For centuries, the area that would become the Yukon was mostly ignored. It was a land that most people did not see any potential in.
Before Europeans began to arrive in the area, the Indigenous would trade in copper nuggets and most of the tribes of the area were aware of the gold that was often sitting on the riverbed, but it was not valued by them. The first Europeans to arrive in the area, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Russians during the first half of the 19th century heard rumours of gold in the area, but they ignored it for the more immediate profits of fur trading.
Slowly, things started to change as the second half of the 19th century began and American prospectors started to arrive. Routes would be opened on the Chilkoot and White Pass, with most Americans arriving between 1870 and 1890. In 1883, a man named Ed Schieffelin would identify gold deposits in the Yukon. In 1885, gold was found on the Stewart River and then in 1886 Schieffelin led an expedition that struck gold on Fortymile River. An interesting fact about Ed Schieffelin is that he founded Tombstone, Arizona, where the Gunfight at the OK Corral would take place. By the late 1880s, hundreds of gold miners were searching for gold along the Yukon River, with minimal success. There were small gold strikes in 1891, 1892 and by 1892, 1,600 prospectors were in the Yukon River Basin.
Coming into the mix of all of this were George Carmack, Kate Carmack, Keish, also known as Skookum Jim Mason and Charlie Dawson. George Carmack had come to settled permanently in Alaska in 1885 to begin fishing, trading and trapping. In 1887, he had begun a common-law relationship with Kate, which led many other miners to mock him for associating with an Indigenous woman.
Kate had been born in the Yukon in 1862, where her father was the head of the Tlingit crow clan and her mother was a member of the Tagish wolf clan. She would marry her first cousin, but her husband and daughter died of influenza in Alaska. In 1887, along with her brother Keish and her nephew Dawson, she started a packing, hunting and prospecting partnership with George. In 1889, the couple lived in the Forty Mile region, where they would make their amazing discovery. In 1893, the couple had one daughter, Graphie Grace Carmack.
Skookum Jim, who I will refer to under his birth name Keish from this moment on, was working as a packer over the Chilkoot Pass during the 1880s where he earned the nickname Skookum for his strength and reliability. After assisting the William Ogilvie expedition in its exploration of the upper Yukon River, he would begin working with his sister, nephew and brother-in-law. George Carmack would describe Keish as such, quote:
“Straight as a gun barrel, powerfully built with strong sloping shoulders, tapering towards to the waist, like a keystone. He was known as the best hunter and trapper on the river. In fact, he was a super specimen of the northern Indian.”
Dawson Charlie, or Kaa Goox (Qha Kux) was working with his uncle Keish when they made their discovery.
The group began looking for gold on what would be Bonanza River, which at the time was called Rabbit Creek. It is believed that Kate was the first person to make the discovery, while others say it was George Carmack or Keish that discovered the gold. Regardless, the group agreed that George Carmack should be the official discoverer because Keish was Indigenous and there was the worry that the authorities would not recognize his claim as a result. Carmack would measure out four claims along the river, two for himself, and one each for Keish and Kaa Goox. The claims were registered the next day at a police post on Fortymile River and news spread quickly around the find.
By the end of August, all of the Bonanza Creek had been claimed by miners. One prospector then set down a claim on a creek that would be called Eldorado Creek and he discovered new sources of gold there, which was even richer than Bonanza. Claims quickly began to be sold between miners for huge sums.
By Christmas, Circle City, Alaska had received word about the finds and prospectors began to set out from the city to get to the Klondike, despite the harsh winter weather. Among those miners, there was a real worry that all the best claims would be taken. At this time, the outside world had not heard about the gold strike but some individuals in Ottawa had found out, but little attention would be paid to it.
It took some time for news to reach the wider world through the winter of 1896-97 but on July 15, 1897, the first prospectors, including 68 new millionaires, from the Klondike arrived in San Francisco and two days later in Seattle, bringing with them huge amounts of gold. The press reported that the gold was worth $1.1 million. Amazingly, this was actually an underestimate of the actual among that came in.
Not surprisingly, people quickly began to flock to the gold fields of the Yukon. Between 1897 and 1898, 100,000 people would try to reach the Klondike, with 30,000 to 40,000 making it. The reason for this huge influx is partly because of the economic recession the United States was in at the time, leaving many unemployed and dealing with poverty. The promise of riches in the Yukon was too much to ignore for some.
One newspaper said the following, quote:
The lure of making money in the Klondike, or on those going to the Klondike was too much for some people. William Wood, the mayor of Seattle, resigned and formed a company to transport prospectors to the Klondike.
There were several routes to the Klondike, but the gold could only be reached by the Yukon River. Getting to the Klondike was not exactly easy with terrible cold in the winters, hot and short summers, impassible rivers and mountainous terrain. The Canadian government, knowing the extreme terrain prospectors had to travel to get to the Yukon, put rules in place in 1897 to prevent many ill-equipped prospectors from dying on route, or while looking for gold. In 1897, Canadian authorities introduced rules that required anyone entering the Yukon territory to bring with them one year’s worth of food, which weighed about 1,150 pounds. Add in the tools, camping equipment and other items needed for prospecting, and most prospectors were moving one ton of weight.
I want to look at the various routes that were used during the Klondike.
First, you had the All-Water Route, which went from Seattle to the Alaska coast. From St. Michael at the Yukon River delta, it was possible to take a river boat all the way to Dawson. With speed and no overland travel, it was a route that was much easier than the other routes. It was also expensive. At the start of the stampede, tickets for this route were $150, or $4,000 today but by the winter the cost was $1,000 or $27,000 today. In 1897, 1,800 prospectors went this route, but most were stuck along the river when the river froze in October. Only 43 of the 1,800 reached the Klondike before winter and 35 had to return because they threw away most of their equipment on route.
The Skagway Route was used by most prospectors. Their ships would land at Dyea and Skagway, at the head of the Lynn Canal at the end of the Inside Passage and from there they would travel over the mountain ranges into the Yukon and then down the river network. Camps were sprung up along the route for prospectors to eat and sleep at. At first, you could go from Seattle to Dyea for $40, or $1,100 today but by the winter steamships were not releasing their prices because they were increasing them daily. If a prospector landed at Skagway, they took the White Pass Trail, later called The Dead Horse Trail because of the huge number of horses who died on route. Most Klondikers would divide their belongings into 65-pound packages that could be carried on a man’s back, or by sled for heavier loads. Typically, it took 30 round trips, and 4,000 kilometres total, before all the supplies of a Klondiker was at the end of the travel. If someone had a sled, a strong man needed 1,600 kilometres of trips, taking 90 days, to transport everything. The trail was a terrible route, and was closed in late 1897, stranding 5,000 prospectors in Skagway.
Those who landed at Dyea took the Chilkoot Trail, which went up the Chilkoot Pass and 22,000 prospectors went over that pass during the gold rush. Due to the need to take so much food and equipment, the cold and the steepness of the slope, it often took a prospector an entire day to get to the top of the slope, and often they had to make numerous trips. The slope was too steep for animals, adding to the difficulty of getting gear over the top. Packers were able to charge up to one dollar per pound, or $27 today, to carry goods to the top. Most of the packers were Indigenous, which ended up bringing huge amounts of money into local communities. The route was also dangerous because of avalanches. On April 3, 1898, one avalanche killed over 60 people going over the Chilkoot Pass.
Duncan Clark, a farm boy from Iowa, saw the avalanche and describes it, quote:
“It was a horrible sight to see. Big robust men, the very picture of health, dug from the snow, put on a sled and hauled to the morgue. Forty were dead from the first day, my brother John among the number.”
Tappan Adney, a writer for Harpers Weekly, describes the pass as such, quote:
In the 1897 publication of Gold Fields of the Yukon and How to Get There, climbing the pass, which was done in mid-1897, is described the following way, quote:
“Stone House is indeed a desolate spot. Straight ahead of us the field gradually slopes up towards the summit, which we could not see but could feel and its touch made our flesh crawl. It does strike awe into a man’s soul to be comparatively alone in this wilderness of silence that is broken save by the rippling of the little cascades that tumble down the perpendicular sides of the mountains or the boom of the ice dropping from the glaciers that are the crowning glory of the cliffs.”
It continues, describing the long ascent and then quick descent to go back once again up with more items:
“At last we arrived at the last stage of our climb and we took a survey of the almost perpendicular snow cliff over which we had to go. There was no way out of it, so up we went, following the advice and gradually crawling over the right side of the ascent where there was a quantity of slide-rock which gave us a fair foothold and enabled us to get over the ridge without any mishap. About three minutes sufficed for us to get to the bottom of this giant toboggan and we were about three hours in again returning to our packs.”
Eventually, capitalism made the trip up easier. Steps were carved into the ice of the pass, 1,500 in all, called The Golden Steps, which could be used for a daily fee. By December of 1897, a tramway was set up that could take freight up at a cost of 8 to 30 cents, or $2 to $8 today, per pound. Five more tramways were soon built, charging between $2 and $8 per pound. In the spring of 1898, an aerial tramway allowed up to nine tons of goods to be moved in one hour.
Once over the pass and at the Yukon River, they could take the 800 kilometre journey along the river to Dawson City. Due to people using boats that were not worthy of being on the water, and after the deaths of hundreds on the river, the NWMP introduced safety rules, boat inspections and the banning of women and children from going through the rapids. All boats had to have a licensed pilot as well. By May of 1898, 7,124 boats of varying sizes and quality were moving down the river, and the forests around the lakes were empty of trees.
There was also the All-Canadian Routes, which ran up from British Columbia, and three which started in Edmonton, but most were barely trails at all and of the 1,660 prospectors who took the three routes out of Edmonton, only 685 arrived and it took them 18 months to make the journey. The British Columbia route allowed a person to go from Ashcroft, up gorges, through mountains and across swamps. It was very difficult and only a few prospectors, about 1,500, attempted this.
Unlike gold rushes in the past, the Canadians practiced strict border controls, as I had mentioned. Both the US and Canada claimed Dyea and Skagway as their own and early in the gold rush the US Army sent a detachment to Circle City to intervene if required in the Klondike, while the Canadians looked at preventing all American prospectors into the Yukon Territory. In the end, the US agreed to making Dyea a sub-port of entry for Canadians, and the Canadians permitted American miners in the Klondike. The North West Mounted Police, only a quarter century old, had a big role to play in the Klondike, with people like Sir Sam Steele helping to make it the most orderly gold rush in history. The NWMP operated posts at all ports of entry, equipped with Maxim guns, with the orders to enforce the rules related to the year’s supply of food, checking for illegal weapons and preventing the entry of criminals. They also enforced custom duties, which the American miners were not happy about. They often had to pay an average of 25 per cent of the value of their goods and supplies. The NWMP had a reputation of running the posts honestly, although there are rumours of some bribes, while prospectors attempted to smuggle silk for women into the country, along with whiskey for the saloons.
So, what of the people who made it to the Klondike to be prospectors. Well, of the 30,000 to 40,000 who reached Dawson City, 15,000 to 20,000 became prospectors. Of those, about 4,000 struck gold and only a few hundred became rich.
A big reason for this lack of success was that by the time most Klondikers arrived in 1898, the best creeks had long been claimed by the first arrivals or long-term miners in the area. All the claims along the Bonanza, Eldorado, Hunker and Dominion Creeks were taken, and by July 1898, 10,000 more claims were put forward, causing miners to have to mine for gold farther and farther from where the gold was.
While the first miners were able to get gold nearly on the surface of the water, called placer gold, with some gold being 15 to 30 feet beneath the surface. Bench gold on hilltops from old streams were also found but as time went on, the gold was harder to find. Most miners assumed gold would be along the creeks but by late 1897 most of the hilltops were being mined. Another issue was that the gold was unevenly distributed in the areas where it was found, making it hard to predict where good mining sites would be.
Those who were newly arrived in the Yukon were called Cheechako and it was only after a year that someone could then be called a Sourdough. For many that arrived in the Klondike, the time it took to get there soon resulted in being stranded through the winter, living in small shacks, for seven months, mostly being bored out of their minds.
I’m not going to get into the methods of mining, what was used, because for me the more interesting aspects of the Klondike are the journey the miners took, and the society that sprang up in the Yukon because of the Klondike.
In Dawson City, the boomtown that sprang up from the Klondike Gold Rush, there were mostly men and a few women, most of whom were wives of miners. There were women who entertained in gambling and dance halls and some women would come to the Klondike because of the lavish spending by successful miners to attract the few women in the region. Unlike other boomtowns, the North West Mounted Police kept Dawson quite lawful. Gambling and prostitution were allowed, but robbery and murder were quite rare. This is in sharp contrast to Skagway, which was under the US government’s rules, and which was a hotbed of criminal activity. It was said not even an angel could keep good in Dawson.
Dyea and Skagway were small settlements before the gold rush with no docking facilities. Within weeks of miners arriving, storehouses, saloons and offices were springing up in both communities. John Muir, the noted author, wrote about Skagway, quote:
“a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick.”
As was mentioned, Skagway, the more popular of the ports, became a place dominated by gunfire, drinking and prostitution. On visiting the community, Sir Sam Steele said that it was, quote, “little better than a hell on Earth, about the roughest place in the world.”
By the summer of 1898, Skagway had 20,000 people in it and was the largest city in Alaska. In Skagway, Jefferson Randolph Soapy Smith operated with his gang, effectively controlling the entire city. His gang of 300 men cheated and stole from the prospectors who arrived. He operated three saloons on the guise he was an upstanding member of the community, but he had several fake businesses. One was a fake telegraph office that charged to send messages to the rest of the continent, but nothing was sent, and a fake reply was usually received. Eventually, people grew fed up with Smith and he was shot on July 8, 1898.
Even communities far from the Yukon, like Edmonton, saw an increase. At the time of the gold strike in the Yukon, Edmonton had 1,500 people. By 1898, there were 4,000 people living in the community.
No place though, increased to the point of Dawson City.
Joseph Ladue, an American who had lived in the Yukon since 1882, operated a trading post on the Yukon River, 70 kilometres above the mouth of the Klondike. Instead of staking claims for gold, he chose instead to stake out 65 hectares of swamp and moose pasture at the river, called it Dawson City and made a fortune selling lots and lumber to build them. He named it for the director of Canada’s Geographical Survey, George Mercer Dawson, and by the winter of 1896, 500 people were living in the community with plots selling for $500 each, or $14,000 each today. By the spring of 1898, the population was 30,000 strong with buildings appearing on a daily basis. This was not good news for the community. There was no running water or sewer system, and only two springs for drinking water, along with the river that was quickly becoming heavily polluted. By that spring, plots were selling for $10,000, or $280,000 today, with prime spots on Front Street selling for $20,000, or $560,000 today. A small log cabin would rent out for $100, or $2,800 today.
On one city block, a huge white circus tent could be seen surrounded by ramshackle wooden buildings. Inside the tent was a portable bowling alley, a soda machine, two dozen pigeons, along with fine china and silver. The owners of the tent were two rich American women named Edith Van Buren and Mary Hitchcock, who perfectly showed the heyday of Dawson City and the things that you could find.
One couple made $30,000, or $500,000, in one single winter in the Yukon selling coffee and pies.
With the community springing up so quickly and building codes not being something anyone considered, fires were common. The first fire happened on Nov. 25, 1897 when Belle Mitchell, a dance hall girl accidently started a fire. She accidently started another one on Oct. 14, 1898, which destroyed the post office, a bank and two saloons. The worst fire occurred on April 21, 1899 when a saloon caught fire, burning 117 buildings, causing $28 million in damages in today’s funds.
As can be expected, the logistics of getting food and other supplies to the community was critical and difficult. By the winter of 1897, it was clear that there was not enough food for the winter and the North West Mounted Police started to evacuate prospectors without enough supplies. Salt was worth its weight in gold, and items such as nails for construction cost upwards of $28, $784 today, per pound. Cans of butter sold for $5 a tin, or $140 today. There were only eight horses in Dawson in the winter of 1897 and all eight were slaughtered for dog food. By the spring, eggs sold for $3 each, or $84 today. Due to the lack of fresh food, scurvy was a big problem, as were dysentery, typhoid and malaria.
Alexander Anderson spent a winter in the Yukon in 1898 and spent all his resources on a Christmas celebration, buying three potatoes for $3, along with apples and eggs for the same price. He also said restaurants would offer meals for any purse advertising common feed for $1, square meal for $2, belt buster for $3 and mortal gorge for $4. One nearby hotel advertised good bunks for $2 a night, but clean sheets cost a dollar extra.
For many in Dawson, it was a free for all in terms of drinking, gambling and more. Rich prospectors were known to put down $1,000 at dice, $28,000 today, or $5,000 per pot in poker, equivalent to $140,000 today. To accommodate the money flowing around, elaborate opera houses were built, with singers brought in from around North America. Prospectors would spend huge amounts of money to have fun. Jimmy McMahon was rumoured to spend $28,000 in an evening, or $784,000 today. Many saloons would sweep up gold dust off the floors, making fortunes in the process.
As was mentioned, the North West Mounted Police were vital to keeping the order in Dawson City. In all of 1898, there were no murders in the city, and few thefts. In all, only 150 arrests were made that entire year. The NWMP did arrest a few dozen people for prostitution to regulate the sex industry, but the money from the fines issued were used to fund local hospitals. The American prospectors outnumbered the Canadians five-to-one, and while many Americans did not like coming up against the Canadian rules, in time they came to respect the NWMP and were happy not to be in danger of being robbed while they conducted their business.
It was in the Klondike that the legend of Sam Steele would be formed, as shown in this Heritage Minute from the 1990s
Women, like I mentioned before, made up a small portion of the people in the Klondike. By 1898, only eight per cent of the people in the Klondike territory were women, but in Dawson that number was 12 per cent. Less than one per cent of the women worked as miners. Women found work in a variety of roles including servers and seamstresses, and some operated successful roadhouses, or worked in the packing trade. Belinda Mulrooney brought cloth and hot water bottles with her when she arrived in the Klondike in 1897. She sold those and used the money to operate a roadhouse and then a grand hotel in Dawson. She invested throughout the region and became the richest woman in the Klondike. Martha Black was abandoned by her husband on their way to the Klondike, but she continued, became a prominent citizen in Dawson and invested in mining and business ventures, becoming wealthy. Only a small number of women worked in entertainment and sex industries, with some actresses making great sums of money. Other women made more than male workers as chorus line dancers and dance hall workers. In the sex industry, there were brothels and parlour houses, small independent cigar shops and prostitutes who worked out of small huts. For the women on the lower rung of the sex industry, it was a hard life and suicide rates were high.
Due to the entertainment, the opera houses and the night life, Dawson City became known as the Paris of the North. It was also the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. Millionaires roamed the streets with the poor who could not catch a break. Dawson City quickly had fire hydrants and was the first city in western Canada to have electric lights.
There was also great kindness in Dawson City, especially from miners who missed their families. New mothers could expect to be brought food and even gold nuggets by miners who missed their own children and babies. One woman says, quote, “even the roughest looking of the miners wanted to hold my baby, to see his toes and to feel his tiny fingers curl in their rough hands.”
Tappen Adney describes the scene in Dawson during its peak.
The Klondike Gold Rush, like so many gold rushes before it, was not destined to last forever. In 1898, the White Pass and Yukon Railway was started at Skagway, and was completed by 1900, making the trip to the Yukon much easier. Unfortunately, the gold rush was beginning to taper off by the summer of 1898 as Klondikers were arriving in Dawson and leaving soon after. By 1899, the amount that could be made for work in Dawson fell to $100. By 1900, saying “Ah go to the Klondike” became a phrase of disgust. Dawson also began to change from a boom town to a conservative community with paved streets and smartly dressed inhabitants. Even Skagway was becoming a respectable community by 1899.
The true end to the gold rush happened when gold was found elsewhere on the continent, including in nearby Nome, Alaska in September of 1898, and people left looking for easier gold and better money. By 1899, prospectors were leaving in droves. In a single week in August 1899, 8,000 left from Dawson alone. During those gold rush years, between 1897 and 1899, $29 million in today’s funds was recovered.
The gold rush also impacted Canadian politics, with the Yukon Territory being formed by Parliament on June 13, 1898 to put Canadian jurisdiction over the Klondike.
For those who made fortunes, things did not always end well. Alex McDonald had made a fortune in Dawson City, but he continued to buy land even as the gold rush fell away and he died in poverty. Antoine Stander had found gold at Eldorado and was the fourth richest man in the Klondike, but he spent his fortune on alcohol and ended up working on a ship’s kitchen. Gene Allen had started up the newspaper in Dawson, made a fortune, lost it all and spent the rest of his life working at small newspapers. Sam Bonnifield was a gambler and saloon owner who had a nervous breakdown and lost everything.
Another man who went to the Klondike was a German immigrant named Freidrich Trump. He would head north in 1898 and opened an Arctic restaurant in May of that year, along with a hotel. He made a small fortune providing Klondikers with food, drink and prostitutes. The Yukon Sun would write:
“For single men, the Arctic has excellent accommodations as well as the best restaurant in Bennett but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep as they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings and uttered too by the depraved of their own sex.” When the Skagway to Whitehorse Railroad bypassed Bennett, Trump took down his restaurant and moved it to Whitehorse where he opened a larger restaurant and hotel. He continued with offering food, drinks and women, adding in gambling. With the crackdown on prostitution coming, Trump left for Germany, and then came back to America.
For some, the Klondike was the start of an amazing career and life. Kate Rockwell, who became known as Klondike Kate, was an American dancer who found fame in Dawson City for her dancing, earning her that nickname. After the gold rush, she went to British Columbia and then Oregon where she homesteaded. She continued to act and perform for the rest of her life. Her love and partner in Dawson, Alexander Pantages, started his career in Dawson, eventually buying a theatre there. He would go on to become a movie tycoon, operating 84 theatres across North America. A sex assault charge in 1929 caused the decline of his business empire and he died with little left in his bank account. The aforementioned Martha Black would keep her money and became the second female member of the Canadian House of Commons. Jack London would come to the Yukon during the Gold Rush and it would inspire him to write The Call of the Wild.
For the Indigenous of the region, the Klondike Gold Rush was devastating. While many prospered briefly as packers and guides, the environmental damage of the gold mining on the rivers and forests was considerable. After the gold rush had come and gone, the fishing and hunting grounds of the Indigenous had been destroyed, and by 1904, they needed aid and rations from the NWMP to prevent famine.
As for Dawson, it would continue on while many other boom towns from other gold rushes failed. By 1907, there were residents still living in the community but many of the buildings were deserted and by 1912 only 2,000 people remained. By 1972, 500 people were living in the community, but it would see rebound beginning in the 1970s, reaching 1,300 people today. Tourism and the celebration of the Klondike past in Dawson remain strong to this day.
What of the people who started it all?
George and Kate would take their wealth from the gold find and move to a ranch near Modesto, California but George soon abandoned Kate and moved to Seattle where he married another woman. He would live there in a 12-room house with his new wife and start buying up real estate on the advice of his wife Marguerite. Even though he had immense wealth, George never stopped looking for gold and put down several claims, but nothing came close to his discovery at Bonanza Creek. He would die at the age of 61 in 1922 in Seattle. Mount Carmack in Alaska is named for him.
Kate would leave California after George left her and was told she could not get alimony because she was not his lawful wife. She would return to the Yukon and Keish built her a cabin near his own, where she lived with her daughter. Kate would die from the Spanish Flu in 1920.
Keish, despite being very wealthy from mining royalties, mined for the rest of his life and would die in Whitehorse at the age of only 55 in 1916, survived by his sister, daughter Daisy and cousin Tagish.
Kaa Goox would adopt the name Charles Henderson in 1901, spent money at a high rate and would sadly die in 1908 when he fell off the White Pass Railway Bridge.
Gold mining continued in the region, and still does, but nothing to the scale that was once seen. By 2005, it is estimated 1.25 million pounds of gold had been recovered from the Klondike over the past century.
Information comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, DawsonCity.ca, CanadaHistoryProject.ca, Pier 21, CBC.ca, Gold Fields of The Yukon And How to Get There, Pat Burns Cattle King, History.com,