The Klondike Gold Rush
It was not until July 1897 that the ships, Excelsior docked in San Francisco and a few days later, the Portland docked in Seattle and what had happened up in the Yukon the previous summer, leaked beyond the Yukon to the outside world. The Yukon lies in the far north west of Canada, named after the great Yukon River that f lows through it and turns west across the border into neighbouring Alaska. The state covers an area of nearly half a million square kilometres, or put another way, twice the area of the whole of the United Kingdom. It became a state in 1898, when the increase in population allowed it to be a state in its own right and split away from the Northwest Territories.
Less than half way up the state is Dawson City, which sits on the confluence of the Yukon and a tributary called the Klondike River. Here was the scene of an extraordinary gold rush, following a discovery in 1896, that propelled a small village into the most populous city in Canada, only for it to shrink again and now has a population of just 1,300. This is the story about the lure of gold, and the journey that a prospector may have taken from the Prairies east of the Rockies to the gold fields.
The tallest mountain in the state is Mount Logan 5,959m which is also Canada’s tallest peak and the second highest on the continent, situated in the Kluane National Park, in the south west of the state. Despite its huge area, the state’s current population is about 33,000, with two thirds living in or around the state capital, Whitehorse, located on the Yukon River, towards the southern edge of the state. In short, it is a large area, extensively covered with forest in the south, thinning to tundra in the far north, with a very low population density of 0.07 people per sqkm (that compares to 255.6 per sqkm for the United Kingdom).
In summer, the weather is dry and sunny. In winter, it is very cold, with snow starting to fall as early as September, and the rivers freeze over in October. The ground can freeze to a depth of three metres and the long cold winter can last through till May, before any sign of the first frost free days. Thunderstorms can have lightning strikes that ignite the dry forests. The resulting fires can burn for days and spread over hundreds of hectares.
The First Nation peoples (the politically correct reference for the local native Indians of the area) have lived and hunted here for centuries, eking out a living in these harsh conditions. The first Europeans to show an interest in the region, were fur trappers followed by traders, largely represented by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The area had been explored by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and by the Russians (who ruled Alaska until 1867 when they sold it to the U.S. for the knock down price of just $7.2m) but fur trapping was the main aim and they over looked rumours of gold.
Travel was painstakingly slow over land, as there were few trails and the First Nations made extensive use of the rivers. There are now some major roads in the area, such as the Alaskan Highway, built during the Second World War, to ensure that there was a secure land route into Alaska and the Klondike Highway, linking Skagway in Alaska through Whitehorse and north to Dawson City. The Dempster Highway runs north, from Dawson to the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic and is unpaved, but all the roads were only recently constructed. Until the end of the 19th century, over land travel through the state was difficult and slow, particularly through the forest, as there were no roads. But this didn’t put off prospectors, who were used to challenging conditions. Gold had been found in some areas over the border in Alaska, in the gold mining town of Circle City, with a population of 1,200 people, which was established in 1893. Gold had been found in small quantities near Dawson, but not in sufficiently large quantities, for claims to be staked out.
Robert Henderson, born in Nova Scotia in 1857, prospected in Colorado for 14 years up to 1894, when he set out for Alaska, landing at Dyea. From there, he portered his equipment and supplies across the Chilkoot Pass. Once over the pass, he built a boat on the shores of Lake Lindeman and paddled down the Yukon River. He was prospecting along the river and climbed a dome shaped mountain, looking out across the Yukon forest with the mountains in the distance, when he came across George Carmacks’ camp.
George Carmack was born 24 September 1860, in California. In 1885, he had prospected the upper Yukon River without success. He joined William Ogilvie’s survey party, to guide them across the Chilkoot Pass. He then spent many years throughout the Yukon, logging, hunting, fur trapping, fishing and prospecting.
By August 1896, George Carmack and his extended family, consisting of his native wife Kate, their daughter Graphie, her brother, ‘Skookum’ Jim Mason and nephew, ‘Dawson’ Charlie, had set up a fishing camp on the Thron-diuck river. This was reputed to be the best river for catching salmon in the area. The native name, Thron-diuck was too complicated for Europeans to pronounce so it became bastardised over a period into Klondike.
There were several conversations between George Carmack and Robert Henderson, but at one point, Robert Henderson disclosed that he had found some gold f lakes or ‘colours’ up Hunter Creek but didn’t want the natives to stake a claim there. He also had tobacco that George Carmack’s party had run out of, but he refused to trade with the locals. One of Robert Henderson’s parting comments to George Carmack was the suggestion to prospect up Rabbit Creek (now called Bonanza Creek), a small tributary. He asked them to let him know if they found anything and he moved on.
The Carmack party went up Rabbit Creek and found gold on 16 August 1896, although their first haul was barely enough flakes of gold to fill a spent Winchester cartridge case. But, the potential promised considerable quantities. The group agreed that George Carmack would stake the claim as his, as they werewary of the mining authorities, recognising the claim of a native Indian. George Carmack, duly staked out four claims, two for himself and one each for Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim. He registered them at the local police station, over a hundred kilometres down the Yukon, on Forty Mile River. Not surprisingly, they didn’t tell Robert Henderson, having refused to trade his tobacco with them.
News travelled along the river quickly and other claims were staked out on Rabbit Creek. Another prospector found more gold, up what was to become, Eldorado Creek and yet more claims were staked out. News reached the ‘over wintering’ prospectors and miners, at Circle City. Despite the harsh winter conditions, several set off to stake their claims, so as not to lose out. Robert Henderson did not hear about the finds and the staking of claims, until the best claims had already been staked, including the most productive claims staked out by Antoine Stander and several of his colleagues.
News of the new finds did not reach the world outside of the Yukon for quite a while, due to the bad weather of winter and the frozen river. About a year later, in July 1897, a few days after the ships, Excelsior, docked in San Francisco and the Portland, docked in Seattle, the news finally leaked beyond Yukon and reached the outside world. The Portland arrived in Seattle with more than a ton of gold on board. Returning prospectors, sometimes with hundreds of ounces of gold, each worth over a million dollars (this is over a billion dollars in today’s prices) told their stories, which were printed in newspapers. The news about the gold find, soon spread far and wide.
The public’s imagination was gripped by gold fever. People left their jobs and homes to journey to the goldfields, in search of fortune and adventure. Other newspapers, reprinted stories and carried human interest stories that kept the gold news fresh. Even some of those that didn’t actually go, still made money from the ‘gold find’ news, advertising and selling goods for the prospectors, allegedly, specially designed for the Yukon. Other more cerebral entrepreneurs published guidebooks on the routes to take and how to mine for gold.
The prospectors were joined relatively quickly by others, who could see they could make a living out of the miners. Writers, photographers, traders, carpenters, gamblers, casino operators, entertainers, barmen, pimps, prostitutes and con men, decided they also had a nose for adventure and wanted to try a bit of gold mining on the side.
Shipping companies made money out of the prospectors as well. Ticket prices for the sea voyage north, went up almost daily, encouraging other boat owners to join the race, to carry people and provisions northwards. Some boats were not seaworthy or suitable and several of the over loaded or unseaworthy boats sank.
The quickest route to reach the gold f ields was by ship to Alaska, to the sheltered port of St Michael, a short distance up the coast from the mouth of the Yukon River. Travellers could transfer to a river boat that could take them up river, to Dawson. Boats could actually navigate further upstream, all the way to Whitehorse. This route had the advantage of speed, the ability to take as much equipment that a prospector might need and avoided the difficulty of travelling overland, in the inhospitable terrain.
This route had two major drawbacks. Firstly, it was expensive, even before the shipping companies took advantage of the prospectors and started inf lating the prices, secondly, it was only feasible when the river was ice free. For seven months of the year, the river was impassable as it was frozen or as the ice broke up there were large chunks of ice being carried along by the river, making navigation difficult and dangerous. If you hadn’t made it to Dawson before the freeze started you could be marooned on the river’s edge for the winter, for several months until the river was ice free again.
The route by river boat wasn’t even danger free in summer, as the boats were typically built of wood and used wood as a fuel for the boilers, so there was the ever present danger of fire on board. Navigation wasn’t always safe either, as although the river boats had shallow drafts, there was always a risk of grounding, even for experienced navigators of the river, due to the constantly shifting sandbanks, hidden beneath the river’s surface. Of the 1,800 people who attempted this route, in the first autumn, after news of gold leaked out from the Yukon, only 43 reached their destination, before the river froze. Many were stranded along the river and had to wait all winter, until the spring thaw, to continue their journey.
There were all Canadian routes overland that could be followed. The shortest at 1,600kms started in Ashcroft, in British Colombia, 330kms up the major modern artery of the Trans-Canada Highway, 90kms west of Kamloops. It runs north parallel to the coast, through the Rockies. The route heads through swamps, over mountains and across gorges, until it reaches Glenora. Here, it is joined by another route, taken by some prospectors, who had travelled up the coast to Wrangell on the Alaskan shoreline, up the Stikine River, then across the Rockies and down to Glenora.
The route continues from Glenora, over the state line, between British Columbia and Yukon, towards Teslin Lake. Finally, it reaches the Yukon River, to follow it down to Dawson. Fifteen hundred people travelled the Ashcroft route and 5,000 took the part sea and part overland option, via Wrangell. The route was too gruelling for some of the pack animals, who struggled with the cold, the soft ground and the mountainous terrain. Some prospectors, found the route too hard in winter, so they set up camp and waited till spring came. Many animals died en route, leaving prospectors with piles of equipment and no means to carry it any further.
Three other routes started from Edmonton. One route headed north west, crossing the Peace River and Liard River to Dawson, the other two routes were a combination of overland and river. One route followed the Pelly River to Dawson and the other, had a lot of easier river and shorter overland travelling, but the big drawback was reaching the Yukon River 600kms downstream of Dawson, requiring a tiring struggle to get upstream or a long overland trip. Nearly 2,000 chose these routes but only 685 eventually made it.
Some prospectors attempted to avoid Canadian customs by sailing to Valdez, further up the coast from Skagway. This proposed route crossed a glacier that proved very difficult to negotiate and only a few managed to climb it successfully. The wilderness beyond also proved too difficult to negotiate and those that got this far turned around.
The most popular route was a route up the coast, a short overland trek and then a long river journey down to Dawson. Prospectors would take a boat up the coast from wherever they started from, to arrive in Skagway or the nearby town of Dyea, 20kms further up the coast by road. Skagway was located at the head of the Lynn Canal, on the Alaskan coast, 125kms up the coast from Juneau, the state capital since 1906.
After landing in Skagway, the next part of the route was over the White Pass, named not for the thick covering of snow found in the winter, but after Sir Thomas White, the Canadian Minister of the Interior. From here, the trail headed down to Lindeman Lake and onto Bennett Lake.
The route traverses several mountains, but the paths in places were narrow, very steep with large boulders and sharp rocks. Horses were worked to death, giving the pass the alternative name of Dead Horse Trail, a term coined by the writer, Jack London, who was one of the prospectors that took the trail. The numbers using the pass wore away the trail and created increasingly difficult conditions. Therefore, local authorities closed the pass in late 1897, stranding 5,000 prospectors in Skagway who had hoped to cross the pass.
There was a toll road that had been constructed and had recently opened, which reduced the pressure on the pass. This was a 19km long road, built by former Northern Pacific railroad construction engineer, George Brackett. Prospectors ignored the toll gates and the venture was a commercial failure. The colder weather, which froze the ground, reduced the wear and tear on the pass and it was re-opened by the authorities.
An alternative to the White Pass was the Chilkoot Trail which was higher and steeper than the White Pass. This was a more popular route for some people, who used it to reach Lake Bennett, as the route was shorter than the White Pass. It was a gentle gradient until the last section, which was too steep for pack animals. This was called the Golden Stairs, named from the steps, cut into the snow and ice that would lead people to riches.
The cold, the steepness of the trail and the quantity of people using it made for slow progress up the last 300m slope. Prospectors and animals would stand in line for hours, due to blockages, but no one wanted to step out of line, as they may not be able to re-join the line. This was the route that I was going to explore, to reach Bennett Lake and then follow the river downstream to Dawson.
Prospectors carried their wares up the slope themselves and had to undertake the journey several times, to get all of their goods across the border. At the base of this steep slope were The Scales, where the North West Mounted Police would weigh the prospectors’ gear, to check they had the one ton of supplies required by the authorities, to ensure they could survive the first year in Yukon. The gold rush was vividly recorded by several early photographers, for instance, by Eric Hegg, whose stark black and white iconic images of the Golden Stairs on the Chilkoot Pass, became iconic images that were widely distributed.
An alternative to carrying the goods up the slope in several trips, was employing a porter. This also gave employment to those that needed the income, such as other struggling prospectors and the local First Nations peoples. Activity carried on throughout the winter, when the weather allowed, although avalanches were a constant danger. One particularly deadly event in April 1898, killed 60 people.
Entrepreneurs saw opportunities and other methods were developed, to get goods to the summit where animals could not venture. Aerial ropeways were built and at a signif icant cost, goods could be transported to the summit, thus cutting the time to cross the Chilkoot Pass. This was only if prospectors could afford the rather steep charges.
After 1867 and the American purchase of Alaska, the boundaries between America and Canada were still not defined and were open to dispute. Both countries claimed Dyea and Skagway, but the issue was not pressing until the numbers of prospectors brought matters back into sharp focus. Diplomacy would have to wait, as the immediate matter was not, where the border was, but enforcing the rules on the thousands of people making their way across the border.
The North West Mounted Police was established in 1873 and was a fore runner of the police force that would eventually evolve into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were the enforcement arm of the various requirements, set out by the Canadian authorities. They enforced custom duties on those crossing and confiscated illegal firearms on the border, wherever it may be and set up police check points on the White Pass and the Chilkoot Trail. These were proper functioning border controls and hence, some people’s preference to travel to Valdez, to try to avoid those duties.
One regulation that was strictly enforced, was the requirement that prospectors had a year’s supply of food, to tide them over, as they attempted to satisfy their gold acquisition aspirations, whether or not they had money, or were successful in striking gold. The authorities didn’t want a massive inf lux of people or to be responsible for their deaths, if things went wrong. The Yukon could be a harsh environment and individuals had to be self-reliant.
This also had the effect, that if you were planning to carry your goods yourself over the pass, to save on employing porters, or paying for the aerial ropeways, several journeys would have to be made, to get it all over the passes. This had the unfortunate effect of increasing the wear and tear and congestion on the pass, which explains why it had so much usage and had to be shut.
After negotiating the passes, whichever one was chosen, the trails converged and the next challenge that had to be faced, was at Lake Lindeman, or a bit further down the valley on Lake Bennett. The next part of the journey for the original prospectors was to build a boat and follow the river 800kms to Dawson. The modern road route is only 600kms, but it takes a much more direct route, but was not built at the time of the gold rush.
Many of the trees immediately around the lake were cut down and various rafts and boats were built to carry their occupants down the river. The river is generally relatively easy to navigate but there is a dangerous set of rapids just upstream of Whitehorse, called Miles Canyon, the White Horse Rapids and Squaw Rapids. Miles Canyon was originally called the Grand Canyon but Schwatka renamed it Miles Canyon, after Brigadier General Nelson A Miles.
Frederick Schwatka, from 29th September 1849–2nd November 1892, was an army lieutenant, with a law and a medical degree. He had led an earlier expedition to King William Island, high in the Canadian arctic, to search for Franklin’s lost expedition of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, prompted partly by Franklin’s fame and the offer of a finder’s reward. The first relics were found off the east coast of Beechey Island. They went by ship up the Hudson Bay and then using dogs and sledges, the expedition travelled across vast stretches of the north. They found a skeleton but no papers. In 1883 he travelled over the Chilkoot Pass, built a boat and travelled the length of the river to its mouth, renaming Canadian landmarks after people he admired, without any regard to local place names or sensitivities.
Several boats carrying prospectors, during the gold rush, capsized during the descent of the Miles Canyon rapids and people drowned; partly because the prospectors were not used to building boats or shooting rapids. The NWMP took action and introduced safety rules. Boats were vetted for their robustness and weight carrying ability. Women and children were not allowed to travel on boats through the rapids, so had to disembark and walk around them. Boats carrying passengers had to have a licenced pilot. This cost money and some decided to unload their boat and let it drift down the rapids empty, hoping to collect it undamaged, at the bottom of the rapids.
Then from Whitehorse to Dawson, it was just a matter of travelling down the river. After Miles Canyon, the rest of the river is relatively easy to navigate. There are no waterfalls or strong rapids, except a couple of places that are more challenging. There is Lake Laberge which is 50kms long and with its unpredictable weather, boats have to rely on either sail or oars, to get back into the f lowing waters of the river at the end of the lake, to carry them downstream. The other hazard is Five Finger Rapids where four hard rocky islands divide the river into five channels and only the most easterly channel is navigable.