The Klondike Gold Rush
There is magic in the word "gold"; there always has been and there always will be; and to obtain this precious metal men will go to almost any lengths and suffer inconceivable hardships, willingly entering into unequal contest with death. And so it was when there came a whisper of unlimited gold deposits in the Yukon, along the Bonanza Creek, a sub-affluent of the Yukon River, one of the great rivers of the world and one of the northernmost.
The Bonanza, flowing into a river known to the Eskimos as Tron Diuck, meaning "reindeer," or, according to some authorities, "plenty of fish," and which was corrupted into Klondike by the miners in the locality, was fed by five branches, all of which were exceptionally rich in gold. And so, even before the Great Gold Rush of 1898 began, the district had come to be generally known as the Klondike.
Some years earlier the presence of gold in the Yukon had been reported, but since about 1880 when interest was first drawn to this district on account of its gold-bearing possibilities, there were few, if any, who had "struck riches," and the compensation for several years of extreme privation, intense suffering and arduous toil was seldom in excess of a mere £100 or so.
Confirmation of the absence of remunerative deposits in the Yukon was contained in a report in 1890 on the Population and Resources of Alaska, issued by a United States Government agent, who declared it as his belief that the area would never develop to any great extent unless some unexpected discoveries of gold were made.
The American agent was referring to that part of the Yukon directly under United States administration, lying on the west bank of the river, but so close to the Klondike area that his reservation may be said to have been almost prophetic. So undefined, in fact, was the international boundary that the United States Government, when the new Eldorado was discovered, was inclined at one time to advance a claim that it was actually within the territory of Alaska, and therefore not under Canadian administration. However, the Dominion Government at once took steps to maintain law and order by dispatching a contingent of the North-west Mounted Police, now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the United States relinquished her claim.
Although perseverance does not invariably meet with its just reward, it most certainly did in the case of George Carmacks, an Irishman. He had spent some ten years diligently searching and probing for the gold which he optimistically believed to abound along the tributaries of the Yukon River. There were times when he almost despaired of securing an equitable return for his labours, when he felt that all his efforts would be in vain. He continued to prospect, however, and at length to his unbounded delight his persistence was rewarded; and beyond his wildest dreams.
Carmacks had started a search for gold on the banks of the Bonanza Creek, and he soon found enough in his pan to convince him that fortune was within his grasp. He at once proceeded down to Forty Mile to register his claim, and returned as hastily as possible to pan out his gold.
The news of Carmacks' luck spread quickly, and soon there was an exodus from Forty Mile, and within a very short time some three to four hundred of its inhabitants were on their way to this great new Eldorado. This little band of pioneers set out to obtain speedy fortune in August, 1896, in the assurance that the coming winter months would preclude any interference from the outside world.
Seldom, if ever, was labour rewarded with such a rich return, and fortunes were made almost overnight. In the course of a few days Carmacks and three companions discovered gold to the value of £250, but even this lucky strike compared unfavourably with that of two other prospectors on the same creek, whose haul in two days exceeded £750.
Altogether some 300 claims were staked out, and the miners from Forty Mile, and a number of others who had received the news at Circle City and had endured almost insufferable hardships in making the trail, worked strenuously through the long arctic winter, during which the sun is never seen.
Those early Klondike miners suffered acutely from cold and hunger, but their courage and endeavour were at length rewarded, and with the arrival of spring they proceeded to wash out the "dirt" they had collected, with the result that their months of hard toil enriched them to the extent of £3 or £4 every minute.
One of the most remarkable strokes of luck was that of a former bar-tender who declined to stake a claim at the head of the Bonanza Creek, and turned his attention to a neighbouring creek. Scarcely had he set to work than he struck the precious metal, and the vein proved to be so rich that it brought him a fortune of more than half a million sterling.
This creek was the Eldorado, and so rich was the "pay dirt" here that many a pan was worth more than £100, and sometimes even as much as £150. Nuggets of gold worth from £10 to £20 were frequently found, and occasionally others to the value of as much as £40 or £50 each rewarded these pioneer prospectors.
But for all their wealth, the majority were only too pleased to return to civilisation, and when the opportunity arose they gladly booked a passage in the steamer which annually called at Fort Yukon, and sailed with their hard-earned treasure down to San Francisco.
The little vessel on which they sailed was the Excelsior, and when, on July 14, 1897, it passed through the Golden Gate into the harbour of San Francisco it was watched with little concern and interest by the inhabitants. But news of the vast wealth that the miners had brought with them quickly spread abroad, and when the nuggets and dust were exhibited to the public gaze, the excitement became intense and me n at once became consumed with a desire to hasten to this great new land of wealth and dig out of the earth fortunes for themselves.
Newspapers flashed the story of the fabulous wealth that lay hidden in the Klondike throughout the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, and everywhere there was intense excitement, and the gold fever became almost an epidemic. Maps were published showing the routes to this new land of untold wealth, together with descriptions of the mountain trails leading over the Chilkoot and White Passes. Passages were booked immediately in every available steamer, and so great was the demand for accommodation that new shipping companies were organised almost at a moment's notice, and steamers were chartered to transport the eager throngs to the nearest point of access to the new wonderful land of wealth. Soon three or four vessels were leaving San Francisco every week, and among the first to depart was the Excelsior, which had brought the tidings to the city.
The journey by steamer to Skagway was a luxury compared with the trail across the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass to the lakes, and thence to Dawson, the town site from which the adventurous miners set out on the final trek to the goldfields, which lay some fifteen miles farther on. Newcomers to Skagway eagerly sought out miners from the Klondike and plied them with questions regarding the better route to take. Some proudly boasted that they had several times traversed the Chilkoot Pass and that it was to be preferred to the White Pass trail, while others were equally assuring regarding the alternative route.
The Chilkoot advocates declaimed against the newer White Pass trail, declaring that it was a succession of abrupt ascents and descents alternating with dangerous bogs in which hundreds of horses had been lost, together with supplies. None but an experienced mountain climber, in fact, could ever hope to cross that way. Advice from the White Pass men, however, was equally convincing as to the dangers of the Chilkoot, whereas the trail they swore by was a series of slight gradients followed by tracts of flat surface, easily negotiable by horses.
Even those miners who had had experience of both trails failed to settle the burning question satisfactorily, since many voted for the one and the remainder for the other. And thus the newcomer was left in a quandary and to his own devices. There issued from these discussions but one certainty, and that was that whichever route was chosen a period of real hard work beset by many dangers and much hardship lay ahead of all who ventured on the journey.
Actually, the scenes that were witnessed day by day on the White Pass trail are almost indescribable. The pass consisted of innumerable abrupt ascents and descents, the fearful monotony of which was relieved by a succession of dangerous bottomless bogs, whose negotiation called for the exercise of extreme care. But in spite of every precaution calamities were many, and horses, laden with their heavy packs, frequently sank out of sight, leaving the unfortunate owners who were endeavouring to transport their supplies along the trail in desperation and despair.
With hundreds of "mushers" frantically striving to save every precious minute in the conveyance of their belongings through the treacherous pass, the scene everywhere was one of constant and seemingly unavoidable confusion. Everyone was for himself, and few were disposed to render to another assistance that would have helped to bring a little order out of the chaos that reigned. A fallen horse would at times bring the entire cavalcade to a distracting halt, and traffic from the opposite direction would often entirely dislocate the procession moving towards the goldfields.
The first part of the trail lay across an expanse of swampy land, heavily studded with trees, and this was succeeded by a deep ravine overhung by lofty mountains. The route then traced a tortuous course ascending to the summits of the mountains, the sides of which were so abrupt that the descent had to be made by a long series of zigzags which presented considerable risk. Often the summits to be crossed were as high as 15,000 feet, and the trail at times passed dangerously near to the edge of a sheer precipice, over which many a willing but overladen horse fell to its death. Difficult as were the various tracts across the mountain summits, the ravines between were scarcely less dangerous, for here were vast mud-holes and treacherous swamps, the crossing of which taxed to the uttermost the ingenuity and resources of the "mushers."
The succession of mountain ascents and descents into swampy valleys came to an end with the highest climb of all. This, also, presented the greatest difficulty of all, the ascent being the most abrupt of the trail, and the descent the steepest. Hundreds who, at great risk to life, had succeeded in reaching this point, were dismayed at the prospect before them. Many turned from the task without making a single attempt, and many others gave in only after several determined but fruitless essays. It was the grave of their hopes and ambitions, and disconsolately they turned their backs upon the land of untold wealth and set their course for home, carrying with them disillusionment instead of fortune.
At one time during the great trail of '98, the White Pass became so difficult that barely ten in every hundred who set out succeeded in getting across. Hundreds were compelled to give up through losing their packs and horses, while those who attempted the crossing on foot found the conditions more than they could contend with. The trail was littered with the carcasses of more than 2000 horses, and it was possible to walk for hundreds of yards over the swampy ground without once stepping from them. The tremendous number of casualties among the horses sent prices soaring to great heights, and only those who were well provided with money were able to obtain replacements, as much as £60 being asked for a single animal.
True, there were many who succeeded in crossing the pass and arriving at Lake Bennett with their provisions for the winter more or less intact, but they did so only after many weeks of insufferable torture from exposure to the inclemency of the weather and continuous hardship and toil.
Their numbers, however, were far outweighed by those who were unable to face the appalling conditions, many of whom were stricken with illness, brought on probably by the dampness of the ground on which they slept by night, and pneumonia and spinal meningitis sent them to rude graves on the mountain side. Exhaustion also claimed heavy toll of the hopeful army of gold-seekers, while others met death by drowning when crossing the streams and lakes.
The trail across the Chilkoot Pass, which was entered from Dyea, farther up the Lynn Canal from Skagway, called for an ascent of a thousand feet more than that of the White Pass, but the actual distance to Lake Bennett was some twenty miles less.
That the Chilkoot was the better trail in summer was vouched for by those who attempted both passages, and returned to record their experiences. This was the trail taken generally by the Indians, and actually the proportion of prospectors who succeeded in reaching the Klondike by this route was greatly in excess of that which arrived by the White Pass trail. But there is no question that in winter the better trail was afforded by the White Pass, which, in fact, eventually superseded its rival, and was seen to be the logical path by which the iron horse should later enter the Yukon.
Once across the mountains, the pilgrims continued their journey on to the "tent city" of Bennett, so named from the fact that its entire population, frequently in excess of 5000, was housed under canvas. Here boats were laboriously being constructed for the passage of Lake Bennett, when the weather permitted sailing. From all directions could be heard the din and clamour of sawing and hammering, as men hastened to bring their tasks to completion. Many of the boats were the work of skilled craftsmen, but mostly they were the crude, shapeless result of inexperienced hands, seemingly unfitted for the purpose they had to serve.
The navigation of the lake presented one of the greatest of all difficulties to be encountered throughout the trail. As many as two to three thousand boats made the trip in a week, and when it is realised that the majority of the craft were manned and navigated by inexperienced sailors, and that the waters of the lake were extremely treacherous, and at times positively dangerous, it is not surprising that this part of the journey was seldom faced without considerable trepidation.
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