The deadly gold rush

In the 1890s, tens of thousands of people flocked to the Yukon in search of gold but were instead assailed by scurvy, bears and punishing cold. Felicity Aston relates how the Klondike gold rush turned into a grim battle for survival

Jubilant miners display a large gold nugget during the Klondike Gold Rush, c1897. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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On the morning of Saturday 17 July 1897, the modest seaport of Seattle awoke to a sensation. The morning papers screamed the headline: “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland! Stacks of Yellow Metal!”

The curious thronged through the streets towards Schwabacher Wharf where the steamship Portland had just arrived back from the Yukon. They cheered as grizzled men wearing new suits and long beards struggled to lift ashore leather satchels stuffed with gold dust and nuggets. Rumour spread through the crowd that the steamship carried “a ton of gold” but they were wrong: the Portland carried nearer two tons.

It had been nearly 50 years since the first great gold rush of northern California in 1849. Since then, persistent rumours of gold in the north had prompted a steady trickle of prospectors to set off in search of it. But the north was still a hostile wilderness of dense forest, short summers and brutal winters. There was no infrastructure and the Yukon river was the only thoroughfare.

On 10 August 1896, veteran prospector George Carmack, his wife, Kate (a member of the Tagish First Nations people), her brother Skookum Jim, and his nephew, nicknamed Dawson Charlie, were on a fishing trip along the Klondike river, a remote tributary of the Yukon, when they found a thick layer of gold in the bedrock of Rabbit Creek.

Prospectors would assess the potential of a creek by scooping up dirt in a shallow pan before using running water to sift through. Gold, being 20 times heavier than water, would be left in the bottom of the pan. A good pan would yield around 10 cents’ worth of gold, but Carmack reported reaping more than four dollars’ worth of gold flakes and fine nuggets from his very first pan in Rabbit Creek (which he promptly renamed Bonanza). When the Portland steamed into Seattle with its Yukon treasure almost a year later, the Klondike immediately became a household name around the world. One of history’s greatest stampedes had begun.

Quitting the force

During the 18 months that followed, 100,000 people set out for the Klondike. It wasn’t just the poor and unemployed that rushed to the goldfields – a quarter of Seattle’s police force are said to have resigned, the mayor stepped down in order to buy a steamboat to ferry prospectors, while a former governor abandoned his campaign to become a US senator in favour of venturing north.

The majority of the stampeders were Americans but, of the significant minority that travelled from Europe, most were British. Some of them, like brothers Arthur and Edward Lee, were fortune seekers but among the others whose stories I’ve encountered there was also Flora Shaw, a correspondent for The Times sent to report on the stampede for a sceptical London audience, and the young aristocrat Frederick Wombwell, who was simply looking for adventure.

Whatever the motivation, every stampeder discovered that the challenge was not finding gold but getting to the goldfields in the first place. Of the 100,000 that departed for the Yukon, only 40,000 ever arrived.

Unwilling to delay their journey until spring, when the melting ice of the Yukon would allow passage upriver by steamboat from Alaska, most stampeders chose one of two overland routes that crossed the glaciated mountains lining the northern Pacific coast. The arduous 30-mile Chilkoot Trail climbed to a pass 1,080 metres high and included a section so steep that it became known as the ‘golden staircase’. White Pass was lower, at 870 metres but the trail longer and more rugged. “There ain’t no choice between the Chilkoot and the White Pass,” went one popular saying of the time. “One’s hell. The other’s damnation. Whichever way you go, you’ll wish you would’ve gone the other.”

Very few stampeders knew anything about the wilderness they were entering. Temperatures fell below -30C as winter advanced and the trail was buried in ever deeper snow. Would-be miners pitched flimsy camps wherever they could along the trails but as numbers swelled, so did competition for space. “There was a noticeable change in the faces of those who were less inured to hardships,” wrote American William Haskell of new arrivals on the Chilkoot Trail in 1898. “It is not pleasant to leave the steamer and to begin living in a tent pitched in nearly a foot of snow.”

To add to the difficulty, the Canadian authorities, fearing mass starvation, introduced a law requiring all travellers to carry a ton of goods considered necessary to survive a winter in the wilderness. Those who couldn’t afford to pay for packers (people employed to carry loads along the trail) had to shuttle these goods back and forth themselves. Common loads weighed 40kg or more.

Avalanches became a constant hazard, the most deadly occurring on Palm Sunday in April 1898. “In all there were over 50 dead bodies taken out, 100 being the number stated by some,” wrote a traumatised Edward Lee. “The snow slide had come down from some high steep mountains on the right-hand side of the trail and overwhelmed everything.”

Once across the mountains, the ordeal wasn’t over. The stampeders now had to traverse a series of long lakes until they reached the headwaters of the Yukon. From there it was still a 500-mile journey downstream to the goldfields. Vast camps grew on the shores of lakes Bennett and Lindeman as a backlog of prospectors settled in to wait for the spring melt. The surrounding forests were razed for timber to build rudimentary huts in the camps and to provide firewood, as well as to build boats for the onward journey.

Some eager prospectors couldn’t bear to wait and judged the ice thick enough to take their weight. “Men took chances that in ordinary circumstances they would not risk,” explained Cornish émigré William Olive. “But the magic word ‘gold’ lured them on to brave both danger and destruction.”

Cases of cold feet

When the ice finally thawed, 8,000 craft set off across the lakes in May alone. Ahead were long sections of complicated rapids that were as deadly as the menacing isolation of the surrounding forest. Drownings, starvation, disease, scurvy, bear attacks and madness each claimed their victims, all accompanied by unbearable clouds of mosquitoes. “Many discouraged ones are selling their outfits and leaving the country,” wrote a restless Frederick Wombwell at the end of May 1898. “They hear dreadful tales of the horrors awaiting them down the Yukon, so they get ‘cold feet’, sell their outfits for practically nothing, and out they go.”

If the beleaguered stampeders dreamed of salvation when they eventually reached Dawson City, they were to be disappointed. “The town of Dawson, itself on a swamp, is hideous,” ranted Flora Shaw on her arrival. “All the refuse of a thousand tents flung out of doors… you feel that you are breathing poison all the time that you walk.”

The boomtown that had emerged at the muddy confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers came into its own during the summer of 1898. What had been a prospectors’ camp of a few hundred the previous year had now mushroomed into a population of 20,000 and was still growing. Every day hundreds more arrived. They found a wildly exuberant, vice-fuelled but squalid frontier town, where the currency was gold dust and the prices higher than in any European capital.

Life in the mining camps that littered the surrounding creeks was as meagre as it had been on the trail. British journalist Julius Price couldn’t believe what he saw: “One wondered at the strange fascination of gold that it could reconcile a man, and, for that matter, his wife also, to come and eke out a miserable existence in such an awful place as this, on the mere chance of perhaps someday satisfying their avaricious desires, and also so far make them forget their natural instincts as to bring children with them to share their awful hardships.”

Dawson was the end of the road for many. Of the tens of thousands that arrived, just 4,000 ever went looking for gold. No more than a few hundred got rich.

Edward Lee’s diary stops before he reaches Dawson but years later his family discovered $12,708.49 in gold dust deposited by his brother Arthur. Flora Shaw would spend less than six months in the Yukon but her reports led to major improvements in the tax laws on gold mining. Frederick Wombwell found gold but was generally an unsuccessful miner. The last entry in his diary reads: “We did not make much money, but by the same token we had a wonderful time without losing any.”

In August 1899, barely two years after the Portland had arrived in Seattle with the treasure that sparked the stampede, news reached Dawson that a large gold strike had been found at the mouth of the Yukon river, in Nome, Alaska. Within a week nearly 10,000 had abandoned Dawson. The Klondike gold rush was over.

Very few miners ever struck it rich but cities like Seattle, who served the stampeders, made their fortunes. The legacy of the Klondike gold rush is not in bullion but in opening up the far north, in the nascent Canada establishing a sense of national identity, and in the enduring (if falsely romantic) ideal of frontier life in the northern wilderness.

Felicity Aston MBE is an expedition leader and former Antarctic scientist. In 2012 she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. She co-presented with Dan Snow a three-part BBC Two series about the Klondike gold rush, Operation Gold Rush, in 2016.

Ghosts of the gold rush

The Klondike still bears the scars of the ‘yellow metal’ craze, says Felicity Aston

While filming a series on the Klondike gold rush for BBC Two (see below for details), I followed in the footsteps of the thousands of stampeders who undertook the odyssey from the Alaskan coast to the goldfields of the Yukon.

Standing on the summit of the Chilkoot Trail – the cruellest part of that desperate journey – it is impossible not to sense ghosts. Surrounded by thick fog and buffeted by strong winds in the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush International Historic Park, a second glance at the dark shapes on the snow reveal that these are not rocks, but remnants of the stampede. Rusty tin cans, wooden cases, even shovels and leather shoes, lie abandoned.

More than a century later, the hillsides around the lakes Bennett and Lindeman still bear the scars of the mass deforestation caused by the stampeders’ need for lumber. We found material elsewhere for our home-made wooden boat that we rowed 400 miles down the Yukon river to Dawson City. The town works hard to recall its riotous past but today there are only 1,000 inhabitants and the hordes that arrive every morning are tourists rather than fortune-seekers.

Venturing into the creeks surrounding Dawson, it is astonishing to see the volume of earth that has been turned over in the continuing search for gold. The nuggets are long gone but anyone can still dip a pan into the Klondike and find a few flakes.

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Many regard the story of the gold rush as a tale of greed but I believe this is instead a story of hope. People will go to great lengths to protect their family and provide them with a future. That is a motivation I think we can all understand.