Canada // The North //

The Klondike gold rush


There was nothing quite like the delirium of the 1898 Klondike gold rush. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have left home for the region, the largest single one-year mass movement of people that century. About thirty thousand made it, with only four thousand finding some gold. A couple dozen of these made – and lost – huge fortunes.

The first to prospect near the Klondike River was dour Nova Scotian Robert Henderson, the very embodiment of the lone pioneer. In early 1896 he panned 8¢ worth of gold from a creek in the hills above present-day Dawson City. Considered an excellent return at the time, Henderson thought the creek would yield more and he panned out another $750 before returning downriver for supplies.

Henderson set about finding a route up the Klondike River to meet the creek he’d prospected. At the river’s mouth he met George Carmack and two of his aboriginal friends, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. Henderson told Carmack of his hopes, and then uttered the phrase that probably cost him a fortune: “There’s a chance for you George, but I don’t want any damn Siwashes [aboriginal people] staking on that creek.” Henderson wandered off, leaving Carmack to prospect a different set of creeks – the right ones, as it turned out. On August 16, Skookum Jim found $4 of gold on Bonanza Creek. The next day Carmack staked the first claim and rushed off to register the find as Henderson prospected almost barren ground over the hills. Two weeks later, all of Bonanza had been staked. Almost all the real fortunes had been secured by that winter, when the weather effectively sealed the region off.

In the spring of 1897, a thousand-odd miners from the West Coast arrived, drawn by vague rumours of a big find. The headlong rush followed the July 1897 docking of the Excelsior in San Francisco and the Portland in Seattle. Few sights could have been so stirring a proof of the riches up for grabs as that of battered Yukon miners coming down the gangplanks dragging bags, boxes and sacks literally bursting with gold. The Portland docked carrying two tonnes of gold – all taken from Klondike creeks by just a few miners. The rush was on.

Thousands embarked on trips that were to claim hundreds of lives. The most common route was to take a boat to Skagway, climb the dreaded Chilkoot Pass, pick up the Yukon River at Whitehorse and then sail 700km to Dawson City. The easiest and most expensive route lay by boat upstream from the mouth of the Yukon River in western Alaska. The most dangerous were the “All Canadian Route” from Edmonton and the overland trails through the northern wilderness.

The largest single influx came when the ice melted in May 1898 and a vast makeshift armada drifted down the Yukon River. For most it was to have been a fruitless journey, every inch of the creeks having long been staked – yet in most accounts it’s clear this was a rite of passage as much as a quest for wealth.

As for the gold, it’s the smaller details that hint at the scale of the rush: the miner’s wife who wandered the creek by her cabin picking nuggets from the water; the Great Depression destitutes who panned $40 a day from the dirt under Dawson’s boardwalks; the $1000 panned during the Orpheum Theatre’s rebuilding in the 1940s – all taken in a morning from under the floorboards where it had drifted fifty years before; or the $200 worth of dust panned nightly from a Dawson saloon’s beer mats in 1897.

By about 1899 the rush was over – not because the gold had run out, but because the most easily accessible nuggets had been taken from the creeks. It had been the making of Alaska, Edmonton sprang from almost nothing and Vancouver’s population doubled in a year. It was the first of a string of mineral discoveries in the Yukon and the far North, a region whose vast, untapped natural resources are increasingly the subject of attention from multinational corporations as rapacious and determined as their grizzled predecessors.

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