Past Pi­o­neer­ing

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dar­ryl Quidort

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.