Finally. Yes, I chose a topic for my first historical post…and no, it is not about Tudor history at all. I have a strange fascination with gold rushes as well, especially the Yukon (or Klondike) gold rush of the late 1890s. If you played MECC’s 1994 game of The Yukon Trail, you would know exactly what I mean (of course, if you even remember that game, then you are indeed a child of the ’90s)—I will not lie, I found it online and still play it from time to time.
But why is the Yukon gold rush and not the California one the chosen example if I chose to discuss gold rushes? I admit, my reasons are purely selfish. In elementary school, I read a fantastic book about the Yukon gold rush by Will Hobbs entitled Jason’s Gold. This book told the journey of a teenage boy who left his old life behind and braved the dangers of the wilderness to start over. It quickly became one of my favorite novels, and looking back, I think that reading the book sparked an interest in history (and that particular period of history as well) that has never since abated.
The “gold rush fever” began with the discovery of gold on Rabbit Creek in Canada in August of 1896. George Carmack, Tagish Charlie, and Skookum Jim found this gold, and from it came one of the greatest gold rushes in history.
The trail to the Yukon began in the northwestern part of the United States and ended in Dawson City, a small mining town in northern Canada. Aspiring miners typically landed in Seattle, Washington, a perfect place from which to embark due to its proximity to Canada and the Pacific Ocean. From Seattle, most people would board a ship to one of two cities, Dyea or Skagway. These two small towns were about ten miles apart. Then, travelers took one of two trails that both led to Lake Lindeman. The Chilkoot Trail began in Dyea, and the White Pass began in Skagway. It has been said that the White Pass was lower in altitude but often muddy and swampy, full of mosquitoes and other lovely squirming creatures. The Chilkoot Trail, which eventually held the famous nickname of the “Dead Horse Trail”, was much steeper and rockier than the White Pass. At the end of each trail, miners camped out on lakes in tent cities until the spring. The mighty Yukon River flowed out of Lake Bennett and up to Dawson City. But, because it froze during the winter, most miners had to idle away their time until May along the banks of Lake Bennett or Lake Lindeman. From here the miners passed into Canada, but not without impositions placed by the Northwest Mounted Police (“Mounties”). All travelers had to pay a customs duty and carry a year’s supply of goods, including food, utensils, clothing, and other miscellaneous supplies. Some were turned back while others were moved forward.
Come spring, those who had built boats during the winter chanced their luck on the Yukon. Rapids lined this river in a few critical places including Miles Canyon, Five Fingers, and White Horse. It was often at these points where many partnerships, already splintered, cracked completely. The toll of the entire trip thus far, from loss of supplies and animals on the trail, deaths, low morale, and other factors contributed to the dissipation of groups of travelers. The last 500 miles of the trip were grueling, but at the end lay Dawson City, a bustling thoroughfare of outrageously inflated prices; miners down on their luck; cheechakos (greenhorns or beginning miners); rich sourdoughs (those who are successfully lived in the area for an extended period of time); miners’ women; stray dogs, cats, and horses; Jack London; and so many other sights, smells, sounds, sensations. It was here that many who had survived an arduous journey sought their luck among many streams (including the renamed Bonanza Creek (formerly Rabbit Creek), Eldorado Creek, Hunker Creek, and others), staking claims in order to find the “mother lode”. Some succeeded and became wealthy while others merely became broke bums…
And that, folks, is the briefest history of the Klondike Gold Rush I could give. I have not touched on women on the trail or the spectacular photography of Eric Hegg, how miners actually went about their business, the cultural aspect of the Klondike, and so many other facets. For further information, click on the links below:
Smithsonian Institution’s Postal Museum—Site with great basic information on the gold rush and all of its parts.
Eric Hegg—Photographer of the Klondike Gold Rush
Geographic Names of the Yukon—Discusses where many of the names along and associated with the Yukon came from, native and otherwise.