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The Last Great Gold Rush

The Klondike routes
The Klondike routes (United States Public Domain)

It took two ships, the Portland and the Excelsior, reaching Seattle and San Francisco, respectively, in mid-July 1897 to fuel the biggest human stampede in North American history. The previous August, gold had been discovered on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Word had spread quickly to other prospectors in the area and they rushed to stake claims on every available nearby stream and creek. Due to the remoteness of the land and winter socking the miners in, the outside world hadn’t heard the news until these two treasure ships arrived on the west coast loaded with gold taken from this new magic land called the Klondike.

The residents stood in awe, as men and women arrived on the Seattle and San Francisco docks with their “pokes,” some in suitcases so full of gold that it took two people to carry them. The next day, the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer read “Gold, Gold, Gold, Gold!”

The Klondike Gold Rush was on!

The news of potential riches could not have come at a better time. The mid-1890s had seen a North American financial recession. Banks failed. Large corporations collapsed. Labor strikes ran rampant, and the jobless rate swelled. However, gold was still a stable commodity at $20 an ounce. Over a million people worldwide made plans to bolt for the unknown north to seek their fortune, and over 100,000 people actually got up the nerve to try it. As for routes, three options were available, keeping in mind that Canada’s North West Mountain Police demanded that all comers to this remote territory had to be self-sufficient and arrive with a year’s worth of food or they would be turned away.

First, there was the all-water route from Seattle and San Francisco, up the Alaskan coast, entering the Yukon River off the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle, then up the river to the newly-established boomtown of Dawson City, Yukon, a 4,700 mile one-way trip. Barges, coal ships, freighters, paddle wheelers, fishing boats of all kinds were put into service, loaded to the hilt to accommodate those who were willing to take the perilous journey. At first, an average ticket cost $150 a pop ($4,000 today). Within a year, the price rose to $1,000. Over 1,800 attempted this route in 1897. A good number of the ships sank while many others were stuck along the way when the river froze over in mid-October. Only 43 people stumbled their way into Dawson by year’s end, the majority of those half-starved and badly weather-beaten.

Second, there was the all-Canadian route across land, keeping to the interior. Some people thought this one was the patriotic way, while others chose it to simply avoid federal customs officials. One of the paths started in Edmonton. It crossed the Peace River and entered the Canadian northern territories. Before the rush, Edmonton was a sleepy town of just over 1,000 souls. At the peak of the excitement in 1898, its population quadrupled with supply depots springing up everywhere. Another route originated from Ashcroft, BC, through the mountains. There was also an all-American way that disembarked at the Alaskan port of Valdez which required the gold seekers to cross the notorious Valdez glacier. Only a handful made it over alive. All of these interior attempts ended up as journeys to hell, taking upwards of 18 months to complete.

Third, and the most traveled way, was the grueling, but safer trip over the mountains through Dyea and Skagway, two port cities less than five miles apart at the northern end of the Alaskan Panhandle. Dyea took you up and over the Chilkoot Pass, while Skagway took you through the White Pass. On the other side was Lake Bennett and Lake Lindeman. Then, the prospectors had to build a raft that would take them and their one-year worth of supplies 500 miles downriver to Dawson and the adjacent gold fields.

Only about 40,000 of the original 100,000 who had set out actually made it to the Klondike via all the mentioned routes combined. By this time, the best claims were taken, anyway. Only 15,000 became miners. The others either turned around and went home or stayed to work.

Dawson was quite the boomtown. Predominately American, it went from nothing to tens of thousands in three short years. When gold was first discovered on Bonanza Creek in 1896 and the Yukon miners got word of the new strike through the miner grapevine, Dawson’s population jumped to a tent city of about 500 people by year’s end as winter had socked it in from the outside world. By that time, plots of land were selling for $500 each, the equivalent of $400,000 today. With the influx of stampeders in early 1897, Dawson’s population rose to 5,000, then soared to over 30,000 by 1898 as the outside world caught the gold bug.

Chilkoot Pass
The grueling Chilkoot Pass (Canadian Public Domain)

Dawson had 24-hour saloons, casinos, and houses of prostitution. Unlike most American frontier towns of the past, there was very little crime, thanks to the North West Mounted Police and their gun-free policy within the city limits. Front Street, the center of Dawson’s business district, was a mix of tents, warehouses, log cabins and other hastily-built structures. In the spring, the streets turned to deep mud and by summer flies and mosquitoes were a constant nuisance. With no fresh water or proper sewage arrangements, health issues were a concern. Dysentery and typhoid broke out in 1897, but were corrected somewhat in 1898 by piping in fresh water from the Yukon River further upstream. However, typhoid never did completely disappear. Scurvy or lack of Vitamin C was a serious threat, striking down several hundred. At the height of the gold frenzy, land along Front Street was fetching $20,000 ($16 million today). Sawmills worked 24 hours a day to satisfy the demand for lumber in the land of the Midnight Sun.

Gold dust was the common currency. Commodity prices were through the roof. Apples at $1 each. Eggs at $3 each. Nails at $30 a pound. Cans of butter fetched $5 each. Champagne went for $60 a bottle. The better hotel rooms cost $6.50 a night and an average meal that was served on linen tablecloths with silver utensils was $5. A shave could cost you $1.25.

With the many wood buildings in Dawson, fire was a constant menace. Two majors fires broke out in 1897 and 1898, both started accidentally by the same dance-hall girl, Belle Mitchell. But the worst blaze occurred 26 April 1899 when a saloon caught fire during a strike by the newly-formed Dawson Fire Brigade. It seems that with all the wealth around town, the town fathers didn’t see fit to pay their fire fighters a decent wage. Over 100 buildings were destroyed, the damage reaching over $1 million in the day’s money.

But a new Dawson rose up. A more cultured one. All the buildings were reconstructed in a late-Victorian style with tougher framing, walls, and windows inside of a mere two months, in time for American flags to flap in the breeze three months later on 4 July, when the town of 75 percent Americans celebrated its heritage. By then, Dawson was the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, with population estimates somewhere between 35,000-45,000. This “San Francisco of the North” had running water, electricity, telephones, steamed heat, movie theatres, schools, hospitals, churches, hotels, three newspapers--the Nugget, the Midnight Sun, the Dawson Miner--and opera houses that brought singers and other forms of entertainment to the district.

The Klondike and Dawson in particular had a long list of characters and notables who were present during this great gold rush. Wilson Mizner was a confidence man who bilked prospectors of their money through various schemes, one of those being “badger games.” He later opened one of Hollywood’s hot spots, the Brown Derby Restaurant. Jack Kearns arrived in Dawson as a teenager. In the 1920s, he became the manager of heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, and later light-heavyweight Archie Moore. Sid Grauman was a paper boy in Dawson. A few years after his return to the States, he opened one of Hollywood’s most famous landmarks, Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Writer Jack London contracted scurvy in the Klondike and returned to the States to write his two masterpieces, Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). Another writer Rex Beach was in town. Also influenced by the remote north, he later wrote his best-selling The Spoilers (1906). Tex Rickard, along with Wilson Mizner, promoted many Dawson boxing matches. Rickard later rebuilt Madison Square Garden to help promote his new National Hockey League team in 1926, the New York Rangers. He also built Boston Garden in 1928 which became home to the NHL Boston Bruins.

Another character was “Klondike Joe” Boyle, a Canadian adventurer and World War I Allied spy and hero in Romania for helping the country with relief efforts following the war. He organized the Dawson City Nuggets hockey team in 1905 which took a punishing trip by dog sled, steamer, and train to Ottawa to challenge the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup. Exhausted and bruised from the tough journey--bruised from the jarring dog sled--the Nuggets were trounced 9-2 and 23-2.

“Arizona Charlie” Meadows, a former western scout and performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, opened the lavish Palace Grand Dance Hall in Dawson, complete with a polished Mahogany bar. Renovated in the 1960s, it still stands today. Alexander Pantages worked in town for a time as a janitor and a waiter before becoming a part-owner of a saloon with his lover, dancer-entertainer Kate Rockwell, of “Klondike Kate” fame. Returning to the United States, he opened a string of successful Pantages Theaters across North America, featuring the latest film and vaudeville acts.

Dawson City
Waiting at the Post Office, Dawson City, Yukon, 1899 (Canadian Public Domain)

Many women headed north too. The most successful of them all was Ethel Berry. Born Ethel Dean Bush, and raised on a farm in the Central Valley of California, she married her childhood sweetheart Clarence Berry in March 1896 when she was 23. For their honeymoon they trekked over the Chilkoot Pass into the Yukon. Now, there’s a honeymoon for you. That same year, they were a few of those lucky ones who struck it rich, well before the stampeders smothered the area. Clarence was lucky enough to have been bartending upriver at Forty Mile Creek when George Carmack--whose discovery started all the mass mania--had entered the establishment and bragged about the news of his personal strike on Bonanza Creek. The Berrys immediately packed up and left. Their claim along Eldorado Creek turned out to be one of the most valuable pieces of Klondike property. A year later, while most miners were housing themselves in canvas tents, the couple’s two-story cabin built on No 5 Eldorado Creek was the most prestigious on the Yukon River tributary.

When the Portland docked in Seattle that fateful day in 1897, Ethel and Clarence had over $100,000 worth of gold stuffed in their belongings. The press descended on the couple and promptly called Ethel “The Bride of the Klondike,” highlighting her in papers all over the world. As a result, scores of women went north, inspired by her story. While a good number of Klondike Kings squandered their money, the Berrys were two of the few who invested their new-found riches wisely, later buying up other claims throughout the Yukon and Alaska, namely Fairbanks after the 1903 gold strike there. Back in California, they founded Berry Petroleum Company in 1909, a firm still in existence today. Clarence died in 1930, while Ethel lived on as a millionaire widow until 1948, when she passed away at the age of 75 in Beverly Hills, California.

By August 1899, the Klondike Gold Rush had ground to a halt. Prices were dropping steadily. Of the 100,000 who had originally set out on the stampede, only 4,000 had actually struck any significant amounts of gold. Prospectors from nearby creeks were now seeking work in town after their claims had turned up empty. But there was no work to be found. Too many people, not enough jobs. Everyone waited for something…anything…

Then, rumors came up the Yukon River from the west--news of a gold strike on the Bering Sea. Within a few days, the rumors were confirmed. Gold had been discovered on the beaches at Nome, Alaska, a town so far north that it was above the tree line. In one week, 8,000 people fled Dawson to seek a new fortune. One gold rush ended and another started. More and more people left for Alaska, mainland Canada and United States in the coming weeks and months. Upon Dawson’s incorporation as a city in 1902, the population had shrunk to barely 5,000. And it dropped even further after World War II when the Alaska Highway construction missed the legendary site by 300 miles.

According to the 2011 census, Dawson had 1,300 residents. With gold mining and tourism its main industries, Dawson attracts 60,000 visitors each year. For decades now, the price of gold has been allowed to float on the open market, thus bringing modern day prospectors back to the Yukon with their big rigs to find the “Mother Lode,” if there ever was one. Dyea, Alaska, once a robust boomtown of 7,000 during the Klondike Gold Rush, is a ghost town today, only a few broken-down structures and three cemeteries remain. Aided by surrounding deep waters, nearby Skagway, with its population of 900, is an important seaport for Alaskan cruise ships.

Here’s a couple of points...

The modern-day locals like to call their town Dawson, while outsiders call it Dawson City, in order to separate it from Dawson Creek, BC, which is Point Zero of the Alaska Highway.

Also, the word Klondike originated from the Indian word “Thron Diuck,” meaning “Hammer Water.” Early settlers couldn’t pronounce the words properly, so they came up with…you guessed it…KLON-DIKE.


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