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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Industry  >  Mining
Klondike Gold Rush
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Three First-Class Tickets
from San Francisco to Klondyke and Return

News of the great gold discoveries on the Klondyke river, a branch of the upper Yukon, in the northwestern Canadian Dominion was confirmed by the arrival of forty-four miners on the steamer Excelsior, July 14, at San Francisco, bringing three-quarters of a million dollars worth of gold in dust and nuggets. Just as the world was becoming excited over the advent of this argosy, the steamer Portland arrived at Seattle, Washington, with sixty-eight miners on board with an additional million dollars worth of gold. Most of the miners who came back rich were wandering prospectors with no capital but their picks and scanty rations when they entered the northwestern territories. In creeks and ravines close to the Arctic circle they picked up gold as a farmer picks up potatos [sic]. No mining knowledge or machinery or capital was needed. Gold in stacks was to be had for the taking. Next spring, then the journey may be made without peril, tens of thousands will depart for the new Golconda. With this exodus the Weekly Examiner has decided to send three (only three) of its subscribers in June, 1898, giving each one a first-class ticket from San Francisco to Dawson and return.

- San Francisco Weekly Examiner
Thursday, August 12, 1897

'The continent was Klondike-crazy'

By the time subscribers read this enticing ad in William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the richest claims in the faraway "Klondyke" already had been staked. And most of the stampeders who would eventually make the journey would not get rich. Certainly it was a gross misrepresentation to say they "picked up gold as a farmer picks up potatoes." Nonetheless, language such as this fired the imaginations of gold-seekers to a fever pitch, and they came in droves.

"Within ten days of the Portland's arrival, fifteen hundred people had left Seattle and there were nine ships in harbor jammed to the gunwales and ready to sail," wrote Klondike historian Pierre Berton in his 1958 classic, The Klondike Fever. "The town itself was demented. . . . Transportation-company offices were in a state of siege. One railway company received twenty-five thousand queries about the Klondike in the first few weeks. . . . The continent was Klondike-crazy."

The first arrivals in the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes were experienced men and women from other northern strikes, irresistibly driven to the next find by rumors of riches. George Carmack had staked his discovery claim on Rabbit Creek, later renamed Bonanza, on August 17, 1896. By the end of August, all of Bonanza Creek had been staked, and hopeful miners spread out into the surrounding watershed. By fall, a tent city had already sprung up at Dawson, as prospectors from Circle, Fortymile, and other gold strikes made their way into the Klondike. A year later, when news of the strike was streaking across the nation, ordinary folks who'd never even been camping were leaving their homes and shuttering their businesses with a "Ho! For the Klondyke!" In all, more than 100,000 set out for the Yukon and perhaps a third made it to the gold fields: sourdoughs -- those who'd already experienced a few winters in the northland -- sharing the trail with greenhorns, dandies, and pale office workers from all over the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia.

Unlike what the Examiner ad suggested, there was no first-class ticket all the way to the Klondike. Any route was arduous. Thousands chose to take a steamship to St. Michael on Alaska's Bering Sea coast, then board a sternwheeler for passage up the Yukon River to Dawson. Some chose the thousand-mile overland route, called "The Long Trail," from the American West, through British Columbia, and into the Yukon gold fields. Historian Berton reported that of the 2,000 people who traveled one alternate route -- 1,200 miles between Edmonton, Alberta, and Dawson -- fewer than a dozen actually made it. But the most popular route began in San Francisco or Seattle, traveling by ship along the Inside Passage to Alaska's Skagway or Dyea, then hiking northeast over the Coast Range into Canada. Later arrivals could take advantage of the newly-laid White Pass & Yukon Route railway.

The Chilkoot Pass from the trailhead at Dyea to Bennett was 33 miles. Each person crossing into Canada was required to haul a ton of goods over those 33 miles, no matter how many trips it took to move a cache from Dyea to the border, then back again. Canadian officials wanted assurance that the stampeders wouldn't arrive ill-prepared. Hungry, freezing men are desperate men. "If a man was too poor to hire a packer, he climbed the pass forty times before he got his outfit across," wrote Pierre Berton. The fluid, dark line of humans climbing the snowy "Golden Stairs" over the summit resembled a stream of ants.

The switchbacks of the White Pass Trail out of Skagway could be covered with horses or oxen, and the sight of starving, overworked, and diseased animals fallen in their traces or pushed over a cliff's edge was commonplace. The sickening sights and putrid stench along what would be known as "Dead Horse Trail" stayed in the memories of hundreds.

Still ahead were the adjoining lakes comprising the headwaters of the Yukon River -- Lake Bennett and Lake Lindemann -- where stampeders next had to build boats to continue their journey by water. U.S. Army Lt. Frederick Schwatka is credited with naming Lake Bennett in 1883 for James Gordon Bennett, the New York Herald newspaper editor. The U.S. government had commissioned Schwatka to make a reconnaissance of the Yukon River from its source to its mouth. His two-part article, "The Great River of Alaska," appeared in The Century Magazine in 1885.

Those who came over the Chilkoot arrived at the frozen Lake Lindemann. Rather than wait for the ice to break up, thousands crossed the lake on foot to reach Lake Bennett. By the spring of 1898, the shores of the two lakes swarmed with miners who faced the next formidable obstacle: to build a boat from green, whipsawed lumber, and sail the length of the lakes to reach the Yukon River. The miners, some of whom had neither mined nor even swung a hammer, built boats while waiting for the ice to break up, and soon the shores became as choked with people as the lake was with ice. In May 1898 alone, the North-West Mounted Police counted close to 1,000 boats on Lake Bennett. Within months, 7,000 boats were built to carry 30,000 men and women, stripping the surrounding hillsides and creating mayhem on the lake. Accidents claimed the lives of scores; mysterious deaths went unsolved; some committed suicide. And yet, by late summer, with stampeders still moving into the Yukon gold fields, news of a fresh strike at Atlin drew off at least 1,000 men from the Klondike, ready to meet the next big rush.

By the time breakup rolled around on May 28-29, 1898, the tent and log-cabin community at the head of Lake Bennett numbered close to 10,000. Construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow-gauge railway began that same month. (Narrow-gauge was chosen to save money -- less rock blasting required to build the railbed.)

Meanwhile, Dawson City had boomed into a hodgepodge modern city with two newspapers, banks, churches, laundries, restaurants, hotels, saloons, and even telephone service. Those in the service industry were clearing nearly as much as the successful miners. In a month's time, Dawson could claim the largest population west of Winnipeg, Canada, trailing only slightly behind Seattle, Portland, and Tacoma. By midsummer, roughly 18,000 people lived in Dawson; another 5,000 were strewn around the hills, and the 60 steamboats that made it up the Yukon River that summer carried thousands more. The North-West Mounted Police kept order, however, and despite the overblown stories of Dawson's wild life, there were no murders that year, and little major theft. (Sidearms were not allowed without a license, and the Mounties were quick to confiscate any that were brandished.)

Then, in September 1898, the "Lucky Swedes" discovered a rich deposit on Anvil Creek near Nome, triggering another gold rush. By the following spring, the news had reached the miners in the Klondike, who were doubtful at first, wondering if it was a false rumor. As reported in the June 14, 1899, edition of the Klondike Nugget, "The majority of men looked upon it with some skepticism and many openly pronounced it a scheme of the transportation companies to cause a stampede and work up business for their boats." The Yukon had not yet given up all of its gold, but another rush was on. The paper reported that a crowd boarded the steamer Sovereign on June 10, 1899, and left for Nome. Many hundreds more drifted west to Alaska that summer, even as the railroad builders were still working on their route into the Yukon.

It took WP&YR railroad builders from May 1898 to mid-February 1899 to create the first 20 miles (30 km) of railbed, reaching the summit of White Pass at 2,885 feet. Nearly six month later, on July 6, 1899, they reached the town of Bennett. By then it had lost its tent-city appearance, and frame homes were constructed alongside log cabins. Boat construction continued, although by 1899, the professionals were in place, building steamboats, scows, and everything in between.

Dawson City had flourished for a year, then began its slow demise into a virtual ghost town. At its peak, it was known as the "Paris of the North," with running water, steam heat, telephone service, and power. Fine wine, theater, elegant fashion, and concerts were the order of the day. People from all over the world, from every class, had made and lost fortunes. The streets and saloons pulsed with life 24 hours a day. Legends were born of gamblers, dancing girls, Mounties, the Eldorado Kings, and what might be bought for what price. That winter, milk sold for four dollars a quart. Dawson rebuilt after a horrific fire destroyed 117 buildings in April 1899, but all agreed that it was never the same, and that summer, the decline began in earnest. Disheartened, aimless men left when they could, while others listened to whispers of other strikes. Nome was the place to be by the middle of summer. In droves, they loaded onto steamers and set out for the new diggings. Pierre Berton writes in The Klondike Fever: "In a single week in August, eight thousand people left Dawson forever. . . . And just three years, almost to the day . . . the great stampede ended as quickly as it had begun."

The community of Bennett died a slower death. Early residents were hopeful that it would become a great mining center, but within a decade, it had withered and eventually became a ghost town. The Vendome Hotel, built when Bennett was young, was moved across the frozen lake ice to Carcross in the winter of 1911. Now St. Andrews Church is the only remaining Gold-Rush-era building. Another building houses the terminal for the White Pass & Yukon Route railway station.

Today, visitors to Skagway can learn more about the town's Gold Rush history and ride the White Pass & Yukon Route over the White Pass. A road connects Skagway to Dyea and the trailhead of the Chilkoot, which remains a difficult traverse. Hikers are advised to register before setting out.

Efforts by Dawson's residents in the 1950s and 60s resulted in its transformation into the vibrant travel destination it is today. With a year-round population of about 2,000, Dawson is inaccessible except by air in winter; in summer, transportation by river and road is possible. Visitors can gamble at Diamond Tooth Gertie's or see a Gold-Rush-style stage show, the "Gaslight Follies," at the Palace Grand Theatre. Commercial gold mining continues in the fields of the Klondike.

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Gallery of Images
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Parade of the Pioneers of Alaska Igloo No. 1, Feb. 19, [19]08, Nome, Alaska
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En route to Klondike gold fields, Five Finger Rapids
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A Klondyke [sic] garden - Dawson, Y.T.
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A Klondykers [sic] "Home sweet home"
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Klondyke [sic] pioneers
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