Klondike Gold Rush 1896-1899
The Klondike Gold Rush
The Klondike Gold Rush
Finding Gold. In the summer of 1897 Americans caught gold fever. Nothing captured the American male’s search for manly adventure, rugged individualism, and money as the Klondike gold rush. In July the first tattered gold-laden millionaires landed on a San Francisco wharf, dragging suitcases, canvas sacks, and old cartons heavy with gold. Within a matter of minutes the Klondike stampede began. At the height of the gold rush in 1898 and 1899, more than one million people made plans to go to the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory of 1898 and 1899 in northwestern Canada, and one hundred thousand actually set off. The prospect of adventure
and wealth appealed to many American men who found themselves doing repetitive, dull, and low-paying work day in and day out. For those men who wanted to mine gold and for those businessmen and -women who saw opportunity in supplying services to prospectors, the 1898 and 1899 gold rush seemed to promise great wealth for little more than hard work and the application of “Yankee ingenuity.”
Setting Out. By mid July 1897 vessels that had been deemed unseaworthy in June were in service transporting men, horses, dogs, and supplies to Alaska, to begin the long overland journey to the Yukon Territory. Crushed together onboard ship would-be miners slept in crowded berths or on the open deck, sometimes waiting seven hours for a meal and suffering storms, explosions, starvation, shipwreck, and even mutiny. Once on dry land, prospectors faced swindlers and shopkeepers eager to make a profit in the tent towns of Skagway and Dyer. Saloons, houses of prostitution, and land offices were among the businesses that prospered. Food sold at ridiculous prices in these tent towns because they were the last places to buy supplies for the trek into the Yukon interior, and each prospector had to take with him a year’s supply of food.
The Journey to Dawson. Within a few miles of Skagway the road became a narrow winding path. The fortyfive-mile trail wound around and over a steep mountain. Weakened by infected hooves, heavy loads, relentless beatings, and the icy-cold weather, pack animals died by
the thousands. Their bodies littered the path and inspired American writer Jack London, who went to the Yukon in the fall of 1897, to call it the “Dead Horse Trail.” Despite such harsh conditions, the prospectors continued to climb the mountain, each carrying more than sixty-five pounds of supplies. The line of men was spaced so tightly that the queue could pass a given point for five hours straight without a break.
The Golden Stairs. Just below the summit of the coastal mountain range, prospectors had to abandon their pack animals and climb on foot through the Chilkoot Pass over the mountains. The mountains were covered with thick icy snow all year long. The feet of the seemingly endless trail of men cut “steps” into the ice of the pass that become known as the Golden Stairs. Because of the difficulty of reaching the summit, men divided their supplies into smaller loads and made several trips from the base camp to the summit. It took many prospectors three months to move their supplies to the top of the mountain. Those who survived the Golden Stairs had to wait on the other side of the mountains for the ice to melt on the lakes and rivers of the Yukon Valley. As they waited, they built boats of all kinds, forming a frontier boating village amazingly well supplied with drills, nails, and tools. When the ice on the lakes and rivers finally melted, 7,124 kayaks, scows, and canoes traveled the five hundred miles through canyons and rapids. The first boats landed at Dawson, the center of the Yukon mining activity, on 8 June 1898, and boats continued to arrive without a break for more than a month.
Dawson. The boom town of Dawson stood in stark contrast to the rest of the empty Yukon Territory. As the boom continued big steamers brought wood, liquor, food, horses, and more and more people into a city filled with stores, hotels, dance halls, post offices, and newspapers. Many of the men who struggled to reach Dawson ended up never staking claims for themselves and worked instead at mining other men’s gold. Others found work in town. As the city grew, thousands of gold seekers indulged themselves in the festive and dramatic atmosphere as gambling, theater, and prostitution expanded to meet the demands of the population. On 26 April 1899 a fire completely destroyed the town, but by the end of the summer a new Dawson had been built, fancier and more Victorian than the rugged frontier town it replaced. By then gold had been discovered in Nome, Alaska, and the golden party prepared to move on. In a single week in August, eight thousand people left Dawson for Nome and Fairbanks, Alaska. The gold fever continued for restless American men hoping for adventure and money.
Pierre Berton, The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay, 1897-1899 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983);
David B. Wharton, The Alaska Gold Rush (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972).