The Gold Rushes of North America (1847-1900)

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright Calliope Film Resources, Inc.

Part IV. The Klondike: Suspension of Disbelief

July, 1897: George Carmack walked off the steamship Portland onto the docks of Seattle. With him were three Tagish Indians - his wife Kate, her brother Skookum Jim, and a friend, Tagish Charley. Among them, they had hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold which they had discovered and taken from the Klondike, in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Headlines screamed "GOLD! GOLD! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on The Steamer Portland!" The last of the major mining rushes - and one of the briefest, most hectic, and most fruitless - was on.

In the popular imagination, the Klondike stampede of 1898 was equal to the California rush a half-century before. "The Klondike and Alaska with their hypnotic appeal to the dreams of people caught up in the drudgery of industrialized culture, represented the peak of the gold rush movement. Never again would the attraction be quite so powerful to such a variety of people or to so many."

America by the end of the century was filling up and settling down; the last of the western territories - "the frontier" - that had once seemed an almost inexhaustible resource were being used up, and the idea of a gold rush in the far northwest corner of the continent was instantly attractive.

Who were the Argonauts of '98 and why did they go?

Almost as heterogeneous as the California seekers, the Klondike prospectors were still Americans, by and large - a young generation drawn to the adventure of it as readily as their grandparents had been. Hardened professional prospectors who by now were roving the world's gold fields comprised another group who headed for the frozen Canadian territory. For them it was a fabulous opportunity to return to the days before industrial mining took hold, a last chance for adventure and riches.

There was another similarity to earlier times as well: the land's appealing mystery. Alaska and the neighboring Klondike were as remote as California had been fifty years earlier, undeveloped and so isolated that no one knew for sure just where the international boundary lay.

Against this exotic background of remoteness from civilization, the Klondike became a rite of passage for thousands of people entering adulthood, one that would demand a rigorous resourcefulness of every one who participated in it as well as the ability to endure a freewheeling, sometimes altogether absent, code of conduct. There would be episodes that showed society at its best and at its worst: greed mixed with charity, prejudice with humanitarianism, ostentatious wealth with scenes of utter wretchedness.

For some gold seekers, the adventure truly involved a suspension of disbelief. How else to explain how as many as a hundred thousand ordinary citizen-prospectors set out across a frozen wilderness with which they had no familiarity at all -- on foot, by dog team and pack train, by barge and stern-wheeler?

A Madness Beyond Belief

With no understanding of the geography, plans were developed for a regular balloon passenger service to the Klondike, a reindeer service modeled on the Pony Express, a bicycle path to the goldfields. With caged canaries, parrots, upright pianos, lawn tennis sets, magic lanterns, and even a portable bowling alley in tow, the seekers fanned out for the port cities of Skagway and Dyea, Alaska.

As the winter of 1897 drew near, close to 35,000 people reached the Alaska's coastal cities. From there they progressed over one of the two trails that led to gold - the White and Chilkoot passes, each inhumanly forbidding.

Chilkoot Pass -- a 35-degree slope of snow and ice -- four miles long, requiring fifty trips ( six hours each ) to bring a year's worth of supplies per individual, as required by Canadian authorities, to the top. At the height of the rush, 22,000 seekers endured the ordeal.

The alternative was White Pass -- a 45-mile trail that started as an easy wagon road -- then turned into a tortuous ribbon of a road that snaked through bogs and canyons, across torrents and mountains, and along cliffsides where one hasty step would drop a man or a horse hundreds of feet to death below.

"Such a scene of havoc and destruction can scarcely be imagined. Thousands of packhorses lie dead along the way, sometimes in bunches under the cliffs. The inhumanity . . . the heartbreak cannot be imagined."

The Laws of Supply and Demand

As in the California and Nevada rushes, there were those who saw that the real gold was to be found closer than in the fields. Skagway and Dyea had been turned into boomtowns outfitting the climbers - now, all along the passes, men and women "called on the laws of supply and demand" to enrich themselves or, at the least, pay their way.

The native Chilkoots began to profit immediately. Able to carry two to four times the load of the prospectors, they hired on as professional packers - increasing their rate as the rush intensifies.

Women as well as men discovered that the supply side was a field more lucrative than the Yukon's slopes and rapids. A number of the women who joined the trek to Alaska and the Klondike went into business for themselves, bypassing conventional social and economic limits. One woman paid her way by giving concerts on a banjo - another by selling whiskey from a portable bar - the price rising with the steepness of the slope.

Climbers paid cash to use steps cut into the ice. When they reached the top, they paid two dollars for a donut. To the Royal Mounted Police, they paid a duty on every pound of supplies.

The harsh environment, where winter brings six weeks of total darkness and temperatures as low as 70° below zero (Fahrenheit), gave this gold rush a toughness of character that matched the harshest experiences of the California migrants or the worst of the Comstock miners' working conditions. The Klondikers would starve to death on glaciers and on high mountain trails, drown or be crushed in avalanches, even kill themselves in despair of ever reaching their goal alive.

"I never saw men work harder, bear more, and accomplish less," Will Langille wrote to his loved ones in Oregon.

At last, the final stretch over frozen lakes. Finally, the goal - a stretch of tundra and forest almost the size of Texas, deep in the Yukon interior.

Survivors -- The Madness Continues

Those who had not turned back, those who survived their first siege of pneumonia, settled in. They built log cabins twelve feet square, held together with hard mud, with windows made of empty bottles. Steam from cooking formed huge icicles on cabin walls -- the Klondikers chopped then off and melted them for drinking water.

In 1897 only about 100 women reached the Klondike over the passes. By 1898 and 1899 thousands more made the trip and went into business for themselves along the way.

"I only hired a foreman because it looks better to have it said that a man is running the mine, but the truth is that I look after the management myself."

Dawson City ... and Desperation

Dawson was a gold rush city, a familiar pattern of accelerated growth. During a few weeks in 1898, the population grew to the size of Seattle - 28,000 people. The choicest corner lots on Front Street sold for $40,000, and two sawmills worked 24 hours a day turning out building materials.

There was an ephemeral quality to Dawson City. There were four churches, a brewery, and halls for the Masons and the Odd Fellows. Dawson had telephones, electric lights and moving pictures -- but it was a false-fronted city with no underlying structure, no law, no purpose beyond feeding the gold dream.

As the available prospecting space was taken, the city filled up with the desperate and the idle. "Our time in Dawson was spent out in the country, travelling up and down the creeks hunting for a location, but every likely spot within 50 miles of Dawson is staked out. There is always a crowd of men waiting outside the recorder's office. I waited from Monday to 3 p.m. Friday before my turn came. Finding that there was not the slightest chance to get anything - I decided to return home."

Rampant boredom: the isolation was so great that a copy of the Seattle Post Intelligence bearing news of the Spanish-American war over possession of the Philippines and Cuba was "auctioned off by one miner for $50. He then hired a loud-voiced lawyer to read it in a public hall, charged one dollar admission and made about $1,000."

Impossible Dreams

Only about half of those who fought their way over the passes to the Klondike actually looked for gold. Those who did have a claim mined the earth in the most gruelling method imaginable. The gold lay in bedrock under ten to fifty feet of permafrost, so they mined Russian fashion - spending the winter months softening the permafrost with fires, digging through it at a maximum of one foot a day.

Reaching bedrock at last, Klondikers would hunt for the elusive streak of gold, then dump the rock in heaps beside the mine entrance where it would instantly freeze - until the three short summer months, the only time warm enough for the miners to sluice the heaps.

Some Klondikers took jobs in the mills or worked as watchmen. Others did as their Comstock forebears had done and signed on as pick-and-shovel laborers in the mines. But very quickly the rush ended - the large mining companies moved in with big dredges - and took out the Klondike's holdings - about $300 million.

The monumental efforts of the Klondike hopefuls inspired Jack London, Robert Service and lesser talents to spin romantic narratives of the mining life. But history, just as in California, tells a grimmer story.

Of the one hundred thousand people who set out for the Klondike, thirty to forty thousand got there, and only fifteen to twenty thousand prospected. Possibly 4,000 found some gold.

As the winter of 1898 closed in, fifteen thousand persons remained in the Klondike. Another 5,000 left before spring came. They had spent between $30 and 60 million for transportation and supplies, yet the yield of gold that year was hardly more than $10 million. Ten years later the boom town of Dawson City would boast a population of three thousand souls.

The Last Stampede, and What It Brought

What then was achieved in this, the last great North American stampede for gold? Some economic development, to be sure. The Klondike boom, and the need for supplies it fostered, rescued the West Coast cities from the economic depression - ironically a result of the United States' ambivalent stance on the question of an international gold standard. It made important commercial cities of Seattle and Portland, as it also did for Vancouver, Victoria, and Edmonton. It opened up Alaska - a U.S. territorial acquisition decried as "Seward's folly" - when it sent a second rush of prospectors surging to Nome in 1898.

Perhaps equally important from a cultural perspective, the Klondike expressed, for a final time in the nineteenth century, a recurring American ideology: individualism. As gold rush historian Douglas Fetherling sums up, the Klondike was ultimately "an individualistic affair, inflaming the imaginations of clerks and mechanics," a replay of the Argonauts for a generation too young to have been there - a generation squeezed, ironically, by encroaching industrialization made possible by the nation's rapid economic growth in the five decades since Sutter's Mill.

And the gold crusaders, the Argonauts? What, finally, shall we make of them? Two epitaphs, each coined by the gold seekers themselves . . .

"Nothing will come of him. He is a word in the wind, a brother to the fog. At the scene of his activity no memory of him will remain."

"A life of freedom has a fascination that grows rather than diminishes . . . the privations every person endured taught him better to separate the good from the bad and the essential from the non-essential."

The End

Revisit the Major Gold Rushes:
Back to Part I and Student Permission
Back to Part II. California
Back to Part III. The Comstock
Gold Rushes Bibliography

Comments? Webkeeper
Updated Jan 1 2009
Calliope Home