Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

A two-part blog post, telling the story of the Klondike Gold Rush and a Scottish plant collector who followed the prospectors’ trail...

PART 1

In the summer of 1896, a gold prospector ventured up a tributary of the Klondike River and had, what could safely be called, a pretty good day. Gold flakes in the water, or a small gleaming nugget, which led to the discovery of a rich seam… the exact details of what he found vary from one story to another. The fact remains that, over the next two years, thousands upon thousands of men surged into a remote region of Canada that was accessible only after weeks of gruelling travel, and the quiet banks of the Yukon’s rivers rang with the constant clatter of machinery. Dazzling riches lay just beneath the ground, and for the lucky few who staked an early claim, vast fortunes were made overnight.

  

 ‘Skookum Jim’ Mason and George Carmack

Who started the Klondike Gold Rush? You might assume that his name has gone down in history, but there are several possible answers. One version claims that a Tagish Indian by the name of Skookum Jim Mason noticed gold particles in the water of Rabbit Creek. Jim shared the news with his relatives, including another native Indian called Tagish Charley and a Californian prospector by the name of George Washington Carmack. Another story tells how Carmack was the first to find the gold, and yet another describes how a lifelong prospector called Robert Henderson alerted the other three to the potential of that particular creek, without going to look for himself and - crucially - without staking his own claim.

Whoever it was, Skookum Jim and his party knew that time was of the essence. They hot-footed it to the nearby settlement of Forty Mile to register their interest, and shared their excitement with everyone they met along the way. As a result, the news of their discovery travelled down the Yukon almost as fast as its water. Prospectors who were already in the area raced to the propitious spot in order to seize their own strip of land. A mining stake usually measured around 500 by 1000 feet, and Rabbit Creek, newly re-named ‘Bonanza’, was soon staked from top to bottom. Presently a second, even richer seam was discovered in another tributary, quickly christened ‘El Dorado’. 

Miners registering claims

While the local prospectors rejoiced at being in the right place at the right time, the remoteness of the region meant that the Klondike Gold Rush was not triggered straight away. Autumn soon gave way to winter, and the winters were harsh. But in July 1897, when steamships bearing more than two tons of Yukon gold arrived in Seattle and San Francisco, they caused a sensation. Newspapers shrieked “Gold! Stacks of Yellow Metal!” and revealed the wealth of the miners: “Some have $5,000, many have more, and a few bring out $100,000 each.”      

No more proof was needed. Men from all walks of life, and some women too, saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and bought a passage north on whatever vessel they could find. But it wasn’t just a case of turning up in person: the Canadian government ruled that every prospector must carry with him (or her) a ton of provisions, including clothing, equipment and a year’s worth of food. Specialist suppliers sprang up around departure points, offering a complete ‘Klondike outfit’, crated and ready to go. And when the hopeful hordes disembarked in Skagway and Dyea, locating their own possessions in a mountainous jumble that had been tipped onto the quayside was just the beginning. Hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain lay ahead.

Prospectors unloading at Dyea (the town has since disappeared)

First, there were mountains to climb. In general, prospectors arriving in Dyea headed for the Chilkoot Pass, while from Skagway the trail led over the infamous White Pass. either way, the route took them through deep snow and over treacherous mountainsides. Carrying a ton of supplies in such conditions was obviously impossible: logistically, the only possible solution was to convey it in relays, creating caches and going back for more. Progress was painfully slow; mule handlers offered their services, but the unfortunate animals fared little better. Thousands of them perished and tumbled into the aptly-named Dead Horse Gulch.

 

 The ‘stampede’ over the Chilkoot Pass

The hardy souls who did make it over the mountains with all their stores were faced with a fresh challenge: a 600-mile trip downriver to reach the gold fields. Now, they had to cut timber and build a boat. And it had to be a sturdy one, because the voyage down the Yukon was not for the faint-hearted. Rapids at Miles Canyon earned a reputation as a ‘graveyard for boats’, while the Five Finger Rapids were described by one horrified traveller as a ride he never wished to repeat.

Assuming that they arrived in one piece and staked a claim, miners could set about extracting the gold, but it was a laborious process. First the permafrost had to be thawed, so fires were left burning all night to loosen the ground (later on, this process was done by steam). Next, the earth and gravel had to be lifted, either by hand or mechanically, and sluiced with water to separate the gold. Long sinuous mounds of sifted earth, known as ‘tailings’, stretched away from each site, becoming ever longer as work progressed.    

 

Gold mining on the Klondike

Frequent squabbles arose over the exact dimensions of neighbouring plots. Shifting a couple of feet here or there could make a huge difference to the yield, and of course no one was prepared to budge. One of the government surveyors tasked with trying to sort out the disagreements was a man called William Ogilvie, who gave a lecture to RSGS in Edinburgh in 1898 on ‘the geography and resources of the Klondike Region’. When Ogilvie adjusted each over-ambitious claim to its rightful size, a number of smaller plots in between, some of them just a few feet wide, became available to buy. One of these pocket-sized patches, close to Skookum Jim’s original discovery, contained $500,000 worth of gold.

The hub of all this human activity, providing an essential place to stay and somewhere to eat, was the bustling town of Dawson. Before the Gold Rush, Dawson consisted of a handful of cabins; by June 1898 its population had risen to 30,000. Constructed almost entirely of timber, the town boasted a bewildering array of hotels and restaurants, dance halls, gambling rooms and brothels. Electricity and telephone lines were installed, and printing presses churned out four different newspapers, each crammed with the latest announcements and scandals. It must have been a teeming, sleepless, utterly crazy place to be.

Street scene in Dawson

Dawson’s currency was, quite literally, gold dust. It was measured out in weight on shop counters, and was used to pay for everything. Prospectors who had filled their ‘poke’ or pocket bag with nuggets would return to Dawson and head straight for the gaming saloons, where glittering dust was said to drift through the air like smoke. No matter if they lost it all: next morning, once they’d cleared their heads, they would hike back up to the creeks where the riches seemed never-ending.

Gold bars

But by August 1898, only two years after Skookum Jim’s lucky day, the Klondike Gold Rush was coming to an end. The seams were apparently exhausted, and there was a mass exodus of disappointed miners. Those whose hopes were not entirely dashed headed westwards to Nome in Alaska, where gold had been found in Anvil Creek and along the shore; in contrast to the Klondike, much of this gold could be sifted from the beach sand without the need for a formal claim. That fact alone was extremely tempting.

 

 Nome’s ‘tent city’

While Dawson dwindled into a ghost town, it was Nome’s turn to bask in the glow of prosperity. When all the hotel rooms were taken, a ‘tent city’ of gold-diggers stretched for 30 miles along the coast. At night, they poured into the bar rooms and dance halls. Times were good, and the ballroom of the Golden Gate Hotel rocked to the steps of 800 riotous dancers. Looking at old photos from that time, it’s easy to imagine the swagger of colourful personalities as they wagered their newly-acquired riches on the roll of a dice. 

Nome in 1900, showing the Dexter Saloon centre left

Some big names were attracted by the glamour. Of Nome’s hundred or so gaming halls, the most luxurious was the Dexter Saloon, which was owned by Wyatt Earp. This legendary gun-slinger had taken part in the 1881 ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Tombstone, Arizona, and he was still living life on the edge. Earp’s wife, Sadie, was a former showgirl with a taste for gambling, although to the outside world she tried to play down the fact that high-class prostitutes offered their services in the upper rooms. Through ‘mining the miners’, as he put it, Earp amassed a small fortune, and he certainly added drama to Nome’s night-life. Regular prize-fighting sessions were held in his saloon, but he hadn’t left his trigger-happy habits behind him, and at least twice he was arrested after getting into a brawl. 

The length of Nome’s gold-mining season was governed by the seasons, and the winters were long and bitter. Within a couple of years, when the flow of gold began to falter, discouraged prospectors drifted back to the warmer south, and the town’s wooden sidewalks fell quiet. A few hardy souls remained, either because they refused to give up looking, or because they actually enjoyed the rigours of life just below the Arctic Circle. Sitting at long tables in the diners, now empty of all but a few customers, they munched on caribou steaks or the old-timer’s staple of pork and beans, and reminisced. 

Thirty years later, when a Scottish plant-collector called Isobel Wylie Hutchison stepped into the Maple Leaf Restaurant to order her breakfast, some of them were still there.

to be continued…