The 19th century's last great stampede was sparked in 1896, when prospectors in remote north-west Canada discovered a new goldfield. Tens of thousands of fortune-seekers set off on a gruelling journey across hundreds of miles of frozen wilderness to the Klondike – but faced such brutal hardships that only one in three ever made it to their destination. Now, in his new BBC Two series, historian Dan Snow follows in the footsteps of those intrepid diggers in the Klondike gold rush
In the three-part Operation Gold Rush with Dan Snow, which airs from Sunday at 9pm, Snow and his team retrace the treacherous journey, fording icy rivers, traversing avalanche-prone slopes and tackling icy, near-vertical ascents.
Here, writing for History Extra, Snow explores the history of the Klondike gold rush and reflects on his month-long expedition…
In 1896, a group of trappers and prospectors of both First Nation and European extraction discovered gold in a creek bed in northern Canada. Within minutes they had gathered enough to fill an empty shotgun cartridge. As soon as word got out to the west coast of the US it triggered history’s last great gold rush.
Around 100,000 people, mainly from North America but also from as far away as Australia and Europe, crowded onto steam ships travelling from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver along the coast of Alaska. They piled ashore at Skagway and Dyea, turning both into thriving metropolises that, albeit very briefly, became two of the most dynamic settlements on the continent.
The prospectors then set out inland towards the Klondike goldfields 600 miles away across mountain ranges and raging rivers, and through thick, wolf- and bear-infested forests. This was one of the most gruelling journeys in history. Thousands died of exposure, starvation, disease and exhaustion. Those who did arrive at the goldfields discovered that Herculean efforts were required to realise their dreams and find gold.
Earlier this year I set off to follow in the footsteps of the ‘stampeders’ who had been lured by the siren song of gold: a shiny metal formed billions of years ago in distant solar systems, in the unimaginable heat of colliding stars, which then drifted through space and ended up on earth as it formed. To people throughout history gold has meant wealth, its lure enhanced by the low level of skill required to find it. Deposits of gold in the Yukon, as elsewhere, lay near the surface. Mining gold, unlike some other precious metals, required hard work – and, mainly, a lot of luck.
Hard work, luck and unskilled labour sounded like my bag, so this summer I set off on a trip across the wilderness. With me were Felicity Aston, the heroic first woman to ski alone across Antarctica, and Dr Kevin Fong, a doctor who specialises in trauma and extreme environments.
At Dyea we leaped into the icy waters of the Pacific and splashed ashore, carrying our gear on our heads through the shallows. This is how the journey began for thousands of prospectors. Those would-be gold-diggers were carrying everything they would need – the famous “ton of goods” that Canadian authorities demanded that each prospector assembled before undertaking a trek into the interior. Today, Dyea is forest, the foundations of buildings, warehouses, shops, hotels and bars still just visible through a blanket of moss. Nature, in retreat across so much of the planet, is in full throttle here. The ghostly remains of short-lived cities will soon be hidden from sight completely.
For days we trekked up into the coastal mountains, where rusting tools, pots, pans and shovels are still scattered through the undergrowth. A massive wood-fired boiler sits like a beached whale in one clearing, hauled up to power a short-lived cable car by which the wealthier stampeders could send their gear to the top of the pass – for an exorbitant fee. Such abandoned machinery is a monument to Victorian entrepreneurialism, belief in technology and a determined refusal to allow nature to bar the way.
Without the shortcut once offered by that rusting cable car, we had to hike straight up the ‘Golden Staircase’ of the Chilkoot Pass – a snow-covered route through the mountain range to the Canadian Yukon beyond. It was the hardest part of the journey. We inched slowly up an almost sheer face of snow and ice, some of our party carrying weights of over 45kg. Slipping and sliding, we often sank up to our waists in the spring snow and had to be hauled out.
At the height of the gold rush this route was tramped by an endless line of hunched men. Dead horses lay in the snow; discarded gear, abandoned by the dead or broken, was scattered around. Avalanches were a constant threat. One particularly bad avalanche in 1898 killed dozens of men as it swamped their tents.
Hopeful gold miners travel with packing mules through the Klondike Valley, 1899. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
In the teeth of a storm we got to the top, though only after one or two shuttles up and down. As we cleared the pass we crossed the border into Canada, territory that in the late 19th century was British imperial land. In gold-rush days Mounties greeted the exhausted travellers, checking that each had the ton of goods that would sustain them in the Yukon. From there it was a slog of hundreds of miles to the goldfields.
The stampeders stripped the hills of spruce trees for timber, fashioning boats to carry them down the tributaries and lakes leading to the Yukon river itself. In the spring of 1898 there was a vast array of little boats waiting for the ice on the long Lake Bennett to thaw, and prospectors poured oil on the icepack, hoping to speed up the melt.
The minute the way was clear, the motley armada charged down the lake. Some boats were described as being mere packing crates, with no bows and no stern; others availed themselves of the opportunistic boat builders who set up sawmills and workshops at the southern end of the lake. Trees were scoured from the landscape. The coming of the modern world was, unsurprisingly, catastrophic for the indigenous flora and fauna – and, of course, for the First Nations families whose lifestyles were upended almost overnight.
Many of those boats sank in the squalls that pounced upon the surface of the lake, or in the rapids that hampered the way north. One rapid nearly smashed our little boat as we hurtled through the white water, covering me with blood from a gash on my nose. Another set of rapids was so lethal that during the gold rush the Canadian authorities placed a guard on the bank to stop any boat going through without a local boatman who could safely pilot the craft.
Eyewitnesses report destitute stampeders reduced to begging. Other suffered breakdowns and simply sat on sandbanks with no possessions, money or food, waiting to be finished off by the bears, the cold or the hunger. Perhaps two-thirds turned back.
Miners display a large gold nugget during the Klondike gold rush, c1897. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Dawson City sits at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. Before 1897 it had been the site of a seasonal camp used by First Nations fishermen who came to hunt the salmon that flocked there from the Arctic to spawn. Only months later it was an anarchic temporary city, with brothels, saloons, outfitters and dwellings crowded together on the low-lying shingle banks beneath the high sides of the river valley.
Then, as now, it was a town electrified by gold. Fortunes were made in Bonanza Creek, Dominion Creek and elsewhere. Prospectors staggered into town – some broken men, others millionaires. It was a race to stake out the good ground. Most of the stampeders arrived to find that the richest seams were already being exploited. They either had to toil away on inaccessible, uncertain terrain or take a salaried job labouring to make another man rich.
The work was unimaginably hard. When we arrived I got a crash course in gold mining. If initial panning reveals a few flakes of gold, you take the gamble that it is worth wielding a pickaxe for days on end to produce piles of spoil; then it’s basically a case of ‘washing the dirt’ – shovelling tonnes and tonnes of earth and rock through a sluice. Gold is heavy so it drops to the bottom, where it is caught in sacking, while lighter spoil washes off back into the river.
Another method the men and women employed, hoping that it would lead them directly to rich seams, was to drop a shaft into the shoulder of the valley. This meant taking an educated guess as to where the gold might be, then burrowing down through permafrost. To bore into the solid ground they used one of two techniques: either they built fires that burned overnight to melt the icy ground, and dug down a metre or two each day before lighting another overnight fire and then repeating the process again and again; or they undertook hours of brutal work with spike and pickaxe to bludgeon their way through the frozen earth in the hope of finding gold. Today the goldfields are full of artisanal miners, with excavators working around the clock, sluices constantly flowing – the modern incarnation of those first prospectors, using very similar methods to further their dreams of gold, but with bigger tools.
A gold prospector panning for gold in the Klondike, c1898. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
My month in the Yukon was hard, but nothing compared with the hardships, disappointments, pain and sickness endured by the men and women who joined the 1896 gold rush. We didn’t find much gold, but then neither did the vast majority of those who set out on this mad endeavour. What we did find, like those first stampeders, was a vast landscape and a different way of life – an experience so profound that it leaves an indelible mark on all who have braved it.