Many years ago, an outdoor enthusiast colleague of mine hiked the Chilkoot trail which starts from Dyea in Alaska across the Coast mountains via the Chilkoot pass and down to Bennett in British Columbia, Canada and then onwards to Dawson City by rented canoe. Her photos were incredible.
I was fascinated with her trek along a truly historic route. She was on the same path as the fevered gold seekers of the Klondike Gold Rush (1897-98). The depression during that last decade of the 19th century had wearied many and some were willing to try anything to get rich quickly.
When news of the gold discovery broke, the stampeders had a number of routes to choose from. The so called "rich man's route" promised a hardship-free 2,700 mile cruise from Vancouver, Victoria or Seattle. the passengers transferred at St Michael in Alaska onto steamers to go up the Yukon River to Dawson City. In reality the journey was expensive, uncomfortably cold and delayed by the freeze-up.
The most arduous were the overland routes. All- Canadian routes like the Edmonton trail delivered hardships galore and a late arrival if they survived. The worst had to be the All- American routes via southern Alaska. The gold seekers had to trek through several hundred miles and still faced 600 miles up the Yukon river. Those who ventured over massive glaciers faced death through cold, avalanches or became insane or snowblinded.
The shortest and fastest way to the gold field was via the mountain passes of the Coast Mountains. They disembarked at the port towns of Dyea (1898 photo below) or Skagway in Alaska. They had to bring a huge ton of supplies - food, clothing, tools etc going into Canadian territory. The Northwest Mounted Police (the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) insisted people travelling into Canada's remote Yukon area had to have a year's worth of supplies to survive on - a rule which undoubtedly saved many lives. Many of the cheechakos (northern slang for newcomer) had no idea of the challenges they faced in the unforgiving northern wilderness.
The Northwest Mounted Police's early presence there was crucial in the eventual decision of where the official boundary between the US and Canada lay. They kept the peace and were successful at keeping conmen like the notorious Soapy Smith out of Canadian territory. Let's not forget they also remembered to collect customs duties!
The journey from the coast to Dawson City was 500 miles (800 km). In the beginning, there were no railways or tramways. The Klondikers had to haul everything by human and/or animal power. There were two passes to choose from. White Pass was easier but lawless. It became known as Dead Horse Trail because it was littered with dead and dying pack horses, injured or killed along the increasingly slippery trail or cruelly overworked by their desperate owners.
Chilkoot Pass was tough - one female gold seeker called it the "worst trail this side of hell". Nicknamed the "golden stairs or staircase", the final part of this 4 mile portion of the trail was too steep for pack animals. That last half mile rose 1000 feet! It required several backbreaking trips carrying typically 50-100 lb packs to the summit up steps cut in snow and ice. The ones who could afford it hired packers. In the spring of 1898, an avalanche killed 60.
Most of the gold seekers who crossed the Coast Mountains via either the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass arrived late in 1897 or early 1898 and had to wait until the spring thaw before they could get onto the Yukon River via a chain of lakes. A huge tent city grew around Lake Bennett (pictures below) and Lake Lindermann. Much of the forest there was chopped down for boat or raft building.
The Northwest Mounted Police again stepped in by registering the boats and the occupants as well as organizing orderly launches to avoid collisions. They also vetoed any boats they deemed unfit to negotiate the many dangerous rapids ahead. With their record taking, they were thus able to field inquiries from all of the world from people asking about the fate of gold seeking family members and friends.
Bonanza Creek was the heart of the gold rush after Skookum Jim Mason found gold there in 1896. The stream was previously called Rabbit Creek but suitably renamed. The Klondike Kings, miners who staked the earliest claims at the best locations were the ones who made their fortunes - around $1 billion in gold in total.
Those who came later in 1897-98 at the height of the gold rush were not so lucky. Of the estimated 100,000 gold seekers who set out, only 30,000 actually got there. Most of the late-comers never recouped the cost of their trips. They either stayed on to work for the Klondike Kings or they went home poorer but wiser.
But there were many who made a lot of money, not from gold, but selling supplies either in San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Victoria, Vancouver or Edmonton and Dawson City itself. Did you know Donald Trump's grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf (who later changed his name to Frederick Trump), made his fortune running the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant in Bennett, along the Chilkoot Trail?
The women of Klondike made money not just as dance hall singers, actresses and prostitutes, but as roadhouse cooks and for one female entrepreneur, as a saw mill owner. She, Martha Purdy Black, became Canada's second female member of Parliament. Katherine Ryan staked 3 claims, became not only a gold inspector, entrepreneur, political activist but also the first female member, a Special Constable, of the Northwest Mounted Police.
Other golden posts to enjoy:
- Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures
- Of karats, carats and carrots!
- Leprechaun's gold - The Story of the lost Irish Eldorado
Pierre Berton (1972) Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush
Richard Friesen (1981) The Chilkoot Pass and the Great Gold Rush of 1898
University of Washington The Klondike Gold Rush
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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