Klondike Gold Rush: An American Story
It is easy to try to tease a moral lesson from the lust for gold that drove tens of thousands of men and women to risk their lives to get to the Klondike one hundred and twenty years ago. It is a tale of greed and adventure that deserves a second look.
When a million dollars’ worth of Klondike gold arrived in Seattle in July 1897, the news of the discovery spread like wildfire. It charmed the imaginations of the dispossessed, the unemployed and the dreamers who sparked a stampede to Skagway, Alaska, where the hardy would trek over hundreds of mountainous miles to the Yukon.
People borrowed money or relatives pooled their few resources to sponsor a family member on the journey and within days dozens of ships sailed from San Francisco and Seattle overflowing with men and women. The first ship arrived in Skagway just 12 days after newspapers spread the word about the gold.
In the following weeks, dozens of ships sailed from Seattle and San Francisco to Dyea, the village next to Skagway. Each one carried a cargo of the hopeful and the desperate.
On arrival, these men and women got their first glimpse of the difficult odds they faced in the race to claim their Klondike gold.
Scammers, entrepreneurs and skilled crafts people came with the prospectors, each planning to make some fast money from the gold-rushers who flooded the town.
For the hopeful thousands who arrived in the summer of 1897, the cost of their adventure kept rising. Passengers had to pay just to get their supplies to shore. Eventually, each person had to prove they had a year’s provision of food (figured at 3 pounds per person per day) before Canada would allow them to cross into the Yukon.
Merchants charged top dollar in Skagway and Dyea for these supplies. Stampeders could try to buy a horse, get a dog team or hire a packer if they had the money. Otherwise they had to haul the massive amounts of goods on their backs more than 600 miles to the Klondike.
Here’s how one San Francisco woman described the journey with her husband:
“People are simply crazy to get over (the mountain pass) and are trying everywhere to get men. I walked six miles by myself, and forded the river three times to the top of my long rubber boots, and by good luck I secured ten Indians to pack for 17 cents a pound…Deliver me from ever crossing the pass again. When we get our gold we will come out by the Yukon. Strong men all along the trail are sick and turning back. Half the people will not get over, as it costs lots of money and you have to work like the ‘devil’ besides.” Mrs. Frank Fancher’s letter, San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1897
The packers, boarding house operators, saloon keepers and cooks made a healthy income providing services to the gold-rushers. The Canadians saw as many as 100,000 people flooding into their country and local leaders salivated at the prospect of an economic boom brought by thousands of settlers.
Around the world, gold rush fever caught the imagination of people like Lillian Lemmon, a stenographer from Chicago, who organized a Klondike Gold Club of 300 women who planned to go the Yukon in the spring of 1898.
Miss Lemmon decided she wanted to build a dredge and search for gold herself. Her enthusiams attracted club members that included two doctors, nurses, barbers, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses and domestics, as well as actresses and singers who would form a theater group. Miss Lemmon planned to bring a printing press to the Yukon and publish a weekly paper there. The Chicago Tribune sketched an outfit that Lemmon designed for the cold Yukon.
History remains silent about the fate of Miss Lemmon’s expedition. She is registered as a guest in a Seattle hotel in May of 1898 but whether her gold club made it to the Yukon is unknown.
Even when news started trickling out of the Yukon that claims had been made for all the gold veins and the supply was dwindling, people did not stop coming to town. Some did not believe that the gold was drying up, suspicious that it was a ploy to keep competitors away and blinded by their desperation for a piece of gold.
For the next couple of years, people kept coming and their miseries multiplied as they went. Finally a gold strike in Nome, Alaska, convinced the hapless prospectors to move on.
One hundred and twenty years later, in the small town of Skagway, Alaska, the travails of the gold-rushers are remembered at a re-constructed main street lined with false Western fronts, bar rooms and souvenir stores.
Three cruise ships a day bring hundreds of visitors to Skagway where they can take a ride up the pass on the railway that was built after the height of the stampede.
The National Park Service has a visitor’s center and offers lively ranger talks about the gold rush era, telling stories like that of career criminal Soapy Smith who fleeced unsuspecting stampeders until he finally was shot and killed.
Across the way, on the ruins of the former town of Dyea, the park service has etched out a street grid and preserved the remnants of an old cemetery. Most of the reconstructed graves honor the victims of an April 1898 avalanche that killed dozens of trekkers on the Chilkoot Pass.