A Brief Gold Rush History
Native Use of the Area Before the Gold Rush
Most anthropologists consider that the area immediately surrounding the three Alaska units of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is the traditional territory of the Chilkoot division of the Tlingit Indians. Many consider that the Coast Mountains have served as the tribal barrier between the Coastal Tlingits and the inland Athapaskan ("Stick") tribes. Such a generalization is simplistic and only partially valid.
At the time of European contact, the Tlingit Indians occupied most of what is now southeastern Alaska. Only the Haida and Tsimshian shared the region. The Tlingits' territory stretched from the Canadian-U.S. border near Prince Rupert, north along the coast to the Yakutat area.  The Tlingits were almost entirely a coastal people. The only exception was a small but widespread group of Inland Tlingits which centered around present-day Teslin, Yukon Territory and Atlin, British Columbia.
Local Natives have different interpretations of the subdivisions within the Tlingit population. Some feel that the Chilkoot Indians, which formed the primary group to visit the Park area prior to the gold rush period, are a subdivision within the Chilkat tribe, and that the Chilkats occupy all of the Lynn Canal area. Many Chilkoots, however, consider themselves to be distinct from the Chilkat tribe. According to them, their tribe populated Dei-shu, Chilkoot, Dyea and other villages east of the ridge line of the Chilkat Peninsula. Chilkats, on the other hand, lived in Chilkat, Klukwan, and other villages west of the ridge.
The area in and around the Park was relatively lightly populated by the local Natives. At Dyea, there probably existed a small fishing and hunting camp--possibly permanent but more likely seasonal--near the mouth of the Taiya River. The Taiya and Nourse River valleys were used by Natives in pursuit of goats, bear and other game. Little evidence remains of their long occupation. In the early 1980s, investigators turned up three pre-contact aboriginal sites, each being small midden mounds, on a hill overlooking Dyea. Then, in the mid-1990s, archeologists located several rock shelters on the hill between Sheep Camp and the Scales; one, perhaps all, were used decades before Europeans began traversing the trail. 
Windswept Skagway was used less often than the Dyea area. Pioneers settling at the mouth of the Skagway River reported evidences of only an occasional camp site, fox and bear deadfall traps, and axe blazes on trees.  Goats were found in Skagway Valley as well, but no evidence suggests that Natives hunted up the valley. Individual Natives, most notably James "Skookum Jim" Mason, travelled up the valley and over White Pass; so few traversed the route, however, that no trail existed until the gold rush period. 
North of Chilkoot Pass, the inland tribes exercised a de facto if timid hegemony. The Tagish tribe was encountered immediately north of the pass. Until 1900, the primary Tagish settlement was Tagish village, along the waterway between Tagish and Marsh lakes; due to the activity surrounding railroad construction, most of the village's inhabitants moved to Carcross shortly after the turn of the century. North of Tagish country was the homeland of the southern and northern Tutchone Indians; north of these tribes, surrounding the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, lived the Han Indians.
During the historical period, the boundaries of the various tribal regions have proven rather elastic. The coastal Tlingit often invaded Tagish and Tutchone territory as part of their trading expeditions.  During the fifteen years leading up to the gold rush, and particularly during the rush itself, Natives from a wide radius converged on the passes, particularly Chilkoot Pass. For the first time the Tagish and Inland Tlingit invaded coastal Tlingit territory. Moreover, competing bands of Tlingits--the Taku, Auk, Sitka, and other groups--flocked into Chilkoot territory. After the flurry of activity subsided, most Natives returned to their ancestral villages. 
Before contact, the Tlingits were a highly organized, warlike, sophisticated people. Their diet was based largely on salmon, and to a lesser extent on halibut, herring, cod and other fish and shellfish. They also availed themselves of the rich forest wildlife: deer, bear, ptarmigan, goose and duck. Eulachon oil, herring eggs and seaweed rounded out their diet. 
The Tlingits used the local timber for many products central to their lifestyle. Many Tlingits lived in substantial log houses; some were erected for the use of individual families, while others were intended for communal village use. Others dwelled in large, earth-covered barabaras, which featured a small piece of hide which served as a door. The local timber was also molded into canoes that served both river and ocean travel. Those used for hunting and fishing were generally small, from eight to twenty feet in length. Their finest canoes, however, were reserved for wartime. These craft were up to fifty feet in length, and often carried from forty to fifty men. 
Tlingits were well-known carvers of totems. Coastal Tlingits created them for a variety of uses: to display a debt, to bury the dead or to commemorate any sort of special occasion. The northern Tlingit tribes generally avoided large totems, preferring to erect house poles instead. 
The Tagish, by contrast, were a peaceful people who led a simpler life than that of the Tlingits. Their lake-based resources, while seasonally bountiful, were less abundant than that available to the coastal Indians, and the interior winters were more severe. Thus the Tagish villages were relatively small, as was, indeed, the entire Tagish population. 
Like the coastal Tlingits, the Tagish depended on salmon, but the lack of salmon in much of their territory caused them to include other fish species (whitefish, trout and ling cod) as equally important parts of their diet. The Tagish hunted woodchuck, caribou, moose and sheep. Their lineage houses at Tagish village were timbered and relatively substantial. Their seasonal fish camps, however, sported relatively rude, temporary brush or skin shelters. So far as is known, the Tagish travelled south to Lindeman Lake and southern Bennett Lake only on occasional fishing forays, and did not establish regular seasonal camps south of present-day Carcross. 
The local Chilkoots were inveterate traders. Before the arrival of the first Europeans, they maintained a sophisticated, complex trading network with inland tribes. Using the Chilkoot Trail as the point of passage, the Chilkoots visited Tagish fish camps on an annual basis. 
A variety of goods flowed over the trail. Northward went eulachon oil, wooden boxes, dried clams, seaweed, and other marine products. In exchange, the Tagish traded ground-squirrel robes, tanned moose and caribou hides, and the lichen dyes and goat wool needed for Chilkat blankets.  Such trading had gone on for hundreds of years before European contact began. The trading process was often unfair to the Tagish; the sophisticated, warlike Tlingits often intimidated and took advantage of their inland neighbors.
The Tagish, though bested by the coastal Tlingit, were superior traders to the other inland tribes. They served as middlemen between the Tlingits and the northern Tutchone tribes who lived along the upper Pelly River. The Tagish demanded high prices for trade goods from their northern neighbors. The Tagish also served as guides for Tlingits who ventured north to the Han country. 
Chilkoot Pass remained the lifeline of the trading network throughout the long pre-contact period. The Tlingits, to be sure, formed trading networks through other passes--Chilkat Pass, the Taku and Stikine rivers--to inland tribes.  The Chilkoot, however, was the primary route to the vast drainage of the Yukon River.
Because eulachon oil was a primary ingredient carried over the pass, the route was colloquially known as the "grease trail" by early European groups. As the dominant power in the area, the bellicose Tlingits controlled passage over the Chilkoot, and warned inland tribes that dire consequences would befall any who attempted to cross over to the coast by the Chilkoot or any other route. 
It is not known how long the Chilkoot Trail witnessed Native use. Pre-contact Native artifacts related to trail use have yet to be found. It is conservatively estimated that the trail was used for two hundred years before initial European contact. 
Before being improved in the mid-1890s, the Chilkoot was a rough, rugged route. South of the Nourse River junction, it crossed the Taiya River several times, and followed its bank much of the rest of the way. North of the river junction, a narrow trail was perched over the Taiya River gorge. Between the canyon and Stone House, the trail crossed the river several more times, and as it neared Stone House often disappeared in jumbles of boulders. Above that point the trail, then as now, coursed over open expanses of rock and snow on its way to the summit.  Despite the trail's difficulties, however, the traders who used it negotiated the trail rather quickly, often covering the twenty-seven miles between tidewater and the lakes in one or two days. When necessary, they bivouacked in the open or under a rock, wrapping themselves in few blankets or none at all. 
When the Russians became established at Sitka around 1800, they brought with them a new culture, certain elements of which spread into the hinterland. While no Russians crossed or even approached Chilkoot Pass, they made their influence felt to the Tlingits and neighboring Native groups. The Russian demand for animal pelts soon depleted the supplies available in southeastern Alaska. The Chilkoot Indians capitalized on this disparity by serving as middlemen between the Russians and the interior tribes, the latter being able to provide a continuing supply to the Tlingit traders. 
The Chilkoots' possession of the rights of passage over the pass was a linchpin to their power base, so they guarded the pass jealously. They likewise regarded settlement in the vicinity with alarm. When Hudson's Bay traders established Fort Selkirk, 200 miles to the north, in June 1848, hostilities increased. The British-sponsored company was well aware of the pass; the post leader, via Chilkat traders, even sent a letter out over it shortly after he established the post. But the warlike Tlingits became so incensed at this infringement into their trading territory that they plundered and sacked the fort in August 1852. 
As European exploration continued, the settlement that followed brought increasingly strong pressure into the Chilkoot Pass area. The Russians, which had remained on the lower Yukon in the early 19th century, reached the mouth of the Tanana in 1861. Two years later they paddled up to the mouth of the Porcupine. There they confirmed long-swirling rumors when they observed that the Hudson's Bay Company had, quite illegally, established Fort Yukon at the site 16 years before. 
In the early 1870s, the upper river began to open up when prospector-traders Arthur Harper, Jack McQuesten and Al Mayo wandered into the country from the southeast. They set up Fort Reliance, near the mouth of the Klondike River.  This isolated, temporary post posed no threat to the Tlingit's empire. But a series of small placer deposits were found in the Yukon drainage shortly after the trio became established, and their many letters Outside excited the Pacific Coast mining fraternity.  The days of Native hegemony over the Yukon country were beginning to draw to a close.
South of Chilkoot Pass, a similarly slow but inexorable growth took place. While the English knew the Lynn Canal country as early as the 1790s, neither they nor the Russians who settled at Sitka lingered in the area.  Tlingit intimidation held prospective Russian traders at arm's length. Hudson's Bay traders had slightly better luck; they crept up Lynn Canal to Chilkat Indian village by 1830 but dared go no farther. They continued to trade there for the next half century. 
After the Russians sold Alaska to the Americans in 1867, American naval vessels patrolled the area on an occasional basis. The first known excursion into the area, an 1869 venture under Commander Richard Meade, penetrated all the way to the mouth of the Taiya River. 
As in the interior, initial attempts at finding gold proved elusive. Only small finds, near Sitka, took place during the 1870s, but huge strikes at Juneau and Douglas in 1880-1882 attracted thousands. Miners and adventurers fanned out in all directions in search of a new strike. 
Missionaries into the newfound country located a Presbyterian reserve at Haines in 1879 or 1880, and two salmon canneries were erected near Chilkat village by 1883. The advancing tide of civilization produced abundant trade goods for the Tlingit middlemen who controlled the bastions of the Chilkoot, but forced them to redouble their vigilance to keep others away from the key trade route. 
The Tlingit domination of the pass, and of its interior neighbors, was so complete that most Tagish had little knowledge of the area. As suggested above, several of the Tagish--Skookum Jim among them--had apparently crossed over to the coast, but their fear of retribution from the dominant Tlingits was such that they typically feigned ignorance of route specifics. 
Beginning in the mid-1870s, scattered parties of white miners attempted, on their own, to ascend Chilkoot Pass. One by one they were turned away. Remarkably, however, at least one prospector slipped past the Tlingits and over the Chilkoot. George Holt ascended the mountain ramparts in 1872, 1874 or 1875.  Descending the chain of lakes to the north end of Marsh Lake, Holt crossed the eastern ridge to the Teslin drainage. He found (or was given) some "coarse gold" in the area. He then returned to the coast by the same route. He travelled on to Sitka and, exhibiting the nuggets, invited others into the new region. 
Holt's furtive trip to the Teslin country awakened the local miners to the possibilities of gold, and to details surrounding the long-desired route over the Coast Mountains. Not surprisingly, the miners reacted to the news by applying pressure to have the blockade broken. Capt. Lester A. Beardslee, the de facto governor of Alaska at the time, helped open the pass by taking advantage of internecine warfare among the northern Tlingit. Through an intermediary, he played the role of peacemaker. In return for the safe passage of miners over the pass, Beardslee promised to send over a number of duly-deputized Chilkat policemen to restore order, and also promised to implement any other support necessary to preserve the peace in the northern Tlingit country. He further agreed to a demand that the miners "acquit themselves as becomes orderly, sober, reasonable men," and that they not carry "spirituous liquor...into the Indian country for purposes of trade or barter with the natives." The peace offer was accepted. The Sitka-based policemen visited the warring factions early in the winter of 1879-1880, and returned in February 1880 with a formal invitation to cross Chilkoot Pass. 
In May 1880 a party of 19, led by Edmund Bean, headed up to Chilkat village with a naval escort. Final negotiations opening the pass were completed without delay, and the party climbed the pass, arriving at Lindeman Lake on June 17. The Tlingits, who had been packing trade goods over the trail for years, began a lucrative new industry when they switched to carrying the equipment and supplies of miners. In this trade they continued their domination over the inland tribes. They generally refused to allow interior Indians to work as packers, and to a large extent refused all access to the coast.  Tagish packers, however, were known to be used in both 1883 and 1887. Indeed, one traveller witnessed a camp of "Stick Indians" at Dyea in 1883. During the 1880-1897 period, however, relatively few interior Natives broke the Chilkoot stranglehold. 
Bean and his party had little gold to show for their 1880 prospecting venture, but scattered finds soon began to be reported. An 1881 party located scattered "colors" along the Big Salmon River; by the following year, miners were sufficiently optimistic about the country to winter in the interior with traders McQuesten, Harper and Mayo. After 1883, the numbers heading over the pass consistently increased as reports of interior riches began to spread. 
Most of those who crossed over the Chilkoot divide in the two decades before the rush were quiet, self-effacing men whose activities and even identities have been largely forgotten. Two such groups, however, were well known to outsiders. The first was the Frederick Schwatka expedition of 1883. The second was the 1887 expedition of William Ogilvie. Both of these exploring parties added enormously to the geographical knowledge of the Yukon country, and brought publicity to the region as well as to the expedition leaders.
Lt. Schwatka, operating under the orders of Gen. Nelson Miles, launched an overall geographical and strategic survey of the Yukon interior. His task was to report on the number of Indians, their way of life, and their attitudes toward various European powers. He was also to study the terrain, how to sustain a military force in the territory, and the extent of native grasses capable of supporting Army stock. Finally, his summer excursion was sent to investigate "the severity of the winters, and any other information that would be important to the military service."  Considering the budget allotted to the expedition, the orders were tall indeed. As it turned out, Schwatka and his six crew members were given "far less money ... to conduct it through its long journey than was afterwards appropriated by Congress to publish its report." 
Because of opposition to the venture both inside and outside the War Department, a veil of secrecy surrounded expedition planning and execution. On May 22, 1883, the group "stole away like a thief in the night" from Vancouver Barracks, Washington Territory. Schwatka took the fleet coaler Victoria to Pyramid Harbor, near Haines Mission; he then continued to Dyea, where the hike over the Chilkoot began. Hiring a team of Chilkat, Chilkoot and Tagish packers, he left on June 8. He proceeded only four miles each of his first two days; the third day he reached Stone House, near timberline. On June 11 he crossed the divide, which he named Perrier Pass, and arrived at Lindeman Lake. He then built a raft that took the party across the lake, through the rapids to Bennett Lake and continued on down the Yukon River. 
Four years later, the Canadian government sponsored the George M. Dawson expedition. Alarmed at continuing reports of gold in the Yukon interior and the predominant American nationality of the miners, the Geological Survey of Canada sent several parties to explore the country and determine the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. Dawson himself headed into the Cassiar country, while fellow leader Richard McConnell explored the Stikine River basin. William Ogilvie was assigned to cross Chilkoot Pass and fix a boundary, then to float down the Yukon to the 141st meridian, where he was to mark another boundary line. 
To carry out his task, Ogilvie left Victoria on May 13. Eleven days later, he arrived at Haines Mission aboard the Steamer Ancon. Transferring his goods to flatboats towed by the gunboat Pinta, he continued up the Taiya Inlet to Dyea, and on June 6 headed up the trail with 120 Chilkoot packers. Because his packers deserted him atop Chilkoot Pass, it took him over a week to bring the expedition's goods over to Lindeman Lake. 
While in Juneau, Ogilvie had heard rumors of another pass across the Coast Mountains near the Chilkoot. To investigate the validity of the rumors, Ogilvie dispatched one of his party, 65-year-old "Captain" William Moore, to search for it. To accompany him Ogilvie chose Skookum Jim, a husky Tagish Indian. The two canoed over from Dyea to the mouth of the Skagway River, then began their trek up the trackless valley. After three days of climbing they reached the drainage divide; a week later, the two rejoined Ogilvie at Lindeman Lake. 
The two found that the alternate route confirmed earlier rumors of a lower if longer way to the lakes. Ogilvie, recognizing the expedition's ultimate sponsor, named the new summit White Pass in honor of Thomas White, Canadian Minister of the Interior. Moore, captivated by the possibilities of the pass, envisioned it as a primary route to the interior. He predicted that, as mineral development inevitably progressed, a road and eventually a railroad would be constructed through the pass. Moore decided, then and there, to play a role in the region's development.
The Ogilvie party remained at Lindeman Lake constructing boats until July 11. It then began floating down the Yukon River. On August 12, near the confluence of the Pelly, Moore caught sight of Bernard, his son, poling upriver with four others. Moore then left Ogilvie's party, he and Bernard heading back up the Yukon. Ogilvie continued downstream and set up a base camp at the 141st meridian; the Moores made a heroic trip back to Chilkoot Pass and on to Dyea. Exhausted and close to starvation, the Moores reached Dyea on September 7. They stayed and recuperated at John J. Healy and Edgar Wilson's trading post, which had been established in the old Indian camp during the spring or summer of the previous year. 
Once rested, Moore acted on his dream. The two proceeded down to Juneau, and after getting resupplied they canoed back to Skagway Bay. They arrived there on October 20, 1887, and immediately began to establish a 160-acre homestead just above the high tide line. They spent three weeks at the site that fall and an additional two months the following spring and summer. By that time, they had not only laid out the homestead but erected a cabin and started work on a wharf. 
The two decades before the Klondike strike witnessed many gold discoveries, but two major finds spurred traffic over the Chilkoot. In September 1886, two prospectors made a rich strike near the mouth of Fortymile Creek, near the 141st meridian, and for the next several years the Fortymile diggings were the richest in the interior.  Then, in the fall of 1893, two Russian half-breeds located gold in paying quantities on Birch Creek in American territory, and the rush to Circle City was on. Although the latter camp was sufficiently far downriver that many reached it via St. Michael, the route over Chilkoot Pass was both shorter and less expensive. As a general rule, miners came into the country in the spring via the Chilkoot, and left in the late summer on a St. Michael-bound steamboat. By the 1896 season, several thousand miners were scattered throughout the Yukon basin, ranging from the Teslin drainage to Circle City and beyond. 
Gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, on August 16, 1896. At the time, few prospected in the Klondike drainage, and only meager results had been obtained by those who had. One of the most dogged of these was Robert Henderson, who had found small amount of "color" on several creeks. By the summer of 1896, Henderson had been in the area for two years, and was working a claim on Gold Bottom Creek, fifteen miles from the mouth of the Klondike. 
Skookum Jim, the Tagish Indian who had accompanied William Moore over White Pass nine years before, was the first to locate the pay dirt that commenced the gold rush. Jim had spent much of the time since 1887 in the company of Dawson Charlie and George Carmack. The three were relatives; Jim was Charlie's uncle, and Carmack, a white prospector from California, was married to Jim's sister. On August 14, the three were in the Klondike drainage, meandering west from Gold Bottom Creek. Jim killed a moose near Rabbit Creek that afternoon, then went to the creek for a drink. There he saw many golden flakes in the shallow waters. Excited as he must have been, he calmly butchered the moose, then showed the gold to his two partners.  Upon seeing the size of their discovery, the three celebrated. They then spent the next two days perusing the creek for the most valuable deposits. Carmack, arguing that an Indian would not be allowed to record a discovery claim, stepped off the largest claim for himself, and secured an adjacent claim besides. His companions took the land on either side. 
Word spread quickly of the discovery. Within a fortnight the creek, renamed Bonanza, was staked from one end to the other, and a nearby side stream, called "Bonanza's pup" in the parlance of the day, was quickly staked and renamed Eldorado when its potential riches were revealed. Before long other nearby creeks, notably Hunker and Gold Bottom, were similarly staked. Word of the discovery spread excitedly up and down the valley, and by Christmas many of the roughly 3,000 miners in the Yukon Valley had deserted their diggings and converged on the Klondike and its tributaries. 
Word to the Outside, however, leaked more slowly. William Ogilvie, the Canadian government surveyor stationed in Fortymile, dutifully reported the goings-on to his superiors in Ottawa, but such a report received scant popular attention.  The coming of winter, already imminent in the earliest stages of the rush, made communications with the Outside exceedingly difficult for the next eight months. Among the miners, however, the news inevitably leaked out, causing considerable if skeptical interest in cities along the west coast. In response the spring rush, which had been growing in force for years, was far larger than was ever seen before. The City of Mexico left Seattle with over 600 stampeders on March 25, and for two months afterwards every ship leaving for Alaska was crowded with prospectors. 
In mid-July, "Klondike fever" struck with full fury. Two ships steamed from the mouth of the Yukon River to the west coast of the United States. The Excelsior arrived in San Francisco on the evening of July 14; three days later, the Portland pulled into Seattle's Schwabacher Wharf. Between the two ships, miners from the Yukon country brought with them more than three tons of gold. The west coast, and soon much of the world, went mad over the news. Thousands dropped everything to head toward an area that few had even heard of and only a handful knew well. 
The lack of knowledge engendered a spate of guidebooks, some of which proved relatively authoritative. Others, however, were almost entirely worthless. To prepare for the trip north, guidebooks urged that prospective stampeders be equipped with a wide array of foodstuffs, clothing, construction tools and other equipment. Such "Yukon outfits" usually cost from $500 to $700 and weighed between 1000 and 2000 pounds. 
The sale of these outfits and all the other services required by the stampeders provoked an intense rivalry among the various port cities of the west coast. San Francisco, Portland, Astoria, Tacoma, Seattle, Port Townsend, Victoria and Vancouver all vied for the Klondike-bound traffic. Most Canadians headed north from the latter two ports. American prospectors, at first, had no particular preference. San Francisco, which had been the major entrepôt to Alaska for decades, attracted much of the initial rush. But as "Klondike fever" raged over the next few months, a well-orchestrated campaign by Erastus Brainerd and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce paid off. Using a variety of innovative promotional techniques, Brainerd almost single-handedly pushed Seattle into a position as the pre-eminent American port to Alaskan points, a position it still maintains. 
The first prospectors headed north up the Inside Passage within a week of the epic announcement. Because of the prevailing ignorance surrounding the gold fields, however, prospectors chose many different routes. Due to historical usage, most guidebooks recommended either the Chilkoot Pass route or the long river route by way of St. Michael (see Map 2). Recent publicity surrounding the White Pass, however, convinced many to head toward the mouth of the Skagway River, even though the trail up the valley was largely untested. 
Shadier promoters promulgated other routes. Civic development groups and steamship captains seized on the rush as an excellent moneymaking opportunity, and many of this element put profit in a more important position than the welfare of their patrons. The Edmonton route, for instance, was an untried 2,000-mile overland slog that broke the fortunes of hundreds before they turned back. A similar trail, almost as long and just as hopeless, wound north out of Ashcroft, B.C. Both routes appealed to Canadians who wished to stay within their borders. Two other routes that remained almost entirely in Canada were the Stikine River route, via Wrangell, and the Taku River route via Juneau. Both routes proved long and arduous; few stampeders reached the gold fields by either route. 
American promoters were just as zealous and perhaps even less morally inclined than their Canadian counterparts. Several advertised an "all-American route to the Klondike," a preposterous statement at best, although many erroneously felt that the gold fields lay in Alaska. Steamship captains with more marketing skill than good judgment sent many to ludicrously isolated areas. Some were sent to the Cook Inlet country, others were dropped off at Valdez and asked to march over a glacier, still others were marooned on a beach near the Malaspina Glacier and were pointed in the direction of high mountain passes to reach the Klondike. All of these luckless stampeders met with grim disappointment, and many with death, from these ill-advised ventures.  Even the supposedly easy "rich man's route," which went up the Yukon River from St. Michael, was so poorly implemented that most who opted for it were forced to spend the winter along the river. 
By the winter and spring of 1898, when the majority of the stampeders headed north, the Chilkoot and White Pass routes had emerged as pre-eminent, and an estimated ninety percent of all stampeders used one or the other.  The Chilkoot Pass, used for centuries by the Chilkoot Indians, had been improved for pack animals as far as Sheep Camp in 1895. The trail was in relatively good shape; the only improvements needed during the early stages of the gold rush were the addition of log bridges and short sections of corduroy road. 
Travelers on the Chilkoot Trail in 1897 departed from the beach at the mouth of the Taiya River. For the next two miles the trail followed the river's west bank through the rapidly developing town of Dyea and past Healy and Wilson's trading post. A mile north of Healy and Wilson's, the trail crossed the river then continued through the level riparian floodplain for six miles. Near the point where river navigation became impractical, the trail again crossed to the west side and continued another two miles to Canyon City. A small bridge afforded a third crossing leading to a short, steep ascent taking stampeders along a trail overlooking the deep, narrow Taiya River canyon. The trail perched on a bench along the canyon's east wall for another two miles before dropping back to the water's edge. Crossing the river a fourth time, the trail followed close to the river for the next three miles to Sheep Camp. Although the trail rose and fell numerous times between Dyea and Sheep Camp, the net elevation gain was less than 1,000 feet over the fifteen mile distance. 
After Sheep Camp, the trail began to climb in earnest as the traveller started up Long Hill. In slightly over a mile, timberline was reached near Stone House. Thereafter the trail steepened even more, and 1-1/2 miles later the end of Long Hill brought the traveller to the Scales, the "foot of the summit." The Scales was only a half mile from the top of the pass, but it was 900 feet lower. An exhausting climb up an exposed 35-degree slope separated the two points. Chilkoot Pass, despite its name, was hardly a pass at all; rather, it was a slight notch in the towering Coast Mountains.
Once the pass was crested, a short, steep dropoff brought the stampeder to Crater Lake, at the headwaters of the Yukon River system. The 1897 trail took stampeders around the east side of the lake, but many rented boats to haul their supplies across. A stairstep of lakes followed: Morrow Lake, Long Lake and Deep Lake. Trails wound around each of them, but in most cases entrepreneurs with boats were available to carry freight. Ten miles north of the pass, the trail descended to Lindeman Lake. Many stampeders built their boats here; others crossed the seven-mile lake or circled its east end, then climbed over the low ridge separating it from Bennett Lake. 
The White Pass Trail, like the Chilkoot, evolved from a rude path to an improved thoroughfare during the short span of the gold rush. When the first stampeders stormed ashore at Skagway in July 1897, a narrow, tortuous path connected Skagway Bay with the summit of White Pass. Within a few weeks, however, traffic up the trail so overwhelmed its capacity that it soon became an impassible morass of rocks, roots and mud. Trail blockages became the rule rather than the exception, and horses and other beasts died by the hundreds. The Trail of 1897 soon became world famous as the "Dead Horse Trail."
The trail faced by the earliest stampeders was first blazed in February 1895 by a small party of California prospectors, and improved under the direction of Captain Moore in the spring of 1897.  The Dead Horse Trail started on the east side of the valley. A mile north of Skagway Bay, it crossed the Skagway River on a rude bridge and continued north for another mile before climbing up to Black Lake. The trail wound along the steep western slope of Skagway Valley to Porcupine Creek; it then climbed over infamous Porcupine Hill before slowly descending to the Skagway River, ten miles north of Lynn Canal. The trail then followed the Skagway River for two miles to the river's confluence with the White Pass Fork. The White Pass City tent camp was located near the confluence at 1,300 feet above sea level. The trail thereafter steepened considerably. Roughly paralleling the White Pass Fork, the trail climbed 1,900 feet to the summit in just four miles. The 1897 trail summit was approximately a mile east of the present railroad summit. 
The brawling port towns of Skagway and Dyea fed never-ending streams of stampeders onto the two trails. Skagway, only a homestead before July 1897, quickly metamorphosed into a ramshackle tent town and boasted a wide variety of businesses. The town quickly overwhelmed the holdings of Captain Moore. He protested--to no avail--but grew wealthy from his sawmill, dock and other businesses. The town began as a chaotically-arranged tent camp, but within weeks hastily-erected wooden buildings had been thrown up along the southern reaches of the White Pass Trail. By the onset of winter a grid pattern of streets, surveyed by Frank Reid, was imposed over the random scatter of tents and shacks. Soon a downtown area emerged between Fourth and Sixth Avenues and between Broadway and Main Streets, and the air of a civilized if rustic community began to prevail. By June 1898, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people lived in and around Skagway. 
Dyea grew in much the same way as Skagway. A trading post and tent camp before the gold rush, Dyea witnessed hectic activity during the summer and fall of 1897 as hordes of stampeders trooped north. Most, however, had disembarked from Inside Passage steamers in Skagway, and had little reason to linger in the rival port. During October 1897 a downtown grid, five blocks wide and seven blocks long, replaced the former riverside path that had formerly constituted the southern end of the Chilkoot Trail. Dyea witnessed little business activity, however, until January 1898, when a renewed migration of stampeders brought boom times to the settlement. By April, Dyea had become a boisterous, transient aggregation of some 4,000 to 5,000 souls. The town boasted some 200 businesses, most of which were taverns, restaurants, hotels and supply houses. 
Both towns, situated as they were on the margins of civilized society, soon became hotbeds of criminal activity. As one writer phrased it, Skagway was "conceived in lawlessness and nurtured in anarchy," while Dyea, not to be outdone, carried on an equally sinful if less infamous existence.  The two towns offered only a meager law enforcement apparatus. They shared a series of ineffective deputy marshals, and their first commissioner was more interested in financial gain than in the administration of evenhanded justice.  The two towns were typical of frontier communities in that they attracted more than the usual share of toughs, scoundrels and other persons of low character. The result was what eventually became a well-organized criminal network, bent on taking every possible advantage of the incoming prospectors. Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, a con-man from Colorado, arrived in Skagway in October 1897, and by late January had assumed effective control of the town's underworld. Through the first six months of 1898, Smith's status steadily increased, and by July 4 he was widely recognized as the "uncrowned king of Skagway." Little was done without his knowledge or consent. 
Soon after the first ships arrived, an enormous rivalry developed between Dyea and Skagway. Both vied to be the primary port town, and loudly advertised their advantages while vilifying conditions in other areas. In the summer and fall of 1897, Dyea appeared to have the upper hand in the contest; it was better known, it was included in the gold rush guidebooks, and the Chilkoot Trail was recognized as being the superior route to the interior. Skagway, however, soon gained the upper hand because its port was superior to that of Dyea. By November 1897, Skagway boasted three docks by which ship captains could unload goods and passengers quickly and cheaply. Dyea, on the other hand, offered a harbor that dropped off at such a slight gradient that the only effective way to reach the high tide line was by lighter or canoe. Given the difficulties of transferring their goods across Taiya Inlet, many opted for the Trail of 1897 despite its acknowledged faults. Skagway thus ironically benefited in two ways: first, it was easily accessible by water, and second, the difficulties in leaving town encouraged its commercial development. 
A tragic event that tipped the scales in Skagway's favor was a massive avalanche that thundered down onto the Chilkoot Trail on April 3, 1898. Several snowslides descended that Palm Sunday, the largest of which began on the east slope of Long Hill, less than a mile south of the Scales. Together, the slides killed an estimated 65 stampeders. Publicity from the slide caused thousands to reconsider a trip over the Chilkoot, and cast a pall of gloom over the area for weeks to come. 
During the winter of 1897-98, a number of towns and camps sprang up along the Chilkoot Trail. Five miles north of Dyea, a transient tent camp was established at Finnegan's Point. In September 1897, seventy-five were camped at the site. Canyon City sprang up at the north end of the Taiya River valley, and by the spring of 1898 its tents and shacks supported over a thousand stampeders. Pleasant Camp, a roadhouse and camp, was established just north of the Taiya River canyon. The largest trail settlement south of Chilkoot Pass, Sheep Camp, grew from two stores in the late summer of 1897 to a mile-long tent city, 8,000 strong, the following spring. The Scales similarly grew in the spring of 1898 to a cluster of over twenty businesses, but the site was so raw and exposed that stampeders erected few tents there. 
Most stampeders hauled their goods directly from the summit to Lindeman Lake. Because of the heavy snow cover--a reported seventy feet of snow fell at the summit during the winter of 1897-98--stampeders carried their packs or dragged their sleds directly over the string of lakes north of the pass. Because of the downhill slope and the relative ease of transportation, only small settlements were established between the summit and the southern end of Lindeman Lake. There were one or two restaurants at Crater Lake, and short-term camps cropped up at Happy Camp, both ends of Long Lake, and at Deep Lake. 
Large settlements were located at Lindeman and Bennett lakes. They grew quickly through the winter, and just before breakup in May 1898 huge tent towns, housing an estimated 10,000 stampeders apiece, were clustered around the southern end of both lakes. Scattered camps were found along the entire shoreline of both lakes, particularly in bays and coves. Some camped as far north as the Windy Arm portion of Tagish Lake. 
In the Skagway area, the winter of 1897-98 similarly brought changes. The Dead Horse Trail, bad as it may have been, was mercifully short-lived. With the onset of winter, traffic soon dropped off, and by December freezing temperatures allowed stampeders to clamber up the frozen bed of the Skagway River. 
Meanwhile, capitalist George Brackett started building a wagon road to overcome the difficulties of the Dead Horse Trail. A former mayor of Minneapolis, Brackett was one of several Skagway businessmen that promoted a wagon route over the mountains. During the fall of 1897, however, his collaborators slowly fell by the wayside. Undaunted, Brackett himself shouldered the financial and technical burden of constructing the road.  Despite delays brought about by weather and poor financing, initial work progressed quickly. Commencing on November 8, the first four miles were completed in fifteen days, and an additional four miles were almost ready by mid-December. 
However, he lacked a bridge across the East Fork of the Skagway River. The road--part gravel, part corduroy--was completed to White Pass City and opened to traffic in early March. Without a bridge, however, traffic continued up the frozen river bed.  The long-awaited bridge was finally installed in mid-April, and with the river breaking up the majority of White Pass traffic began to flow over the newly-completed road. Brackett fully intended to continue his wagon road to the summit and beyond, but a lack of financing forced a halt just north of White Pass City. North of that point, however, he added minimal improvements as far as the summit. He installed toll gates at both ends of his road, as well as at several intermediate points. 
Camps and tent cities appeared along the various Skagway Valley trails, just as along the Chilkoot. But because the White Pass Route carried fewer people--an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 during that first winter, compared with 25,000 to 30,000 for the Chilkoot--camps were smaller and spread farther apart. In the summer of 1897, the Liarsville tent camp sprang up at the base of the hill to Black Lake. Only scattered, small clusters of tents were found farther up the trail. The only sizable tent clusters were located at the base of Porcupine Hill and at White Pass City. 
By the spring of 1898, the Liarsville camp had disappeared. In its stead were a series of temporary construction camps along the Brackett Road, and occasional stations for the major packers. On the upper trail two camps appeared. The Ford was a short-term camp located halfway between White Pass City and the summit, and an additional camp grew where the Brackett Wagon Road, and later the railroad, crossed over the summit. White Pass City, which served as a primary railroad camp as well as the Brackett Wagon Road terminus, was probably the largest White Pass Trail camp between Skagway and Bennett Lake. 
The rapid influx of stampeders into the area, and the tremendous demand for carrying goods across the passes, engendered a wide variety of technological ideas from incipient capitalists. On the Chilkoot side, early ideas centered around the construction of a wharf in Dyea. The Skaguay Wharf and Improvement Company planned a small dock on the west side of Lynn Canal just south of Dyea, but the idea never got past the proposal stage.  Shortly afterwards, however, the Dyea-Klondike Transportation (DKT) Company completed a dock three miles southwest of the gold rush port, and blasted out a rough wagon road that connected the dock with downtown Dyea. The dock opened in mid-February 1898. It was sparingly used, however, because of its poor construction and because of the difficulty in negotiating the wagon road. A far more substantial dock was constructed over the next few months. Called the Dyea Wharf, Kinney Wharf or Long Wharf, it stretched across the tidal flats south of downtown Dyea. The shallow dropoff, which required that the dock be over 7,500 feet long, delayed the opening of the dock until mid-May. By the time it opened the gold rush had largely run its course, and as a result the dock was seldom used. Most stampeders continued to come ashore on scows, canoes and lighters. 
To move freight most efficiently north from Dyea, the Chilkoot Railroad and Transport (CR&T) Company announced early plans to build a road to Sheep Camp. Soon afterwards, they declared themselves on the verge of constructing a railroad as far as Canyon City, and in December went so far as to announce completion of the line. No such line, however, was ever built. The only manifestation of such a scheme was a crude, wood-railed right-of-way for a horse-drawn tram which wound north from Dyea to the first river crossing. But the line itself, like the railroad, never came to fruition. What the CR&T did construct was a wagon road to Canyon City, which was completed in April 1898. 
North of Canyon City, several schemes were attempted to move freight. The DKT Company, in December 1897, proposed to construct a "narrow gauge tramroad with cars like those used in the mines" from Dyea to the Scales. From there, they proposed an aerial tramway to the summit. The tramway was constructed and opened for business in March 1898. The tramroad, however, was never built. 
Opposing the DKT's plans were those of the Alaska Railroad and Transportation (AR&T) Company, an arm of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. The AR&T, like the CR&T, originally planned a railway along the Chilkoot; plans called for construction from Dyea to a point halfway up Long Hill. No rail line was built, but plans also called for an aerial tramway north of the proposed railway terminus. To implement these plans, a depot and warehouse was constructed in March and April 1898. By late April, the AR&T aerial tram line was open from the depot to the summit of Chilkoot Pass. 
The most ambitious plans belonged to the Chilkoot Railroad and Transport Company. As noted above, original plans called for a railroad or road up much of the Chilkoot Trail. Equally grandiose plans called for an aerial tramway over the pass, possibly as far as Lindeman Lake. Financial constraints, however, forced the company to construct a wagon road only as far as Canyon City, and to retract its proposed plans for a tramway beyond Crater Lake. Original plans called for an aerial tramway from Canyon City to the summit area to be completed by January 1, 1898, but with the coming of winter plans were repeatedly delayed. The line apparently opened in late January for a short time, but did not re-open until May 7 or even later.  The completed line ran in two sections; one 4-1/2 mile loop stretched from Canyon City to Sheep Camp, while a second four-mile segment continued north from Sheep Camp to its terminus, one-half mile north of the summit. 
During the spring of 1898, goods were being brought over the passes by a wide variety of methods. Some stampeders carried goods on their backs or on sleds. On the Chilkoot, some paid Indian packers or college students to haul their freight.  Others had their goods taken by horseback to Sheep Camp, while still others had them taken by wagon road to Canyon City. Beyond Canyon City or Sheep Camp, three different aerial tramways were available. In addition, several surface trams ran from the Scales toward the summit of Chilkoot Pass. On the White Pass Trail, those who packed their own goods were supplemented by those who operated pack trains over the route. The main route over the mountains was the newly-opened Brackett Wagon Road. 
Throughout the previous winter, rumors had circulated of proposed rail routes over the passes. Early rumors, such as those of the AR&T and the CR&T, had focused on Chilkoot Pass; the steep climb from Sheep Camp to the summit, however, forced promoters to look elsewhere. In the Skagway Valley, the first serious bid for transportation over the pass was the Skagway and Lake Bennett Tramway Company, which proposed to construct a horse-drawn tramway through the pass. By the spring of 1898, however, the company had fallen on hard times, and all it had to show for its efforts was a bridge over the Skagway River at the north end of Skagway. 
In the spring a serious railway bid surfaced. Financiers for the Close Brothers, an English investment group, travelled to Skagway to investigate the possibilities of constructing a railroad over White Pass. They arrived on April 10. The group, composed of Thomas Tancred, Erastus Hawkins and John Hislop, possessed sufficient financial resources to build a rail line across the mountains. After looking over the local terrain, however, they openly despaired that such a line was technically feasible. By coincidence, the trio met Michael Heney, a Canadian construction engineer, at the St. James Hotel on April 21. Heney had been surveying in the White Pass area for several weeks, and he, unlike the Close Brothers group, was personally convinced that a railway could be built to Bennett Lake. The meeting proved to be fortuitous for all concerned. Within a fortnight, construction materials began to be ordered for the newly-created White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) railway. 
Ties and rails began to arrive in Skagway in mid-May 1898, and construction began on May 28. At first, construction proceeded quickly. Initial work was conducted up the valley from the north end of town, and by mid-June the company was able to lay its line down Broadway to the waterfront.  The first locomotive and cars soon arrived, and on July 21, the first WP&YR train chugged up Broadway. It continued on to the end of track, four miles up the valley. By September, survey and construction camps stretched from Skagway to the top of White Pass. Company officials confidently predicted that the line would be completed to Bennett Lake by the onset of winter. 
As the summer wore on, however, a series of unexpected delays forced postponement of progress on the line. Some equipment shortages ensued; more important was a lack of available labor. The line could never seem to attract the full complement of workers it needed, and to exacerbate the problem, early August brought word of the Atlin gold strike, 50 miles northeast of Skagway. Hundreds of workmen, company shovels in hand, left the force, most never to return.  The harshness of the terrain also slowed work, for beyond the East Fork bridge the track workers encountered increasingly hostile terrain. Despite the mounting problems, the line was opened to Rocky Point (Mile 7.0) by August 15, and to Heney Station (Mile 12.4) by mid-September. 
Winter presented new obstacles. Work slowed as snow began to accumulate on the upper reaches of the line. As the amount of daylight decreased and the temperature dropped, work performance diminished. By midwinter, laborers were forced to spend the majority of their time getting to and from the worksite, shovelling snow and keeping warm. Many railroad workers lived in White Pass City that winter; many reached the railroad right-of-way near the tunnel site via a steep, winding trail. To ease access between Skagway and White Pass City, a short, steep gondola line was built down the 300-foot slope between Heney Station (at end of track) and the river junction. The Brackett Wagon Road bridge, which spanned the Skagway River at this point, provided access to the main cluster of tents that comprised White Pass City. 
Despite the daunting obstacles, the railroad was completed to the summit of White Pass on February 18, 1899. Two days later, the first passenger train moved over the line; a summit celebration was held in the sunny, frigid air. The Coast Mountains had, at long last, been conquered. But many miles of construction remained. 
Construction work over the next three months was limited to rockwork and blasting in the five mile stretch immediately south of Bennett Lake. Spring snowmelt, however, allowed resumption of a fast paced construction schedule. Blasting along the length of the summit-Bennett segment was followed by the work of the grading crews, and it was not until June 21 that the first rails were laid north of the summit. Because all other work was already finished, however, the rails were extended quickly. Log Cabin was reached by July 1, and five days later they were extended to the shores of Bennett Lake. Completion of the line to Whitehorse did not take place until July 29, 1900, over a year after the line had reached Bennett. 
Completion of the Skagway-Bennett line meant that prospectors and shippers, for the first time, had fast, efficient transportation available to them from Puget Sound points all the way to Dawson City. Completion of the line also tolled the death knell for alternative transportation modes across the passes. The Brackett Wagon Road, a potentially vexing competitor to the railroad, was bought out on December 1, 1898, and in May 1899, the line purchased the combined operations of the three Chilkoot Pass aerial tramway lines. The purchases left the White Pass and Yukon Route in an enviable position as the controlling agent for all transportation into and out of the Yukon and surrounding territories. 
By the time the railroad reached Bennett, the gold rush was all but over. The tens of thousands who had stormed over the passes in the winter of 1897-98 had found, upon reaching Dawson, that the gold fields had been completely staked. Good wages were available to those willing to work for others. The lure of gold for the taking, however, proved illusory. The only ones who grew wealthy were either those on the ground first, or those who had the capital to purchase claims or operate businesses. 
Because opportunities were so limited, those in search of quick fortunes and adventure left almost as soon as they came. Dawson's population peaked in the summer of 1898, and by the following summer a general exodus began to Nome, Alaska, where thousands dug for gold from the beach sands.  During the same period, holders of the most valuable Klondike claims sold their properties to corporate interests. Owning large blocks of adjacent claims, the corporations proceeded to use increasingly large scale methods to process the ore, and by 1900 the individual placer mine had largely given way to the hydraulic operation and the dredging company.  Although the population of Dawson fell after 1898, the efficiency of the large-scale operations were such that the annual yield of gold rose until 1900. The output of Klondike gold after a few years dropped to a fifth of its turn-of-the-century level, but rich returns continued for most of the next two decades. 
Last Updated: 24-Sep-2000