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The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896: A Forgotten Historical Event

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.

Prospectors with supplies at the Chilkoot Pass.

Prospectors with supplies at the Chilkoot Pass.

The Klondike Gold Find

It all started on August 16, 1896, when George Carmack, an American prospector looking for gold by the Klondike River in Northwestern Canada near the Alaska border, discovered gold. He had been working the area accompanied by his Tagish wife Kate (Shaaw Tláa), her brother Shookum Jim (Keish), and their nephew Dawson Charlie (K̲áa Goox). George was following a suggestion from Canadian prospector Robert Henderson to look for gold on Bonanza Creek (called Rabbit Creek at the time), one of the Klondike River’s tributaries.

Skookum Jim, one of the discoverers, 1898

Skookum Jim, one of the discoverers, 1898

Whether Carmack discovered the gold first or his brother-in-law Shookum Jim, it is not known. Notwithstanding, the group agreed to let George Carmack appear as the official discoverer fearing the authorities would not recognize an indigenous claimant. Regardless of who in the group was the first to make the find, gold was present along the river and its tributaries in huge quantities.

Carmack proceeded to make claims on four measured strips of ground along the river which he could later legally mine. Two of these were for himself and one each for Jim and Charlie. Once the claims were registered, the day after the discovery, at the police post at the mouth of the Fortymile River, the news of the find spread quickly to other mining camps in the Yukon River valley. By the end of August of the same year, all of Bonanza Creek had been claimed by local miners.

Additional sources of gold were discovered in one of the creeks feeding into Bonanza, which was later named Eldorado Creek. This source of gold would prove to be even richer than those on Bonanza. The gold fever began to reach a level of great haste as claims started to be sold between miners and speculators for considerable sums.

Just before Christmas, word of the newfound gold reached as far as Circle City, at the time the largest gold mining town on the Yukon River, some 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Despite rough winter conditions and heavy snows, many prospectors immediately left for the Klondike on dog-sleds. Their hope was to reach the region before the best claims were taken.

In spite of the uproar among the local miners and prospectors, the outside world was still largely unaware of the news coming out of Klondike. Although Canadian officials had managed to send a message to their superiors in Ottawa about the finds and influx of prospectors, the government did not pay much attention.

Further impediments to the dissemination of the news were the frozen rivers that prevented traffic that could potentially inform the outside world of the vast gold finds. Consequently, it was not until June 1897 that the first boats left the area, not only carrying freshly mined gold but also the full story of the discoveries.

An Attack of 'Klondicitis'

An Attack of 'Klondicitis'

The 1897 Stampede

On July 15, 1897, the first prospectors returning from the Klondike arrived, first in San Francisco and two days later in Seattle. The press at the time reported that the ships Excelsior and Portland had arrived with an estimated $1,139,000 (equivalent to $1 billion in today’s prices) in gold. It was later determined that this amount had been underestimated.

Consequently, a stampede to the Yukon River Valley ensued. An estimated 100,000 people tried to reach the Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually did. This formed the height of the Klondike gold rush from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898. However, the migration of prospectors caught so much attention that outfitters, writers, and photographers also made the trek.

Living through the Panic of 1893

Living through the Panic of 1893

The U.S. Faced an Economic Depression

Various factors were responsible for the sudden mass response. Perhaps the most notable was the fact that the United States (U.S.) was in the midst of a financial depression. At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. economy was going through difficult times. A financial depression had been triggered by the Panic of 1893, a severe downturn initially traced to Argentina.

The wheat crop failure and a failed coup in Buenos Aires ended strong investments with hefty returns in this South American country. Additionally, speculations in South African and Australian properties also collapsed. These events caused European investors to start a run on gold in the U.S. Treasury as they feared these problems would spread.

Another contributing factor to the economic malaise was the Reading Railroad going into receivership at the end of President Benjamin Harrison’s administration in 1893. The collapse of the railroad was soon magnified by the failures of hundreds of banks and businesses that depended on Reading and other railroads to move their merchandise. The effect of the financial turmoil led to a dramatic plunge in the stock market.

The gold standard of the time tied paper money to the production of gold. Shortages in gold at the end of the 19th century meant that gold dollars were rapidly increasing in value and outpacing paper currencies, hence causing the hoarding of the precious metal.

Just three years later, the U.S. experienced the Panic of 1896. This was an acute economic depression that although less severe than other previous economic downturns, was precipitated by a drop in silver reserves and concerns on the effects it would have on the gold standard. Consequently, further deflation of commodities’ prices drove the stock market to new lows.

Both economic shocks in 1893 and 1896, caused unemployment and a great deal of financial uncertainty. The Gilded Age of the 1870s and 1880s had come to an abrupt end.

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Klondikers buying miner’s licenses at the Custom House in Victoria, BC, on February 12, 1898

Klondikers buying miner’s licenses at the Custom House in Victoria, BC, on February 12, 1898

Thousands Risked It All

By the time the vast gold finds in the Klondike had become known, thousands of able-bodied men and women were willing to risk it all for the promises of a fortune they felt awaited them near the Arctic Circle. The vast gold finds in the Klondike promised to fulfill the great unresolved demand for gold, not only in the U.S. but also across the developed world. For individuals, the Yukon Valley region promised higher wages and financial security.

As historian Pierre Berton reported that Klondike was “just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be accessible.” This romantic vision of a dangerous frozen region full of gold promising riches motivated the working class and intellectuals alike. One such adventurer and fortune seeker was author Jack London, who swept by the lure of the Gold Rush headed north in search of wealth. It was during this time that instead of finding gold London discovered the inspiration for his most successful and timeless stories: The Call of the Wild, White Fang and To Build a Fire.

Ports in the West Coast Were Hungry for Business

As the economy had grounded to a halt, the large Pacific ports such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle were hungry for business and saw a potential rush to Canada and Alaska as opportunities. Additionally, large newspapers of the area promoted the event and reported on the human interest stories involved.

The S/S Excelsior leaves San Francisco on July 28, 1897, for the Klondike.

The S/S Excelsior leaves San Francisco on July 28, 1897, for the Klondike.

One such reporter and publicist who took it upon himself to promote the Klondike Gold Rush was Erastus Brainerd (February 25, 1855 — December 25, 1922) who sold the idea of Seattle as the “Gateway to Alaska.” A journalist and art museum curator, Brainerd moved to the West Coast to become the editor of the Seattle Press and the Seattle Press-Times (now The Seattle Times), a role he held until September of 1893. He eventually became the secretary and executive officer of the newly founded Bureau of Information of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and a prominent figure in the campaign to promote Seattle as a mercantile and outfitting center for the miners headed to the Yukon.


Seattle newspaper announcing the arrival of gold from Klondike, July 17, 1897

Seattle newspaper announcing the arrival of gold from Klondike, July 17, 1897

They Were From All Walks of Life

While most of the prospectors who ventured to the Yukon were either Americans or recent immigrants, some 20% were from other nations. These were all men who came to the West Coast of the U.S. after the news of new-found gold went around the world. Most had no experience in mining and were in many cases clerks, salesmen, or manual laborers. Consequently, mass resignations of workers to join the gold rush became a common topic in daily conversations.

An early view of Calamity Jane wearing buckskins, with an ivory-gripped Colt Single Action Army revolver tucked in her hand-tooled holster, holding a Sharps rifle

An early view of Calamity Jane wearing buckskins, with an ivory-gripped Colt Single Action Army revolver tucked in her hand-tooled holster, holding a Sharps rifle

However, in some cases, well-known personalities joined the rush to the Yukon. Some of these were: John McGraw, the former governor of Washington; Frederick Burnham, a well-known American scout and explorer; William D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle; twelve Seattle policemen and a number of city streetcar drivers left their jobs to join the stampede; well-known bare-knuckle boxer Danny Needham joined the Klondike Gold Rush; even Calamity Jane, the famous frontier woman joined the stampede. In fact, dozens of other well-known people either ventured to the Yukon in search of gold or for the sake of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Chronicling the remarkable human wave of fortune seekers were Swedish-born photographer Eric Hegg; as mentioned before Jack London; reporter, artist, and photographer Tappan Adney; Mary Evelyn Hitchcock (pen names: Mary Doyle and Mrs. Roswell D. Hitchcock), American author and explorer along with her friend Edith Van Buren (Countess de Castelmenardo); Rex Beach, novelist and playwright who wrote the true story The Spoilers, about government officials stealing gold mines from prospectors in the Klondike; and James Oliver Curwood, action-adventure writer, and conservationist.

Routes to the Klondike

Routes to the Klondike (red spot).

Routes to the Klondike (red spot).

Passages

By all measures, traveling to the Klondike was an arduous undertaking. Harsh weather, rough terrain, and long distances were unavoidable obstacles all Klondikers faced as they traveled to the remote region of the Yukon. Travelers faced difficult mountains and winding rivers which at times were impassable. The short summers were hot, while in the long winter months from October to June temperatures could drop to -58 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Klondike could only be reached by navigating the Yukon River. Travelers could go upstream from its delta, downstream from its head, or by accessing it somewhere in the middle via its tributaries. Riverboats could navigate the Yukon in the summer from the delta until a point called Whitehorse, above the Klondike.

Some travelers brought dogs, horses, mules, or oxen in order to lighten their load during the demanding journey. Others had to rely on carrying their own equipment on their backs or on sleds pulled by hand. Shortly after the new prospectors began to arrive in the Yukon Territory, Canadian authorities introduced rules requiring newcomers to bring a year’s supply of food which could weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Once camping equipment, tools, and other essentials were added a typical traveler could be transporting a ton or more in weight.

Dead horses on White Pass trail, 1898

Dead horses on White Pass trail, 1898

From Seattle or San Francisco, prospectors could travel what is now known as the Inside Passage, which is up the coast to the ports of Dyea, Skagway, and other minor ports in Alaska. From there, travelers could access nearby trails to the Klondike. The sudden increase in demand brought a large range of vessels to offer services to these ports. Many of these ships were not originally meant as passenger vessels as a large portion were paddle wheelers, fishing boats, barges, and coal ships. Consequently, many were overloaded and sank.

For those travelers taking the Inside Passage, once they reached either Dyea or Skagway, they would then have to choose one of the various trails that would ultimately take them to their final destination. From there, they would need to travel over mountain ranges into Canada’s Yukon Territory. Eventually, down the river network to the Klondike. Along the trail, they would encounter a series of tent camps where prospectors had to stop to eat or sleep. Some would stop along the banks of the icy lakes at the end of the Yukon.

Edmonton routes. Red frame: Position of map on map of northern America. Big arrow: All-Canadian route from Edmonton by rivers and portage to Yukon River via Pelly River. Small arrows: Back door route. Black solid line: McKenzie River most of the way.

Edmonton routes. Red frame: Position of map on map of northern America. Big arrow: All-Canadian route from Edmonton by rivers and portage to Yukon River via Pelly River. Small arrows: Back door route. Black solid line: McKenzie River most of the way.

All-Canadian Routes

For many Canadian and British prospectors, the All-Canadian routes seemed to be a better option. These were a series of passages that mostly stayed on Canadian soil and avoided American customs. The first one to be used was approximately 1,000 miles in length and started in Ashcroft in British Columbia crossing swamps, river gorges, and mountains, eventually meeting the Stikine River at Glenora. From this point, prospectors faced the same difficulties as the ones who came from Wrangell in Alaska. Mud and slushy ice in these routes were extremely exhausting, killing or incapacitating pack animals, making the trip excruciating. Eventually, three additional routes were added from Edmonton and Alberta, although they were not much better.

All-Water Routes

One way the more affluent prospectors could travel to the Klondike was by sailing all the way from Seattle across the northern Pacific to the Alaskan coast. From the city of St. Michael, at the Yukon River delta, they could board a riverboat which could take them the rest of the way to Dawson City, which was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush. Called “the rich man’s route” this path was expensive and long. It went across a distance of 4,700 miles and at the beginning of the stampede, it cost $150 ($4,050 in today’s dollars). During the height of winter, the fare would climb to $1,000 ($27,000 today). However, this route had the attraction of speed and avoiding a great deal of overland travel.

The “rich man’s route”, however, was not without its difficulties. In October of 1987, some 1,800 travelers were stranded along the river when the region iced over. Out of this group, only eight made it all the way to the Klondike. The majority remained stranded in isolated camps and settlements along the ice-covered river. Most in desperate circumstances.

Mining Results and Costs

At the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City (founded in 1896), the Canadian town closest to the Klondike gold mines, had a population of over 40,000 people. Of those living there, only around 15,000 finally became prospectors. Of these, only about 4,000 struck gold and only a handful became rich. By the time most stampeders arrived in 1898, the best spots in the creeks had all been claimed. Unfortunately, what many stampeders did not realize when they first started their journeys to Klondike was that mining took time and capital.

The timber around the mines had to be cleared. Mining operations needed to burn wood in order to unfreeze the ground. This could cost at least $1,500 ($42,000 today). An additional $1,000 ($28,000) to construct a dam, $1,500 again for ditches and up to $600 ($16,800) for sluice boxes (equipment that helps to separate gold from other materials). The total for such an initial investment would be $4,600 or $128,000 in today’s dollar value.

For many prospectors, the investment was worth it. Once gold was found, it was often highly concentrated, making the Klondike creeks fifteen times richer in gold than those in California. In fact, in just two years during the initial period of the Klondike prospecting, $230,000 ($6,440,000) worth of gold was brought up from claim number 29 on the Eldorado Creek alone.

However, once Klondikers obtained a license to mine, which they could do in Dawson or en route from Victoria, they could only prospect for gold. Once they found a suitable location, they could lay claim over mining rights. To stake a claim, a prospector needed to drive a stake into the ground at a measured distance and then return to Dawson to register the claim. Of course, all these licenses and claims cost money. Miners only had three days to make a claim and only one claim was allowed per person. In the case of married couples, the wife was allowed to register a claim for herself, doubling their amount of land.

Claims could be mined freely for a year, after which a fee of $100 ($2,800) had to be paid annually. Any prospector leaving a claim for more than three days without a good reason, risked another miner making a claim on the land.

In addition to all the above expenditures, the Canadian government charged a royalty of 10 to 20 percent of the value of gold taken from a claim.

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