KLONDIKE! The strangest gold rush in history
By the winter of 1897-98 one hundred thousand men endured agony and often death to pass the icebound approaches to the Klondike. Gold had never pitched men’s passions so high, and it never will again
The Klondike stampede did not start slowly and build up to a climax as did so many earlier gold rushes. It reached fever pitch at once in mid-summer 1897 and remained at fever pitch until the following spring when, with the coming of the Spanish-American War, the madness died almost as swiftly as it arose. If war had not come the rush might have continued unabated for at least another half year, but even so the stampede remains unique.
A Maclean’s BOOK-LENGTH flashback
Second of four parts
BY PIERRE BERTON '
The Klondike stampede did not start slowly and build up to a climax as did so many earlier gold rushes. It reached fever pitch at once in mid-summer 1897 and remained at fever pitch until the following spring when, with the coming of the Spanish-American War, the madness died almost as swiftly as it arose. If war had not come the rush might have continued unabated for at least another half year, but even so the stampede remains unique. It was the last and most frenzied of the great international gold rushes. Other stampedes involved more gold and more men, but there has been nothing like the Klondike before, there has been nothing like it since and there can never be anything like it again.
The fever was touched off in an instant when two “treasure” ships, Excelsior and Portland, loomed out of the Arctic mists and landed at San Francisco and Seattle, disgorging prospectors direct from the Klondike—prospectors burdened with gold.
There was gold in suitcases and leather
grips, gold in boxes and packing cases, gold in belts and pokes of caribou hide, gold in jam jars, medicine bottles and tomato cans, and gold in blankets held by straps and cord, so heavy it took two men to hoist each one. On the two ships, the final tally showed, there were three tons of gold.
Conditions were almost exactly right for the lunacy that ensued. It was the peak of that era known nostalgically as the Gay Nineties. The gaiety is remembered, the misery that accompanied it largely forgotten. It was the era of Buffalo Bill, P. T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Carrie Nation, Little Egypt, Lillian Russell, Richard Harding Davis and the Floradora Sextette. It was an era whose various symbols are still remembered as emblems of “the good old days”: the leg o’mutton sleeve, the cigar-store Indian, the stereopticon and the mustache cup.
But it was also an era in which the rich grew richer and the poor poorer, when the “haves” had almost everything and the “have-nots” almost nothing, when melodramas starring wicked landlords and destitute widows were believable and understandable slices of life, when the word “mortgage” had connotations of terror, when banks foreclosed and men quite liter-
ally died of hunger in the street. If it was the era of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, of the private yacht and the brownstone mansion, it w;as also the era of Samuel Gompers and Henry George, of the sweatshop and the tenement house. It was an age of millionaires but it was also an age ot hoboes.
In short, it was an era occupied with money or preoccupied with the lack of it.
“Gold” was the magic word of the Nineties. The production of gold had not kept pace with the soaring population; in some years, indeed, it dropped, and this drop was accentuated by demands from European countries who had adopted a gold standard. As gold dollars grew scarcer they grew more expensive until, at one point, a gold dollar was worth almost twice as much as a paper dollar. People began to hoard gold, in socks and sugar bowds and under floorboards and in personal safes, so that by the year 1892 there were only one hundred and ninety million dollars in gold coin and certificates left in the U. S. treasury out of a total of seven hundred and thirty million. This drop in the circulation of gold was one of the reasons for the creeping depression that gripped the continent in the thirty years before the Klondike strike.
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was the magic word of the Gay Nineties. In an era of millionaires and hoboes the world was ready for a mad stampede for treasure
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It struck the Pacific northwest with particular viciousness, for this was a new land settled by men who had followed Horace Greeley's advice after the California gold rush to go w'est, and many of those who had done so were now trying to push back the frontier on borrowed funds. For years they had been waiting for a miracle to deliver them and it came, like an electric shock, when the treasure ships steamed into port.
This was perhaps the chief reason for the intensity of the stampede that followed, a stampede out of all proportion to the amount of gold that actually existed on the Klondike watershed. The century had already experienced three other great international rushes, to California, Australia and South Africa—fields far richer than the Klondike. But the Yukon was just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be accessible. Rich men could, in theory at least, travel ali the way to Daw'son City by boat without lifting a finger while poor men could speedily reach the
coastal passes and travel by foot and homemade boat on a fast current to the gold fields. Englishmen, raised on a diet of adventure in far-off lands, were ripe for a final Hing. In America, gullibility and optimism marched side by side and men were ready to believe that anything was possible. The era of sensational journalism w'as in full swing. Human interest was the order of the day, and the scenes in San Francisco and Seattle in mid-July 1897 were made to order for any newspaperman.
The Excelsior did not look like a treasure ship. She was short and stubby wáth a lone black smokestack and two masts. Her superstructure was smudged and grimy and stained with rust marks. Her appearance fitted that of her passengers, who still wore their tattered working clothes, caked with mud from their claims on Bonanza and Eldorado creeks. Under their broadbrimmed miners' hats their lined faces were burned almost black by the Klondike sun, and their chins were grizzled with whiskers. They were gaunt and they were weary but
their eyes burned with a peculiar fire. To the crowd on the dock they looked exactly like miners out of a picture book.
Down the gangplank they came, Tom Eippy, a one-time YMCA man, J. O. Hestwood, a former scenic painter, Joe Ladue, an old Yukon trader, and the others staggering under their loads of gold. The curious knot of people on the dock at San Francisco parted to let them through. Tom Lippy’s square shoulders could be seen on the gangway, his wiry little wife beside him, her face tanned the color of shoe leather. Together they grappled with a bulging suitcase. It weighed more than two hundred pounds and the awed spectators realized it was full of gold.
Others had similar burdens. Fred Price, who had been a laundryman in Seattle before going north, was relatively “poor” with only fifteen thousand dollars in gold. But even fifteen thousand was a considerable fortune in 1897, when a four-room apartment could be rented for a dollar and a quarter a week, an continued on page 34
Odd transport took the Klondikers northward
all-wool serge suit could be purchased for four dollars and coffee was thirteen cents a pound.
A group of the miners hailed a fourhorse truck, hired it on the spot, hoisted their gold aboard it, and drove off toward the Selby Smelting Works on Montgomery Street, the crowd surging behind them.
The crowd squeezed into the building and watched goggle-eyed while the buckskin bags, the soiled canvas sacks, the glass fruit jars and jelly tumblers, covered with precious writing paper and tied with twine, were ripped open on the counter and their yellow contents disgorged. The gold lay on the counter, in the words of an eye-witness, “like a pile of yellow shelled corn,” while the pokerfaced clerks weighed it, paid for it, and shoveled it with copper scoops into a great melting pot.
The story of this spectacle buzzed through the streets of San Francisco. For some time rumors had been sifting down the coast about a big strike made on an unpronounceable stream deep in the Yukon valley. A laconic on-the-spot report to Ottawa from William Ogilvie,
the Canadian government surveyor, had been published the previous month in an austere pamphlet titled Information Respecting the Yukon District. William Johns, an ex-newspaperman who had staked on Eldorado, sent a brief mention of the Klondike to a Chicago paper which printed a few lines in March, but this also attracted little notice. Jack Carr, a veteran Yukon dog driver, left Dawson on June 5 and reached Juneau on July 1 1 wearing gold nuggets for buttons and bearing the news of the strike. Nobody believed him until they opened their mail. The Alaska Commercial Company in San Francisco also had word of the strike before the Excelsior’s arrival and the word “Klondike” had started appearing in its advertisements early in July.
These hints had not caused a ripple until the Excelsior docked. But here at last was dramatic proof of a new Eldorado. Here was one grizzled creature, fresh off the boat with a thirty-pound sack of dust in his hand, ordering poached eggs nine at a time, tipping waitresses with nuggets, engaging a horse cab at twenty dollars a day and exclaiming that he had pulled a hand sled fourteen hun-
“Show us the gold!“ cried the crowd. The miners hoisted their bulging sacks
tired miles and now intended to ride in luxury for a fortnight.
William Randolph Hcarst, then locked in a furious journalistic war in New York, had both the funds and the understanding to exploit a stampede. He ordered all-out coverage of the story and dispatched two expeditions to the Klondike. With that imperial dictum, the Klondike fever began.
In Seattle excitement was mounting, for Tom Lippy. who had lugged the largest personal fortune off the Excelsior, was a Seattle boy and the papers were full of his story. Lippy and his wife had a suite in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco where they were virtual prisoners, the halls outside jammed with people. Now the word was out that a second treasure ship, far richer than the first, was due in Seattle at any moment.
The Post-Intelligencer chartered a tug. loaded it with reporters anil sent it off to Cape Flattery to intercept the Portland as she entered the sound. The newsmen tumbled over the ship's rails and into the arms of the excited miners who were eager to trade news of the Klondike for news of the Outside. The tug raced back to port and, as a result, the first of the P-l's three extras hit the Seattle streets at almost the same moment that the Portland docked:
GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
68 Rich Men on the Steamer Portland
STACKS OF YELLOW METAL!
. . . and the story, written by an ingenious reporter named Beriah Brown, coined the phrase that flashed around the world: “At 3 o’clock this morning
the steamer Portland, from St. Michael’s for Seattle, passed up the Sound with
more than a ton of solid gold aboard . .
Brown had reckoned that the weight of the gold dust would sound more dramatic than its value. His instinct was right. By evening the phrase “a ton of gold" was being published by newspapers all around the world. The rival Seattle Times, with more restraint, gave the weight as half a ton, but for once the newspapers erred on the side of caution. When the results were totted up. it turned out that there were at least two tons of gold aboard the ship.
As the Portland nosed into Schwabacher’s dock at six a.m. on July 17, five thousand people poured down to the waterfront to greet her. "Show us the gold!” cried the watchers on the wharf as the vessel approached, and the miners on board obliged by hoisting their sacks. Seattle police and WellsFargo guards armed with rifles appeared to clear a way for the miners through the jam of humanity.
Now the scene in San Francisco was repeated. One man had one hundred thousand dollars in dust and nuggets tied up in a blanket and had to hire two others to help him drag it away. A miner named Nils Anderson dragged a heavy bag down the gangplank. He had two other sacks full of gold back in his stateroom. Two years before, he had borrowed three hundred dollars and left his family to gamble on fortune in the north. His wife, waiting on the dock, did not know he was rich until he told her that he had brought out one hundred and twelve thousand dollars.
The reporters clustered around each prospector in turn as the police fought
to hold back the crowds. “We’ve got millions! ’ Frank Phiscator, who owned one of the richest claims on Eldorado, cried. William Stanley, a one-time Seattle book-seller, said that “the Klondike is no doubt the best place to make money that there is in the world.” His wife had been living on wild blueberries and taking in laundry to keep her family together. When the news reached her she dropped the wet clothes, told her customers to fish their own out of the tub and moved with her husband into a downtown hotel where she threw out her meagre wardrobe and called in a dressmaker to design raiment more appropriate for the wife of a Klondike prince.
From this day on, few prospectors arriving from the north were to know any real peace.
Joe Ladite, who had founded Dawson City, perhaps had the most frantic time of all. The papers had quickly dubbed him Mayor of Dawson and he was pursued by such a throng of reporters, wellwishers, fortune hunters and cranks, that he fled to the east. He stepped off the train in Chicago into the arms of another mob and when he reached his farm in the Adirondacks a bushel-basket full of mail awaited him. The people crowded into the parlor and began to finger the nuggets that he poured onto a table. Ladite left them to it and went off into a barn to hide. Here he was cornered by Lincoln Steffens, the most persistent reporter of his day. “He was the weariest-looking man I ever saw,” Steffens wrote in McClure’s. It was a prophetic remark, for Ladite s days were numbered. His life reached its climax in a
Cinderella ending, made to order for the press. At long last he married Anna Mason, his lifelong sweetheart. Her parents, who once had rejected him as a suitor for Anna, were now' more than happy to welcome the most renowned figure in America into the family. With his Dawson City real estate, his saloon and sawmill and other interests, he was worth, on paper, five million dollars. The financial pages were soon reporting that he had been named president and managing director of the Joseph Ladite Gold Mining and Development Company whose directors included some of the biggest names in New York finance, headed by Chauneey Dcpew, president of the New York Central. But the thirteen winters Ladite had spent along the V ukon had taken their toll. The following year he succumbed to tuberculosis, at the height of the great stampede he helped bring about.
Within a week after the arrival of the Portland, Seattle was having trouble keeping its transportation system in operation. The streetcar operators were resigning to go to the Klondike. The Seattle Times lost most of its reporters; shipping men and policemen left their jobs. Salesmen jumped counters, doctors deserted patients, preachers quit their congregations. The Mayor of Seattle, W. D. Wood, happened to be in San Francisco attending a convention when the news broke. He did not bother to return home but wired his resignation. Before the month was out he had raised one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, bought himself an ocean steamer, the Humboldt, and established the
Seattle and Yukon Trading Company.
The ferry between Vancouver and Victoria had difficulty loading because most of the crew had left for the Klondike. Ships going north had trouble coming south again because so many seamen deserted. Whaling in the Canadian Arctic came to a standstill because the whalers left in a body for the gold fields. Canneries along the Alaska coast were forced to close for similar reasons. The price of river boats tripled, and so many were shipped north for Yukon river service that fruit picking ceased in the Sacramento valley because of the absence of transportation.
Everyone seemed touched by the disease which the press dubbed "Klondicitis.” More than three quarters of the members of the graduating classes of San Francisco and Los Angeles medical schools announced they would accelerate their studies in order to establish themselves as doctors in the Yukon valley. In Chicago, a group of gamblers, harried by a reform government, held a hurried meeting in a downtown saloon and within three hours boarded a train for Seattle, taking no luggage but a set of gold scales and some heavy underwear.
Within ten days of the Portland’s arrival, fifteen hundred people had left Seattle and there were nine ships in harbor jammed to the gunwales and ready to sail. The town itself w'as demented. By August 1, every hotel was bursting with men. restaurants were overtaxed, and lodging houses were roaring. In the area of the docks, the streets were choked with people and animals moving sluggishly betw-een the ten-foot stacks of supplies. Through the crowd moved steerers hired to lure men to the various outfitting stores. Hundreds sat in the roadways, dressed in gawdy mackinaws, wide-brimmed miners' hats, iron-cleated. high-topped boots and heavy wool socks, waiting for ships, playing at cards, and babbling about gold.
Dogs, goats, sheep, oxen, mules, burros, Shetland ponies and swaybacked cayuses, all designed for Klondike packing, blocked the streets, tied to hitching posts and lumber piles. Every dog owner in town learned to keep his pet securely tethered, otherwise he was stolen for the Klondike. Horses kept pouring in from Montana, many of them bony, spavined and worn out. They had been w'orth between three and five dollars the week before but now they sold for twentyfive dollars and more. Mules arrived from Colorado; reindeer with amputated horns were sold as beasts of burden; Washington elks were brought in by the carload priced at two hundred and fifty dollars apiece.
Transportation company offices were in a state of siege. One railway company received twenty-five thousand enquiries about the Klondike in the first few weeks. In the first twenty-four hours after the news broke, two thousand New Yorkers tried to buy tickets for the Klondike. A day later a New York paper printed an advertisement asking applicants to invest any sum between five hundred and two thousand dollars in a Klondike expedition. Twelve hundred signed up at once.
The news of the Klondike quickly released the northwest from the economic straitjacket in which it had been imprisoned. The gold coins that had lain so long in sugar bowls and strong boxes and under floorboards were now suddenly flung into circulation. “Prosperity is here,” cried the Seattle P-I just four days after the Portland docked. The Midwest felt a similar upsurge. “I have never seen such a change in the faces
and hopes of people as in the last two months,” wrote Senator C. K. Davis of Minnesota, in October, ‘in the streets (of Minneapolis) you will see three people and three teams where you saw one two months ago.” In Winnipeg, stores were cleaned out of furs and robes in two weeks.
Everyone wanted evaporated food; evaporated eggs, evaporated onions, and even evaporated split-pea soup, which was sold in the form of a sausage, each one guaranteed to make twenty to thirty platefuls, I he stampeders bought milk tablets, peanut meal, saccharine, desiccated olives, coffee lozenges, beef blocks and pemmican. One entrepreneur claimed he could put enough food into an ordinary valise to last a man a year and give him a menu as varied as that of a good hotel. He sold these valises to the gullible for two hundred and fifty dollars, claiming they would be worth two thousand in the Klondike.
The newspapers were full of advice on suitable outfits for the Klondike, but many of the argonauts, as they were universally called, chose to ignore them and hold to their own ideas of what was proper for sub-Arctic travel. Tappan Adney, the correspondent for Harper’s Illustrated, came across one man in Victoria whose outfit consisted of thirty-two pairs of moccasins, a case of pipes, a case of shoes, two Irish setters, a bull pup and a lawn-tennis set. He was no trader, he told Adney, but simply a tourist going to the gold fields for a good time. About the same time, a fortyseven-year-old spinster. Miss Blanche King, sailed for St. Michael’s taking along a maid, a cook, a horse, a parrot, three canaries, a piano, two St. Bernard dogs and a sealskin suit.
Gold in the gutters
Optometrists sold Klondike glasses, rubber manufacturers hawked Klondike boots, drugstores peddled Klondike medicine chests, restaurants dispensed Klondike soup—everything from stoves to blankets bore the magic name.
One of the most curious symptoms of Klondicitis was that people began seeing gold everywhere. A group of Italian laborers in New York City saw gold in some sand in which they were digging and began to talk to newspapermen of fortune. A visitor to Victoria saw gold in an outcropping in a gutter near that city’s post office, and tried to stake a claim on the main street. Gold started to turn up in almost every U. S. state. Trinity county, Calif., went wild over the alleged discovery of some old Spanish mines. A report from Marquette, Mich., claimed that the town was sitting on top of a vein of gold forty feet wide. Peru tried to revive the gold mines of the Incas. The old Cariboo and Kootenay districts of B. C. began to report new gold finds. Russia insisted there were fabulous mines just across from Alaska and even China talked about new discoveries.
Transportation companies were not above making capital of these tales, the most flagrant example being the wildgoose chase to Kotzebue Sound, on the northwestern tip of the continent, just off Bering Strait. This abortive race was touched off by an old sea dog in San Francisco who claimed to have dug fifteen thousand dollars out of the ground in two hours with a jackknife. Several parties swallowed the fairy tale and paid forty dollars each to learn the exact spot in the Kotzebue area where the gold was hidden. The story spread, the price of the inside tip soared to six hundred dollars, and soon steamship com-
panies were advertising “Nuggets as Big as Hickory Nuts” on Kotzebue's cold shores. More than one thousand persons traveled over three thousand miles, each thinking his party, alone of all the others, knew the secret. And so they were trapped for one long winter, above the Arctic Circle, a good five hundred miles as the crow flies from the Klondike which they never saw.
In the fevered chorus chanting anthems to the Klondike, a few reed-like voices could be heard faintly counseling caution. On July 28. the white-bearded Louis Sloss, one of the founders of the pioneer Alaska Commercial Company, said flatly: "It is a crime to encourage this rush which can only lead to disaster for three quarters of the new arrivals.”
By August 10, the U. S. Secretary of the Interior, C. N. Bliss, felt it necessary to issue a state paper warning against anyone attempting to get to the Klondike that season. Clifford Sifton, the Canadian Minister of the Interior, had already published a similar plea, but the advice fell on deaf ears.
When the government warnings were issued three thousand people were already hived in the erupting tent towns of Dyea and Skagway, at the foot of the passes, together with two thousand tons of baggage. Thousands of horses were already struggling, dying and rotting on the trails. Before the warnings were a fortnight old, twenty-one more steamers as well as three sailing vessels and two scows, all jammed with men and animals and freight, had put out from Pacific Coast ports. In one single week in midAugust, twenty-eight hundred people left Seattle for the Klondike. It has been reckoned that in the winter of 1897-98, at the very least, one hundred thousand stampeders actually left their homes and set out for the Klondike.
Although few would believe it, there was by fall no chance of any traveler reaching the diggings before the following summer. This fact was conveniently glossed over by the merchants of the coastal ports bidding for the Klondike trade. Every city was a madhouse. The once-quiet streets of Victoria, B.C., for instance, now bustled with strange men and women from all over the world— Scots, Irish, French, Kanakas, Germans, Australians, Americans—garbed in outlandish costumes and dragging oxen and horses through roadways piled high with provisions for the north.
The men who counted themselves indeed lucky that they had reached the overland starting points on the bleak Alaskan Panhandle now faced the passes to the Klondike as the early winter set in.
Of all the routes to the Klondike, the Skagway trail across the White Pass brought out the worst in men. None who survived ever forgot it, and most who remembered it did so with a sense of shame and remorse. It looked so easy: a jaunt through the rolling hills on horseback, not much more. And yet the men who traveled it were seized by a kind of delirium that drove them to the pit of brutality. Like drug addicts, they understood their dementia but could not control it. There was only one comfort —everyone was suffering from the same condition.
"I am undoubtedly a crazy fool for being in this Godforsaken country,” wrote Frank Thomas, of Plymouth, Ind., to his family, "but 1 have the consolation of seeing thousands of others in the same plight as I.”
The enduring shame of the White Pass was the fate of the three thousand packhorses that worked it. Scarcely one survived the ordeal: the greenhorns who brought them north drove them to their
deaths until the stench of carrion hung like a pall over the forty-five-mile trail. Major J. M. Walsh, a former Mountie, newly appointed Commissioner of the Yukon, was appalled by “the scene of havoc and destruction which can scarcely be imagined.” He noted that “thousands of pack horses lie dead along the way, sometimes in bunches under the cliffs, sometimes in tangled masses filling the mudholes, and furnishing the only footing for our own poor pack animals —often, I regret to say, exhausted but still alive, a fact we are unaware of until
the miserable wretches turn beneath the hooves of our cavalcade.”
T. Dufferin Pattullo, who was in Walsh’s party and later became premier of B. C., recalled how one tortured animal tried to commit suicide by flinging itself over a cliff. No wonder that Jack London, who crossed the pass that fall, wrote of the stampeders that “their hearts turned to stone—those that did not break —and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.”
Within a few weeks the trail became a hopeless mire, entirely impassable; of the
five thousand who tried to cross the White Pass in the fall of ’97 only the merest handful succeeded in reaching the Yukon River before freeze-up. All over the American and Canadian northwest thousands of others found themselves similarly bogged down.
There was no single trail of ’98; there were dozens. The stampeders advanced on the Klondike like a great army executing a giant pincer movement, and those who took part in it poured in from every point on the compass.
The main force, planning a frontal as-
sault, was concentrated in the teeming anthills of the White and Chilkoot passes. Far to the west, small platoons and companies were making minor flanking movements over the pitted glaciers that sprawl across the mountainous southern coastline of Alaska. But the great left arm of the pincer, several battalions strong, was advancing up the Yukon from the Bering Sea by steamboat. A central column was forcing its way northward through the heart of British Columbia, following the route of an almost-forgotten trail cut out by the Western Union Telegraph Company many decades before in an attempt to link Siberia with the United States by cable. This column was joined by a second, moving by steamboat, dog team and foot up the Stikine River from the Pacific coast, and heading for Teslin Lake on the headwaters of the Yukon. The great right arm of the pincer, at least a brigade in strength, was launched from Edmonton. From this point it fanned out into companies, platoons and sections, trickling through the Peace River country, struggling through canyons and rapids of the Liard, pouring down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Circle and filtering over the continental backbone at a dozen different points, almost to the edge of the Arctic Ocean itself. Thus, in that strangest of all winters, the once-empty northwest was swarming with stampeders. There were stampeders at Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian islands of Alaska, and there were stampeders at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska, more than two thousand miles to the east. There were stampeders at Old Crow on the Porcupine River, two hundred and fifty miles due north of Dawson City, and there were stampeders on Disenchantment Bay, which lies three hundred miles due south. There were stampeders dragging their sleighs up the Gravel River where the Canol pipeline was built during World War II; there were stampeders moving up Jack Dalton’s trail, which now forms a spur of the Alaska Highway; and there were stampeders deep in the South Nahanni valley with its caves and its canyons, where helicopters are today mapping out future oil wells. They were everywhere. Relics of their passing remain, here and there, in the form of a crumbling cabin or a rotting grave marker on a silent riverbank or in a lonely forest. But their great legacy was less tangible and more enduring. In a very real sense they broke down the barrier of the frontier and opened up the northwest. For many people, however, the entire story of the Klondike gold rush is evoked by a single scene. It shows a solid line of men, forming a human chain, hanging across the white face of a mountain rampart. Caught in the instant of a lens opening, each man, bent almost double under the weight of his burden, yet still straining upward toward the skies, seems to be frozen in an attitude of supplication. It is a spectacle that at one glance mirrors all the terror, all the hardships and all the yearning of ’98. The Chilkoot Pass has come to be a symbol of the stampede. The routes to the Klondike were all deceptive. Who would have thought that this wall of glittering white, with a final slope so precipitous that no animal couL¿ cross it, would turn out to be the most effective way to reach the gold fields? Who would have thought that in spite of its steps of solid ice, its banshee winds, its crushing fall of snow and its thundering avalanches, the Chilkoot was to be the funnel through which the majority of men would attain their goal? Yet that was the way it turned out. The
The air on the trails was never still from animal cries and human curses5’
trail through the Chilkoot was higher than the White Pass by more than six hundred feet and only man could defy successfully its dizzy grade. But twentytwo thousand of the men who assaulted it, each burdened by his ton of supplies, eventually found themselves on the other side.
The gateway to the Chilkoot was another feverish little town of frame saloons, false-fronted hotels, log cafés, gambling houses, stores and real-estate offices bound together by a stiff mortar of Happing tents and named Dyea after the inlet on which it rested. As at Skagway and at Ashcroft, at Edmonton and Valdez, a stream of humanity gushed through Dyea's narrow streets day and night so that the air was never still from animal cries and human curses.
The first few miles of the Dyea trail were deceptively easy. A pleasant wagon •oad rambled along through meadow and forest, crossing and recrossing the gravelly river that meandered through copses of cottonwood, spruce, birch and willow. Then, piece by piece, the tell-tale symbols of the stampede appeared—a litter of expendable goods thrown aside by men who had already begun to lighten their burdens. Here were trunks of every description, many of them filled with jewelry and trinkets and framed pictures ihat had ceased to have value for men seeking gold. Trunks were the most useless and awkward articles of all, and each stampeder soon learned that the only possible containers for his outfit were stout canvas bags fifty inches long.
After every conceivable weight was discarded, the weary Klondikers, on leaving the river, kicked off their heavy rubber boots and left them behind, as well. Two enterprising Alaskans retrieved this mountain of footwear, and took it back to Juneau for resale to newer arrivals, so that hundreds of pairs came back over the passes time after time.
The trail rose steadily, mile after mile, until it reached Sheep Camp, the last point at which it was possible to cut firewood. Everything beyond was icesheathed rock.
The camp lay in a deep basin which seemed to have been scooped by a giant paw out of the encircling mountains. In one of these a small notch could be glimpsed; this was the Chilkoot. On most days the peaks were shrouded in a gloomy fog, but when the sun was out and the sky clear, the pale light glinted on the evil masses of glaciers which hung from the rim of the mountain wall. The summit was only four miles distant, but it was a long way up—thirty-five hundred feet above the sea.
From the vantage point of Sheep Camp the new arrival could see, spread in front of him and above him, a vast human panorama framed by the snow-grimed hovels of the camp and set against the alabaster backdrop of the sharp-edged peaks. Within a few days he too would be another fiyspeek on the mountain inclines, reduced to a cipher by the despotism of the crags above.
The trail rose sharply until in the last assault on the pass it reached almost thirty-five degrees and a man could drop to his hands and knees and still seem partially upright. There were only two points on this four-mile stretch where a climber could properly rest. The first lay beneath a huge overhanging boulder which, because it afforded some shelter, was known as the Stone House. The second was a fiat ledge only a few city blocks square at the very base of the
final ascent, known as the Scales because everything was reweighed here and the packers’ rates increased to a dollar a pound. Loaded animals could go no farther; even sleds and dogs had to be packed over on men’s backs. Thousands of tons of outfits, half hidden by the ceaselessly falling snow (seventy feet fell that winter), were piled here waiting for their owners to gather stamina for
the supreme effort of the last climb.
All winter long, from Sheep Camp to the Summit, for four weary miles, the endless line of men stretched up the slippery slope, a human garland hanging from the summit and draped across the expanse of the mountainside. From the first light to last, the line was never broken as the men who formed it inched slowly upward, climbing in that odd
rhythmic motion that came to be called “the Chilkoot Lock-step.”
To any alpinist, even an amateur one, the ascent of the pass would have seemed child’s play, for it was in no sense a difficult or arduous climb. But the men of ’98 were not mountaineers. Poorly attired in heavy furs and wools, rather than in the light hooded parkas which were far more practicable, the novices sweated and froze alternately. Unable to disrobe or bathe, seldom free of the winds that were the terror of the trail, bent double under their packs by day
and by the need to curl up for warmth by night, half-nourished by cold beans and soggy flapjacks, plagued by the resultant dysentery and stomach cramps— filthy, stinking, red-eyed and bone-weary, they still forced themselves upward.
The delays were interminable. Blizzards and gales made the slopes impassable for days on end. Mishaps on the trail caused the line to move by fits and starts. A single trip from Dyea to l ake Bennett was no great hardship, but the gold-seekers had to suffer it over and over again. For no man was allowed across the border into Canada without enough provisions to maintain himself for a year—roughly a ton. It took the average man three months or more to shuttle his ton of goods across the pass and by that time the word “stampede,” which connotes a thundering herd running untrammeled across an open plain, seemed a cruel misnomer.
Whisky and silk, steamboats and pianos, live chickens and stuffed turkeys, timber and glassware, bacon and beans, all went over on men’s backs. If a man was too poor to hire a packer he climbed the pass forty times before he got his outfit across.
Every variety of the human species had a representative on the pass that year. On the one hand there was an English nobleman, fastidiously dressed in tweeds, with a valet who, in the late fall, fed him morsels of food while he reclined beneath a net to protect his skin from insects. On the other, there was Wilson Mizner, wit, bon vivant and gambler, who was later to become famous as a Broadway playwright and as the owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant. Mizner, who was scarcely old enough to vote, was the son of an aristocratic Californian family, a towering figure of a man who had already by his own account been a pimp and an opium smoker, as well as a crooner in the barrooms of »he Barbary Coast. Mizner’s ton of goods on the Chilkoot included
certain luxuries; his main item of baggage was a dance-hall girl from San Francisco named Rena Fargo.
Mizner was not so much interested in finding a gold mine as he was in finding a man who had already found a gold mine. Many of those who crossed the pass with him had the same idea although their methods were more legitimate. A newsboy struggled up the slopes with a sackful of old newspapers which he hoped to sell at high prices to miners starved for information. Another managed to lug a grindstone over the summit; it had occurred to him that by spring most of the picks in the Klondike would need sharpening. Some showed a profit long before they reached the gold fields. One woman brought a banjo over the Pass and paid her way by giving impromptu concerts as she went along. She wore a man's tweed coat and heavypants, but made one small concession to her femininity by carrying, under one arm, a fancy mirror.
Hard though the Chilkoot trail might be, it was marked by few of the natural disasters that characterized so many of the routes to the Klondike. The only real tragedy occurred on April 13, 1898. For two months a storm had been raging, making travel impossible on many days. The peaks were heavy with wet snow and the pass so treacherous that the experienced packers flatly refused to climb it.
In spite of their warnings, large numbers who had been fidgeting for weeks, unable to scale the mountains, took advantage of a lull in the storm to make for the summit. The first hint of impending tragedy came early on Sunday. A bent old man, groaning and waving his arms, hammered on the door of a restaurant owned by two partners. Joppe and Mueller, at the Scales, woke them from their Sabbath rest and cried out that several people had been buried alive by a snowslide up the trail. The two men roused a dozen others and these dug
frantically through ten feet of snow and succeeded in rescuing all but three. Now every person was thoroughly alarmed and a headlong race began for Sheep Camp, two miles below.
Higher still, in the mountains, the guttural rumble of avalanches could be heard. This lent wings to the retreat. Downward the lleeing men and women scrambled, staying close together in single file while clinging to a rope that had been strung along the way. They did not follow the main trail, but went by way of a parallel ravine which had long been considered treacherous by knowledgeable guides.
At noon it happened. One of the survivors, a man from Maine named J. A. Riñes, described his own feelings:
“All of a sudden I heard a loud report and instantly began to feel myself moving swiftly down the hill and, looking round, saw many others suddenly fall down, some with their feet in the air, their heads buried out of sight in the snow.” Riñes braced himself as best he could, kept to his feet and let himself be carried along. He was caught by the snow and buried instantly thirty feet deep.
The avalanche had tumbled from a peak twenty-five hundred feet above the trail. It covered ten acres to a depth of thirty feet. Within twenty minutes a thousand men from Sheep Camp were on the spot digging parallel trenches in an effort to locate the victims. The scene was a weird and terrible one. Small air holes sometimes appeared in the snow to mark the spot where a man or woman had been buried and, somewhere beneath them, the searchers could hear the muffled cries of the victims. Those who still lived beneath the snow (and only a few had been killed by the slide) could hear one another talking, and conversations were carried on between them. Relatives above called out their last goodbys to those entombed below. One old man could be heard alternately praying and cursing until his voice was stilled. But even the strongest could not move a muscle, for the snow was packed around them as tightly as cement.
As the hours wore on those who were not rescued at once slowly became anaesthetized by the carbon dioxide given off by their own breathing; they began to feel drowsy, and drifted off into a dreamless sleep from which few awoke. Their corpses were lifted out in the days that followed, many of them still in a running position, as if forever fleeing from the onrushing avalanche.
More than sixty perished. A handful were rescued alive, some of whom had been three hours under the snow. Four of them died later, but others, including Mueller and his partner Joppe, made extraordinary recoveries. Joppe’s was Lazarus-like in its drama. When he was lifted from his frozen tomb, apparently dead, his sweetheart, Vernie Woodward, was beside herself. She was a resilient young woman who had been packing on the pass since the previous summer, first carrying freight on her back like a man and later working with horses. Now all her surface masculinity was shucked off as she flung herself hysterically upon Joppe’s limp figure, begging him to return to her, manipulating his arms and legs, rubbing his back, breathing warm air into his lungs and crying and praying by turns. For three hours she continued in this manner while those around tried to drag her away. Then, to the stupefaction of all, Joppe suddenly opened his eyes and spoke her name and it was as if a dead man had miraculously come alive.
The bodies of the victims of the slide were buried in a little hollow in the
mountains not far from the scene of the disaster and even as the services were held, the long line of men resumed its inexorable grind across the mountains. When spring arrived the last stragglers following in the wake of the main wave of stampeders came upon the grisly spectacle of dozens of bloated corpses floating about on the surface of the water that had filled the hollow.
By now, the shores of the slender mountain lakes feeding the Yukon's headwaters were clotted with people. The two trails over the Chiikoot and White Basses, running almost parallel, ended at adjoining lakes; the Dyea trail at Lake Lindemann and the Skagway trail at larger Lake Bennett, a few miles below. Farther along lay Tagish Lake, and for sixty miles, more than thirty thousand men were strung out from Lindemaan to Tagish. hard at work building a fleet of more than seven thousand boats.
Facing each man was the supreme test of the stampede—the whip-sawing of green logs into dressed lumber. All along the lakeshore the raised platforms known as “sawpits” became crucibles in which tempers boiled, sputtered and exploded. Friendships that had withstood
When she acts aloof and cold,
Then, giving you your cue.
Asks "Will you love me when I’m old?" Don't tell her that you do.
P. J. Black« e'l
the strain of the terrible climb over the mountains snapped under the psychological tension of the jag-toothed whip-saw.
To produce the rough-dressed planks, the peeled logs were laid on top of scaffoldings (called saw-pits) and a line chalked down the sides. One man stood upon the platform and held the sixfoot saw vertically against the end of the log while his partner beneath grasped the lower handle. Together they were supposed to guide it along the line for the full length of the log, but it demanded a superhuman faith for each to believe the other was doing his full share of the work.
The cutting was done on the downward stroke only. The man above guided the saw' and pulled it up; and then the man below, watching the chalk line on the log, hauled it down again, letting its great hooked teeth bite into the green lumber. As he did this, he received a shower of sawdust in his eyes, and while he swore in his rage at the man above, he himself received a bitter tongue lashing for hanging on too tightly.
This backbreaking work played out the strongest after a few hours, and caused the end of hundreds of comradeships. No story of broken friendship is more heartbreaking than that of two bank clerks who came over the Chiikoot Bass that winter. They had been friends from childhood, had gone to school together and worked side by side in the same bank as youths. They became so inseparable that, rather than be parted from each other, they married sisters. Yet the whip-sawing turned them into enemies so insensate that when they decided to divide their outfits, they insisted on cutting everything exactly in half. So bitter and obdurate was their enmit. that rather than divide twenty sacks of flour into two piles of ten sacks each they persisted in sawing every sack in tw'o. Then each set off with his twenty
broken halves, the flour spilling away from the torn and useless containers.
On May 29. with a creak and a rumble, the ice began to move in the lower lakes and the great boat race was on. Within forty-eight hours, all the lakes were clear of ice and the whole freakish flotilla of 7.124 boats loaded with thirty million pounds of solid food was in motion. Out into the mint-green water the ungainly armada lazily drifted. Then as a slender breeze rippled down the mountain passageway and caught the sails, a tremor of excitement could be felt in each man’s heart as it quickened with the speed of his craft.
Off they sailed like miniature galleons, seeking the treasure that lay beyond the horizon's rim, the most bizarre fleet ever to navigate fresh water.
For five hundred miles they drifted thus until at last each in turn swung round a rocky bluff and saw spread before him a sight he would remember all his life. Roaring into the Yukon, from the right, was the Klondike River, of which he had heard so much. Beyond the river rose a scarred and tapering mountain. And at its feet, spilling into the surrounding hills and along the swampy flats and between the trees and
across the junction of the two rivers, were thousands of tents, shacks, cabins, caches, warehouses, half-erected hotels, false-faced saloons, screeching sawmills, markets, shops and houses of pleasure. Here in the midst of the encroaching wilderness, a thousand miles from no where, w'as a burgeoning metropolis. It seemed a little unreal, shimmering in the June heat, bathed in a halo of sunlight, blurred slightly at the edges by the mists that steamed from the marshes. The stampeders caught their breath, half expecting the whole phantom community to vanish, as in a dream. This was the goal they had set themselves; this w'as the finish of the long trail north: this was where the rainbow had its end.
They turned their boats toward the shore—a shore already thickly hedged by hundreds of other craft—-and they debarked, still in a daze, yet inwardly exultant at having, after long vicissitudes and much remorse and no little disillusion. set foot upon the threshold of the golden city.
Pierre Baton's story of the Klondike will continue next issue with un account of the violent life and the violent death of Soapy Smith, dictator of Skagway.