The Deadly Stam­pede

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

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - Felic­ity As­ton MBE is an ex­pe­di­tion leader and for­mer Antarc­tic sci­en­tist. In 2012 she be­came the first woman to ski alone across Antarc­tica

Felic­ity As­ton de­scribes the per­ilous search for yel­low metal in the Klondike and how the pun­ish­ing cold be­came a bat­tle for sur­vival

The chal­lenge wasn’t find­ing gold but get­ting to the gold­fields. 100,000 de­parted, but only 40,000 ever ar­rived

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 -30°C 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

Tem­per­a­tures fell be­low 30°C as win­ter ad­vanced and the trail to the Klondike's gold­fields was buried in ev­ery deeper snow

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.

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Base camp ‘Stam­ped­ers’ at Sheep Creek in the Klondike. Jour­nal­ists mar­velled at the

squalor of the min­ing set­tle­ments hastily erected by those dream­ing of

find­ing gold

LEFT: Prospec­tors as­cend the Chilkoot Trail’s in­fa­mous ‘golden stair­case’. As the say­ing went: “Which­ever way you go, you’ll wish you would’ve gone the other”

ABOVE: A man mea­sures out gold dust to pay for his pro­vi­sions in a dry goods store, 1899. Gold dust was con­sid­ered le­gal ten­der in Daw­son City

Right: Women chop tim­ber in Daw­son City. As gold fever swept the Klondike, this fron­tier town’s pop­u­la­tion swelled from a few hun­dred to more than 20,000

Our map shows the cruel 600-mile jour­ney from the Alaskan coast to the Klondike

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