be bought for $150 ($4,050) while during the winter 1897–98 the fare settled at $1,000 ($27,000). [73] [n 15]

In 1897, some 1,800 travellers attempted this route but the vast majority were caught along the river when the region iced over in October. [71] Only 43 reached the Klondike before winter and of those 35 had to return, having thrown away their equipment en route to reach their destination in time. [71] The remainder mostly found themselves stranded in isolated camps and settlements along the ice-covered river often in desperate circumstances. [75] [n 16]

Dyea/Skagway routes Edit

Most of the prospectors landed at the southeast Alaskan towns of Dyea and Skagway, both located at the head of the natural Lynn Canal at the end of the Inside Passage. From there, they needed to travel over the mountain ranges into Canada's Yukon Territory, and then down the river network to the Klondike. [77] Along the trails, tent camps sprung up at places where prospectors had to stop to eat or sleep or at obstacles such as the icy lakes at the head of the Yukon. [78] [79] At the start of the rush, a ticket from Seattle to the port of Dyea cost $40 ($1,100) for a cabin. Premiums of $100 ($2,700), however, were soon paid and the steamship companies hesitated to post their rates in advance since they could increase on a daily basis. [80]

White Pass trail Edit

Those who landed at Skagway made their way over the White Pass before cutting across to Bennett Lake. [81] Although the trail began gently, it progressed over several mountains with paths as narrow as 2 feet (0.61 m) and in wider parts covered with boulders and sharp rocks. [82] Under these conditions horses died in huge numbers, giving the route the informal name of Dead Horse Trail. [77] [n 17] The volumes of travellers and the wet weather made the trail impassable and, by late 1897, it was closed until further notice, leaving around 5,000 stranded in Skagway. [82]

An alternative toll road suitable for wagons was eventually constructed and this, combined with colder weather that froze the muddy ground, allowed the White Pass to reopen, and prospectors began to make their way into Canada. [82] Moving supplies and equipment over the pass had to be done in stages. Most divided their belongings into 65 pounds (29 kg) packages that could be carried on a man's back, or heavier loads that could be pulled by hand on a sled. [65] Ferrying packages forwards and walking back for more, a prospector would need about thirty round trips, a distance of at least 2,500 miles (4,000 km), before they had moved all of their supplies to the end of the trail. Even using a heavy sled, a strong man would be covering 1,000 miles (1,600 km) and need around 90 days to reach Lake Bennett. [84]

Chilkoot trail Edit

Those who landed at Dyea, Skagway's neighbour town, travelled the Chilkoot Trail and crossed its pass to reach Lake Lindeman, which fed into Lake Bennett at the head of the Yukon River. [86] The Chilkoot Pass was higher than the White Pass, but more used it: around 22,000 during the gold rush. [87] The trail passed up through camps until it reached a flat ledge, just before the main ascent, which was too steep for animals. [88] [n 19] This location was known as the Scales, and was where goods were weighed before travellers officially entered Canada. The cold, the steepness and the weight of equipment made the climb extremely arduous and it could take a day to get to the top of the 1,000 feet (300 m) high slope. [90]

As on the White Pass trail, supplies needed to be broken down into smaller packages and carried in relay. [91] Packers, prepared to carry supplies for cash, were available along the route but would charge up to $1 ($27) per lb (0.45 kg) on the later stages many of these packers were natives: Tlingits or, less commonly, Tagish. [88] [92] [93] Avalanches were common in the mountains and, on April 3, 1898, one claimed the lives of more than 60 people travelling over Chilkoot Pass. [94] [n 20]

Entrepreneurs began to provide solutions as the winter progressed. Steps were cut into the ice at the Chilkoot Pass which could be used for a daily fee, this 1,500 step staircase becoming known as the "Golden Steps". [96] By December 1897, Archie Burns built a tramway up the final parts of the Chilkoot Pass. A horse at the bottom turned a wheel, which pulled a rope running to the top and back freight was loaded on sledges pulled by the rope. Five more tramways soon followed, one powered by a steam engine, charging between 8 and 30 cents ($2 and $8) per 1 pound (0.45 kg). [97] An aerial tramway was built in the spring of 1898, able to move 9 tonnes of goods an hour up to the summit. [97] [63]

Head of Yukon River Edit

At Lakes Bennett and Lindeman, the prospectors camped to build rafts or boats that would take them the final 500 miles (800 km) down the Yukon to Dawson City in the spring. [98] [n 21] 7,124 boats of varying size and quality left in May 1898 by that time, the forests around the lakes had been largely cut down for timber. [100] [101] The river posed a new problem. Above Whitehorse, it was dangerous, with several rapids along the Miles Canyon through to the White Horse Rapids. [102]

After many boats were wrecked and several hundred people died, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) introduced safety rules, vetting the boats carefully and forbidding women and children to travel through the rapids. [103] [53] [n 22] Additional rules stated that any boat carrying passengers required a licensed pilot, typically costing $25 ($680), although some prospectors simply unpacked their boats and let them drift unmanned through the rapids with the intent of walking down to collect them on the other side. [53] During the summer, a horse-powered rail-tramway was built by Norman Macaulay, capable of carrying boats and equipment through the canyon at $25 ($680) a time, removing the need for prospectors to navigate the rapids. [104]

Parallel trails Edit

There were a few more trails established during 1898 from South-east Alaska to the Yukon River. One was the Dalton trail: starting from Pyramid Harbour, close to Dyea, it went across the Chilkat Pass some miles west of Chilkoot and turned north to the Yukon River, a distance of about 350 miles (560 km). This was created by Jack Dalton as a summer route, intended for cattle and horses, and Dalton charged a toll of $250 ($6,800) for its use. [105]

The Takou route started from Juneau and went north-east to Teslin Lake. From here, it followed a river to the Yukon, where it met the Dyea and Skagway route at a point halfway to the Klondike. [106] It meant dragging and poling canoes up-river and through mud together with crossing a 5,000 feet (1,500 m) mountain along a narrow trail. Finally, there was the Stikine route starting from the port of Wrangell further south-east of Skagway. This route went up the uneasy Stikine River to Glenora, the head of navigation. From Glenora, prospectors would have to carry their supplies 150 miles (240 km) to Teslin Lake where it, like the Takou route, met the Yukon River system. [107]

All-Canadian routes Edit

An alternative to the South-east Alaskan ports were the All-Canadian routes, so-called because they mostly stayed on Canadian soil throughout their journey. [108] These were popular with British and Canadians for patriotic reasons and because they avoided American customs. [108] The first of these, around 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in length, started from Ashcroft in British Columbia and crossed swamps, river gorges, and mountains until it met with the Stikine River route at Glenora. [107] [n 23] From Glenora, prospectors would face the same difficulties as those who came from Wrangell. [107] At least 1,500 men attempted to travel along the Ashcroft route and 5,000 along the Stikine. [110] The mud and the slushy ice of the two routes proved exhausting, killing or incapacitating the pack animals and creating chaos amongst the travellers. [111]

Three more routes started from Edmonton, Alberta these were not much better – barely trails at all – despite being advertised as "the inside track" and the "back door to the Klondike". [112] [113] One, the "overland route", headed north-west from Edmonton, ultimately meeting the Peace River and then continuing on overland to the Klondike, crossing the Liard River en route. [114] To encourage travel via Edmonton, the government hired T.W. Chalmers to build a trail, which became known as the Klondike Trail or Chalmers Trail. [115] The other two trails, known as the "water routes", involved more river travel. One went by boat along rivers and overland to the Yukon River system at Pelly River and from there to Dawson. [116] Another went north of Dawson by the Mackenzie River to Fort McPherson, before entering Alaska and meeting the Yukon River at Fort Yukon, downstream to the Klondike. [116] [117] From here, the boat and equipment had to be pulled up the Yukon about 400 miles (640 km). An estimated 1,660 travellers took these three routes, of whom only 685 arrived, some taking up to 18 months to make the journey. [118]

"All-American" route Edit

An equivalent to the All-Canadian routes was the "All-American route", which aimed to reach the Yukon from the port of Valdez, which lay further along the Alaskan coast from Skagway. [119] This, it was hoped, would evade the Canadian customs posts and provide an American-controlled route into the interior. [120] From late 1897 onwards 3,500 men and women attempted it delayed by the winter snows, fresh efforts were made in the spring. [121]

In practice, the huge Valdez glacier that stood between the port and the Alaskan interior proved almost insurmountable and only 200 managed to climb it by 1899, the cold and scurvy was causing many deaths amongst the rest. [122] Other prospectors attempted an alternative route across the Malaspina Glacier just to the east, suffering even greater hardships. [123] Those who did manage to cross it found themselves having to negotiate miles of wilderness before they could reach Dawson. Their expedition was forced to turn back the same way they had come, with only four men surviving. [124]

Border control Edit

The borders in South-east Alaska were disputed between the US, Canada and Britain since the American purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. [126] The US and Canada both claimed the ports of Dyea and Skagway. [126] This, combined with the numbers of American prospectors, the quantities of gold being mined and the difficulties in exercising government authority in such a remote area, made the control of the borders a sensitive issue. [127]

Early on in the gold rush, the US Army sent a small detachment to Circle City, in case intervention was required in the Klondike, while the Canadian government considered excluding all American prospectors from the Yukon Territory. [128] Neither eventuality took place and instead the US agreed to make Dyea a sub-port of entry for Canadians, allowing British ships to land Canadian passengers and goods freely there, while Canada agreed to permit American miners to operate in the Klondike. [129] Both decisions were unpopular among their domestic publics: American businessmen complained that their right to a monopoly on regional trade was being undermined, while the Canadian public demanded action against the American miners. [129]

The North-West Mounted Police set up control posts at the borders of the Yukon Territory or, where that was disputed, at easily controlled points such as the Chilkoot and White Passes. [130] These units were armed with Maxim guns. [131] Their tasks included enforcing the rules requiring that travellers bring a year's supply of food with them to be allowed into the Yukon Territory, checking for illegal weapons, preventing the entry of criminals and enforcing customs duties. [132]

This last task was particularly unpopular with American prospectors, who faced paying an average of 25 percent of the value of their goods and supplies. [133] The Mounties had a reputation for running these posts honestly, although accusations were made that they took bribes. [134] Prospectors, on the other hand, tried to smuggle prize items like silk and whiskey across the pass in tins and bales of hay: the former item for the ladies, the latter for the saloons. [135]

Of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people who reached Dawson City during the gold rush, only around 15,000 to 20,000 finally became prospectors. Of these, no more than 4,000 struck gold and only a few hundred became rich. [30] By the time most of the stampeders arrived in 1898, the best creeks had all been claimed, either by the long-term miners in the region or by the first arrivals of the year before. [136] The Bonanza, Eldorado, Hunker and Dominion Creeks were all taken, with almost 10,000 claims recorded by the authorities by July 1898 a new prospector would have to look further afield to find a claim of his own. [137]

Geologically, the region was permeated with veins of gold, forced to the surface by volcanic action and then worn away by the action of rivers and streams, leaving nuggets and gold dust in deposits known as placer gold. [138] [n 25] Some ores lay along the creek beds in lines of soil, typically 15 feet (4.6 m) to 30 feet (9.1 m) beneath the surface. [139] Others, formed by even older streams, lay along the hilltops these deposits were called "bench gold". [140] Finding the gold was challenging. Initially, miners had assumed that all the gold would be along the existing creeks, and it was not until late in 1897 that the hilltops began to be mined. [141] Gold was also unevenly distributed in the areas where it was found, which made the prediction of good mining sites even more uncertain. [142] The only way to be certain that gold was present was to conduct exploratory digging. [143]

Methods Edit

Mining began with clearing the ground of vegetation and debris. [144] Prospect holes were then dug in an attempt to find the ore or "pay streak". [144] If these holes looked productive, proper digging could commence, aiming down to the bedrock, where the majority of the gold was found. [144] The digging would be carefully monitored in case the operation needed to be shifted to allow for changes in the flow. [144]

In the sub-Arctic climate of the Klondike, a layer of hard permafrost lay only 6 feet (1.8 m) below the surface. [145] [146] Traditionally, this had meant that mining in the region only occurred during the summer months, but the pressure of the gold rush made such a delay unacceptable. [143] Late 19th century technology existed for dealing with this problem, including hydraulic mining and stripping, and dredging, but the heavy equipment required for this could not be brought into the Klondike during the gold rush. [145] [147]

Instead, the miners relied on wood fires to soften the ground to a depth of about 14 inches (360 mm) and then removing the resulting gravel. The process was repeated until the gold was reached. In theory, no support of the shaft was necessary because of the permafrost although in practice sometimes the fire melted the permafrost and caused collapses. [148] Fires could also produce noxious gases, which had to be removed by bellows or other tools. [149] [150] The resulting "dirt" brought out of the mines froze quickly in winter and could be processed only during the warmer summer months. [150] [n 26] An alternative, more efficient, approach called steam thawing was devised between 1897 and 1898 this used a furnace to pump steam directly into the ground, but since it required additional equipment it was not a widespread technique during the years of the rush. [151]

In the summer, water would be used to sluice and pan the dirt, separating out the heavier gold from gravel. [152] This required miners to construct sluices, which were sequences of wooden boxes 15 feet (4.6 m) long, through which the dirt would be washed up to 20 of these might be needed for each mining operation. [153] The sluices in turn required much water, usually produced by creating a dam and ditches or crude pipes. [154] "Bench gold" mining on the hill sides could not use sluice lines because water could not be pumped that high up. Instead, these mines used rockers, boxes that moved back and forth like a cradle, to create the motion needed for separation. [155] Finally, the resulting gold dust could be exported out of the Klondike exchanged for paper money at the rate of $16 ($430) per troy ounce (ozt) through one of the major banks that opened in Dawson City, or simply used as money when dealing with local traders. [156] [n 27]

Business Edit

Successful mining took time and capital, particularly once most of the timber around the Klondike had been cut down. [154] A realistic mining operation required $1,500 ($42,000) for wood to be burned to melt the ground, along with around $1,000 ($28,000) to construct a dam, $1,500 ($42,000) for ditches and up to $600 ($16,800) for sluice boxes, a total of $4,600. [154] The attraction of the Klondike to a prospector, however, was that when gold was found, it was often highly concentrated. [158] Some of the creeks in the Klondike were fifteen times richer in gold than those in California, and richer still than those in South Africa. [158] In just two years, for example, $230,000 ($6,440,000) worth of gold was brought up from claim 29 on the Eldorado Creek. [159] [n 28]

Under Canadian law, miners first had to get a license, either when they arrived at Dawson or en route from Victoria in Canada. [161] They could then prospect for gold and when they had found a suitable location, lay claim to mining rights over it. [162] To stake a claim, a prospector would drive stakes into the ground a measured distance apart and then return to Dawson to register the claim for $15 ($410). [162] This normally had to be done within three days, and by 1897 only one claim per person at a time was allowed in a district, although married couples could exploit a loophole that allowed the wife to register a claim in her own name, doubling their amount of land. [163] [164]

The claim could be mined freely for a year, after which a $100 ($2,800) fee had to be paid annually. Should the prospector leave the claim for more than three days without good reason, another miner could make a claim on the land. [165] The Canadian government also charged a royalty of between 10 and 20 percent on the value of gold taken from a claim. [166]

Traditionally, a mining claim had been granted over a 500-foot (150 m) long stretch of a creek, including the land from one side of the valley to another. The Canadian authorities had tried to reduce this length to 150 feet (46 m), but under pressure from miners had been forced to agree to 250 feet (76 m). The only exception to this was a "Discovery" claim, the first to be made on a creek, which could be 500 feet (150 m) long. [167] [n 29] The exact lengths of claims were often challenged and when the government surveyor William Ogilvie conducted surveys to settle disputes, he found some claims exceeded the official limit. [169] The excess fractions of land then became available as claims and were sometimes quite valuable. [169]

Claims could be bought. However, their price depended on whether they had been yet proved to contain gold. [170] A prospector with capital might consider taking a risk on an "unproved" claim on one of the better creeks for $5,000 ($140,000) a wealthier miner could buy a "proved" mine for $50,000 ($1,400,000). [170] The well known claim eight on Eldorado Creek was sold for as much as $350,000 ($9,800,000). [170] Prospectors were also allowed to hire others to work for them. [171] Enterprising miners such as Alex McDonald set about amassing mines and employees. [172] Leveraging his acquisitions with short-term loans, by the autumn of 1897 McDonald had purchased 28 claims, estimated to be worth millions. [172] Swiftwater Bill Gates famously borrowed heavily against his claim on the Eldorado creek, relying on hired hands to mine the gold to keep up his interest payments. [173]

The less fortunate or less well funded prospectors rapidly found themselves destitute. Some chose to sell their equipment and return south. [174] Others took jobs as manual workers, either in mines or in Dawson the typical daily pay of $15 ($410) was high by external standards, but low compared to the cost of living in the Klondike. [174] The possibility that a new creek might suddenly produce gold, however, continued to tempt poorer prospectors. [174] Smaller stampedes around the Klondike continued throughout the gold rush, when rumours of new strikes would cause a small mob to descend on fresh sites, hoping to be able to stake out a high-value claim. [175]

The massive influx of prospectors drove the formation of boom towns along the routes of the stampede, with Dawson City in the Klondike the largest. [176] [177] The new towns were crowded, often chaotic and many disappeared just as soon as they came. [178] Most stampeders were men but women also travelled to the region, typically as the wife of a prospector. [179] Some women entertained in gambling and dance halls built by business men and women who were encouraged by the lavish spending of successful miners. [180]

Dawson remained relatively lawful, protected by the Canadian NWMP, which meant that gambling and prostitution were accepted while robbery and murder were kept low. By contrast, especially the port of Skagway under US jurisdiction in Southeast Alaska became infamous for its criminal underworld. [181] [182] The extreme climate and remoteness of the region in general meant that supplies and communication with the outside world including news and mail were scarce. [177] [183]

Boomtowns Edit

The ports of Dyea and Skagway, through which most of the prospectors entered, were tiny settlements before the gold rush, each consisting of only one log cabin. [184] Because there were no docking facilities, ships had to unload their cargo directly onto the beach, where people tried to move their goods before high tide. [185] Inevitably cargos were lost in the process. [186] Some travellers had arrived intending to supply goods and services to the would-be miners some of these in turn, realizing how difficult it would be to reach Dawson, chose to do the same. [185] Within weeks, storehouses, saloons, and offices lined the muddy streets of Dyea and Skagway, surrounded by tents and hovels. [176]

Skagway became famous in international media the author John Muir described the town as "a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick". [186] While Dyea remained a transit point throughout the winter, Skagway began to take on a more permanent character. [187] Skagway also built wharves out into the bay in order to attract a greater share of the prospectors. [188] The town was effectively lawless, dominated by drinking, gunfire and prostitution. [189] The visiting NWMP Superintendent Sam Steele noted that it was "little better than a hell on earth . about the roughest place in the world". [190] Nonetheless, by the summer of 1898, with a population—including migrants—of between 15,000 and 20,000, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska. [191]

In late summer 1897 Skagway and Dyea fell under the control of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and his men, who arrived from Seattle shortly after Skagway began to expand. [192] [193] He was an American confidence man whose gang, 200 to 300 strong, cheated and stole from the prospectors travelling through the region. [194] [n 30] He maintained the illusion of being an upstanding member of the community, opening three saloons as well as creating fake businesses to assist in his operations. [196] [197] One of his scams was a fake telegraph office charging to send messages all over the US and Canada, often pretending to receive a reply. [198] Opposition to Smith steadily grew and, after weeks of vigilante activity, he was killed in Skagway during the shootout on Juneau Wharf on July 8, 1898. [192] [199]

Other towns also boomed. Wrangell, port of the Stikine route and boom town from earlier gold rushes, increased in size again, with robberies, gambling and nude female dancing commonplace. [200] Valdez, formed on the Gulf of Alaska during the attempt to create the "All-American" route to the Klondike during the winter of 1897–1898, became a tent city of people who stayed behind to supply the ill-fated attempts to reach the interior. [122] Edmonton, Alberta (at that time, the District of Alberta in the Northwest Territories,) Canada, increased from a population of 1,200 before the gold rush to 4,000 during 1898. [201] Beyond the immediate region, cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver and Victoria all saw their populations soar as a result of the stampede and the trade it brought along. [201]

Dawson City Edit

Dawson City was created in the early days of the Klondike gold rush, when prospector Joe Ladue and shopkeeper Arthur Harper decided to make a profit from the influx to the Klondike. [22] [202] The two men bought 178 acres (72 ha) of the mudflats at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers from the government and laid out the street plan for a new town, bringing in timber and other supplies to sell to the migrants. [203] The Hän village of Tr'ochëk along Deer Creek was considered to be too close to the new town, and the NWMP Superintendent Charles Constantine moved its inhabitants 3 miles (4.8 km) down-river to a small reserve. [204] The town, in the beginning simply known as "Harper and Ladue town site", was named Dawson City after the director of Canada's Geographical Survey. [177] It grew rapidly to hold 500 people by the winter of 1896, with plots of land selling for $500 ($14,000) each. [177]

In the spring of 1898, Dawson's population rose further to 30,000 as stampeders arrived over the passes. [177] The centre of the town, Front Street, was lined with hastily built buildings and warehouses, together with log cabins and tents spreading out across the rest of the settlement. [205] There was no running water or sewerage, and only two springs for drinking water to supplement the increasingly polluted river. [206] In spring, the unpaved streets were churned into thick mud and in summer the settlement reeked of human effluent and was plagued by flies and mosquitoes. [207] Land in Dawson was now scarce, and plots sold for up to $10,000 ($280,000) each prime locations on Front Street could reach $20,000 ($560,000) while a small log cabin might rent for $100 ($2,800) a month. [208] As a result, Dawson's population spread south into the empty Hän village, renaming it Klondike City. [209] Other communities emerged closer to the mines, such as Granville on Dominion Creek and Grand Forks on Bonanza Creek. [210] [211]

The newly built town proved highly vulnerable to fire. Houses were made of wood, heated with stoves and lit by candles and oil lamps water for emergencies was wanting, especially in the frozen winters. [212] The first major fire occurred on November 25, 1897, started accidentally by dance-hall girl Belle Mitchell. [213] She also accidentally started a second major fire on October 14, 1898, which, in the absence of a fire brigade in Dawson, destroyed two major saloons, the post-office building and the Bank of British North America at a cost of $500,000 ($14,000,000). [214] [215] [n 31] The worst fire occurred on April 26, 1899, when a saloon caught fire in the middle of a strike by the newly established fire brigade. [216] Most of the major landmarks in the town were burned to the ground: 117 buildings were destroyed, with the damage estimated at over $1 million ($28,000,000). [217] [218] [n 32]

Logistics Edit

The remoteness of Dawson proved an ongoing problem for the supply of food, and as the population grew to 5,000 in 1897, this became critical. [177] [183] When the rivers iced over, it became clear that there would not be enough food for that winter. [220] The NWMP evacuated some prospectors without supplies to Fort Yukon in Alaska from September 30 onwards, while others made their way out of the Klondike in search of food and shelter for the winter. [221] [n 33]

Prices remained high in Dawson and supply fluctuated according to the season. During the winter of 1897 salt became worth its weight in gold, while nails, vital for construction work, rose in price to $28 ($784) per lb (0.45 kg). [223] Cans of butter sold for $5 ($140) each. [224] The only eight horses in Dawson were slaughtered for dog food as they could not be kept alive over the winter. [223] [n 34] The first fresh goods arriving in the spring of 1898 sold for record prices, eggs reaching $3 ($84) each and apples $1 ($28). [227]

Under these conditions scurvy, a potentially fatal illness caused by the lack of vitamin C, proved a major problem in Dawson City, particularly during the winter where a supply of fresh food was unavailable. English prospectors gave it the local name of "Canadian black leg", on account of the unpleasant effects of the condition. [228] [229] It struck, among others, writer Jack London and, although not fatal in his case, brought an end to his mining career. [230] Dysentery and malaria were also common in Dawson, and an epidemic of typhoid broke out in July and ran rampant throughout the summer. [231] Up to 140 patients were taken into the newly constructed St Mary's Hospital and thousands were affected. [232] Measures were taken by the following year to prevent further outbreaks, including the introduction of better sewage management and the piping in of water from further upstream. [231] These gave improvements in 1899, although typhoid remained a problem. [231] The new Hän reserve, however, lay downstream from Dawson City, and here the badly contaminated river continued to contribute to epidemics of typhoid and diphtheria throughout the gold rush. [233] [n 35]

Conspicuous consumption Edit

Despite these challenges, the huge quantities of gold coming through Dawson City encouraged a lavish lifestyle amongst the richer prospectors. Saloons were typically open 24 hours a day, with whiskey the standard drink. [235] Gambling was popular, with the major saloons each running their own rooms a culture of high stakes evolved, with rich prospectors routinely betting $1,000 ($28,000) at dice or playing for a $5,000 ($140,000) poker pot. [235] [n 36] The establishments around Front Street had grand facades in a Parisian style, mirrors and plate-glass windows and, from late 1898, were lit by electric light. [237] The dance halls in Dawson were particularly prestigious and major status symbols, both for customers and their owners. [238] Wealthy prospectors were expected to drink champagne at $60 ($1,660) a bottle, and the Pavilion dancehall cost its owner, Charlie Kimball, as much as $100,000 ($2,800,000) to construct and decorate. [239] Elaborate opera houses were built, bringing singers and specialty acts to Dawson. [240]

Tales abounded of prospectors spending huge sums on entertainment — Jimmy McMahon once spent $28,000 ($784,000) in a single evening, for example. [241] Most payments were made in gold dust and in places like saloons, there was so much spilled gold that a profit could be made just by sweeping the floor. [228] Some of the richest prospectors lived flamboyantly in Dawson. Swiftwater Bill Gates, a gambler and ladies' man who rarely went anywhere without wearing silk and diamonds, was one of them. To impress a woman who liked eggs—then an expensive luxury—he was alleged to have bought all the eggs in Dawson, had them boiled and fed them to dogs. [242] Another miner, Frank Conrad, threw a sequence of gold objects onto the ship as tokens of his esteem when his favourite singer left Dawson City. [243] [244] The wealthiest dance-hall girls followed suit: Daisy D'Avara had a belt made for herself from $340 ($9,520) in gold dollar coins another, Gertie Lovejoy, had a diamond inserted between her two front teeth. [245] The miner and businessman Alex McDonald, despite being styled the "King of the Klondike", was unusual amongst his peers for his lack of grandiose spending.

Law and order Edit

Unlike its American equivalents, Dawson City was a law-abiding town. [181] [182] By 1897, 96 members of the NWMP had been sent to the district and by 1898, this had increased to 288, an expensive commitment by the Canadian government. [246] [n 37] By June 1898, the force was headed by Colonel Sam Steele, an officer with a reputation for firm discipline. [247] In 1898, there were no murders and only a few major thefts in all, only about 150 arrests were made in the Yukon for serious offenses that year. [248] Of these arrests, over half were for prostitution and resulted from an attempt by the NWMP to regulate the sex industry in Dawson: regular monthly arrests, $50 ($1,400) fines and medical inspections were imposed, with the proceeds being used to fund the local hospitals. [248] [249] The so-called blue laws were strictly enforced. Saloons and other establishments closed promptly at midnight on Saturday, and anyone caught working on Sunday was liable to be fined or set to chopping firewood for the NWMP. [250] [n 38] The NWMP are generally regarded by historians to have been an efficient and honest force during the period, although their task was helped by the geography of the Klondike which made it relatively easy to bar entry to undesirables or prevent suspects from leaving the region. [183] [252]

In contrast to the NWMP, the early civil authorities were criticized by the prospectors for being inept and potentially corrupt. [253] Thomas Fawcett was the gold commissioner and temporary head of the Klondike administration at the start of the gold rush he was accused of keeping the details of new claims secret and allowing what historian Kathryn Winslow termed "carelessness, ignorance and partiality" to reign in the mine recorder's office. [254] Following campaigns against him by prospectors, who were backed by the local press, Fawcett was relieved by the Canadian government. [255] His successor, Major James Walsh, was considered a stronger character and arrived in May 1898, but fell ill and returned east in July. [254] It was left to his replacement, William Ogilvie, supported by a Royal Commission, to conduct reforms. [254] The Commission, in lack of evidence, cleared Fawcett of all charges, which meant that he was not punished further than being relieved. [254] Ogilvie proved a much stronger administrator and subsequently revisited many of the mining surveys of his predecessors. [256]

News and mail Edit

In the remote Klondike, there was great demand for news and contact with the world outside. During the first months of the stampede in 1897, it was said that no news was too old to be read. In the lack of newspapers, some prospectors would read can labels until they knew them by heart. [257] The following year, two teams fought their way over the passes to reach Dawson City first, complete with printing-presses, with the aim of gaining control of the newspaper market. [258] Gene Kelly, the editor of the Klondike Nugget arrived first, but without his equipment, and it was the team behind the Midnight Sun who produced the first daily newspaper in Dawson. [258] [259] [260] The Dawson Miner followed shortly after, bringing the number of daily newspapers in the town during the gold rush up to three. [261] The Nugget sold for $24 ($680) as an annual subscription, and became well known for championing miners and for its lucid coverage of scandals. [262] Paper was often hard to find and during the winter of 1898–99, the Nugget had to be printed on butcher's wrapping paper. [263] News could also be told. In June, 1898, a prospector bought an edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at an auction and charged spectators a dollar each to have it read aloud in one of Dawson's halls. [264]

Mail service was chaotic during the stampede. [265] Apart from the number of prospectors, two major obstacles stood in its way. To begin with, any mail from America to Dawson City was sent to Juneau in South-east Alaska before being sent through Dawson and then down the Yukon to Circle City. From here it was then distributed by the US Post Office back up to Dawson. [266] The huge distances involved resulted in delays of several months and frequently the loss of protective envelopes and their addresses. [266] The second problem was in Dawson itself, which initially lacked a post office and therefore relied on two stores and a saloon to act as informal delivery points. [266] The NWMP were tasked to run the mail system by October 1897, but they were ill-trained to do so. [266] Up to 5,700 letters might arrive in a single shipment, all of which had to be collected in person from the post office. This resulted in huge queues, with claimants lining up outside the office for up to three days. [266] Those who had no time and could afford it would pay others to stand in line for them, preferably a woman since they were allowed to get ahead in line out of politeness. [267] Postage stamps, like paper in general, were scarce and rationed to two per customer. [266] By 1899, trained postal staff took over mail delivery and relieved the NWMP of this task. [268]

Role of women Edit

In 1898 eight percent of those living in the Klondike territory were women, and in towns like Dawson this rose to 12 percent. [179] Many women arrived with their husbands or families, but others travelled alone. [269] Most came to the Klondike for similar economic and social reasons as male prospectors, but they attracted particular media interest. [270] The gender imbalance in the Klondike encouraged business proposals to ship young, single women into the region to marry newly wealthy miners few, if any, of these marriages ever took place, but some single women appear to have travelled on their own in the hope of finding prosperous husbands. [271] Guidebooks gave recommendations for what practical clothes women should take to the Klondike: the female dress code of the time was formal, emphasising long skirts and corsets, but most women adapted this for the conditions of the trails. [272] Regardless of experience, women in a party were typically expected to cook for the group. [273] Few mothers brought their children with them due to the risks of the travel. [274]

Once in the Klondike, very few women—less than one percent—actually worked as miners. [275] Many were married to miners however, their lives as partners on the gold fields were still hard and often lonely. They had extensive domestic duties, including thawing ice and snow for water, breaking up frozen food, chopping wood and collecting wild foods. [276] In Dawson and other towns, some women took in laundry to make money. [277] This was a physically demanding job but could be relatively easily combined with child care duties. [277] Others took jobs in the service industry, for example as waitresses or seamstresses, which could pay well, but were often punctuated by periods of unemployment. [278] Both men and women opened roadhouses, but women were considered to be better at running them. [279] A few women worked in the packing trade, carrying goods on their backs, or became domestic servants. [280]

Wealthier women with capital might invest in mines and other businesses. [281] One of the most prominent businesswomen in the Klondike was Belinda Mulrooney. She brought a consignment of cloth and hot water bottles with her when she arrived in the Klondike in early 1897, and with the proceeds of those sales she first built a roadhouse at Grand Forks and later a grand hotel in Dawson. [282] She invested widely, including acquiring her own mining company, and was reputed to be the richest woman of the Klondike. [283] [284] The wealthy Martha Black was abandoned by her husband early in the journey to the Klondike but continued on without him, reaching Dawson City where she became a prominent citizen, investing in various mining and business ventures with her brother. [285] [286]

A relatively small number of women worked in the entertainment and sex industries. [287] The elite of these women were the highly paid actresses and courtesans of Dawson beneath them were chorus line dancers, who usually doubled as hostesses and other dance hall workers. [288] While still better paid than white-collar male workers, these women worked very long hours and had significant expenses. [289] The entertainment industry merged into the sex industry, where women made a living as prostitutes. The sex industry in the Klondike was concentrated in Klondike City and in a backstreet area of Dawson. [290] A hierarchy of sexual employment existed, with brothels and parlour houses at the top, small independent "cigar shops" in the middle, and, at the bottom, the prostitutes who worked out of small huts called "hutches". [291] Life for these workers was a continual struggle and the suicide rate was high. [292] [293]

The degree of involvement between Indigenous women and the stampeders varied. Many Tlingit women worked as packers for the prospectors, for example, carrying supplies and equipment, sometimes also transporting their babies as well. [294] Hän women had relatively little contact with the white immigrants, however, and there was a significant social divide between local Hän women and white women. [295] Although before 1897 there had been a number of Indigenous women who married western men, including Kate Carmack, the Tagish wife of one of the discoverers, this practice did not survive into the stampede. [296] Very few stampeders married Hän women, and very few Hän women worked as prostitutes. [297] "Respectable" white women would avoid associating with Indigenous women or prostitutes: those that did could cause scandal. [298]

By 1899 telegraphy stretched from Skagway, Alaska, to Dawson City, Yukon, allowing instant international contact. [299] In 1898, the White Pass and Yukon Route railway began to be built between Skagway and the head of navigation on the Yukon. [300] When it was completed in 1900, the Chilkoot trail and its tramways were obsolete. [300] Despite these improvements in communication and transport, the rush faltered from 1898 on. [301] It began in summer 1898 when many of the prospectors arriving in Dawson City found themselves unable to make a living and left for home. [301] For those who stayed, the wages of casual work, depressed by the number of men, fell to $100 ($2,700) a month by 1899. [301] The world's newspapers began to turn against the Klondike gold rush as well. [301] In the spring of 1898 the Spanish–American War removed Klondike from the headlines. [302] "Ah, go to the Klondike!" became a popular phrase of disgust. [301] Klondike-branded goods had to be disposed of at special rates in Seattle. [301]

Another factor in the decline was the change in Dawson City, which had developed throughout 1898, metamorphosing from a ramshackle, if wealthy, boom town into a more sedate, conservative municipality. [299] Modern luxuries were introduced, including "zinc bath tubs, pianos, billiard tables, Brussels carpets in hotel dining rooms, menus printed in French and invitational balls" as noted by historian Kathryn Winslow. [299] Visiting Senator Jerry Lynch likened the newly paved streets with their smartly dressed inhabitants to the Strand in London. [263] It was no longer an attractive location for many prospectors, used to a wilder way of living. [301] [299] Even the formerly lawless town of Skagway had become respectable by 1899. [301]

The final trigger, however, was the discovery of gold elsewhere in Canada and Alaska, prompting a new stampede, this time away from the Klondike. In August 1898, gold had been found at Atlin Lake at the head of the Yukon River, generating a flurry of interest, but during the winter of 1898–99 much larger quantities were found at Nome at the mouth of the Yukon. [136] [303] [304] In 1899, a flood of prospectors from across the region left for Nome, 8,000 from Dawson alone during a single week in August. [136] [303] The Klondike gold rush was over. [305]

People Edit

Only a handful of the 100,000 people who left for the Klondike during the gold rush became rich. [30] They typically spent $1,000 ($27,000) each reaching the region, which when combined exceeded what was produced from the gold fields between 1897 and 1901. [201] At the same time, most of those who did find gold lost their fortunes in the subsequent years. [306] They often died penniless, attempting to reproduce their earlier good fortune in fresh mining opportunities. [306] Businessman and miner Alex McDonald, for example, continued to accumulate land after the boom until his money ran out he died in poverty, still prospecting. Antoine Stander, who discovered gold on Eldorado Creek, abused alcohol, dissipated his fortune and ended working in a ship's kitchen to pay his way. [307] The three discoverers had mixed fates. George Carmack left his wife Kate—who had found it difficult to adapt to their new lifestyle—remarried and lived in relative prosperity Skookum Jim had a huge income from his mining royalties but refused to settle and continued to prospect until his death in 1916 Dawson Charlie spent lavishly and died in an alcohol-related accident. [308] [n 39]

The richest of the Klondike saloon owners, businessmen and gamblers also typically lost their fortunes and died in poverty. [310] Gene Allen, for example, the editor of the Klondike Nugget, became bankrupt and spent the rest of his career in smaller newspapers the prominent gambler and saloon owner Sam Bonnifield suffered a nervous breakdown and died in extreme poverty. [310] Nonetheless, some of those who joined the gold rush prospered. Kate Rockwell, "Klondike Kate", for example, became a famous dancer in Dawson and remained popular in America until her death. Dawson City was also where Alexander Pantages, her business partner and lover, started his career, going on to become one of America's greatest theatre and movie tycoons. [311] The businesswoman Martha Black remarried and ultimately became the second female member of the Canadian parliament. [285] [312]

The impact of the gold rush on the Native peoples of the region was considerable. [313] The Tlingit and the Koyukon peoples prospered in the short term from their work as guides, packers and from selling food and supplies to the prospectors. [72] In the longer term, however, especially the Hän people living in the Klondike region suffered from the environmental damage of the gold mining on the rivers and forests. [72] Their population had already begun to decline after the discovery of gold along Fortymile River in the 1880s but dropped catastrophically after their move to the reserve, a result of the contaminated water supply and smallpox. [233] The Hän found only few ways to benefit economically from the gold rush and their fishing and hunting grounds were largely destroyed by 1904 they needed aid from the NWMP to prevent famine. [314]

Places Edit

Dawson City declined after the gold rush. When journalist Laura Berton (future mother of Pierre Berton) moved to Dawson in 1907 it was still thriving, but away from Front Street, the town had become increasingly deserted, jammed, as she put it, "with the refuse of the gold rush: stoves, furniture, gold-pans, sets of dishes, double-belled seltzer bottles . piles of rusting mining machinery—boilers, winches, wheelbarrows and pumps". [315] By 1912, only around 2,000 inhabitants remained compared to the 30,000 of the boom years and the site was becoming a ghost town. [316] By 1972, 500 people were living in Dawson whereas the nearby settlements created during the gold rush had been entirely abandoned. [317] The population has grown since the 1970s, with 1,300 recorded in 2006. [318]

During the gold rush, transport improvements meant that heavier mining equipment could be brought in and larger, more modern mines established in the Klondike, revolutionising the gold industry. [319] [320] Gold production increased until 1903 as a result of the dredging and hydraulic mining but then declined by 2005, approximately 1,250,000 pounds (570,000 kg) had been recovered from the Klondike area. [319] [320] [321] In the 21st century Dawson City still has a small gold mining industry, which together with tourism, drawing on the legacy of the gold rush, plays a role in the local economy. Many buildings in the center of the town reflect the style of the era. [322] Klondike River valley is affected by the gold rush by the heavy dredging that occurred after it. [323]

The port of Skagway also shrank after the rush, but remains a well-preserved period town, centered on the tourist industry and sight-seeing trips from visiting cruise ships. [324] Restoration work by the National Park Service began in 2010 on Jeff Smith's Parlor, from which the famous con man "Soapy" Smith once operated. [325] Skagway also has one of the two visitor centres forming the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park the other is located in Seattle, and both focus on the human interest stories behind the gold rush. [326] By contrast, Dyea, Skagway's neighbour and former rival, was abandoned after the gold rush and is now a ghost town. [327] The railway built for prospectors through White Pass in the last year of the rush reopened in 1988 and is today only used by tourists, closely linked to the Chilkoot trail which is a popular hiking route. [328]

Culture Edit

The events of the Klondike gold rush rapidly became embedded in North American culture, being captured in poems, stories, photographs and promotional campaigns long after the end of the stampede. [329] In the Yukon, Discovery Day is celebrated on the third Monday in August as a holiday, and the events of the gold rush are promoted by the regional tourist industries. [330] [331] The events of the gold rush were frequently exaggerated at the time and modern works on the subject similarly often focus on the most dramatic and exciting events of the stampede, not always accurately. [332] [333] Historian Ken Coates describes the gold rush as "a resilient, pliable myth", which continues to fascinate and appeal. [334]

Several novels, books and poems were generated as a consequence of the Klondike gold rush. The writer Jack London incorporated scenes from the gold rush into his novels and short stories set in the Klondike, including The Call of the Wild, a 1903 novel about a sled dog. [53] [335] His colleague, poet Robert W. Service, did not join the rush himself, although he made his home in Dawson City in 1908. Service created well-known poems about the gold rush, among them Songs of a Sourdough, one of the bestselling books of poetry in the first decade of the 20th century, along with his novel, The Trail of '98, which was written by hand on wallpaper in one of Dawson's log cabins. [53] [336] [337] The Canadian historian Pierre Berton grew up in Dawson where his father had been a prospector, and wrote several historical books about the gold rush, such as The Last Great Gold Rush. [338] The experiences of the Irish Micí Mac Gabhann resulted the posthumous work Rotha Mór an tSaoil (translated into English as The Hard Road to Klondike in 1962), a vivid description of the period. [339]

Some terminology from the stampede made its way into North American English like "Cheechakos", referring to newly arrived miners, and "Sourdoughs", experienced miners. [340] [n 40] The photographs taken during the Klondike gold rush heavily influenced later cultural approaches to the stampede. [342] The gold rush was vividly recorded by several early photographers, for instance Eric A. Hegg these stark, black-and-white photographs showing the ascent of the Chilkoot pass rapidly became iconic images and were widely distributed. [343] These pictures, in turn, inspired Charlie Chaplin to make The Gold Rush, a silent movie, which uses the background of the Klondike to combine physical comedy with its character's desperate battle for survival in the harsh conditions of the stampede. [344] The photographs reappear in the documentary City of Gold from 1957 which, narrated by Pierre Berton, won prizes for pioneering the incorporation of still images into documentary film-making. [345] The Klondike gold rush, however, has not been widely covered in later fictional films even The Far Country, a Western from 1955 set in the Klondike, largely ignores the unique features of the gold rush in favour of a traditional Western plot. [346] Indeed, much of the popular literature on the gold rush approaches the stampede simply as a final phase of the expansion of the American West, a perception critiqued by modern historians such as Charlene Porsild. [347]

Maps of routes and goldfields Edit

Dyea/Skagway routes and Dalton trail

Overview and close up of Dyea/Skagway route (middle route on left section of map). Each red frame represents the map to the nearest right. Dalton trail is shown to the left on the midsection of the map

Takou, Stikine and Edmonton routes

Takou and Stikine route. Red frame: Position of map on map of northern America. Lower right: Stikine route branch from Wrangell meets with branch from Ashcroft at Glenora. They continue along dashed lines. Middle: Takou route meets Stikine route at Teslin Lake. Both routes meet Dyea/Skagway route (dotted line) at upper left

Edmonton routes. Red frame: Position of map on map of northern America. Big arrow: All-Canadian route from Edmonton by rivers and portage to Yukon River via Pelly River. Small arrows: Back door route. Black solid line: McKenzie River most of the way. Upper left corner: Yukon River from Fort Yukon to Dawson City

Map of goldfields with Dawson City and Klondike River at top. Red dot: discovery on Bonanza Creek.

Chart of gold production in Yukon, 1892–1912 Edit

Production of gold in Yukon around the Klondike Gold Rush. [348] 1896-1903: Increase after discovery at Klondike. 1903-1907: claims are sold big scale methods take over.

Population growth of west coast cities, 1890–1900 Edit

City 1890 1900 Difference %
San Francisco 298,997 342,782 43,785 15
Portland 46,385 90,426 44,041 95
Tacoma 36,006 37,714 1,708 5
Seattle 42,837 80,671 37,834 88
Vancouver 13,709 27,010 13,301 97
Victoria 16,841 20,919 4,078 24

Source: Alexander Norbert MacDonald, "Seattle, Vancouver and the Klondike," The Canadian Historical Review (September 1968), p. 246. [349]

Klondikers supply list Edit

  • 150 pounds (68 kg) bacon
  • 400 pounds (180 kg) flour
  • 25 pounds (11 kg) rolled oats
  • 125 pounds (57 kg) beans
  • 10 pounds (4.5 kg) tea
  • 10 pounds (4.5 kg) coffee
  • 25 pounds (11 kg) sugar
  • 25 pounds (11 kg) dried potatoes
  • 25 pounds (11 kg) dried onions
  • 15 pounds (6.8 kg) salt
  • 1 pound (0.45 kg) pepper
  • 75 pounds (34 kg) dried fruits
  • 8 pounds (3.6 kg) baking powder
  • 8 pounds (3.6 kg) soda
  • 0.5 pounds (0.23 kg) evaporated vinegar
  • 12 ounces (340 g) compressed soup
  • 1 can of mustard
  • 1 tin of matches (for four men)
  • Stove for four men
  • Gold pan for each
  • Set of granite buckets
  • Large bucket
  • Knife, fork, spoon, cup, and plate
  • Coffee and teapot
  • Two picks and one shovel
  • One whipsaw
  • Pack strap
  • Two axes for four men and one extra handle
  • Six 8-inch (200 mm) files and two taper files for the party , brace and bits, jack plane, and hammer for party
  • 200 feet (61 m) 0.375-inch (9.5 mm) rope
  • 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of pitch and 5 lb (2.3 kg). of oakum for four men
  • Nails, 5 pounds (2.3 kg) each of 6, 8, 10 and 12 penny, for four men , 10 by 12 feet (3.0 m × 3.7 m) for four men for wrapping
  • Two oil blankets to each boat
  • 5 yards (4.6 m) of mosquito netting for each man
  • 3 suits of heavy underwear
  • 1 heavy Mackinaw coat
  • 2 pairs heavy woollen trousers
  • 1 heavy rubber-lined coat
  • 12 heavy wool socks
  • 6 heavy wool mittens
  • 2 heavy over shirts
  • 2 pairs of heavy, snag proof rubber boots
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 4 pairs of blankets (for two men)
  • 4 towels
  • 2 pairs of overalls
  • 1 suit of oil clothing
  • Several changes of summer clothing
  • Small assortment of medicines

The list was a suggestion of equipment and supplies sufficient to support a prospector for one year, generated by the Northern Pacific Railroad company in 1897. The total weight is approximately 1 ton, and the estimated cost amounted to $140 ($3,800). [350]

Klondike Gold Rush History

On August 16, 1896, Dawson Charlie, Skookum Jim and George Carmack found gold on Rabbit (Bonanza) Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, and the Klondike Gold Rush began. News reached the outside world in July of 1897 when the steamships Excelsior and Portland reached San Francisco and Seattle, carrying the infamous “Ton of Gold”. News spread and caused a stampede of an estimated 100,000 people. Most would need to travel over 5000 km to get to the gold fields of Dawson City.

From 1896-1899 $29 million in gold was mined from the ground around Dawson City. Dawson became known as the “Paris of the North”: The largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle.

The Gold Rush changed the Yukon forever. As transportation improved, the North became more accessible. Towns such as Victoria, Vancouver, and Edmonton owe much of their development to this Last Great Rush. Today, this spirit can still be found in Dawson City and the communities along the gold rush trail.

Come experience the fun and adventure for yourself!


Chilkoot Trail

Whitehorse, Yukon

Trail that served as a trade and travel route for centuries, incl. during the Gold Rush.

Dawson Historical Complex

Dawson City, Yukon

Site commemorated for its association with the Klondike Gold Rush from 1896 to 1910.

Dredge No. 4

Dawson City, Yukon

Symbolizes the importance of dredging operations in the Yukon from 1899 to 1966.

Old Log Church Museum

Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

The Old Log Church is a place of heart, soul and passion.

Robinson Roadhouse

Mount Lorne, Yukon Territory

Robinson Roadhouse is a rest stop at kilometer 139.6 on the South Klondike Highway.

S.S. Keno

Dawson City, Yukon

Riverboat that played a major part in the history of the Klondike Gold Rush.

S.S. Klondike

Whitehorse, Yukon

The S.S. Klondike honors the steam-powered ships that linked Whitehorse to the world.

Caribou Hotel

Carcross, Yukon

The Caribou Hotel, located in Carcross, Yukon is a Designated Yukon Historic Site.

Road Map

Whitehorse, Yukon to Carcross, Yukon

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The Klondike Gold Rush

The Skagway Route was used by most prospectors. Their ships would land at Dyea and Skagway, at the head of the Lynn Canal at the end of the Inside Passage and from there they would travel over the mountain ranges into the Yukon and then down the river network. Camps were sprung up along the route for prospectors to eat and sleep at. At first, you could go from Seattle to Dyea for $40, or $1,100 today but by the winter steamships were not releasing their prices because they were increasing them daily. If a prospector landed at Skagway, they took the White Pass Trail, later called The Dead Horse Trail because of the huge number of horses who died on route. Most Klondikers would divide their belongings into 65-pound packages that could be carried on a man’s back, or by sled for heavier loads. Typically, it took 30 round trips, and 4,000 kilometres total, before all the supplies of a Klondiker was at the end of the travel. If someone had a sled, a strong man needed 1,600 kilometres of trips, taking 90 days, to transport everything. The trail was a terrible route, and was closed in late 1897, stranding 5,000 prospectors in Skagway.

Those who landed at Dyea took the Chilkoot Trail, which went up the Chilkoot Pass and 22,000 prospectors went over that pass during the gold rush. Due to the need to take so much food and equipment, the cold and the steepness of the slope, it often took a prospector an entire day to get to the top of the slope, and often they had to make numerous trips. The slope was too steep for animals, adding to the difficulty of getting gear over the top. Packers were able to charge up to one dollar per pound, or $27 today, to carry goods to the top. Most of the packers were Indigenous, which ended up bringing huge amounts of money into local communities. The route was also dangerous because of avalanches. On April 3, 1898, one avalanche killed over 60 people going over the Chilkoot Pass.

Duncan Clark, a farm boy from Iowa, saw the avalanche and describes it, quote:

“It was a horrible sight to see. Big robust men, the very picture of health, dug from the snow, put on a sled and hauled to the morgue. Forty were dead from the first day, my brother John among the number.”

Tappan Adney, a writer for Harpers Weekly, describes the pass as such, quote:

There was also the All-Canadian Routes, which ran up from British Columbia, and three which started in Edmonton, but most were barely trails at all and of the 1,660 prospectors who took the three routes out of Edmonton, only 685 arrived and it took them 18 months to make the journey. The British Columbia route allowed a person to go from Ashcroft, up gorges, through mountains and across swamps. It was very difficult and only a few prospectors, about 1,500, attempted this.

Unlike gold rushes in the past, the Canadians practiced strict border controls, as I had mentioned. Both the US and Canada claimed Dyea and Skagway as their own and early in the gold rush the US Army sent a detachment to Circle City to intervene if required in the Klondike, while the Canadians looked at preventing all American prospectors into the Yukon Territory. In the end, the US agreed to making Dyea a sub-port of entry for Canadians, and the Canadians permitted American miners in the Klondike. The North West Mounted Police, only a quarter century old, had a big role to play in the Klondike, with people like Sir Sam Steele helping to make it the most orderly gold rush in history. The NWMP operated posts at all ports of entry, equipped with Maxim guns, with the orders to enforce the rules related to the year’s supply of food, checking for illegal weapons and preventing the entry of criminals. They also enforced custom duties, which the American miners were not happy about. They often had to pay an average of 25 per cent of the value of their goods and supplies. The NWMP had a reputation of running the posts honestly, although there are rumours of some bribes, while prospectors attempted to smuggle silk for women into the country, along with whiskey for the saloons.

So, what of the people who made it to the Klondike to be prospectors. Well, of the 30,000 to 40,000 who reached Dawson City, 15,000 to 20,000 became prospectors. Of those, about 4,000 struck gold and only a few hundred became rich.

A big reason for this lack of success was that by the time most Klondikers arrived in 1898, the best creeks had long been claimed by the first arrivals or long-term miners in the area. All the claims along the Bonanza, Eldorado, Hunker and Dominion Creeks were taken, and by July 1898, 10,000 more claims were put forward, causing miners to have to mine for gold farther and farther from where the gold was.

While the first miners were able to get gold nearly on the surface of the water, called placer gold, with some gold being 15 to 30 feet beneath the surface. Bench gold on hilltops from old streams were also found but as time went on, the gold was harder to find. Most miners assumed gold would be along the creeks but by late 1897 most of the hilltops were being mined. Another issue was that the gold was unevenly distributed in the areas where it was found, making it hard to predict where good mining sites would be.

Those who were newly arrived in the Yukon were called Cheechako and it was only after a year that someone could then be called a Sourdough. For many that arrived in the Klondike, the time it took to get there soon resulted in being stranded through the winter, living in small shacks, for seven months, mostly being bored out of their minds.

I’m not going to get into the methods of mining, what was used, because for me the more interesting aspects of the Klondike are the journey the miners took, and the society that sprang up in the Yukon because of the Klondike.

In Dawson City, the boomtown that sprang up from the Klondike Gold Rush, there were mostly men and a few women, most of whom were wives of miners. There were women who entertained in gambling and dance halls and some women would come to the Klondike because of the lavish spending by successful miners to attract the few women in the region. Unlike other boomtowns, the North West Mounted Police kept Dawson quite lawful. Gambling and prostitution were allowed, but robbery and murder were quite rare. This is in sharp contrast to Skagway, which was under the US government’s rules, and which was a hotbed of criminal activity. It was said not even an angel could keep good in Dawson.

Dyea and Skagway were small settlements before the gold rush with no docking facilities. Within weeks of miners arriving, storehouses, saloons and offices were springing up in both communities. John Muir, the noted author, wrote about Skagway, quote:

“a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick.”

As was mentioned, Skagway, the more popular of the ports, became a place dominated by gunfire, drinking and prostitution. On visiting the community, Sir Sam Steele said that it was, quote, “little better than a hell on Earth, about the roughest place in the world.”

By the summer of 1898, Skagway had 20,000 people in it and was the largest city in Alaska. In Skagway, Jefferson Randolph Soapy Smith operated with his gang, effectively controlling the entire city. His gang of 300 men cheated and stole from the prospectors who arrived. He operated three saloons on the guise he was an upstanding member of the community, but he had several fake businesses. One was a fake telegraph office that charged to send messages to the rest of the continent, but nothing was sent, and a fake reply was usually received. Eventually, people grew fed up with Smith and he was shot on July 8, 1898.

Even communities far from the Yukon, like Edmonton, saw an increase. At the time of the gold strike in the Yukon, Edmonton had 1,500 people. By 1898, there were 4,000 people living in the community.

No place though, increased to the point of Dawson City.

Joseph Ladue, an American who had lived in the Yukon since 1882, operated a trading post on the Yukon River, 70 kilometres above the mouth of the Klondike. Instead of staking claims for gold, he chose instead to stake out 65 hectares of swamp and moose pasture at the river, called it Dawson City and made a fortune selling lots and lumber to build them. He named it for the director of Canada’s Geographical Survey, George Mercer Dawson, and by the winter of 1896, 500 people were living in the community with plots selling for $500 each, or $14,000 each today. By the spring of 1898, the population was 30,000 strong with buildings appearing on a daily basis. This was not good news for the community. There was no running water or sewer system, and only two springs for drinking water, along with the river that was quickly becoming heavily polluted. By that spring, plots were selling for $10,000, or $280,000 today, with prime spots on Front Street selling for $20,000, or $560,000 today. A small log cabin would rent out for $100, or $2,800 today.

On one city block, a huge white circus tent could be seen surrounded by ramshackle wooden buildings. Inside the tent was a portable bowling alley, a soda machine, two dozen pigeons, along with fine china and silver. The owners of the tent were two rich American women named Edith Van Buren and Mary Hitchcock, who perfectly showed the heyday of Dawson City and the things that you could find.

One couple made $30,000, or $500,000, in one single winter in the Yukon selling coffee and pies.

With the community springing up so quickly and building codes not being something anyone considered, fires were common. The first fire happened on Nov. 25, 1897 when Belle Mitchell, a dance hall girl accidently started a fire. She accidently started another one on Oct. 14, 1898, which destroyed the post office, a bank and two saloons. The worst fire occurred on April 26, 1899 when a saloon caught fire, burning 117 buildings, causing $28 million in damages in today’s funds.

As can be expected, the logistics of getting food and other supplies to the community was critical and difficult. By the winter of 1897, it was clear that there was not enough food for the winter and the North West Mounted Police started to evacuate prospectors without enough supplies. Salt was worth its weight in gold, and items such as nails for construction cost upwards of $28, $784 today, per pound. Cans of butter sold for $5 a tin, or $140 today. There were only eight horses in Dawson in the winter of 1897 and all eight were slaughtered for dog food. By the spring, eggs sold for $3 each, or $84 today. Due to the lack of fresh food, scurvy was a big problem, as were dysentery, typhoid and malaria.

Alexander Anderson spent a winter in the Yukon in 1898 and spent all his resources on a Christmas celebration, buying three potatoes for $3, along with apples and eggs for the same price. He also said restaurants would offer meals for any purse advertising common feed for $1, square meal for $2, belt buster for $3 and mortal gorge for $4. One nearby hotel advertised good bunks for $2 a night, but clean sheets cost a dollar extra.

For many in Dawson, it was a free for all in terms of drinking, gambling and more. Rich prospectors were known to put down $1,000 at dice, $28,000 today, or $5,000 per pot in poker, equivalent to $140,000 today. To accommodate the money flowing around, elaborate opera houses were built, with singers brought in from around North America. Prospectors would spend huge amounts of money to have fun. Jimmy McMahon was rumoured to spend $28,000 in an evening, or $784,000 today. Many saloons would sweep up gold dust off the floors, making fortunes in the process.

As was mentioned, the North West Mounted Police were vital to keeping the order in Dawson City. In all of 1898, there were no murders in the city, and few thefts. In all, only 150 arrests were made that entire year. The NWMP did arrest a few dozen people for prostitution to regulate the sex industry, but the money from the fines issued were used to fund local hospitals. The American prospectors outnumbered the Canadians five-to-one, and while many Americans did not like coming up against the Canadian rules, in time they came to respect the NWMP and were happy not to be in danger of being robbed while they conducted their business.

It was in the Klondike that the legend of Sam Steele would be formed, as shown in this Heritage Minute from the 1990s

“For single men, the Arctic has excellent accommodations as well as the best restaurant in Bennett but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep as they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings and uttered too by the depraved of their own sex.” When the Skagway to Whitehorse Railroad bypassed Bennett, Trump took down his restaurant and moved it to Whitehorse where he opened a larger restaurant and hotel. He continued with offering food, drinks and women, adding in gambling. With the crackdown on prostitution coming, Trump left for Germany, and then came back to America.

For some, the Klondike was the start of an amazing career and life. Kate Rockwell, who became known as Klondike Kate, was an American dancer who found fame in Dawson City for her dancing, earning her that nickname. After the gold rush, she went to British Columbia and then Oregon where she homesteaded. She continued to act and perform for the rest of her life. Her love and partner in Dawson, Alexander Pantages, started his career in Dawson, eventually buying a theatre there. He would go on to become a movie tycoon, operating 84 theatres across North America. A sex assault charge in 1929 caused the decline of his business empire and he died with little left in his bank account. The aforementioned Martha Black would keep her money and became the second female member of the Canadian House of Commons. Jack London would come to the Yukon during the Gold Rush and it would inspire him to write The Call of the Wild.

For the Indigenous of the region, the Klondike Gold Rush was devastating. While many prospered briefly as packers and guides, the environmental damage of the gold mining on the rivers and forests was considerable. After the gold rush had come and gone, the fishing and hunting grounds of the Indigenous had been destroyed, and by 1904, they needed aid and rations from the NWMP to prevent famine.

As for Dawson, it would continue on while many other boom towns from other gold rushes failed. By 1907, there were residents still living in the community but many of the buildings were deserted and by 1912 only 2,000 people remained. By 1972, 500 people were living in the community, but it would see rebound beginning in the 1970s, reaching 1,300 people today. Tourism and the celebration of the Klondike past in Dawson remain strong to this day.

What of the people who started it all?

George and Kate would take their wealth from the gold find and move to a ranch near Modesto, California but George soon abandoned Kate and moved to Seattle where he married another woman. He would live there in a 12-room house with his new wife and start buying up real estate on the advice of his wife Marguerite. Even though he had immense wealth, George never stopped looking for gold and put down several claims, but nothing came close to his discovery at Bonanza Creek. He would die at the age of 61 in 1922 in Seattle. Mount Carmack in Alaska is named for him.

Kate would leave California after George left her and was told she could not get alimony because she was not his lawful wife. She would return to the Yukon and Keish built her a cabin near his own, where she lived with her daughter. Kate would die from the Spanish Flu in 1920.

Keish, despite being very wealthy from mining royalties, mined for the rest of his life and would die in Whitehorse at the age of only 55 in 1916, survived by his sister, daughter Daisy and cousin Tagish.

Kaa Goox would adopt the name Charles Henderson in 1901, spent money at a high rate and would sadly die in 1908 when he fell off the White Pass Railway Bridge.

Gold mining continued in the region, and still does, but nothing to the scale that was once seen. By 2005, it is estimated 1.25 million pounds of gold had been recovered from the Klondike over the past century.

Starvation and Disease

Stampeders climbing up the "Golden Stairs" on the Chilkoot Pass trail.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Stampeders faced dozens of dangers along the trails into the Klondike. An avalanche in the spring of 1898 killed 63 people along the Chilkoot Pass trail. The previous September, heavy storms and a flood washed away much of the tent town set up at Sheep Camp, also on the Chilkoot Pass trail.

Skeletons of a few of over three thousand pack animals that died along the White Pass trail in the first years of the rush.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Certainly those who had survived the trails, the river, the White Horse Rapids, and made it all the way to the gold fields must have believed that they were now safe. Stampeders who spent the winter of 1897/1898 camped along the trails heard rumors from outgoing travelers of harsh conditions in Dawson, including talk of starvation.

In 1897, over 1,000 stampeders beat the bulk of the rush and reached Dawson before winter set in. Many of the new arrivals were inadequantely prepared and had not brought enough supplies with them to last through the spring. By September 30, 1897, when the last steamship of the season had unladed its cargo at Dawson, officials determined that unless some action was taken, there would not be food enough for everyone that winter.

Posted in Dawson, September 30, 1897
"The undersigned, officials of the Candian Government, having carefully looked over the present distressing situation in regard to the supply of food for the winter, find that the stock on hand is not sufficient to meet the wants of the people now in the district, and can see but one way out of the difficulty, and that is an immediate move down-river of all those who are now unsupplied to Fort Yukon, where there is a large stock of provisions. In a few days the river will be closed, and the move must be made now, if at all. It is absolutely hazardous to build hopes upon the arrival of other boats. It is almost beyond a possibility that any more food will come into this district. For those who have not laid in a winter's supply to remain here longer is to court death from starvation, or at least a certainty of sickness from scurvy and other troubles. Starvation now stares every one in the face who is hoping and waiting for outside relief. . . .

C. Constantine, Inspector Northwestern Mounted Police.

D.W.Davis, Collector of Customs

Thomas Fawcett, Gold Commissioner"

Dawson City, Canada
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries

By the end of October, a couple of hundred people had heeded the warnings and left for Fort Yukon, Alaska. Many took advantage of an offer by the Canadian Government to "have all persons not provided with food for the winter carried free of charge to Fort Yukon on the steamer Bella."

What the Mounties did not know was that the conditions at Fort Yukon were not much better than at Dawson and in the end, it was fortunate that more people did not take advantage of the Mounties' offer. During the winter of 1897/1898, word of the possibility of starvation conditions at Dawson reached as far south as Skagway and Dyea.

It was Canadian reluctance to accept the ultimate responsibility of the tens of thousands poised to head over the border that led the Mounties to require that each stampeder carry in ton of supplies (enough to see each stampeder through at least one year in the Yukon).

Word that Americans were starving in Dawson set a truly wacky idea into motion. Determined not to allow Americans to starve to death, American officials decided to import a herd of reindeer from northern Europe to Alaska. The theory was that the herd would provide a sustained food source for the population. Unfortunately, transportating the reindeer herd to Alaska took more time than anticipated. It arrived there long after the starvation threat had disappeared. Some of the animals were used to carry the mail in subsequent years.

All along the trail, stampeders lived in tents crowded together. These tents belonged to stampeders waiting out the winter along Lake Lindeman.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries

Dr. E.M. Riniger had run a small hospital near the Chilkoot Pass in 1898 before he moved, first to Dawson, and then later to Nome. During these years, he treated 177 cases of typhoid fever. He wrote up his experiences for a medical journal in 1906.

"During seven years of practice in Alaska, I cared for 177 cases of typhoid fever. . . . The great majority of these cases were typical the general run of symptoms encountered were the same. A large percentage had nosebleed, right iliac tenderness and the usual course of fever the rose spots were present in nearly every case, and in six of them so numerous as to produce the appearance of general rash."

"Northwest Medicine," September 1906

Typhoid fever was the most common disease to haunt miners. Its appearance in camp after camp was no accident. The miners built their cabins and tents far too close to each other, on soil that was frequently a flat, boggy tundra.

The Dawson waterfront in the summer of 1898. Tents covered both banks of the Klondike River. With thousands rushing into the gold fields, little thought was given to hygiene or sewage disposal.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The frozen ground, covered with moss and mulch did not allow for surface water to drain off. When that was added to the long, hot northern summers, disease was inevitable. Typhoid fever ravaged many camps, but would have been far worse had not so many miners constantly boiled their drinking water. Some who had originally gone north to mine made money selling uncontaminated bottled water in some camps. The disease was survivable, and in fact fewer than four percent of Dr. Riniger's patients died of typhoid fever. Those who did were the ones who had waited too long for help, or disregarded medical advice.

An exhausted stampeder naps alongside the trail.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries

Although better than tents, the miserable condition of most miners' cabins in the Klondike gold fields did not help their health. Such cabins were typically about 14' x 16', with only a little ventilation in the ceiling, if any at all, with anywhere from two to six men, their provisions, and sometimes their dogs crowded into the space.

Stampeder tents lined the beaches of Nome through much of 1900.
Photo courtesy of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art

Eighty-seven people died in Nome in 1900. Most of those died from typhoid fever, pneumonia or tuberculosis. The sanitary conditions were not much better in Nome than in previous gold towns across Alaska and the Upper Yukon. The fledgling city government did make an attempt to control the spread of disease by fining those who did not use public latrines. The latrine tickets were sold for 10-cents each, or three for 25-cents.

They Were From All Walks of Life

While most of the prospectors who ventured to the Yukon were either Americans or recent immigrants, some 20% were from other nations. These were all men who came to the West Coast of the U.S. after the news of new-found gold went around the world. Most had no experience in mining and were in many cases clerks, salesmen, or manual laborers. Consequently, mass resignations of workers to join the gold rush became a common topic in daily conversations.

However, in some cases, well-known personalities joined the rush to the Yukon. Some of these were: John McGraw, the former governor of Washington Frederick Burnham, a well-known American scout and explorer William D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle twelve Seattle policemen and a number of city streetcar drivers left their jobs to join the stampede well-known bare-knuckle boxer Danny Needham joined the Klondike Gold Rush even Calamity Jane, the famous frontier woman joined the stampede. In fact, dozens of other well-known people either ventured to the Yukon in search of gold or for the sake of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Chronicling the remarkable human wave of fortune seekers were Swedish-born photographer Eric Hegg as mentioned before Jack London reporter, artist, and photographer Tappan Adney Mary Evelyn Hitchcock (pen names: Mary Doyle and Mrs. Roswell D. Hitchcock), American author and explorer along with her friend Edith Van Buren (Countess de Castelmenardo) Rex Beach, novelist and playwright who wrote the true story The Spoilers, about government officials stealing gold mines from prospectors in the Klondike and James Oliver Curwood, action-adventure writer, and conservationist.

Park Museums

Exhibits in the Visitor Center Museum give visitors an overview of the Klondike Gold Rush.

In Skagway, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is made up of over 20 historical buildings. Today, four of them are museums that are open to the public. Each museum shares a different aspect of gold rush life from saloons to families to tourism. Additionally, the Skagway Museum is run by the City of Skagway and covers town history from gold rush to present day.

Visitor Center Museum

Location: 2nd and Broadway, next to the National Park Service Visitor Center
Learn more: hours of operation, building history, virtual tour

Trace the gold rush from the beginning, choose your route the gold fields, and find out how you fare. This recently rennovated museum includes accessible, interactive exhibits. Smell, see, hear, and feel aspects of the gold rush adventure. The exhibits include artifacts from the park's collection, video clips, maps, photographs, and dioramas. This is a good place to spend time between activities in Skagway, or to dive into the history and learning more.

Moore House Museum

Built over the course of several years starting in 1897, this was the home of the first family to live in Skagway. Today two rooms have been restored to their Victorian era charm. Other rooms feature exhibits about the family, life in this frontier town, the interracial marriage between Ben Moore and Klinget-sai-yet, and the restoration of the building. This museum is staffed by a park ranger and often a quiet, less visited park location. During the summer months you can enjoy the spacious yard and shaded seating area.

Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum

Location: 2nd Ave, second building from the corner of 2nd Ave and Broadway
Learn more: reserve your tour, hours of operation, building history, virtual tour

Once the headquarters for notorious outlaw, Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, this former bar was transformed into a home-spun museum in 1935 with rare photos, one of a kind artifacts, folk art, strange taxidermy, and even animatronic mannequins. For many decades this museum was a critical part of Skagway's tourism. Today it has been restored to its 1960s glory. This museum is not to be missed and best experienced as part of a ranger guided tour.

Mascot Saloon Museum

Location: Broadway and 3rd Ave
Learn more: hours of operation, building history

Once the longest running gold rush era saloon, the business shut down when the town outlawed alcohol in 1916. Step back in time and see the restored saloon for one of the best photo opportunities in the park. Learn about vice in Skagway, community characters, town changes, and restoration of this building.

Exhibits at the Visitor Center Museum allow visitors to trace the Chilkoot and White Pass trails.


On July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle from Alaska with 68 miners and a cargo of “more than a ton of solid gold” from the banks of the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory. This set off a rush to Alaska and an era of prosperity in King County that lasted for more than a decade

Seattle residents woke to the sound of newspaper boys hawking an extra edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with the following headline:

Sixty-eight Rich Men on
the Steamer Portland
Some Have $5,000, Many Have More
A Few Bring Out $100,000 Each

The article began, “At 3 o’clock this morning the steamer Portland from St. Michael [Alaska] for Seattle, passed up the Sound with more than a ton of solid gold aboard.” The Post-Intelligencer scooped the other Seattle newspapers when its reporter, Beriah Brown Jr., took a tug from Seattle to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and waited for the Portland to pass by. Brown was the son of Beriah Brown (1815-1900), a former P-I editor and Seattle mayor.

The tug, Sea Lion, met the Portland off Cape Flattery, and Brown embarked the inbound steamer and interviewed some of the gold miners. Then the tug headed full speed to Port Townsend. Brown ran to the telegraph operator's home and roused him and wired the story to the Post-Intelligencer: "A ton of gold is coming to Seattle."

The Post Intelligencer issued the extra edition before the Portland docked. The news spread fast and by 6 a.m. a crowd of more than 5,000 greeted the Portland when she tied up to Schwabacher Wharf.

Among the Portland’s passengers were:

  • William Stanley, a former Seattle bookseller, and his son, who went to the Yukon valley in 1896 and returned with from $90,000 to $112,000 in gold dust and nuggets
  • Frank Phiscator from Baroda, Michigan, who spent just three months in Alaska and disembarked the Portland with from $96,000 to $120,000 in gold
  • T. J. Kelly, a Tacoma resident, who returned from the Klondike with $10,000 in gold
  • Clarence Berry, a Fresno, California, fruit farmer and his wife, who unloaded off the Portland about $135,000 in gold dust and nuggets.

After all the gold was weighed the Post-Intelligencer’s one-ton estimate turned out to be too low. The actual amount unloaded from the Portland was two tons.

People were immediately infected with Klondike Fever. By 9:30 a.m. the city’s downtown streets were so crowded with people that some streetcars were forced to stop running. Seattle Times reporters, longshoremen, and others quit their jobs on the spot and looked for passage to Alaska.

William D. Wood (1858-1917), mayor of Seattle, who was attending a convention in San Francisco, telegraphed his resignation and headed to Alaska without even stopping in Seattle. Local merchants quickly sold out of miners' supplies. The fever spread across the United States quicker than any virus. Within 24 hours, 2,000 New York residents attempted to buy tickets for the Klondike, unsuccessfully because the locals had already bought them. Within 10 days, 1,500 persons departed Seattle for the gold fields. The rush was on.

Gold prospectors and supplies outside of merchant Cooper & Levy, Seattle, ca. 1897

S. S. Portland, ca. 1905

Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.7,554)


James R. Warren and William R. McCoy, Highlights of Seattle’s History Illustrated (Seattle: Historical Society of Seattle and King County, 1982), 23 "When the P-I Shook the World with Story of Alaska Ship with a Ton of Gold!" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 19, 1957, Pictorial Review, p. 2 Pierre Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899 (Toronto: MaCLelland and Stewart, 1972), 96-100. Note: The steamship Portland was wrecked at Katalla, in Alaska, on November 12, 1910. Gordon Newell, "Maritime Events of 1910," in H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977).
Note: This file was corrected on August 28, 2006, to note that Frank Phiscator came from Baroda, Michigan, with thanks to Phiscator's great great nephew, Adam John Huttenstine, for the information.

Articles Featuring Klondike Gold Rush From History Net Magazines

On August 16, 1896, George Washington Carmack and two Indian friends in the Yukon pried a nugget from the bed of Rabbit Creek, a tributary of Canada’s Klondike River, and set in motion one of the most frenzied and fabled gold rushes in history. Over the next two years, at least 100,000 eager would-be prospectors from all over the world set out for the new gold fields with dreams of a quick fortune dancing in their heads. Only about 40,000 actually made it to the Klondike, and precious few of them ever found their fortune.

Swept along on this tide of gold seekers was a smaller and cannier contingent, also seeking their fortunes but in a far more practical fashion. They were the entrepreneurs, the men and women who catered to the Klondike fever.

George Carmack, the man who began it all, was neither a die-hard prospector nor a keen businessman. The California native was simply in the right place at the right time. Not that this son of a Forty-Niner had anything against being rich. But, like most of the white men who drifted north in the 1870s and 󈨔s, he came as much for the solitude as for the gold.

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There had been rumors of gold in the Yukon as far back as the 1830s, but little was done about it. The harsh land and harsher weather, plus the Chilkoot Indians’ jealous guarding of their territory, effectively kept out most prospectors–until 1878, when a man named George Holt braved the elements and the Indians and came back with nuggets impressive enough to make other prospectors follow his lead. By 1880, there were perhaps 200 miners panning fine placer gold from the sandbars along the Yukon River.

In 1885, gold was found in paying quantities on the bars of the Stewart River, south of the Klondike River. The next year, coarse gold was found on the Forty Mile River, and a trading post, called Fortymile, then sprang up where the river joins the Yukon River. In 1893, a little farther down the Yukon, in Alaska, two Russian half-bloods hit pay dirt that produced $400,000 a year in gold, and spawned the boom town of Circle City. Known as ‘The Paris of Alaska,’ it boasted two theaters, eight dance halls, 28 saloons, a library and a school. But when news of the strike on Rabbit Creek (soon to be renamed Bonanza Creek) reached the citizens of Circle City, they decamped in droves. Only a year before Carmack’s lucky find, Canada had created the Yukon District as an administrative subunit within the Northwest Territories, and construction had begun on Fort Constantine (across from Fortymile), the first North-West Mounted Police post in the Yukon. So law enforcement was in place just in time to greet the droves of prospectors who would soon be stampeding to the Klondike region of the Yukon District, which would become a separate territory on June 13, 1898.

Like his Indian friends, George Carmack believed in visions. Shortly before his dramatic discovery, he had a vision in which two salmon with golden scales and gold nuggets for eyes appeared before him. So lacking in mercenary impulses was he that he interpreted this as a sign that he should take up salmon fishing. And that’s just what he was doing, along with his friends Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, when a determined prospector named Robert Henderson floated down from upriver and, in keeping with the prospector’s code, told George about the ‘color’ he’d found on a creek he dubbed Gold Bottom Creek. But, he warned, glaring at Jim and Charley, he didn’t want any ‘damn Siwashes’ staking claims there.

The three friends didn’t like Henderson’s attitude, and for two weeks they ignored his lead. Then, with nothing better to do, they meandered over to check out Henderson’s claim. Henderson insulted the Indians again by refusing to sell them tobacco. Indignant, George, Jim and Charley left and set up camp on Rabbit Creek. While cleaning a dishpan, one of the three unearthed the thumb-sized chunk of gold that set the great rush in motion. Probably because of the insults, Carmack didn’t bother to hike the short distance back to Henderson’s diggings to tell him of the strike. Instead, he headed downriver the 50 or so miles to Fortymile to record his claim, and Jim’s and Charley’s. On the way, he bragged to everyone he saw of his good luck.

Most of the old-timers just scoffed. Carmack had made’strikes’ before that amounted to nothing, earning him the nickname ‘Lying George,’ so they put little stock in this new bonanza of his. But a few cheechakos (newcomers) went to investigate, and the word spread. Within five days, the valley was swarming with prospectors. By the end of August, the whole length of Bonanza Creek was staked out in claims then an even richer vein was found on a tributary that became known as Eldorado Creek.

If all this had come about early in the year, the news would have reached civilization within a few weeks. But winter was already closing in. Once the rivers froze and the heavy snows fell, communication with the outside was nearly impossible. William Ogilvie, a Canadian government surveyor, sent off two separate messages to Ottawa, telling of the magnitude of the strike, but both were lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.

So it wasn’t until the following July (1897), when steamships from Alaska docked in San Francisco and Seattle–disgorging 68 ragged miners carrying more than 2 tons of gold in suitcases, boxes, blankets and coffee cans–that the outside world caught the Klondike fever.

The fever quickly reached epidemic proportions. Like a worn-down body that’s susceptible to any disease that comes along, the country was particularly susceptible just then to gold fever. The amount of gold in circulation had dropped, helping to cause the deep economic depression that had been eating at the United States for 30 years. The Pacific Northwest had been hit especially hard. People were tired of being poor many who had jobs quit them for the promise of greater rewards. Streetcar drivers abandoned their trolleys a quarter of the Seattle police force walked out even the mayor resigned and bought a steamboat to carry passengers to the Klondike.

Those who had no jobs mortgaged their homes or borrowed the $500 or so needed to buy an ‘outfit’–a stove, tent, tools, nails and enough supplies to last a year. A proper outfit tipped the scales at nearly 2,000 pounds–though one fast-talking salesman began hawking a valise that he claimed contained a year’s worth of desiccated food and weighed only 250 pounds!He was just one of a growing number of enterprising citizens who realized there was a fortune to be made right here at home, simply by selling a product, however dubious in value, with the name Klondike attached. There were Klondike medicine chests, Klondike electric gold pans, Klondike mining schools, a Klondike bicycle, even a portable Klondike house purported to be ‘light as air’ when folded up–a doubtful claim, considering it featured a double bed and an iron stove.

Inventors dreamed up devices that promised to make the task of digging gold positively pleasant. Nikola Tesla, one of the pioneers of electricity, promoted an X-ray machine that would supposedly detect precious metals beneath the ground without all the trouble of digging. A Trans-Alaskan Gopher Company proposed to train gophers to claw through frozen gravel and uncover nuggets. Clairvoyants touted their abilities to pinpoint rich lodes of gold. Several ventures were underway to invade the Klondike by balloon.

Even as all these cockeyed schemes and services were being offered, there was one crucial commodity that was in desperately short supply–transportation. There weren’t nearly enough ships in the Northwest to handle the stampede of gold seekers𔃀,800 from Seattle alone in a single week. Everything that floated was pressed into service–ancient paddlewheelers and fishing boats, barges, coal ships still full of coal dust. All were overloaded, and many unseaworthy they were dubbed ‘floating coffins,’ and all too often they lived up to the name.

A few ships sailed around the Aleutians and through the Bering Sea to St. Michael, Alaska, on Norton Sound. The passengers could then take riverboats upstream from the Yukon River delta to the gold fields, a 1,600-mile trip on the winding Yukon. But not many Klondikers could afford the $1,000 fare. Most boats went only as far as Skagway in the Alaska Panhandle, where the passengers and their outfits were unceremoniously dumped on the mile-wide tidal flats. If the Klondikers weren’t ready to turn back by then, there was plenty of adversity ahead to change their minds. Skagway itself was no beach resort. It was, in fact, a grimy anarchic tent town that a visiting Englishman described as ‘the most outrageously lawless quarter I have ever struck. ‘ There was a saloon or a con man, or both, on every corner, and gunfire in the streets was so commonplace as to be mostly ignored. The most famous of the con men was Jefferson Randolph (‘Soapy’) Smith, the ‘Uncrowned King of Skagway,’ who ran the town’s underworld until he died in a July 8, 1898, shootout.

But even in this chaotic setting, legitimate businesses flourished. What the would-be miner needed by now was some way of getting his outfit to the gold fields, so anyone with a wagon and a team or a few mules could do well for himself–or herself. Harriet Pullen, a widow with a brood of children, arrived in Skagway with $7 to her name, but parlayed it into a fortune by driving a freight outfit all day and, at night, baking apple pies in pans hammered out of old tin cans. She became the town’s most distinguished citizen. Joe Brooks, one of the most successful ‘packers,’ owned 335 mules and raked in $5,000 a day–far more than most men earned in a year. In keeping with the nature of the town, he wasn’t overly scrupulous if he was hauling equipment for one customer and got a more tempting offer, he’d simply dump the first shipment alongside the trail.

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In addition to the boat passage up the Yukon, there were at least five trails being touted as the best route to the gold fields. But three of those were so long and hazardous that only a few men ever succeeded in reaching the Klondike alive on them. The two most heavily traveled routes began in Skagway and the neighboring town of Dyea.

In the fall of 1897, the more popular was the 550-mile Skagway Trail over White Pass. At first glance, it seemed the less demanding of the two it climbed more gradually, which meant that–in theory at least–pack animals could negotiate it. Once on the trail, miners found it nowhere near as easy as it looked. It led them through mudholes big enough to swallow an animal, over sharp rocks that tore at horses’ legs and hooves, across cliffs of slippery slate, where the trail was a scant 2 feet wide and a 500-foot drop awaited any animal–or miner–who made a misstep.

Most of the pack animals were broken-down horses that would have been lucky to survive the trek under the best of conditions. Overburdened as they were by miners desperate to get their outfits over the pass as quickly as possible, they didn’t stand a chance. Before long, the trail was christened ‘Dead Horse Trail’ after the many carcasses that littered it. As writer Jack London described it, ‘The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps. ‘ If a horse gave out in the middle of the narrow trail, no one bothered to drag it away it was simply ground into the earth by the endless parade of feet and hooves. Faced with this nightmare of mud and mayhem, thousands of miners turned back, sold their outfits, and retreated to civilization with spirits broken and pockets empty. But thousands more slogged on and reached Lake Bennett, the headwaters of the Yukon River. Only a very few made it before cold weather choked the lake and the river with ice. The rest were marooned on the shores of the lake until spring.

When heavy snow made the Skagway Trail impassable, the growing flow of gold seekers switched to the Dyea Trail, also called the ‘Poor Man’s Trail’ because it was too steep for pack animals. But even there, the Klondikers were forced to hire Indian packers, at as much as 50 cents a pound, or else lug their outfits themselves, 100 pounds at a time, leaving each load alongside the trail somewhere, then going back for the next load and so on, over and over by the time a miner transferred his whole outfit to the far side of the pass, he might have walked the 40-mile trail 30 or 40 times, and spent three months doing it. The most daunting part was Chilkoot Pass, which lay at the top of a nearly vertical slope, four miles long. An unbroken stream of Klondikers toiled up it day and night–a total of 22,000 in the winter of 1897. It was an agonizing climb, and the worst of it was that each man had to repeat it again and again until his entire outfit was carried over the pass. The only consolation was that, between loads, he got a free ride down the snowy slope on the seat of his pants.

For the entrepreneur, there was money to be made here, too. Several roadhouses went up along the trail, including the grandly named Palmer House at the foot of the pass. Most were no more than large tents or ramshackle wooden structures, but they offered hot meals and a place to sleep, even if it was only on the floor. On the worst stretches of trail, an enterprising man could bridge a mudhole with logs and charge a fee to each miner who crossed. At the pass itself, several men laboriously chopped 1,500 steps in the hard-packed snow, then collected so much money in tolls that the route was dubbed ‘the Golden Stairs.’

Like the travelers on the Skagway Trail, those who crossed Chilkoot Pass ended up in a vast tent city on the shores of Lake Bennett and spent long months there, waiting for the thaw. Most passed the time cutting trees from the surrounding hillsides and sawing them into planks for boats that, in the spring, would take them down the Yukon River to the gold fields, still 500 miles away.

At the end of May 1898, the ice broke, and a flotilla of flimsy, handmade craft set off downriver, only to encounter one last deadly obstacle–Miles Canyon. The ferocious rapids in the canyon smashed boats to splinters on the rocks, so many of them that the North-West Mounted Police decreed that every boat had to be inspected and then guided through by a competent pilot. A few experienced sailors got substantial grubstakes by taking boats through the canyon at up to $100 a trip. Among them was Jack London, who netted a cool $3,000.

The boats had one more stretch of rapids to endure, and then the Yukon stayed pretty tame all the way to Dawson City. Before the fall of 1896, Dawson didn’t exist. When gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek, a tent camp went up at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. By the following summer, its population had grown to 5,000. A year later, after the Klondike fever spread worldwide, it swelled to 40,000–becoming one of the largest cities in Canada. Thanks to the North-West Mounted Police, it was a far more law-abiding town than Skagway, though there were only 19 Mounties in the Yukon in late 1896. By November 1898, however, there would be 285. In the summer of 1897, the Mounties’ new headquarters became Fort Herchmer, at Dawson. Detachments were established atop White and Chilkoot passes. The Mounties’ main function was collecting customs duty for supplies brought into Canada by the gold seekers. In addition, between 1898 and 1900, a 200-man militia outfit, known as the Yukon Field Force, also operated in the area, helping the North-West Mounted Police to guard gold shipments, banks and prisoners.

Despite the presence of law enforcement officers, the flood of new gold seekers still generally found the Yukon just another stage of Hell. After a miserable, cramped sea voyage, after a weary trek across mosquito-infested bogs and over glaciers, after interminable months spent courting frostbite in a flimsy tent, they had finally reached the fabled gold fields, only to find that all the land along every gold-bearing creek had long since been staked out. For many of them, this was the final blow they sold their outfits and headed home. Those who stayed felt lucky to find jobs in the bustling town or working someone else’s claim for $17 a day in gold dust–good wages on the outside, but barely a living here.

But if Dawson dashed the dreams of the gold seekers, for those few who’d had the foresight to bring goods to sell, the town was a gold mine. The old timers who had spent the winter there, subsisting on a diet of beans and biscuits at best, were eager to trade their gold for luxuries like eggs, fruit, writing paper, or just a bit of news from the outside. One newcomer sold a months-old copy of a Seattle newspaper, soaked with bacon grease, for $15.

As Dawson grew, so did the fortunes of those who made the right business decisions. While most men devoted their energies to working a single claim, Alex McDonald, a Nova Scotian whose shy, awkward manner belied a canny business sense, bought up the claims of discouraged miners and hired others to work them for him. He earned $5 million and the title ‘King of the Klondike’ without ever lifting a pick or shovel. The ‘Queen of the Klondike,’ Belinda Mulroney, took another route to riches. She arrived in the Klondike in the spring of 1897 with $5,000 worth of cotton clothing and hot-water bottles, which she sold for $30,000. Next, she opened a lunch counter and, with the profits, hired men to build cabins that sold before the roofs were on. A successful roadhouse near the gold fields followed. But that was not ambitious enough for Mulroney. She went on to build the grandest hotel in the Klondike–the Fairview, which boasted brass beds, fine china, cut-glass chandeliers and chamber music in the lobby, even electricity generated by the engine of a yacht anchored in the harbor.

For a brief time, Belinda and Big Alex became partners in a scheme to salvage the cargo of a wrecked steamboat. Crafty Alex got to the wreck first and made off with the most valuable supplies, leaving Belinda only some cases of whiskey and a large inventory of rubber boots. ‘You’ll pay through the nose for this,’ she promised, and, as usual, she got her way. When the spring thaw turned the ground in the gold fields to mush, McDonald was in dire need of boots for his men, and Mulroney was happy to provide them–at $100 a pair. Mulroney went on to become the only women manager of a mining company, the largest in Yukon Territory.

But life in Dawson had become too tame for the Queen of the Klondike. When news came of a bigger gold strike in Nome, Alaska, she headed down the Yukon to conquer this new region. So did most of the population of Dawson. During one week in August 1899, 8,000 people deserted Dawson for the beaches of Nome. Just three years after the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek, the great gold rush was over. Of the 40,000 people who reached Dawson, only about 15,000 actually had the grit to work the gold fields of those, about a quarter actually unearthed any gold, and only a handful of them became wealthy. Of that handful, a very few managed to hang onto their wealth. Most gambled or drank it away.

Big Alex McDonald became obsessed with buying up unwanted claims and eventually found himself stuck with a lot of worthless real estate. He died broke and alone. Belinda Mulroney married a fake French count and lived in style for several years, until her husband invested her money in a European steamship company–on the eve of World War I, which put an end to merchant shipping. She, too, died nearly penniless.

Tagish Charley sold his claim, spent the proceeds lavishly, and died an alcoholic. Shookum Jim wasn’t content with the riches he’d made he spent the rest of his life searching in vain for another strike equal to the one on Bonanza Creek. Ironically, George Carmack, who had never had much use for money, was one of the few miners who managed to keep and even increase his fortune by investing in businesses and real estate. He was still a wealthy man when he died in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1922.

Although the heyday of the individual prospector ended with the rush to Alaska in 1899, a more subtle and more profitable exploitation of the Klondike began. The new railroad line from Skagway was completed that summer, opening up the area to the big mining companies with their mechanical dredges, which did the work of hundreds of miners. They continued to mine the land the gold seekers had abandoned for another 50 years, and unearthed millions more in gold. Once again, the men of business had triumphed.

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This article was written by Gary L. Blackwood and originally appeared in the August 1997 issue of Wild West.

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Watch the video: Seattle national park celebrates history of Klondike gold rush