Some dreams die
This year marks the 121st anniversary of the Dyea, Alaska, gold strike. The following excerpt from the Winter 2014 issue of Modern Pioneer revisits the harrowing tale of that fateful winter more than a century ago.
THEY CALL IT A GHOST TOWN, but it’s not like any you’ve likely visited or read about before. There are no old, weathered buildings with doors hanging by one hinge; no loose window shutters bang eerily in the wind.
Dyea, Alaska, is not that kind of ghost town. As I walked along the foot trail that wound through the natural-looking area, I could see very little to hint of the oncecrowded streets and busy commercial district of the historic boom town.
It was gold they were after, even though no gold was ever found there. The gold was 600 life-threatening, heart-breaking miles away. The discovery of gold on Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek) in August 1896, by George Carmack, and his brother-in-laws “Skookum Jim” Mason and Dawson Charlie, started what came to be known as the Klondike gold rush.
Not many knew about the gold at first, but a year later, on July 17, 1897, the steamship, S. S. Portland, reached Seattle with 68 rich miners and nearly 2 tons of gold aboard. When word of “easy gold” reached the outside world, more than 100,0000 amateur gold seekers immediately rushed north from the States, risking all, even their lives, to reach it.
Most of the stampeders went through Seattle, then 1,500 miles up the inside passage by steamship, to reach Dyea and Skagway, Alaska. The first of the stampeders reached Dyea, with romantic notions of easy riches in their heads, less than two weeks after the news first hit Seattle, and tens of thousands more followed. Their journey had just begun. The Klondike gold fields were still 600 hard miles to the north, near the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers.
There were two routes from coastal Alaska over the rugged mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon River where rafts could be built for the dangerous float trip down the river for the remaining 550 or so miles to the gold claims: the White Pass trail above Skagway and the Chilkoot Pass trail above Dyea. One stampeder, who had actually traveled both routes said, “No matter which trail you took, you wished you had taken the other one.”
Arriving at Dyea, the would-be prospectors faced a problem. Since the gold was in Canada, and the unmarked international boundary was said to be the top of the mountains, the Canadian Mounted Police controlled access through both passes. To prevent starvation in the harsh interior, the Canadian Government required each person to bring a year’s supply of goods to enter the country. This required about three months of hard work and 20 to 40 trips up the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail for the stampeders to pack their required 2,000 pounds of goods to the top of the pass. During the winter of 1897-1898, more than 30,000 gold seekers toiled to get their goods up the Chilkoot trail. The last obstacle before reaching the pass was the Golden Staircase. The staircase gains 1,000 vertical feet in about ¼ mile of trail. It was described as a “hellish climb” up 1,500-foot steps cut into the snow and ice. Imagine an endless line of prospectors toting huge packs up the stairs like a line of worker ants. Conditions were life-threatening: deep snow, blizzards, high winds and temperatures that dipped to -50˚F in the pass during winter.
Meanwhile, at the foot of the pass, Dyea was booming. Stores were quickly built, a post office opened, hotels, restaurants, salons, even brothels were available. A tent city surrounded the town. The dockage at Dyea was shallow, so highly overpriced goods were unloaded from the boats onto the beach and men scrambled to get them to higher ground before the tide came in.
Naturalist John Muir was in the area studying glaciers when the Klondike gold rush hit. He wrote that the activity at Dyea looked like “an anthill someone stirred with a stick.” An unknown author wrote, “It was the last grand adventure of its kind that the world will ever know.”
Then disaster struck. Heavy snows had fallen on the pass. On April 1 and 2, a warm south wind softened the snow pack. Natives hired to pack goods up the trail refused to travel into an avalanche-prone area, but many stampeders continued on.
On April 3, 1898, Palm Sunday, the deadliest event of the Klondike gold rush occurred. A huge avalanche buried scores of people. Some of the victims were covered with as much as 30 feet of snow. More than 65 people died that day on the Chilkoot trail.
By spring, the rush up the Chilkoot trail was over. In truth, the gold rush of 1898 was actually over before the stampede even began. Due to the distance and remoteness of the area, most of the stampeders didn’t reach the Klondike gold fields until late June 1898, nearly two years after the big gold strike. Prospectors who were already in the region had long since staked legal claims to all the gold-bearing streams in the area. Many discouraged gold rushers sold their gear and supplies in Dawson City for a steamboat ticket down the Yukon River and home, their dreams of gold vanished like the melting snow.
After the gold rush, the Dyea town site was abandoned. In following years, spring floods washed some of the old buildings out to sea, and the ever-changing channel of the Taiya River buried some of the town’s old foundations. All that remains of Dyea today is the propped up front of one old building, various scattered pieces of wood and metal, and the dreams and memories of boom and bust. The two rows of trees that were once planted along Main Street now stand amid the forest that covers most of the old town site. Nature has reclaimed the area; it’s once again the home of bears and eagles.
I found the cemetery in a quiet, nearly forgotten area outside of the town site near the Taiya River. An eerie feeling came over me as I walked among the old wooden grave markers. The same date of death was on every marker in the cemetery, April 3, 1898. Many had only a single name on them. Some were marked “unknown” or “slide victim,” some listed a home city, “John from Seattle” or “Martin from Denver.” I imagined that as the bodies were dug out of the avalanche, friends and acquaintances had tried to identify them. Some were never identified, leaving loved ones at home to wonder what had become of them. Many were buried there, at the foot of the famous Chilkoot trail, their path to golden dreams never realized.