The Klondike Stampede, Part I

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It has always surprised me that the last great gold rush in North America is mostly absent from American history textbooks, especially those of more recent vintage.  It’s as if the stampede to the Klondike never happened.  Part of the answer lies in geography: The Klondike region is in Canada’s Yukon Territory.  However, most of the stampeders were Americans, and they all went through Alaska to get to the Klondike.  Moreover, the stampede had its greatest effect on the cities of the American Pacific Northwest and poured millions in gold into the U.S. Treasury, which was sorely in need of bullion.  Although the Klondike gold rush was one of history’s epic events, vividly described in the prose of Jack London and the poetry of Robert W. Service, students in our colleges today would plead ignorance if asked about it.

One day late in the spring of 1896, a tall, lean prospector began panning a tributary of the Klondike River.  His name was Robert Henderson.  The son of a Nova Scotian lighthouse keeper, he had left home at 14 to prospect for gold.  His quest for the precious metal took him to New Zealand, Australia, the Western U.S., and then Alaska.  Along the way he had found just enough gold to keep him going.  Now, working what would become known as Gold Bottom Creek, he was rewarded with pan after pan of gold dust and flakes.  This might be the strike he had desperately sought for years.  Henderson properly staked a claim and then hurried down to Frenchy Ladue’s trading post on the Yukon River.  As he bumped into other prospectors along the way, he told them of his luck on Gold Bottom Creek.

One of those Henderson met was George Washington Carmack, an old prospector who lived in a cabin on the banks of the Yukon River.  For the time being, though, Carmack was fishing for a living.  Henderson was dismayed by the sight, thinking no prospector should be reduced to that.  Henderson told Carmack about his strike and urged him to get up to Gold Bottom Creek and stake a claim.

Born in Oakland, California, Carmack was a forty-niner’s son.  Leaving home at 16, he shipped to Alaska as a dishwasher on a man-of-war.  He jumped ship at Juneau and began years of prospecting in Alaska.  He married the daughter of an Indian chief, and some said he became half-Indian himself.  Several of his wife’s relatives could usually be found at his cabin, taking advantage of his generosity.

Although Carmack had his catch of fish drying on the beach, he took Henderson’s advice and headed for Gold Bottom Creek.  Two of Carmack’s Indian pals, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, tagged along.  Exactly what happened when Carmack reached Henderson’s camp is disputed, but we know for certain Carmack prospected Gold Bottom Creek without much success.  Henderson urged him to cross a ridge line and try his luck on Rabbit Creek.  Carmack promised Henderson that if he found anything of real value he would send word back.  Just before Carmack left, though, Henderson had a heated exchange with Carmack’s Indian friends.  Henderson said they had stolen his tobacco.

Over on Rabbit Creek the next day, August 17, 1896, Carmack pulled a nugget of gold as big as his thumb out of the water.  Carmack let out a war whoop and began a wild dance he later described as a combination Irish jig, Scottish hornpipe, and Indian foxtrot.  Soon he washed more pay dirt and recovered a quarter-ounce or more of gold to the pan.  This was rich, indeed.  He staked two claims for himself, as mining law allowed for the discoverer, and one each for Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie.

A day later George Carmack headed downstream to record the claims with the Mounties at Fortymile, an outpost on the Yukon River.  Everyone Carmack ran into, he told of his strike.  The only one who didn’t get the word was Robert Henderson.

The following week saw dozens of prospectors staking claims along Rabbit Creek, which Carmack had renamed Bonanza Creek.  Those first-comers were destined to take gold worth millions of dollars out of the creek.  Soon they were panning an adjoining and equally rich stream, which they named Eldorado Creek.

The prospectors had only two months of mining before winter came to the Yukon and shut down operations.  Huddled in cabins and shanties, the miners would spend five months waiting for the spring thaw, while outside there was nothing but ice and snow and subzero temperatures.

Meanwhile, Americans and Canadians were unaware of what had occurred on Bonanza and Eldorado creeks.  Then, on July 15, 1897, Excelsior, a ship operated by the Alaska Commercial Company, docked at San Francisco.  Excelsior carried some 20 prospectors from the Klondike and nearly a thousand pounds of gold.  The ship’s arrival was unheralded, and there was only a small group of friends and relatives on the dock to greet the prospectors.  Down the gangplank they came, gaunt, grizzled, and weather beaten.  One of those watching them disembark thought they looked just like miners in photos from the California gold rush, nearly a half-century earlier.

The miners carried buckskin bags and canvas sacks full of gold.  One man struggled with a suitcase that contained 200 lbs. of nuggets, scales, and dust.  People in the crowd gasped.  There’s plenty more where this came from, said the prospectors.  Word of the prospectors and their gold spread like wildfire through San Francisco.

Excelsior’s arrival took San Francisco by surprise, but the telegraph carried word north that a second and richer ship was due to arrive in Seattle in two days.  On the morning of July 17, the steamer Portland arrived.  A crowd of 5,000 was on the docks to greet her.  Portland carried 68 prospectors and two tons of gold.  Down the gangplank came the prospectors, carrying or dragging heavy sacks and suitcases full of gold.  Dick McNulty, one of the first off, told the crowd that the Klondike placers were ten times as rich as any found in California.  Other prospectors made similar pronouncements.  The crowd went wild.

Within three hours of Portland’s docking, Seattle’s waterfront streets were gridlocked.  Wagons and buggies were going nowhere fast in a crowd of densely packed people.  Thousands were trying to book passage to the Klondike—wherever that was.  There were teamsters, magazine editors, bank clerks, attorneys, fishermen, lumberjacks, merchants, ministers, prostitutes, laborers, and, occasionally, an experienced prospector.  Unions, social clubs, congregations, athletic teams, college fraternities, and other such groups held fundraisers to finance expeditions to this place called the Klondike.

All Seattle horses suddenly became pack animals and sold for many times their value before the arrival of Portland.  Likewise for canines, which now were sold as sled dogs.  A Seattle newspaper said, “Seattle has become a cat’s paradise.”

News of the gold strike couldn’t have come at a better time.  The United States was still struggling with the long depression that began as the Panic of 1893.  Crop prices collapsed, foreclosures on farms soared, and farmers by the thousands moved off the land and into the city.  The money supply contracted, and credit dried up.  Gold was in short supply.  More than 500 banks failed.  Businesses filed for bankruptcy by the thousands.  Several of the great railroads went under: the Erie, the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, the Santa Fe.  Strikes, lockouts, and unemployment characterized industry.

Now with the Klondike strike, the West Coast ports of San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland exploded with activity.  Shipyards were suddenly building new vessels and refurbishing old ones, even old steamships that had their day in the 1850’s and 60’s.  Seaworthiness was a secondary consideration to carrying capacity.  People were packed like sardines, and freight was stacked everywhere.  Holds of ships became stables for horses.  Bales of hay and lifeboats served as bunks for passengers.  Safety and comfort meant nothing.  Passengers didn’t care—they were the lucky ones who had been able to book passage.  By the first of September, only six weeks after Portland’s auspicious arrival, 9,000 people and 36,000 tons of freight had left the port of Seattle bound for the Klondike.  Following in only slightly smaller numbers were stampeders leaving the ports of San Francisco, Tacoma, and Portland.

The traditional way into the interior of Alaska and the Yukon Territory was the “All Water Passage” by way of the Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea, and the Yukon River.  Such a route involved a trip of many hundreds of miles from Seattle: 2,800 miles from Seattle to St. Michael, a town of clapboard buildings and shanties at the mouth of the Yukon River, and then some 1,600 miles up the Yukon to Dawson City at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers.  Under favorable conditions the voyage took about 40 days, but it could take up to eight months.

Timing was critical.  The Yukon River doesn’t become navigable until May, but the Bering Sea remains frozen at St. Michael until late June.  Then, the Bering Sea usually freezes again in late September, and the Yukon River by November.  Reaching Alaskan waters a little late meant being stopped by ice before St. Michael or becoming ice-bound in the Yukon River, somewhere in the 1,600 miles of wilderness between St. Michael and Dawson.  Several groups of would-be prospectors spent the winter of 97-98 aboard a riverboat steamer frozen solid in the Yukon.

More direct and potentially quicker but far more difficult was the “Water and Overland Route,” favored by the great majority of Klondike stampeders.  The water portion of the route took the protected Inside Passage, between the coast of British Columbia and Alaska and dozens of offshore islands.  The islands screened the Inside Passage from the full force of Pacific storms and enabled the Klondike hopefuls to use ships otherwise unseaworthy.  The Inside Passage ends at the Lynn Canal, a deep fjord that runs to the foot of the mountains and the towns of Skagway and Dyea.

At first ships went all the way to the head of the Lynn Canal to the town of Dyea.  There were no docks at Dyea and cargo had to be offloaded into small skiffs and dinghies and rowed ashore.  Horses were swung over the side in slings and dropped into the water to swim ashore.  Lumber was shoved overboard on an incoming tide to float to the wide tidal beach.  A quarter-mile back from the shore were the first tents.  Another quarter-mile back lay Dyea’s main street, nothing more than a muddy trail lined with wooden buildings.

In 1896, the year before the rush began, Dyea contained 250 Indians and four whites.  That was about to change.   

To be continued . . .

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