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The Klondike Gold Rush page 2


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The passage of Lake Bennett safely negotiated, the trail moved on through other lakes, over the White Horse Rapids, the graveyard of many hopes, the Five Finger Rapids, and then up the broad, swift-flowing Yukon to Dawson, the gold-born city that looked out upon the Eldorado, where wealth was for the few, and for the great majority only disillusionment and despair.

Many hundreds set out for the goldfields by yet another trail - the "overland route" through British Columbia, a journey of a thousand miles or more. For those appropriately equipped for this arduous undertaking, and with money enough to see them through, it was a difficult enough trek, but for the hordes whose chief possession was abounding hope and a vista of untold wealth, it meant almost certain disaster, and only those possessed of exceptional physical fitness and unlimited determination had even an outside chance of attaining their goal.

The absolute minimum of equipment necessary was a blanket for covering at night, clothing, dishes and a hand-axe, and, in addition to these, few were equal to humping more than twenty or twenty-five pounds of provisions, sufficient only to meet their needs for the first few weeks of the trail. When this supply was exhausted, it became a case of paying heavily for meals at the various hotels or ranches on the route, or, for those who could not afford to do this, begging from others who were well supplied with provisions and were willing to help their less fortunate fellows.

Only those who embarked upon the terrible adventure can have the remotest conception of the strenuous fight that had continually to be waged against almost insuperable difficulties. Twenty miles a day was excellent progress when the weather was warm and dry, and the days could be joined by a good night's rest, but when the rains made their appearance an entirely different prospect had to be faced. Mile after mile had then to be tramped through rain-sodden shrubs, and for weeks on end it was seldom possible during the daytime to experience the comfort of dry clothing.

An ever-present pest were mosquitoes, and only at night was there any respite from their agonising attacks. But possibly a still greater hardship was the inability of the weary travellers to obtain sufficient restful sleep. Tired out though they were at the end of the day's long tramp, they were denied continuous and peaceful repose by reason of the intense cold.

The nights were usually spent beneath fir trees, where the ground is free of moisture and fires can be readily lighted. Immediately the fire had flared up, the trampers would divest themselves of their clothing and arrange their garments before the leaping flames to dry. Next, tea would be brewed, and with stewed beans and a coarse quality of camp bread, they would appease their hunger, meanwhile engaging in a continuous but not very successful conflict with the bloodsucking mosquitoes which swarmed about their half-naked bodies. A fitful night's sleep would follow, and with the breaking of dawn, the trail would be hit once again with renewed but constantly lessening vigour.

The leader of a pack-train on this overland route has told of many distressing sights which he witnessed on the way. He mentions that swift-flowing rivers had to be waded almost thigh deep, the water, merely melted snow, being often frostily cold; and it was no uncommon experience to see men drop from sheer exhaustion after making a desperate struggle to cross one of these rushing waterways.

He speaks of overtaking on one occasion two men who were staggering down a valley. They were emaciated from insufficient food and the many hardships they had endured, and their legs were so thin that they were making sharp creases in their trousers. They were walking desperately, reeling from side to side with weakness. One man, the smaller, had the countenance of a wolf, pinched in round the nose. The taller man was limping painfully, because of a shoe which had become worn on one side. Their packs were light, but their almost incessant change of position gave evidence of pain and excessive weariness.

When asked how they were progressing, the tall man, with a look of wistful sadness, like that of a hungry dog, replied, "Not very well." Their only remaining food was a few beans and a handful of flour. And between them and the goldfields there stretched a tract of inhospitable country little short of seven hundred miles.

It was a common occurrence along the trail to come upon half-starved trampers who had resigned from the struggle in abject despair. Their clothing in rags, their boots worn through, their provisions at an end and with no prospects of replenishment, they had disconsolately settled themselves by the wayside to await the last adventure of all. Those who passed by could do nothing to alleviate their tragic sufferings, for they, too, were often in scarcely better circumstance, many not knowing when next they would be able to eat, or whether they would ever eat again.

Recognising in good time the futility of the task they had set themselves, thousands thrust aside the fateful lust for gold, and wisely returned home. Of those who ignored this saner course, a few only won through. Setting out in the full enjoyment of health and physical strength, they were gnarled, weather-beaten and dishevelled, little better, in fact, than living skeletons, when at long last they came in sight of the goldfields; and weeks elapsed before they recovered sufficiently to begin their search for the precious metal which had lured them on. And, then, only too often was the search in vain.

The objective of all these hopeful seekers after fortune, whether they chose the Chilkoot or the White Pass trail, or took the overland route through British Columbia, was to reach Dawson, a mushroom "town" consisting, during the early days of the gold rush, of a cluster of rude log huts and tents that provided accommodation for the miners and stores for the supply of provisions and the usual mining requisites.

Within a year Dawson had grown to be a town of considerable size, and the few hundreds that originally constituted its population had increased to approximately 20,000. It derived its name, given to it by the miners, from Dr. Dawson, a geologist employed by the Canadian Government.

As is customary in a mining centre such as Dawson became, saloons abounded, and there were also, of course, dance halls and establishments whose chief business was to provide gambling facilities for those so disposed. Every form of gambling was engaged in, from faro to poker and roulette to black-jack, and these halls attracted many more visitors than did the dance halls, which were often almost deserted when the gambling saloons were uncomfortably crowded.

Many of the new arrivals in Dawson imagined that they had at last reached their destination, and were greatly dismayed to learn that at least another fifteen miles lay between them and the rich creeks they sought. In Dawson they, found that speculation was the ruling idea. A purchaser would inspect a claim which he was disposed to purchase, and would then offer just what he thought it was worth. There would be no haggling or skirmishing regarding the offer, for the owner would at once either accept or reject the price suggested and the matter would end there.

When a claim was sold, it would be mutually understood that the purchaser was entitled also to the season's working, which might mean that the new owner would clear several thousand pounds from the huge accumulation of earth, or that it would prove not to have been worth the trouble expended on running it through the sluice-boxes.

The distance from Dawson to the goldfields was fully a day's journey, and more often than not it occupied the greater part of two days. On arrival there in the early days of the great stampede the hopeful prospector saw before him a vast placer camp some eight miles by twelve to thirteen miles in extent, situated in a sink enclosed by huge rock boulders reaching to a height of 3,000 feet. Here was the most prolific placer goldfield in the world, and here only too often hardship and incessant toil went hand in hand with death. One miner who returned from the Klondike basin after several years of prospecting told a harrowing story of horrors and starvation. During that time, part of which preceded the great influx of 1898, he saw the graves of upwards of 2,000 unfortunate miners, a large number of whom had died from the lack of food.

Although, generally, there was no scarcity of provisions, prices ruled high compared with those obtaining in the outside world, and were only within the means of the successful miner. To secure an adequate supply it was necessary to possess the "dust" with which to pay for it, and those who were without this means of exchange had little prospect of satisfying their hunger.

There was, however, an occasion early in 1898 when famine seemed likely, even for those who were rich enough to pay extortionate prices. News of this reached the Canadian and United States Governments, and preparations were hastily made to dispatch relief expeditions with supplies. It was essential that these relief parties should arrive at the goldfields at the latest by July, and this meant that much of the journey had to be undertaken at the worst part of the year, when the trails and the mountain passes were encumbered by heavy snows. The only possible means of transport in the prevailing conditions was by sleds drawn either by dogs or reindeer, and of the two the latter were vastly better, since reindeer possess not only greater speed but are immensely superior to dogs both in endurance and power. Moreover, food would have to be carried for dogs, whereas reindeer feed on the moss beneath the snow and, a most important consideration, require no shelter.

Regarding dog transport, another difficulty presented itself. Certain far-seeing Americans, realising that the necessity for a government relief expedition would arise on account of the tremendous rush to the goldfields that would ensue in the spring of the year, had dispatched agents far and wide to corner all the suitable dogs - malamites and huskies - and were demanding as much as 50 for good varieties. However, all difficulties were eventually overcome and the spectre of famine was laid.

While many of those who succeeded in reaching the Klondike staked claims that yielded a return beyond their wildest expectations, there were as many hundreds who regretted having embarked on what proved to be a barren enterprise.

Among those with whom Fate dealt harshly was the actual discoverer of the goldfields - Robert Henderson. He had spent some two years prospecting in the Yukon during the summer season and hunting game in the winter. In his search for gold he met with little success until the late autumn of 1895, when he struck indications of the presence of the precious metal on Indian River.

Throughout the winter Henderson prospected along this and neighbouring waterways, and at length met with the due reward of his perseverance on a creek called Gold Bottom. There he discovered a little "dust" and a nugget or two, and then went in search of provisions; but on returning, he found that the Indian River was in flood and he was unable to ascend it.

He determined to move down to the mouth of the River Klondike, where he came across Carmacks, to whom he disclosed the news of his gold discovery on Gold Bottom, and suggested that he should join with him in working it. Since Carmacks wished to take along with him a whole tribe of Indians, and Henderson resolutely refused his request, they parted company, the latter returning to Gold Bottom and Carmacks making his way to another creek. This creek proved to be the Bonanza, and Carmacks staked his claim and was soon on the road to fortune.

Away over the neighbouring hills, Henderson, the real discoverer of the new Eldorado, was at work on an inferior claim, and when news reached him of the wealth that abounded along the neighbouring creek he set out for it, but found that all the available claims had been acquired, and so he returned to civilisation almost broken-hearted at his ill-fortune.

Such hard-luck experiences were common, but there were numerous others of quite a different character. Before the Government had instituted a system for the protection of prospectors from marauders who frequented the trail, cases of outlawry were fairly common, and many a successful Klondiker was ruthlessly attacked and relieved of his hard-earned gold. Among the most notorious of these was "Soapy" Smith, who, with his band of some 150 desperadoes, levied toll on all and sundry, robbing and pillaging to his heart's content until just retribution overtook him in the shape of a well-directed bullet. "Soapy's" grave is now marked with a stone, chips of which have been carried away as souvenirs, the original wooden memorial having attracted the morbid fancy of a curio collector. But perhaps the most striking reminder of this super-outlaw is the gigantic rough carving on the rocks of a skull painted white and bearing this legend, "Soapy Smith's skull."

To-day the Klondike is but a shadow of its former self. From the hive of mining prospectors of the last few years of the nineteenth century it has returned almost to the quiet and solitude of the days when its vast treasure was not even suspected. Its gold yield is now negligible compared with that of 1900, when the production was valued at upwards of 4,000,000, but it still attracts the prospector, who searches the creeks in the hope rather than the expectation of making a new and profitable strike.

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