Romances of the World's Great Mines: The Klondike, 1903
Klondike Gold Rush
Dateline: December 9, 2023.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan, September 1903, pp 447-456.
The gold-miner is the one human being who refuses to recognize the impossible. For three hundred years the nations have been sending their boldest and most resourceful explorers to discover the Pole, and the secret of the North remains a mystery yet. But if it were known that the Pole was surrounded by placer gold-fields, its site would be a hustling mining-camp within a year. The obstacles that have defeated the explorer would not daunt the prospector. He would scramble over the ice-floes, on his hands and knees, if necessary, and he would have his claim staked out before the first summer sun surrendered to the winter night. He has proved it in the Klondike.
The basin of the Upper Yukon has been known for at least a quarter of a century to be more or less abundantly sprinkled with gold. George Holt had crossed the Chilcoot, and prospected through the interior, in the seventies. Before that time the Chilcat Indians had objected to the presence of white men in their country, wishing to preserve a monopoly of the trade with the Indians of the interior, but, in 1879, Captain
Beardslee, of the United States ship "Jamestown," induced them to raise the embargo, and a stream of miners began to trickle in.
They made good wages, but few sensational strikes. Little mining-camps
sprang up here and there - Forty Mile, Circle City, Eagle City and others. A few hundred men were patiently combing the country. And now came the usual perversity of fortune. The great discovery was at hand, and, as at the Comstock and so many other bonanzas, luck
passed by the intelligent, hard-working, discerning prospectors and hit a shiftless drifter in the face. The Klondike River had been prospected from time to time, but had not created a good impression, and had been left to the Indian salmon-fishers to whom it owed its name.
In 1894, as Mr. Tappan Adney's investigations showed, Robert Henderson, of Scotch breed, Nova Scotia birth and Colorado training, found himself at Joe Ladue's post at Sixty Mile, with a cash capital of ten cents. Ladue had been booming the outlook on Indian River, a few miles above the Klondike. Henderson offered to prospect for him for
a "grub-stake," and Ladue accepted the proposition. Henderson explored the tributaries of Indian River during the next two years, making fair wages, with a reasonable prospect of something more.
In the summer of 1896 he crossed the divide that separated the waters of the Indian from those of the Klondike. Prospecting in the valley of an unknown stream, he washed out eight cents to the pan. Delighted with this promise, Henderson named the stream Gold Bottom Creek. He induced three men to go with him and take up a claim together. They
built sluices, and washed out seven hundred and fifty dollars - the first gold extracted from the Klondike basin.
Henderson went to Sixty Mile for provisions, and spread the news of his discovery. Returning by way of the Klondike, he passed the Indian fishing-village at its mouth. On the other side of the Yukon River was encamped George Washington Carmack. Henderson went over and told Carmack of his discovery, and urged him to take up a claim on Gold Bottom Creek. He went on, and Carmack followed him soon after with two Indian bucks, taking a short cut by way of another stream, called Rabbit Creek. On this trip he found
some colors of gold, which he showed to Henderson. Carmack and the two Indians took up three claims on Gold Bottom Creek, and then started back to the fishing-village.
The party went down Rabbit Creek, and, after traveling a few miles, stopped to rest. One of the miners filled a pan with dirt. In that pan was the key to the richest gold-deposits ever uncovered on earth - a hoard that was to yield a hundred million dollars within six years, with nobody knows how much behind.
Carmack staked off a thousand-foot "discovery" claim for himself, with two adjoining five-hundred-foot claims, one above and one below, for the two Indians. Then the party hurried to the recorder's office at Forty Mile, recorded their claims, renamed
Rabbit Creek "Bonanza," and boasted of their discovery.
Forty Mile disgorged its idle population. The news spread up and down the Yukon, and, before long, Bonanza was staked for its entire length, as well as a tributary creek, which turned out to be still more heavily charged with gold, and was named Eldorado.
Meanwhile, Henderson was cheerfully pegging away at Gold Bottom. One day he saw some men coming over the ridge. They told him they were from Bonanza Creek, where they had the richest thing in the world. He asked them where this wonderful creek was located, and when they pointed toward his old Rabbit Creek, he knew that he had missed his future.
Henderson made a succession of plucky attempts to catch the receding tide whose flood should have led him on to fortune, but he met with an extraordinary series of mishaps, including a change in the law, which deprived him of a valuable claim between the time he staked it out and the time he reached the recorder's office to record it. At last he gave up, and returned penniless to Colorado - robbed of his last dollar on the steamer - to his old job in the Aspen mines.
Carmack made his strike on August 16 or 17, 1896. It happened that Joe Ladue was already on his way to the Klondike in the wake of his "grub-staker," Henderson. It occurred to him that there would be a good opening for a branch trading-post there. When he heard of the sensational discoveries on Bonanza Creek, he expanded the post into a town. He built a store and cabin, and staked out a town site of two hundred acres, of which he secured title to one hundred and seventy-eight, the other twenty-two remaining in
the possession of the Government. The Dominion surveyor, Mr. Ogilvie, named the infant metropolis Dawson City, after Dr. George M. Dawson, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, who had established the astronomical boundary between Alaska and the British possessions.
In that first year Luck shut her eyes and scattered her favors with superb abandon. She lifted up the lowly and cast down the exalted. She took special delight in enriching the tenderfoot and humbling the pride of the old-timer. The veteran, who knew barren ground when he saw it, contemptuously passed by the "moose-pastures" of the Eldorado, and the dry-goods clerk, to whom all creeks looked alike, washed in the despised dirt and struck it rich.
A minister's son from Chicago wound up a spectacular career at home by an enforced trip to Alaska for reformatory purposes. He took up a claim that proved a bonanza, and divided his time with equal diligence between shoveling out gold and
throwing it at the birds - mostly of scarlet plumage. His father heard of his success, and hurried to Dawson to save the fortune. The news of the rescue expedition traveled ahead, and when it reached the prodigal, he gave his claim and what money he had left to a dance-hall siren and drifted down the Yukon in a skiff.
Clarence Berry was raising fruit in Fresno County, California, some years before the Klondike discovery. He resolved to hunt for gold in Alaska. He had forty dollars of his own, and borrowed sixty more at extravagant interest. In 1894 he set out
with forty others, of whom two lasted as far as Lake Bennett. Those two died on the way to Forty Mile, which Berry reached alone. He sent to California for his fiancée, who made the journey by the all-water route to Forty Mile City, and there was a wedding. When the Indian made his find on Bonanza Creek, it did not take the Berrys long to get there. They secured several good claims, from one of which Mrs. Berry picked out fifty thousand
dollars to amuse her idle moments. Berry made a trip to San Francisco soon after, and exhibited in a hotel window one hundred and thirty thousand dollars, taken from a single claim. His brother stayed behind, but lived in luxury befitting a millionaire, on canned tomatoes, beans and real beef-steak, cooked by his own hands in his palatial twelve-by-sixteen-foot cabin.
Charles Anderson was plied with drink by two gamblers, and induced to promise to buy an unknown claim on Eldorado for eight hundred dollars. In the cold, gray dawn of the morning after, he knew that he had been swindled, but he would not go back on his word. He paid the money, and by the time he had worked athird of the claim, he had taken out two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
The land in which these incidents happened was one to which no magnet but gold would have drawn any civilized settler. There were three or four months in which hot weather and mosquitoes were prevalent, but, even in those, winter was always growling at the door. The mercury dropped below freezing-point at some time in every month of the year, and there were months in which it never once went as high as the freezing-point.
At midwinter there was only two hours of sunshine inthe day. The ground never thawed except in a shallow layer on top. Below that layer there was solid ice all the year round. The early miners used to dig off the top stratum and expose another layer
to the sun, and so gradually work downward toward the bed-rock. Of course, this method confined operations to a few months in summer. Some time before the Klondike discoveries a new scheme had been devised. The miner built fires on the frozen ground, and so bored through the ice in shafts and lateral drifts where the sun never could have penetrated. In this way he was able to work all the year round. This device enabled the Klondike to turn
out several times as much gold in a year as it could have produced by the old methods. Later, still further improvements were invented, such as the plan of drilling with great hollow augers, through which steam was driven to thaw the ground ahead.
The news of the great find in the north came upon the world with dramatic suddenness. On June 16, 1897, the steamer "Excelsior" tied up to her dock in San Francisco, and a procession of weather-beaten passengers filed gravely ashore. They were loaded down with small baggage - valises, jam-cans, boxes, oil-cans, and packages done up in old newspapers - which they seemed strangely reluctant to entrust to any hands but their own. They were returning miners from the Klondike, and they had with them a trifle of three-quarters of a million dollars' worth of gold.
The next day the "Portland" reached Seattle with another batch of miners and eight hundred thousand dollars more in gold, and, like a flood bursting through a
broken dam, the maddest rush in the history of mining was under way.
Now, the curious thing is - and it is a remarkable illustration of the power of the press - that this revelation was not really new. The great strike had been
made on August 16, 1896, nearly a year before, the tributaries of the Klondike had been staked out in the fall of that year, and letters, sent out by the miners during the winter, had told their friends outside of the wonderful discovery. These letters were delivered in January and February, and their recipients had headed for the Klondike, and actually reached Dawson, by the time the "Excelsior," with her sensational news, reached San Francisco. Yet the world did not become excited, or even conscious that anything unusual was going on in the north, until the dramatic advent of the "Excelsior" and the "Portland" stirred the newspaper instinct for sensations.
Mr. Ogilvie, the Canadian Commissioner for the Upper Yukon, and the best authority on the mineral resources of the region, had estimated that there was room on the
Klondike and its tributaries for about a thousand claims. There were more than this number of miners already on the ground - yet a hundred thousand men started for the new Ophir with no prospect that one in a hundred of them would be able to find a paying location.
But there was a graver matter ahead than the mere certainty of financial disappointment. The Klondike region was one of those countries in which "a crow would have to carry his rations with him." It was locked in ice for seven months in the year. Those who knew it were horrified by the apparently certain prospect of an awful tragedy. Here were a hundred thousand men, mostly ignorant and poorly supplied, rushing into a land that was normally stocked for a couple of thousand, and into which all the existing means of transportation could not possibly carry provisions during the short summer for more than a small number. They started with amazing irresponsibility. One observer noticed a traveler assaulting the passes with thirty-two pairs of moccasins, a case of pipes, a case of shoes, two Irish setters, a bull pup and a lawn-tennis set. He was going "just for a jolly good time, you know."
Fortunately, the trap did not lie open to all comers. Its approaches were so guarded by natural difficulties that it was impossible for the crowds to reach it at once. It was necessary first to take a steamer from Seattle or Victoria to the head of the Lynn Canal, or from San Francisco to St. Michaels, and the available steamers would hold only so many. There were two main routes - one by way of the Yukon from St. Michaels, and the other by way of the passes from Dyea or Skagway. The Yukon route was the easier, but it took the little stern-wheel tubs then in service forty days to go up the river out of the five months of open water, and they would not hold more than a minute fraction of the
people who wanted to go.
Only fifteen hundred men managed to push through to Dawson before the close of navigation in 1897. Of the eighteen hundred who tried the all-water route by way of St. Michaels and the Yukon steamers, only forty-three got through, and thirty-five of those had to go back, for lack of provisions to carry them through the winter. Even as it was, famine at Dawson was averted only by shipping the people who were without provisions down the river before the ice barred the way.
Six thousand persons took their chances in Dawson, and at one time they were paying speculators from one hundred dollars to one hundred and twenty dollars per sack for flour, a dollar a pound for beef, and one dollar and fifty cents a pound for
mutton. The stores of the great trading corporations did not raise their regular prices of six dollars per sack for flour, forty cents a pound for bacon, and other things in proportion, but their supplies were limited, and they would sell only a little to each person. The United States Government started a reindeer relief expedition, but through mismanagement most of the deer died, and the attempt was abandoned.
There were two possible ways of getting over the coast mountains - by the Chilcoot Pass from Dyea and by the White Pass from Skagway. The Chilcoot was high, steep and terrifying; the White Pass, long, muddy and heart-breaking. As you toiled up the trail from Dyea, you saw a gigantic gray wall, seven hundred feet high, barring your progress. But when you reached it, you found you could crawl up its face, and even lead a loaded horse - the latter discovery, like so many others in that region, was made by a tenderfoot. By the White Pass route you did not have the precipitous ascent of the Chilcoot, but you had to go twice as far, and you struggled through bogs in which you were likely to leave your horse and, perhaps, your entire outfit as well. The whole trail was blazed by the carcases of dead horses.
Starting at the head of Lynn Canal, within four miles of each other, both trails converged on the other side of the mountains at Lake Lindeman, from which there was a single all-water route to the mines. The little Alpine lake, with its next neighbor Lake Bennett, suddenly became the busiest boat-building center in the world.
Every man had to have a boat, or a share in one, and, at first, he had to build it himself. There was no labor to be hired. Moreover, he had, not only to build the
boat, but to cut down the trees and saw them into boards for the purpose, sometimes bringing the logs several miles. The work was generally done in partnership, and, when a craft was finished, the neighbors would knock off and help launch it.
In the spring of 1898 three thousand boats were set afloat on Lake Bennett within two months. Of course, the opportunities for money-making at this point were not long left unimproved. A little saw-mill, which sold boards to the prospectors at two hundred and fifty dollars per thousand feet, was worth more than most Klondike claims,
and some expert builders found it worth their while to settle on the lake and sell ready-made boats at from two hundred and fifty dollars to six hundred dollars apiece.
Thirty or forty thousand men endured the hardships of this journey within the first year, and then civilization took possession of the country, and made the trip to
Dawson a simple summer-excursion tour. An aerial steel tramway dispelled the terrors of the Chilcoot, and that in turn was superseded by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, one hundred and eleven miles long, from Skagway to White Horse, connecting with daily steamers for Dawson in summer, and with stages in winter.
You can have your baggage checked through now from Seattle to the capital of the Klondike, and be tied to the world by telegraph and daily mails when you get there. One more of Nature's fastnesses has been stormed, and the route that was strewn six years ago with the bones of men and horses has no more hardships than the line between New York