Eamonn Lynskey recalls the frenzy of the Klondike Gold Rush
‘There are strange things done in the midnight sun. By the men who moil for gold..:
I cannot remember when I first read Robert Service’s poem The Cremation of Sam McGee. It was sometime when I began to drift away from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. That poem was just right for me at that time because it combined all the adventure and derring-do that young people are fond of.
And the subject! — The tragi-comical fate of Sam McGee’s remains, of course; but there was more in the poem for me than just that. It was my entry into the world of the Klondike Gold Rush and the tales of the fortunes made, and the fortunes not made, by the men and women who went prospecting for the precious metal in the far-off treacherous reaches of the Yukon Territory, many of them risking everything they had. Robert Service’s poetry was an introduction to an era of the nineteenth century American West that fascinated me then – and still does.
The poet himself was not a prospector. Born in 1874 in the UK, he was a seasoned traveller who found himself in Whitehorse in 1904, a town less than ten years old which had been a major staging point for prospectors en route to the Yukon and the Klondike gold fields. Here he met veterans of that time and listened to, and took notes of, their yarns. His work is a fascinating entry into the spirit of those times, and better than many abstract historical accounts.
And what times they were! In the early 1890s George Carmack and his Native-American brother-in-law Skookum Jim had been prospecting in the region for some time. Like many, they were making good gains, though nothing extraordinary. However, August 16, 1896 changed all that. In a small tributary of the Klondike River called Rabbit Creek, they made their big discovery. The creek was later renamed Bonanza Creek, and for the very good reason that it contained gold. In huge quantities.
Carmack lost no time in registering his claim next day to four strips of ground along the creek and the news of his discovery also lost no time in circulating among the other prospectors in the area. By the end of that month (a mere two weeks) every inch of Bonanza Creek had been claimed by other miners. Later, newer sources of gold came to be found further up the creek, with lodes far richer than even those found by George Carmack and Skookum Jim.
Because of the times that were in it, it took nearly another year before the news spread further. The full story of the discovery only emerged by the middle of 1897 when the first boats left the area carrying the newly discovered gold. When Tom Lippy and his wife Salome arrived back in San Francisco aboard the Excelsior in 1898 they brought with them gold valued, according to the Chicago Tribune, at “not less than $200,000” which is equivalent to over $7 million dollars today. Their Klondike neighbours Clarence and Ethel Berry also struck it rich, arriving back with a similar enormous fortune.
It had not been acquired easily. The Berrys had spent many months mining but with limited success until one evening Clarence heard a chance remark let slip by George Carmac in a local saloon about his gold strike on Bonanza Creek. Clarence immediately hurried to stake the claim that was to make him and his wife millionaires.
It was the arrival of these vast fortunes in San Francisco that got the ‘Klondike Stampede’ underway. In the words of the Johnny Horton ballad popular in the 1960s, it was ‘North to Alaska! We’re goin’ north, the rush is on!’ And in the relatively short period between summer 1897 to summer 1898 it is estimated that about 100,000 people set out for the Yukon and the Klondike goldfields situated just inside the Canadian border with Alaska.
It was possible to sail to the Klondike from Seattle via the Alaskan coast and then to proceed onwards up the Yukon River, but this way was very expensive. By far the most of the prospectors made the journey on foot up the dangerous and difficult trails from the Alaskan coast towns of Dyea and Skagway, determined to make their fortune.
But not all fortunes were made from actual prospecting. A lot of money was made, not from sifting the gold upstream, but from the downstream economic opportunities created by the gold-rush. Men like Frederick Trump, a German-born American barber, businessman and speculator in real estate in Seattle made his fortune, not as a prospector, but by opening a restaurant and saloons in the aforementioned Whitehorse, one of the principal towns on the way to the goldfields. (And, yes, Frederick was an ancestor of a politician well known at present in the United States and beyond).
Many decisions to join the rush were made on the spur of the moment. Men like John Nordstrom bought a newspaper in Seattle one Sunday morning in 1897 and read of the great discoveries in the Klondike. By Four o’clock he was on his way up north and, after many hardships, returned three years later with enough money to set up a shoe store, a venture which eventually grew into the Nordstrom luxury department store chain now headquartered in Seattle.
Wherever there are people, the essentials of food and shelter are needed, and there is also always a demand for entertainment, especially when a prospector comes to town after a week’s (or a month’s, or several months’) privations of working in the harsh conditions of the Yukon. His pouch of gold dust had to go somewhere and for many that meant that entertainers like Kathleen Rockwell were more than prepared to help him spend it. Kathleen was an American dancer and vaudeville star who became famous as “Klondike Kate” when she arrived in the Yukon territory in 1899. Her flirtatious dancing and singing helped many a hard-working goldminer to forget his hardships, at least for a time.
As the rush continued, the primitive mountain trails previously made by miners trekking towards the modest gold finds of earlier years became the main highways for the hordes of would-be get-rich-quicks who descended on the Yukon in those frenzied years of 1888-89. Boom towns sprang up in places that had been little more than a few shacks clustered together at the side of mud-paths. One of the biggest, Dawson City, grew from a population of just 500 in 1896 to about 30,000 by 1898 and its rapid growth was mirrored in places like Circle City (despite its name, originally a small log-town), Skagway and Dyea, each of which became important trading posts for those on the way to the goldfields. All were ‘tough spots’ with dire reputations for drinking, gambling, gunfire, murder, and prostitution.
It would be hard to exaggerate the difficulties of the whole venture and many hopefuls came very unprepared for the harshness of Alaska and the Yukon. Of the 100,000 or so who set out for Klondike only about 40,000 arrived. The journey, mostly on foot with pack animals, was fraught with danger. Many a prospector froze to death or disappeared in an avalanche. So many horses died that one route, the White Pass Trail, was soon renamed Dead Horse Trail. Adding to the difficulties was the load that each adventurer had to carry. The Canadian authorities insisted that those crossing the border from the United States must have a minimum of supplies to ensure survival for at least two years. This was the so-called ‘ton of goods’ (clothing, food, equipment) which had to be hauled along treacherous approaches such as the infamous Chilkoot Pass where many a would-be prospector came to grief.
Then there were the working conditions once the actual goldfields were reached. The Yukon weather system is one of the harshest on the planet, many times harsher than most of the arrivals would ever have known. Probably the easier prospecting was from the rivers and streams. There one could set up along the banks and build a sluice-box to sift the gold. Away from water, holes had to be dug and fires lowered into them to melt the permafrost before getting to (it was hoped) the seams of gold. Working day after freezing day beside sluices, down holes and in tunnels took its toll.
As mentioned, the poetry of Robert Service is wholly redolent of the spirit of those years. But Robert wrote of the Klondike some ten years after the event and had no experience of it himself. By contrast, the works of Jack London and the Irish writer, Micí MacGabhann come straight out of the goldfields during the heady days of the rush.
Jack, working as a hired labourer, got little gold from Klondike but his writings based on his Klondike experiences, particularly books like The Call of the Wild and White Fang, subsequently brought him great literary fame. Micí MacGabhann worked his own claim and his emigration memoir Rotha Mór an tSaoil was published posthumously in 1959 and translated into English by Valentin Iremonger in 1962 as The Hard Road to Klondike. In it he describes in unadorned prose the harshness of the conditions under which the gold was found. Micí was one of the lucky prospectors who made enough money to return to Ireland and buy a house in his native Donegal.
Motives for trekking the hazardous trails of the Yukon were various. Many were prepared to try their luck and willing to take risks – gamblers at heart. But others were driven by the dire economic prospects at home. The 1890s saw bank failures and financial panics (1893 and 1896) in the United States, which resulted in unemployment and economic uncertainty. So it was that, besides those with a natural bent for adventure, many others saw the goldfields as providing a way out of personal financial disaster.
There was also the ever present ‘fever’ factor: people hurrying to do something they saw many others doing, and being caught up in the moment. There are always schemes which promise to make people rich and always plenty of people to get involved in them. In 1720 it was the South Sea Bubble. In our own time there was Bernie Madoff. Schemes like those cannot rival the lure of the Klondike Gold Rush, but the principle is the same: when there is news of great riches to be made and (it seems) everyone else is getting in on the act – nobody wants to lose out. So it was that so many people set out for a part of America of which, up to the time of their going, most had next to no knowledge or very possibly had never even heard of. There were many who made rich. But many, many, more did not, especially in the later years of the rush when there was still enough magic about Klondike to draw people into the Yukon, but not enough left of the great seams of gold that were first found. Some there were who set out to seek their fortune who were never heard of again.
The effect of the rush on the indigenous peoples of the Yukon, as elsewhere with European expansion, was catastrophic. These communities, the Koyukon, Tlingit, Tagish and Han of north west America, had already had extensive contact with Europeans since the early seventeenth century through the fur trade. The Hudsons Bay company, incorporated in England in 1670 to seek a northwest passage to the Pacific, had rapidly developed into a commercial company trading with local peoples. This trade was of benefit to both Europeans and local tribes and had taken many years to develop. By contrast, the Gold Rush, which at its peak lasted about two years, did not develop as much as explode, sweeping away everything in its path, including the delicate balance between the local peoples and outsiders.
At first there were some short-term gains, opportunities to earn money by acting as guides and porters, but as the rush gathered momentum the trails became well-known and soon pack mules and horses eventually replaced local help. To make room for the unprecedented numbers of prospectors arriving, and in line with the then Canadian Government’s policy of dealing with the problem of any indigenous populations who might in the way of progress, the usual colonial measures were adopted, including wholesale relocation, as with the Han people who were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands to a reservation. By then, the desecration of their traditional hunting grounds by the incoming crowds had left them, and other indigenous peoples, on the margins of starvation.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the rush were the towns fortunately sited on the routes to the goldfields. The small town of Seattle found itself strategically placed to take advantage of the commerce generated by prospectors who were looking to buy provisions and equipment on their way to seek their fortunes. Many traders in Seattle and other towns made as much money – and more – as most of the prospectors who passed through.
As to George Carmack and Skookum Jim, the men started the rush, it seems the fever never left them. Although both had more than enough money to settle down, they continued to prospect, George at various sites in California and elsewhere, and Skookum Jim in the Klondike. In later years Jim founded a Trust Fund to help the indigenous people and is remembered by them today as a great benefactor.
The Seattle of today is very different from the 1890s Seattle of muddy streets and wooden storefronts. But business is as brisk as ever in The Emerald City of the north west USA. And if ever you find yourself there, you are sure to want to visit its famous sights such as the iconic Space Needle and to take a stroll around its fabulous Pike Place Market. But for an unforgettable step back in time you might also visit the city’s Klondike Gold Rush Museum. There you will find photographs, artifacts, and detailed personal histories from that torrid time when people came from all over America to endure the savage climate of the Yukon in hopes of making their fortune.
Note: This article is much indebted to the writings of Robert Service, Jack London, Micí MacGabhann, the Klondike Gold Rush Visitors’ Centre in Seattle, and the extensive account on Wikipedia.