Throughout history, people have been moving to new lands by force. Wars and invasions have forced many to leave their homes throughout times. Imagine the Jewish diaspora, the Roman Empire, the Muslim invasion, the Mongol horde, and the Crusades to name a few. Yet it is not force alone that motivates people to move, sometimes it is a dream or hope of something better. Perhaps the hope of a more prosperous life. The hope for a better area to raise children. A chance at a new beginning. The opportunity to leave problems behind. The ability to have religious freedom and escape persecution. The dream or hope would have to be clear and substantial to face the uncertainty, fear of failure and trials of the risk. For example, so many immigrants came to America leaving their homelands and everything they knew for a treacherous over sea journey lasting months. Imagine never having seen the ocean or a ship and then being faced with weeks of living aboard one to reach a new land? Surely, we can agree that it would take a lot of courage.
And how do these dreams and hopes come about? Where can we find their seed? For Abraham, it was God’s promise and calling; for the American immigrants, new arrivals sent word back to family to encourage them and provide funds; and on the East Coast of America, the government offered free land, albeit most of it not conducive to farming, to entice settlers to the open West.
For so many of these migrants, the seed is nothing more than a whisper, something read in the newspaper, maybe even a story that has reached them through word of mouth from a distant land. Sometimes that seed can be an outrageous promise of riches that most men and women would find impractical and dismiss immediately, but other times, that outrageous seed falls on the proper soil. A soil that is downtrodden or depressed and poor and so desperate for relief. Or a soil that is overeager, ever watchful for quick and easy schemes to get rich. And, in 1897, those were some of the types of soil where the seed of “Klondike Gold!” fell and germinated.
It wasn’t the first strike of gold that captivated America. The California Gold Rush of 1849 had proven some successes, but many more failures. But the prospect of gold did not die in California, some prospectors continued north to Canada and Alaska ever certain that the next site would make them rich. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, further opening the territory for prospectors. In 1892, Ellis Island opened. A railroad line from St. Paul to Seattle was completed in 1893. By the late 1890s, America had been in a depression for several years. Many faced desperate times, and that is when the eye catching newspaper headline “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!” in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found the proper soil to germinate.
On July 14, 1897, a ship docked in Portland with over two tons of gold aboard and faced the eager newspaper reporters ready to advertise the strike. Not a whole lot was known of the Klondike area at the time, but the gold was enough of a motivator for some to overlook the uncertainty and make their way to Seattle. The town of Seattle was actually floundering at the time, but its Chamber of Commerce quickly jumped on the opportunity and touted Seattle as the only place for prospectors to outfit themselves for the journey to the gold fields. There were around 100,000 participants in the Klondike Gold Rush, also known as “stampeders”, and it is estimated that 79% of them passed through Seattle. Seattle found its boon and by 1890, the amount of money changing hands daily had quadrupled. What was being sold? Food, clothing for the journey, matches, stoves, gold pans, guidebooks, frying pans, coffee, shovels, axes, tents, mosquito netting, medicines and all other sorts of tools and sundries.
For the stampeders who came from all of America, Seattle was just the beginning of their journey, they now faced over 1,200 miles of mostly wilderness to reach the Klondike gold fields. Those who had money, opted for the all water route, but only about 3,000 had the resources for this route. Those who did not (approx. 30,000), were faced with a partial water route or an entire overland journey through Canada (approx. 2,000 people). It is the partial water route that is so captivating, so let’s turn our focus to these courageous stampeders.
There were two main overland trails to take once Alaska was reached by boat. The first was the Chilkoot Pass from Dyea. This was a Tlingit route with the most difficult portion as the final quarter mile of ascent where it gained 1,000 feet in elevation by a 35 degree slope. This portion was known as the Golden Staircase: 1,500 stairs cut in to the snow and ice with a rope railing for help. The second option was the White Pass from Skagway. This option was not as steep, but it was longer by ten miles. The main problem here was that several months in to the gold rush, the trail became an impassable quagmire of mud where horses and pack animals died by the thousands. Both passes eventually brought the stampeders to Lake Bennet and the headwaters of the Yukon River, where they waited out the winter and built boats to carry them downriver in the spring to their final destination: Dawson City and the gold fields. To add difficulty to the already treacherous passes, the Canadian Mounted Police required that each stampeder bring a year’s worth of food over the pass, which equaled 2,000 pounds of goods. It took the gold seekers 20 to 40 trips on the Chilkoot trail and several months to be able to carry all of that weight through the pass. In 1899, the Yukon Route Railroad made it to the White Pass trail, but by that time (just one year later), the rush was already over.
Imagine having traveled by sea from Seattle to Dyea, then taken the Chilkoot Trail a grueling 30 times to carry all of the necessary supplies, at the end of which winter made the headwaters of the Yukon River impassable. It was now necessary to wait out the winter with the other 30,000 stampeders who made the journey and build a boat, with no boatbuilding experience or any experience handling one. The area was sufficiently supplied due to the police requirements, but they faced winter in a tent on the banks of a frozen lake with 550 more miles of wilderness to cross before reaching the gold fields. Once spring came and the ice was melted, the boats were launched by inexperienced men for better or worse in to the water. Several men died on this part of the journey, and around 150 boats were crushed by rapids.
Having survived all of that, the people who finally arrived in Dawson City were destined for disappointment. They found the confusion of a bustling city of around 30,000 people and all of the gold field claims taken. It had taken them two years since the first Yukon gold strike to make it to the region. By that time, all of the prospectors already in the Alaskan interior had first word of the strike and had made their way to stake their claim. Now, those who had finally made the scene after such an arduous journey had to face the reality of defeat. Many sold their gear to pay for a steamboat ticket back to the West Coast. Some stuck around and got jobs in the town or were even hired to work the mines of others.
What did the Klondike Gold Rush produce? Well, an estimated 100,000 started the journey to the Klondike. About 40,000 of those actually reached the Klondike. Only 20,000 worked claims or prospected. A mere 300 made more than $15,000 in gold (the equivalent of $330,000 in 2005). Of those 300 people, only 50 actually kept their wealth for any length of time.
Was it worth it? As with so many others through the years that have made the choice to move; our stampeders have had mixed results. Some have lost their life. A very few have struck it rich. Many made the journey only to return empty-handed with less money than when they began. For a very few, the dream and hope became a reality. For the many, the reality proved their dream and hope a disillusionment. And yet, deep at the heart of it, there is something in the journey itself that most stampeders related and remembered as beneficial, regardless of its outcome. The journey proved to be the experience of a lifetime and one of the final quests of its kind. Many reported that given the chance, they would do it all again.
We learned all about the Klondike Gold Rush at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle. The park is a misnomer, as it is basically a museum. It is free to the public. Our favorite part was that it had several stories and quotes about the experience from true stampeders and their families.
Also, please enjoy a quick video of the rest of our experience in Seattle…
Fun Facts & Tips:
- Campground: We stayed at the Issaquah Village RV Park – it was $52 a night with tax! Yikes! It is difficult to find campgrounds in the Seattle area. When we spoke with the woman at the desk at our campground, she stated that the city has been buying up all the campgrounds in the area for building. We did two free nights in a row after Issaquah to try to balance the extra expense.
- Can you think of a famous American author who was part of the Klondike Gold Rush? Yep, Jack London.
- I wish I could give an estimate of the gold that was found in the Klondike, but they did not provide that information.
- There are also other National Historic Sites about the Gold Rush in Alaska – maybe we will make it there one day!