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Greed and Glory in the Klondike

Before 1896, only First Nations peoples and the hardiest of fur traders, prospectors, missionaries and North West Mounted Police officers ventured into the Yukon Territory. But in two short years, the people, the history and even the landforms of the Yukon would be profoundly altered. From a pre-gold rush figure of under 5,000 people, the population of Yukon would soar to over 30,000 in 1898.

According to the oral traditions of the Tagish First Nations people, the gold rush story begins when Skookum Jim (Keish) with his two nephews, Dawson Charlie (Ḵáa Goox) and Patsy Henderson (Koołseen) and his sister, Kate Carmacks (Shaaw Tláa) travelled down the Yukon River from Tagish, in the southern Yukon. They were looking for Jim's sister Shaaw Tláa, also known as Kate, and her husband George Carmack. Well before his trip to the Klondike, Skookum Jim had a dream in which his spirit helper, frog, appeared in the form of Wealth Woman. She gave him a golden walking stick and told him he would discover his fortune in the North.

The first strike

After locating Kate and George Carmack, Skookum Jim (Keish) and the others were fishing in the Klondike River. It was July when veteran gold-seeker Robert Henderson approached the group and told Carmack about some good prospects he had found on Gold Bottom Creek in the Klondike River Valley. According to the unwritten code of the miner, Henderson had to share his knowledge of potential finds with whomever he met. Carmack asked whether there was a chance that he could stake a claim. In a voice that was overheard by Skookum Jim (Keish) and Dawson Charlie (Ḵáa Goox), Patsy Henderson (Koołseen) replied that Carmack was welcome, but not his First Nations brothers-in-law.

In early August, the group poled their boat up Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike. They went over the dome that separated the creeks and visited Robert Hendersons camp at Gold Bottom. Henderson once again insulted the First Nations men by refusing to sell them tobacco. His obstinacy, Carmack later recalled, cost him a fortune.

The group headed back to Rabbit Creek and panned out a few encouraging traces of gold. Then, in a place where the bedrock was exposed, someone found a nugget the size of a dime. Energized by the find, they turned over loose pieces of rock and found gold that, according to Carmack, lay thick between the flaky slabs like cheese sandwiches. The date was August 16, 1896.

George Carmack, Skookum Jim (Keish) and Dawson Charlie (Ḵáa Goox) staked their claims the next day and renamed the creek Bonanza. The men headed downstream to the community of Fortymile to register their claims, but they never travelled over the dome to tell Henderson of their find. Henderson stayed on Gold Bottom Creek for another three weeks. By the time he caught wind of the great discovery, the best locations on Bonanza Creek had been staked.

The stampede to the Klondike begins

A staking rush began which brought prospectors from all over Yukon and Alaska. On August 31, 1896, gold was discovered on Eldorado Creek, a tributary of Bonanza. Eldorado was no more than five miles long and produced over $30 million worth of gold (an amount estimated at $675 million U.S. in 1988 dollars).

But the world didnt know what was happening in the Yukon until July 14, 1897 when the steamship Excelsior landed in San Francisco. On board was more than half a million dollars worth of Klondike gold. News of the great discovery travelled over the wires like wildfire. When the steamer Portland landed in Seattle three days later, a crowd of 5,000 greeted the 68 miners on board. Over a million dollars worth of gold was carried down the gangplank in a battered assortment of suitcases and rope-tied bags.

The Klondike Gold Rush was on.

The call of the frontier

It's a matter of some speculation why the Klondike Gold Rush captured the imagination of so many people. But the world was under the grip of a severe recession at the time and the press played on the sensational wealth of the Klondike prospectors. The media helped create the idea of a land where riches just lay in the ground for anyone to dig up and carry away.

Tens of thousands of people took the bait, and they packed their bags for Dawson City. Although steamers could travel along the Inside Passage, around the coast of Alaska and then up the Yukon River to Dawson City, this route was very expensive and it was nearly impossible to book a ticket on the Yukon River boats.

Most stampeders ended up booking passage to Skagway, where they were faced with two equally daunting overland routes to the Klondike: the Chilkoot or White Pass trails. Those who survived this first challenge gathered at Lake Lindemann and Bennett Lake in the winter of 1897/8. They still had to travel over 800 kilometres (500 mi.) to Dawson City, but the rest of their journey would be by water.

In the long dark winter months a flurry of boat building denuded the surrounding hillside of trees. When the ice went out on the lakes on May 29 of that year, a rag-tag flotilla of 7,000 barges, rafts and homemade plank boats began their journey up the treacherous Yukon River to Dawson.

Hard times and heartache

When the motley armada finally reached Dawson, the stampeders learned that all the claims had been staked two years before. Many of the would-be prospectors turned around and headed home but others stayed and found wealth in different enterprises. In fact, its said that more fortunes were made in Dawson by entrepreneurs selling goods and services to the miners, than in the goldfields.

Theres no question that finding gold in town was considerably less arduous than extracting it from the banks of the Klondikes rivers and creeks. It was backbreaking work, but many of the gold mining techniques employed by miners 100 years ago are still being used.

By 1898, the small Han First Nations fishing camp at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers had been transformed into the largest and most cosmopolitan Canadian city west of Winnipeg. On sale in Dawsons streets were French champagnes, oysters, the latest Paris fashions, porcelain, parasols, lacquer work and imported delicacies.

It all ended as quickly as it began. In the summer of 1899, gold was discovered on the sandy beaches of Nome, Alaska. Many of the stampeders who had arrived too late to stake claims in the Klondike left immediately for the new Eldorado. Somewhat ironically, the greatest year for gold production in the Yukon was 1900. That year, more than $22 million in gold was extracted, in contrast to the $2.5 million of 1897 and the $10 million of 1898.

August 16, 1896 Discovery of gold in the Klondike by George and Kate Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie.
August 17, 1896 George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie stake their claims on Bonanza Creek
August 31, 1896 Discovery of gold on Eldorado Creek (a tributary of Bonanza).
September 1896 All of Bonanza Creek is staked and many claims are already producing
Summer 1897 The population of Dawson grows to approximately 3,500.
July 14, 1897 The steamship Excelsior arrives in San Francisco with a half a million dollars worth of gold on board. Stories of the Klondike Gold Rush hit the news wires.
July 17, 1897 The steamship Portland docks in Seattle and 68 miners unload one million dollars worth of gold in front of a crowd of 5,000.
October 1897 A Seattle newspaper prints an eight-page Klondike edition which is sent to every postmaster and public library in the country and to thousands of businessmen and politicians.
Summer and Autumn 1897 Ships bearing the first stampeders arrive in Dyea and Skagway, Alaska or steam directly up the Yukon River to Dawson City.
Autumn 1897 Oliver Millett of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia stakes on claim on Cheechako Hill, far above Bonanza Creek, and it produces a half a million dollars worth of gold. A staking rush of the nearby hills begins.
Winter 1897/98 The Chilkoot and the White Pass trails reach their zenith of stampeders scrambling towards the Klondike. Among these is writer Jack London who trudged over the White Pass.
April 1898 An avalanche kills over 60 people on the Chilkoot Trail.
Spring 1898 The population of Yukon peaks at over 30,000. Dawson City becomes the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg.
May 29, 1898 The ice on Lake Lindemann and Bennett Lake goes out and an armada of over 7,000 boats begin their water journey to Dawson City.
April 1899 More than a million dollars worth of property and 117 buildings are destroyed in a fire in Dawson City.
July 1899 The first White Pass and Yukon Route train runs from Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Yukon. A year later, the line is completed to Whitehorse.
Summer 1899 Gold is discovered on the beaches in Nome, Alaska and the next gold rush begins. The Klondike Gold Rush is officially over.
1900 The year of greatest Klondike gold production. Over 22 million dollars worth is pulled out of the creeks. $2.5 million was pulled out in 1897 and $10 million in 1898.