Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Getting There

Chronology: Dyea, Skagway, and the Passes

1874:SpringProspector George Holt is guided across the Chilkoot by Indians.
1880:May 27Indians agree to allow prospectors over Chilkoot Pass.
1882:May 28Arthur Krause, German scientist studying Tlingits, crosses pass.
1883:JuneLt. Frederick Schwatka reconnoiters route, publishes map.
Edgar Wilson opens trading post at Dyea.
John J. Healy becomes new trading partner at Dyea Indian village, operates Lynn Canal steamer Yukon.

Spring200 prospectors cross Chilkoot.

Major gold discoveries on Fortymile River, a branch of the Yukon.
1887:Spring500 stampeders cross Chilkoot, head for the Fortymile.

JuneWilliam Ogilvie, Canadian surveyor, runs traverse across Chilkoot.

Dyea population: 138 Natives.
1888:JuneIndian packer's war, Chilkoot chief killed.

Gold discoveries near Circle City on the Yukon.
1894:AprilPeterson builds hoist on Chilkoot pass.
1895:Spring1,000 stampeders cross Chilkoot, head for Circle City.
1896:August 14Klondike discovery by Californian George Washington Carmack and Natives Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim.
William and Bernard Moore homestead Skagway, build wharf and sawmill and improve White Pass Trail.
1897:March 25SS City of Mexico leaves Seattle with 600 stampeders.

July 17SS Portland arrives at Seattle with over "a ton of gold on board." Klondike stampede begins.

AugustSkagway platted.

OctoberDyea platted.
1898:January 12First issue of Dyea Trail newspaper.

FebruaryMounties man the pass.

Dyea wharf completed.

MarchDyea population estimate: 10,000 people.

April 3Avalanche above Stonehouse on Chilkoot Pass, 52 die.

April 21War declared against Spain.

MayChilkoot Railroad and Transport Company tramway completed.

Construction begins on White Pass and Railway.

Ice breaks on Lake Lindeman.
1899:February 20First train reaches summit.
1899:SpringChilkoot tramways removed.

July 6White Pass and Yukon Railway reaches Lake Bennett.
1900:JuneDyea population: 122 people.

Skagway population: 3,117 people.

July 2White Pass and Yukon Railway reaches Whitehorse.
1901:SeptemberTelegraph service opens to Outside.

Reaching the gold fields represented the most taxing part of the adventure for many stampeders. To men and women planning their journey in Seattle, Chicago, or Montreal the routes were well-defined. Newspaper stories and guidebooks provided details, giving the costs, distances, and travel times involved. Stampeders made their choices on the basis of this information after considering the state of their finances, the extent of their baggage, and their judgment of the region most likely to fulfill their golden dreams. Most were headed towards the Klondike in '97, but by '98 a considerable number resolved to try the Kobuk, Koyukuk, or Copper rivers or elsewhere.

The shortest route to Dawson appeared to be the Chilkoot Pass out of Dyea, or the White Pass out of Skagway. Another possibility existed with Jack Dalton's trail from Pyramid Harbor, a route suitable for pack animals although tolls were levied on passage. Voyaging to St. Michael, thence up the Yukon by river steamboat, appeared to many as the safest and least arduous of the available routes. Other routes held patriotic appeal, as with the "All-Canadian" overland routes which were promoted by the Canadian government.

Tales of hardship and starvation might have given pause to some of those thinking about heading north in '98 but for reports of a new strike in mid-September '97, Skookum Gulch, about 18 miles from Dawson, drew a rush of prospectors from Dawson. "Upon a barren hillside where no prospector would ever think of looking for gold the nuggets have been found scattered on top of the ground neath moss and boulders," said a Juneau newspaper. Some 400 bench claims were located within 24 hours despite a raging snowstorm. The very implausibility of the location added to the Klondike legend; it was one that showed none of the favorable signs that prospectors looked for. Alexander McDonald, a successful Dawson miner, considered that "if science went for anything, there would not be an ounce of gold in the mountain. No, I am free to confess that I know nothing about placer mining. These recent discoveries have been too much for me." It was predicted that the new find would cause a stampede of 100,000 in the spring. Jack Dalton and J.F. Maloney bought two claims from McDonald and Hugh Ferguson for $82,500. [1]

How could men be cautious when fortune beckoned? Many were impelled to go despite their lack of experience or preparation. And those least suitable were most likely to succumb to fakery.

Professor George Davidson of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey warned against a prospectus advertising a Copper River route. Promoters offered to convey passengers from Valdez into the interior's mining country for only $75. The region's climate was described as mild because of the influence of the Japanese Current, and its game and fish were said to be abundant. It was also claimed that trade stations and Russian missions existed in the region and that travel was possible at all seasons. "These statements," said Davidson, "are the most infamous falsehood ever published." Davidson urged travelers to consider Lieutenant Allen's Copper River ascent in 1883, which established that the river was not navigable and its valley did not give access to trail routes. Allen had also failed to find game. [2]

It was difficult for anyone to police the flow of false information or find means of warning the unwary. Time was short. Everyone was in a hurry. Misinformation could cause great harm.

Chilkoot Trail

The most debated question concerned the best route. All stampeders learned the virtues and drawbacks of the Chilkoot Pass from newspapers and other sources. The White Pass and the Yukon River route via St. Michael were also well known. But most stampeders preferred the Chilkoot. As a place and event the passage of the Chilkoot Trail dominated contemporary reporting on the rush and, when stampeders took up their pens later, they gave particular attention to this phase of their experience. As historian Robert Spude noted, the Chilkoot "became the symbol of the Klondike gold rush." Early on it attained the place of legend—and held it. Whether a traveler made money in the north or failed, whether enriched or embittered by the experiences, the Chilkoot remained an important focus. Other gates to the interior lacked the drama of the Chilkoot, a mass that was so obviously nature's barrier, a rocky challenge to human stamina. In essence the Chilkoot could encapsule all the real hardships miners had to endure and, in part at least, could lend sense and meaning to the undertaking. [3]

The summit of the Chilkoot at 3,100 feet was 20 miles from tidewater. By '97 a rough trail from tidewater to the base of a steep 500 foot rise to the summit had long since been established. After packers reached the summit the hard part was over. The trail descended gradually seven miles to the lake which was 1,000 lower in elevation.

Events from the acquisition of Alaska by the United States in 1867 show the gradually emerging importance of the Chilkoot Trail from the time of prospector George Holt's crossing with Indian guides in 1874. In 1880 Klotz-Kutch, leader of the Chilkoot Indians, who considered the pass a tribal monopoly giving them control over trade with interior Indians, was persuaded to allow access to white prospectors. Scientist Arthur Krause, a student of Tlingit culture, crossed in 1882 and a year later Lt. Frederick Schwatka crossed to map the Yukon River.

By the mid-1880s more and more prospectors were trekking into the interior. Supporting commerce dates from 1884 when Edgar Wilson opened a trading post, although the Indian fur trade, rather than outfitting prospectors, was his chief concern. John J. Healy became Wilson's partner in 1886, and that spring 200 prospectors crossed the Chilkoot. Gold was discovered on the Fortymile, and in spring '86 and in '87 some 500 stampeders used the trail as William Ogilvie, Canadian surveyor, mapped the route. Another boom occurred in 1895 after the discovery of gold near Circle City, and the Klondike discovery followed a year later.

The 1897 Klondike stampeders landed at either Dyea or Skagway to begin their trek to the gold fields. Lack of a wharf (before May 1898) and deep-water moorage at Dyea made landing freight and passengers tedious because small-boat lighterage was necessary. But the traffic kept coming, creating a boom town near the Indian village and the Healy and Wilson store. Competition for Dyea and Skagway town lots was as furious as was the pace of carpenters raising stores and homes for new arrivals. F.W. Hart raised a three-story hotel of 40 guest rooms, dining room, and bar in three days, then, without pausing to rest, built a block of five stores in five days. The bustle and frenzy of the boom town attracted some and repelled others—depending on their sensibilities. By October 1897 the Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company of Oregon located land 3 miles from Dyea for a wharf and warehouse, then built a toll bridge to town. By February 1898 stampeders could use the newly completed wharf. Dyea became the largest town in Alaska. [4]

Through 1897-98 some 30,000 to 40,000 stampeders landed at the head of Lynn Canal after completing their ocean voyages. No brief summary could do justice to the wide diversity of their experiences from the time of landing to their arrival at Dawson or elsewhere. But the records reveal the emotions of the event—anxieties, expectations, frustrations, angers, fears, just as well as they detail the physical hardships involved.

The first stage of the trail, from Dyea to Canyon City, was a comparatively easy 8.5 miles along the Taiya River. Stampeders who were prosperous enough had options available for freight handling. Healy and Wilson ran a 12-horse packtrain daily between Dyea and Sheep Camp, which was 7 miles beyond Canyon City. Travelers unwilling or unable to hire a packing service could use their own handcarts on this stretch or tow their loads to the head of navigation at the canyon. Winter passage was easier on the Taiya, and many men pulled their outfits on sleds.

In 1898 Canyon City was a lively service center. It was a convenient halting place on the trail and the station of two freight companies operating tramlines from the Scales to the summit. One of those, the Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company, built a power plant that generated electricity for its tramway and for the needs of Canyon City.

From Canyon City to Sheep Camp the distance was only 7 miles, but, particularly in the summer, this portion was hard going through a narrow canyon. Some enterprising fellows improved the trail and charged tolls for passage. "That six miles of canyon," said Robert Medill, "cost us nearly everything but our shirts." Travelers paid for the work done in bridging ravines and corduroying wet portions of the trail with logs, but even with these improvements Medill's party worked four tough days to reach Sheep Camp from Canyon City. [5]

Sheep Camp, the base camp for the jump to the summit, became a big town over the 1897-98 winter whenever storms stopped progress of the stampeders. Here, as at Canyon City, entrepreneurs were on hand to provide food, lodging, and other services. According to Dyea's newspaper in April '98, Sheep Camp's business houses included two drug stores, two laundries, bathhouses, stores, a hospital, 15 hotels and restaurants, and other "restaurants, coffee-stands and lodging houses too numerous to mention." Tents housed most of these enterprises. This was the end of the trail for packtrain services and the point where the severe climb of 3,000 feet to the summit commenced. [6]

The summit was 4 miles from Sheep Camp. The trail rose sharply from this point, and there were only two places along the way where travelers could rest. One was an open area beneath a huge overhanging boulder, called the Stone House, the other a much larger area equivalent to several square city blocks called the Scales. The Scales got its name because the open area lay at the base of the steepest part of the ascent where packers reweighed loads and raised rates for the last, hard stretch. This short, strenuous part of the trail is well represented in the famous photographs of a continuous line of pack-burdened travelers moving antlike up the trail. On this, as on other stretches, most travelers traversed again and again until all of their goods were planted on the summit. From the Scales travelers legged up the final stages of ascent on the so-called Golden Stairs. It only took an hour for this climb but, as the slope was 35 degrees, it was taxing. Horses were useless above the Scales. Packers were willing to help for eight cents a pound from the Scales to the lakes. Edwin Adney calculated that a packer, carrying 100 pounds, could make three trips daily and earn $24. [7]

Travelers had good reason to feel triumphant in achieving the summit without succumbing to fatigue, discouragement, accident, or avalanche. They had moved as part of a disorganized mass, subject to anxiety-producing rumors and fear of the unknown. Emotions weighed as heavily as backpacks in the highly charged atmosphere of the trail. Jack London, one of the mass, later described the physical hardships of the trail in a novel:

Time had rolled back, and locomotion and transportation were once again in the most primitive stages. Men who had never carried more than pencils in all their lives had now become bearers of burdens. They no longer walked up-right under the sun but stooped the body forward and bowed the head to the earth. Every back had become a pack-saddle, and the strap galls were beginning to form. They staggered beneath the unwanted effort, and legs became drunken with weariness and titubated in diverse directions till the sunlight darkened and bearer and burden fell by the way. [8]

But the grim physical labor and emotional drain of the trail should not be overstressed. There were lighter moments at day's end. A man could readily find a drink or two and might even gamble away part of the fortune he intended to make. And there were stories to tell and to hear; friendly arguments on the best places to mine; serious discussions on the grand times they would have disposing of their wealth; and considerations of the day's events—and tomorrow. Stories of righteous anger and swift justice were repeated often for ripe local scandal, like the tale of two men who had robbed caches at Sheep Camp. When a miners meeting convicted them, one of the miscreants dashed away in panic, then shot himself as vigilantes closed in. The other received 50 strokes with a knotted rope and was paraded down to Dyea wearing a large sign inscribed "Thief."

Earlier, an imaginary lynching at Lake Bennett, reported by Hal Hoffman to the Chicago Tribune, was described as the "fated result" of traveling with insufficient provisions. This highly charged incident occurred as stampeders faced hunger: "Flapjacks, hot or cold, have been worth more than platters of gold of the same size and beans [were] more precious than nuggets." A sack of flour cost more than a claim on Bonanza Creek, according to the imaginative Hoffman. Thus the men at Bennett, stomachs growling, grew suspicious of William G. Martin, who sold his outfit at Skagway then crossed the pass with a 60 pound pack. On investigation it was found that Martin's pack held a side of ham "brushed with the private mark" of another Bennett man. "The gold hunters jumped on Martin with the ferocity and grim determination that a Southern man drags a guilty negro to the place of execution . . . No more mercy was meted out to him than the midnight garroter shows his victim in a dark alley." The vigilantes acted openly and swiftly after Martin refused the opportunity to leave a last message or even pray. His last words were a promise to carry in the goods he left at Skagway. He wrote a letter to his wife: "Hoping that with the money I might make in the Klondike, sacrifice would go out the door and love return through the window, I left you. Kiss Ted, but never tell him." Martin asked his executioners to give his note to the newspapers. [9] A newsman invented the lynching story because its occurrence was easy to imagine under the circumstances. There was some thieving on the trail, but the stampede was too fast-paced to allow time for much crime and vengeance.

But tragic mishaps did occur along the trail. Dwight Fowler's death in August 1897 came just a mile out of Skagway. Other argonauts were not indifferent to such terrible accidents. A group of men convened informally at Skagway to express their sorrow at the death of young Fowler, whose fatal accident occurred crossing the Skagway River, a narrow, normally shallow, calm stream which had suddenly turned violent with a rush of snow melted waters. Their proclamation read:

Whereas, His life was suddenly cut off by the will of Providence at this early stage in his career, to the realization of the ambitions of which he was looking with great hope; be it therefore resolved, that we, the miners do hereby extend our heartfelt sympathy to his sorrowing relatives and friends. [10]

Lives were lost in numerous individual incidents like Fowlers and there were two terrible unleashings of nature's forces. Fierce winds tore a glacier edge in September 1897 to release a lake of water. Three men were drowned, and much damage to tents and goods followed. A greater disaster occurred in April 1898 with a thundering avalanche. Men ascending the Scales on the last stage to the summit tried to run down trail from the danger but the massive snow burden, extending 30 acres and heaping as high as 30 feet, caught many of them. Hard-working rescuers saved 100 men; 40 to 60 others died under the snow.

The Great Avalanche

Charles Watts, who was managing a Lake Bennett Hotel but doubled as a stringer for the Oregonian, spent two days on the scene. Writing to his wife he reported seeing 41 bodies and interviewing many of the survivors. He and other would-be rescuers felt miserable, knowing that there were others buried too deep beneath the snow to dig out. Watts achieved a scoop for the Oregonian by giving his dispatches to a traveler headed Outside who made a good steamer connection at Skagway and wired Portland from Vancouver Island on his arrival.

Alfred McMichael, who was resting from his packing efforts at Sheep Camp, recorded "we heard a great rumbling roar . . . This morning there were two or three more." As the men speculated on the strange noise first reports reached them:

The cause of the one in the night is supposed to be from an avalanche a mile or two over the mountain, caused by the snow and ice coming down from a big glacier. The smaller ones were from the snow coming down from the hills here. About 9 a.m. I saw one going down the face of the mountain about half a mile away. It made a great noise as it tumbled down. Some places it looked like a beautiful waterfall tumbling over the cliffs in leaps of 50 or 100 feet. But these were only fun. The serious ones, or news of them, came a little later.

About 10:00 word came that 10 men had been buried, tents and all, a little way up the trail. They were dug out uninjured. An hour later came the news that 50 had been overwhelmed by a snow slide while coming down from the Scales, a place four miles above here. In a few moments hundreds of men were on the way with shovels and sleds. It was such a bad day that not many men were out so it took some time to get on the way. I was moving some baggage and started as soon as I was through, the weather at the time being fine.

After going about 2-1/2 miles, we met men returning with sleds and each one bore a lifeless or unconscious form. They were all put into the power house of the tramway up there in the mountains. When we arrived, men were digging for dear life in snow which was from 5 to 25 feet deep. Twelve men and one woman were taken out dead. Another woman is not expected to live. Others are injured, but I do not know how seriously. About 50, it seems, were at the Scales and though it was storming, they formed a life line and started up the mountain. That is, all took hold of a rope to prevent being dropped out on the way. When they were down near Stone House, the snow slide caught them and all but about a dozen were buried. Some dug themselves out and others were rescued in a short time, alive. No doubt some are there yet. [11]

The terrible tragedy sobered all the stampeders. Folks Outside who doubted that the risks and discomforts of gold hunting made any sense were confirmed in their pessimism by the avalanche. The cemetery holding the victims of the greatest single disaster of the Klondike Gold Rush is part of Klondike Gold Rush Park (KLGO) and offers a sobering reminder that the great adventure was perilous.

The Mounties established a customs station at Tagish Lake and another post at the Summit to collect fees and turn back travelers lacking 1,000 pounds of food. The food requirement was taken very seriously because of the general belief in Dawson from fall '97 that a famine could occur over the winter. Stampeders saw merit in the Mounties' strictness, and those who had worried about the security of lives and property in Skagway and Dyea found their presence reassuring.

Reaching the summit was harder for travelers who were short of money. Lester Monnet, Bill Shanks, and Chappie Campbell of Washington state disembarked from Alki at Dyea on July 24. The unceremonious dumping of 200 men and their provisions on the beach at low tide led to a frenzied scramble to move everything up the beach before the tide swamped the stores. Monnet and company passed this first hurdle, then unwisely invested in a pony for packing. Once loaded the pony bucked, scattered the load, and dashed for freedom. Soon the partners realized that pack animals were useless except on the first portion of the trail, but they were still out the missing pony's cost and damages to equipment.

Monnett contracted at 10 cents a pound with Indian packers, then another ship disembarked with stampeders willing to offer 50 cents. Monnett's packers demanded 40 cents more when the party had moved 7 miles down the trail. The party could not pay these demands and demanded their money back. Since the packers concluded they had already worked enough for the money they fought to keep it. Three men were no match for 20 packers, and the stampeders ended the melee by fleeing the field.

After pushing on to Stone House, Monnett's partners spoke longingly of Seattle. Monnett made a bad bargain to dissuade them from turning back: After their first trip to Lake Bennett he would do all the rest of the hauling while they commenced boat building. Over many days Monnett toiled with some 3,000 pounds "on the most grueling trek man ever undertook." Finally, on September 10 he threw his last pack on the ground at the lake. [12]

After the summit, the next great general activity was boat building at Lake Lindeman for Chilkoot stampeders or at Lake Bennett for White Pass travelers. There was plenty of time for boat building for winter or spring arrivals because they had to wait for the thaw of the Yukon's headwaters before pushing on. The Yukon River passage cost a number of lives. Many stampeders were inexperienced boatsmen, and a number of rapids, including the terrible White Horse, had to be traversed or by-passed by portage. Finally, the Mounties began supervision of navigation, requiring women and children to walk around the White Horse and prohibiting the passage of boats built without adequate freeboard. These restrictions probably saved some lives.

How long did it take to reach the Klondike? The journey's duration varied widely depending upon the season. Travelers who reached the lakes while navigation was possible could ready boats within a week or two and be under way. In a week or so they could pass the dangerous part of the river—if they had no accidents—reach Lake Laberge and a safe, easy drift of 400 miles to Dawson, which took approximately a week to 10 days.


Tramways were a means of reducing freight costs. As early as 1895 the first tramway from Stone House to summit was constructed, but it did not operate successfully. In 1897 a horse-powered windlass went into operation and by April '98 stampeders had a choice of four different tramways available at a rate of 10 cents a pound from Dyea to Lake Lindeman. Of these the best was built by the Chilkoot Railroad & Transportation Co. of Tacoma. It consisted of two sections—one over the 4 miles from Canyon City to Sheep Camp and another from Sheep Camp over the summit a quarter mile beyond—a span of 4-1/4 miles. Freight boxes measuring 40 x 20 x 24 inches could handle 400-pound boxes. This system allowed stampeders to transport their freight over the Dyea-Canyon City wagon road at drayage costs from one-fourth to one-half cent a pound, then transfer loads to tramway buckets for transhipment. Overall freight costs were reduced from one-fifth to one-tenth of the cost in '97.

Other tramways went into operation before the Chilkoot Railroad & Transportation Co. finished their system in April '98, but the others were less efficient. The Burns' Hoist opened in December '97 to pull sleds hitched to a cable 1,500 feet long. A gas engine turned a pulley drum to haul loads from the base to the top of the summit for two cents a pound. The bucket tramway of the Alaska Railway & Transportation Co. operated from 2 miles above Sheep Camp from spring '98 until July when its operation was consolidated with the CR&C Tramway. Another was that run by Dyea-Klondike Transportation Co. using a steam engine, two buckets of 500 lbs capacity, and a cable running from the base to the crest of the summit. The Dyea Klondike Transportation Co. later consolidated with the Chilkoot Railroad & Transportation Co. Although the tramways did not always run as well as planned, they effectively put Indian packers out of business on the American side of the Chilkoot. The tramways also forced a reduction in tolls on the Brackett Road over White Pass. [13]

As with everything else connected to the gold rush, there were exaggerations about the capacity of the tramways. It was good that the estimates of some promoters like steamship manager J.P. Light on the numbers of '98 stampeders were far-fetched. Light expected 200,000 rushers, "that is conservative. I would not be surprised to see the figures doubled." [14] Light correctly observed that the tramways were incapable of handling that kind of traffic. But the tramways impressed some newsmen as a marvelous technological breakthrough, and the crossing by a woman, Martha Kelsey, in January '98 was heralded in newspapers. "A Yankee woman," the New York Journal noted breathlessly, "has crossed in an hour and a half the mountain defile which has hitherto tried men's souls and bodies in a struggle of days and weeks. Never before was such a pioneer enterprise displayed in establishing a means of transportation over almost impassable heights." [15]

White Pass

Stampeders using the Lynn Canal entry could, if they wished, defer judgment on a choice of Dyea-Chilkoot or Skagway-White until leaving their ship. Which pass was best? Reports varied. The White Pass summit at 2,800 feet was only 20 miles from tidewater. Over the first 10 miles the trail ran through heavy timber growth and a narrow, steep-walled canyon. At the base of the pass, 18 miles from tidewater, travelers and their pack animals faced a steep climb as they gained 800 feet in elevation. Once at the summit the trail was easy. Lake Bennett was only 10 miles away.

Some praised the less-used White Pass in '97. Harry Fitzgerald had taken it in June before the improvements then under way had been completed, "and I do not understand why so many go by the way of the Chilkoot, particularly at this time of the year." Fitzgerald's description certainly suggested ease of transit: American contractors built a trail on their side "and the Canadian government had twenty-five men working for four months . . . so that there is now a fine broad trail, over which horses and mules can travel easily." [16]

Such reports, coming at a time when "a great blockage of gold seekers" on the Chilkoot was being reported, affected some travelers' decisions, but many who used the White Pass were sorry. The only certainty about the routes was that most regretted that they did not choose the other route. [17]

Stampeders with pack animals could not use the Chilkoot so were drawn to the lower, less steep grade of White Pass. Ease of transit, however, required more trail improvements than had been made by 1897. Footing was uncertain on the narrow, twisting trail which disintegrated rapidly with the heavy traffic. The progress of pack trains was delayed continually as obstructions had to be cleared. Heavily loaded animals fell in their tracks or slipped and plunged to the valley below. Soon the stench of rotting carcasses on what became known as the "Dead Horse Trail" became another discomfort, a sickening memento of the stampeders' frenzy and callousness.

Once under way, it was difficult to turn back. Frank Thomas started over White Pass in summer '97 with three horses and a mule. After many delays and the loss of a horse and the mule, he abandoned hope of reaching Dawson before winter but determined to reach Lake Bennett to establish a winter camp. "I am not the only crazy fool—there are many others," he reported. [18]

One of the other "crazy fools," Charles W. Watts of Oregon, gave one of the best descriptions of the pass after crossing in January 1898:

Of course there are times when it is windy and very cold there but so far as the climb is concerned it [is] not one-half or one-third as much of a climb as I make every year when I go to Upper Soda deer hunting. If I was feeling good and [had] no pack I could walk from the bottom of the Pass to the top in 10 minutes and never stop. Then it is a mile across. At no time can you see over 20 or 30 feet in any direction on account of fine snow drifting through the air. You simply look down at your feet to follow the trail and plod along. Everything looks the same for all the time you are walking between walls of rock from 10 to 50 feet high and all covered with snow. Suddenly you walk out a great opening. That is Summit Lake—6-1/2 miles long. Straight across it you walk, all the time following one little narrow trail about 16 to 18 inches wide. To step out of the trail meant to sink into snow up to your waist. The prettiest sight I ever saw in all my life was to stand at the foot of that lake and looking in the right direction see the long string of people, some drawing sleds, some packing, and some with dogs and many with horses. We saw one string 1/4 mile long. [19]

Skagway and Dyea

Sometimes one gains the impression that stampeders jumped from their ships at the head of the Lynn Canal and immediately stormed the passes. In fact, the traffic did not flow so readily from sea to mountains and two coastal towns, Skagway and Dyea, developed as service centers to travelers.

William Moore was the father of Skagway. He and his son, Bernard, did some work on the White Pass Trail in 1895 and 1897, while also building a small sawmill and a wharf on their homestead at Skagway. The Moores were betting that travelers would choose to travel over the White Pass via Skagway rather than the Chilkoot via Dyea. Many of the '97 argonauts landed at Skagway, but they paid no attention to the Moores' priority there. In fact, the stampeders took over the Moore homestead and its environs and laid out a townsite without consulting the pioneers. Worse yet, they forced William Moore to move his cabin since it encumbered a newly plotted street. William Moore had been ignored and humiliated, but he did not give up. He got busy and extended his wharf to better serve arriving ships. The wharf made money and aided the growth of the town, even though most of the traffic continued to move towards Dyea and the Chilkoot Pass. While Skagway was a place of transit for most people, merchants like Capt. James Carroll established enterprises and government officers, like C.L. Andrews, the customs collector, were residents. Andrews, who later transferred to Eagle and wrote several books on Alaska's history, had his hands full trying to curb whiskey smuggling.

Smuggling, however, did not bother residents and transits of Skagway. They had a genuine, versatile crook to contend with. Jefferson "Soapy" Smith became the most durable of gold rush legends, although his operations only extended over a few months. Soapy was a small-time con man from Colorado with visions of grandeur and enough organizational ability to establish a gang of thieves and extortionists to prey on stampeders. By corrupting the deputy marshal, Skagway's only police officer, and posing as a civic-minded citizen, Smith was able to pluck the unwary with impunity. In time aroused citizens formed a vigilante committee to restore law and order, and in July 1898 Smith died under the gun of Frank Reid. Of course, his legend remains green because of his singular and dramatic career.

It would not do to detract from the legendary genius of Soapy Smith. He did show remarkable initiative in seeing the opportunity for a gang of con men and thieves at Skagway and acted swiftly to seize the advantage. He was also successful in corrupting the U.S. deputy marshal and, until vigilantes organized in summer '98, in confusing many of the residents about his activities. His base was a saloon-gambling den and he placed men along the trail to steer the unwary into his place. So Soapy showed some ability as an opportunist, organizer, corrupter, and dissembler, but exhibited a fatal clumsiness in issuing a drunken challenge to the vigilantes after first agreeing to return money taken from a returning miner. Of the many possible options available to him—some of which might have prolonged his career—he chose gunplay with Frank Reid and was shot dead. Reid, Skagway's surveyor, died too and earned his place as an Alaska hero.

Historian C.L. Andrews observed that if all the men who claimed to have seen Smith shot were laid end to end, the line would extend from Skagway to the Equator and back. This is probably an exaggeration but it does reflect the great truth that legend-making requires a little lying by others. It took some exaggeration of Smith's cunning, larcenous successes, and violence to give him lasting infamy and lots of gold rush participants were willing to help. Col. Sam Steele, an intrepid officer of the Mounties, contributed eagerly to the legend by telling of a night in Skagway when he and another officer were awakened by gunfire, shouts, and curses. The Mounties did not interfere with American law-keeping: "Bullets came through the thin boards [of our room], but the circumstance was such a common event that we did not even rise from our beds." Steele exaggerated mightily in alleging that Smith's gang had more than 100 members, that they made Skagway "about the toughest place in the world . . . they ran the town and did what they pleased; almost the only persons safe from them were the members of our force . . . neither law nor order prevailed, honest persons had no protection from the gangs of rascals who plied their nefarious trade. Might was right." [20]

Aside from the colorful, bizarre exploits of Soapy Smith, the development of Skagway and Dyea followed the frontier pattern of neighboring communities competing for the advantages of a similar location. Each town boasted of its commercial and civic amenities, its churches, schools, newspaper, and government—and, while extolling its own future prospects, derided the other's pretensions. But, in the end, Dyea died and Skagway lived.

Skagway held a natural advantage over Dyea because it had a deep-water harbor. William Moore had noted this advantage in originally choosing a homestead there and, of course, believed that the White Pass's superiority over the Chilkoot was as obvious as the harbor advantage. He was wrong about the passes' relative appeal to '97-'98 stampeders but correct in his longer term appraisal. Construction started on the White Pass and Yukon Railway in 1898 and its completion in 1900 finished Dyea as a commercial rival to Skagway. [21]

The Smith gang did not interfere with the establishment of schools, churches, and respectable business houses, nor with the evolution of a polite society. Thus could Governor John Brady, after watching the Fourth of July festivities, exult over the fine qualities of the town, "the stampeders reflect the goodness of our institutions." Brady predicted that Alaska would become the "most noble state in the Union . . . if the coming multitudes compare with the people at Skagway and Dyea now." [22]

People came and people left, but some, like Harriet Pullen, put down roots in Skagway. She had been trying to wring a living from a marginal Washington state farm for herself and her four children when the Klondike was struck. In '97 she joined the Gold Rush, arriving at Skagway with only $7. Soon her apple pies, baked in a tent, were delighting the men building Billy Moore's wharf, and she was able to move to a log cabin. For a time she operated a packtrain over the White Pass with horses brought up from her Washington farm. After her children joined her and she had a short fling in the Atlin gold rush, Harriet settled down to become Skagway's most famous hostess. She rented a large house from Moore and made the Pullen House the best hotel in town. Pullen greeted shipboard visitors at the dock for many years, inviting them for good eats and regaling them with an account of the shooting of Soapy Smith.

Among the town's businesses were a number of photographers who specialized in souvenir pictures of local scenes and events. Some became famous like E.A. Hegg, Winter and Pond, W.H. Case, and H.C. Barley, and their photographs are standard features of Alaska books.

Newsmen of early Skagway included J.F.A. Strong, a member of the vigilante committee opposed to Smith and Elmer (Stroller) White. Strong moved on to Nome, Katalla, Iditarod, and, eventually, the governor's chair at Juneau, while White moved to Dawson and Juneau.

Among Skagway's more colorful citizens was Frank Keelar of New York and California, who elevated himself from jeweler to "the Money King of Alaska" in a shop on Holly Street. Keelar boasted of great wealth, including mines, sawmills, steamboats, townsites, and timberlands that yielded him barrels of money he wished to invest. From his arrival in March 1898, Keelar proved himself as a hustling entrepreneur and was rewarded with election to the city council.

It was the money king's claim that he could deal with anyone who really wanted to trade and he offered $5,000 to any would-be trader who was disappointed. He also advertised in the states, offering information on Skagway and advice: "If you have no money and your skin is full of hard luck stories, don't come to Alaska as we don't have time to bury you. But if you are a man that believes in pluck and not in luck, here is the best of all places on earth to invest, but you must have something to invest." [23]

Dyea was a lively place by fall '97, and its growth continued over the winter as arriving argonauts settled in to wait for spring before continuing on. The town had 1,200 people by mid-December. Many lived in tents but streets had been laid out for a townsite and carpenters were busy building structures. In January the Dyea Trail began publication, boasting that "the world can now be assured the finest system of Wharves and Warehouses in all Alaska will be constructed here at the mouth of the Chilkoot Pass, the only route to the greatest gold fields known to history." [24]

By May the Dyea Wharf was completed. The Dyea Trail editor rejoiced as the docking facility helped Dyea compete with Skagway. Skagway's facilities were superior, but lighters built at Dyea kept busy shuttling stampeders from Skagway to Dyea. Some of the town's new buildings were large ones, including the Olympic Hotel, a three-story, 75-by-100-foot structure that was billed as "the largest in Alaska."

People in Dyea, particularly the merchants who had a heavy stake in the town's permanence took pleasure in Skagway's woes. News about the formation of vigilantes, the Committee of 101, to challenge Soapy Smith's operations, caused Dyeans to reflect on their better condition. When Frank Reid of the vigilantes and Soapy Smith shot it out, Dyeans were scandalized. The Dyea Trail had not even been able to forebear a little gloating when an outbreak of spinal meningitus occurred in Skagway. Clearly, the Dyeans reasoned, their town was superior to Skagway in every way.

When the terrible avalanche swept down on the Chilkoot Trail in April 1898 with tragic results the Dyea Trail accused their rivals of taking advantage: "But Skauans have no shame. Their ambition seems to be to heap misery on others, they glory in publishing false statements; they are ghoulish enough to wish that there had been 500 buried if it only happened on the Chilkoot trail."

The rivalry between Dyea and Skagway was real enough, but its determination did not rest on newspaper editorial bombast. After the '98 rush only one town was needed to service traffic to the interior. The choice of a permanent route would eliminate one town or another. And, of course, the railroad chose the White Pass and Dyea faded out.

All-Canadian Routes

The Canadian routes caused considerable grief to argonauts. The Edmonton Trail was highly touted in Edmonton by those who believed that this Canadian route would protect travelers from exorbitant transportation charges and "get-rich-quick" merchants in Seattle, Skagway, or along the Yukon. It was easy enough to trace a line on the map showing a pleasant water route via the Peace River, Athabasca River, Lane River, Great Slave Lake, Mackenzie and Porcupine rivers to reach Fort Yukon on the Yukon River. Of course, the distance of 2,600 miles was a notable impediment. An overland route was also offered from Edmonton. This involved a trek of 1,446 miles for travelers across Peace River, to Fort St. John, along the Finley and Kechika rivers to Watson Lake, thence along the Pelly River to Fort Selkirk.

Boasters of the Edmonton routes noted that the pioneer Yukon prospectors, Jack McQuesten and Alfred Mayo, used the Mackenzie-Porcupine route. They did not note that the pioneers choice was determined by their location in Canada, that the transportation of the 1890s had improved over that of the '80s, and that the pioneers traveled light, living off the land. In the end—or well before the end—the Edmonton route travelers had reason to regret their decision, and ample time for dismal reflections on their bad choice. Some travelers spent two years on the trail, hampered by the bulk of their baggage and the lack of reprovisioning stations along the way. One woman, who finally reached Dawson, was proud to report that her baby had been born on the trail, but less pleased that conception had occurred en route as well. It is estimated that about one-half of the 1,500 who started out from Edmonton gave up and turned back and that 70 people died on the way.

Another disastrous choice was the Stikine River route which drew about 5,000 stampeders. These travelers voyaged to Wrangell from Canadian or American Pacific Coast ports, then moved up the Stikine to Telegraph Creek and over the trail of 160 miles to Teslin Lake. The route appealed to Canadians because once the sleazy lures of booming Wrangell were bypassed, its passage was over Canadian Territory. For the same reason Canadian government officials lauded the route.

Stampeders who marched over the Stikine ice during the '97-'98 winter had a miserable time. Except for the Edmonton Trail, its 1,200 mile length made it the longest overland route to the Klondike and perhaps only half of its travelers made it up the Stikine while far fewer reached Dawson. Even a well-equipped man like trapper Straford Tollmache had rough going in '98. He used sled dogs, but the spring thaw turned the Stikine ice cover to slush. In desperation he abandoned most of his provisions to ease his dogs' burden. Even so he had to kill 10 of his weakest dogs for food before finally getting upriver and he still had a long way to go over a route that required a great deal of portaging. Tollemache arrived at Dawson in late summer with very hard words for the falsely ballyhooed Stikine route. [25]

Still another painful divergence from the main routes was the Ashcroft Trail from Ashcroft, British Columbia, 125 miles northeast of Vancouver. Travelers took the Caribou Road, built in the 1860s during the Caribou gold rush, crossed Sheena River, and after 1,000 miles reached the Stikine at Telegraph Creek. The route seemed to offer certain benefits in avoiding high transportation costs and utilizing established trails along portions of the way—the Caribou Road and the Western Union Telegraph Expeditions trail constructed in the mid-1800s, but the advantages were illusory since the trails were hardly more than a trace. Of the approximately 1,500 men who attempted the route because of its "easy" access with pack animals, the greater number turned back after their animals died. It was said that none of the few successful travelers who reached Dawson had pack animals on arrival. [26]

Valdez Glacier

There were no other single disasters on other trails to compare with the Chilkoot avalanche, but there were many instances of danger, discomfort, and frustration. Klondike stampeders who chose the Copper River route to the gold fields in '98 considered themselves judicious. They were encouraged by the Pacific Steam Whaling Co., in particular, to believe that they would avoid the congestion at Dyea and Skagway, the travails of the Chilkoot, boatbuilding on the lakes and ascend the Copper River with ease to get within striking distance of their goal. Their numbers, some 3,000 to 4,000, were swelled by many who decided that their best prospects lay in the Copper River country itself. Persistent rumors of gold and copper deposits and of the existence of an old Russian trail from the head of Prince William Sound to the Copper River valley were other lures and accounted for the early mineral exploration of the WRST park lands. It was also meaningful to stampeders that the U.S. Army had dispatched Capt. W.R. Abercrombie to blaze a trail into the interior from Valdez. Abercrombie did his assigned duties but also found time to make Copper River mineral claims.

The influx of stampeders began in February 1898 and lasted into June, although by May more stampeders were leaving the country than entering it. Reports on the hardships suffered by those who had crossed the Valdez Glacier to reach the Copper River country were made by Abercrombie and by F.C. Schrader of the USGS, both of whom landed at Valdez in April. Some new arrivals were not charmed by 5-foot snow depths still on the ground at Valdez in April. "Several of the wavering and less stout-hearted . . . [decided]," as Schrader noted, "that their line of duty lay in an immediate return to home and friends." [27]

Schrader and an army officer made a reconnaissance of the glacier trail for arriving prospectors. A heavy snowstorm lasting five days left up to 12 feet of fresh snow on the glacier, but the officers got far enough to judge the glacier's extent and see the head of the Klutena River form at its summit. Stampeders who did not care to tackle the glacier and others who were inclined to commerce remained where they were and organized the town of Valdez. Previously the area's only community, Orca, had consisted of a cannery of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company.

Most of the Valdez stampeders pushed on over the glacier with considerable hardship. Many of these returned to Valdez from the interior before winter closed the prospecting season; others settled in for the winter—some 300 at Copper Center. In late April 1899 Abercrombie landed at Valdez once more, this time to begin construction of a Valdez-Eagle military trail. With dismay he described conditions:

The scene that followed the arrival of our vessel at Valdez was one that I shall not soon forget. Crowding aboard the steamer came the argonauts of last season's rush into the Copper River Valley and who now considered themselves full-fledged miners, although many of them had never handled either a pick or a shovel since their entry into the country. A more motley looking crowd it would be hard to imagine. Mackinaw suits of all varieties and colors faded and worn by exposure to the elements and their long journey over the Valdez Glacier from the Copper River Valley. They seemed to be sadly demoralized, and from a hurried conversation I had with six or seven I had known the year before I was led to believe that hundreds were dying of starvation and scurvy beyond the Coast range in the Copper River Valley. Most of those then in the settlement of Valdez had little or no money, but notwithstanding this fact a wholesale orgy was inaugurated that lasted until midnight, the cabin and the decks of the steamer giving unmistakable evidence of the potent influence of the liquor on those who had indulged so freely and who were now lying around in various attitudes sleeping off the effects . . . That they had passed a terrible winter was beyond all question of doubt; that many of them had died from scurvy and being frozen to death was in evidence at the little graveyard that had sprung up since my departure the year before. [28]

Valdez became an important place despite its limitations as a point of passage to the Klondike. With the construction of the government trail to Eagle (and Fairbanks) the town's permanence was assured even if the hopes of its boosters for a railroad to the interior were not realized.

The Yukon Route

For stampeders who considered an all-water route to Klondike preferable to packing over the Chilkoot or White passes, the Yukon entry was well advertised by shipping companies. It was the more expensive route but was certainly safer and less arduous. From Seattle to St. Michael the ocean voyage was 2,750 miles. The voyage could be comfortable or miserable depending upon the time it took, weather, quality of the ship, or—most important—the vessel's crowdedness. Some shipping companies took gross advantage of the desperation of the Klondike-bound passengers to cram them aboard without regard for comfort. Postponement of sailing dates was an aggregation, as were other delays caused by engine malfunction, storms, or Bering Sea ice conditions. Most ships called at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians for refueling or other purposes.

Overall, however, the ocean leg of the long voyage was more reliably achieved and more comfortable than the Yukon River passage. At St. Michael, usually described in dismal terms by argonauts, passengers transferred to one of the steamboats serving the Yukon. Over '97-'98 the Yukon fleet had grown mightily as trading companies, shipping companies, and individuals anticipated a bonanza in freight and passenger fares. But it was some 1,700 miles upriver to Dawson, and few of the '97 stampeders were quick enough off the mark to reach St. Michael before freeze-up. Some of these returned to the states, others languished at St. Michael, and a few pushed overland.

The great influx of stampeders hit St. Michael in spring '98. Nothing had occurred over the year to make the natural setting more agreeable, but accommodations were improving fast as lodging and eating places were thrown up and carpenters were busy building boats. Passengers who had made arrangements earlier for a quick transfer to waiting steamboats avoided discomfort but many had to wait some time at St. Michael. For some months the old Russian station held a huge tent city housing travelers who preferred camping to commercial lodging. Old tents came down and new ones went up as the season progressed, but the human flow was continuous.

One good thing about St. Michael was the opportunity it provided to send the last letters home before starting upriver where the vagaries of the mail service and climate might delay further communications for months. These letters could not tell much about the writers' prospects at that point but they certainly revealed states of mind. Often the writer was already discouraged about his chance of making a fortune. He had seen too many people and heard too many stories about hardship and failure since leaving home. For some St. Michael seemed a good place to quit—to cut one's losses. Other letters burned with hope and ambition although it is likely that the flame burned less fiercely than it had in Seattle or another port of embarkation. It was certainly sobering—if not devastating—to one's spirits to encounter at St. Michael throngs of people returning from the Klondike crying out against the promises that had lured them north. Of course, there were plenty of pleased-looking fellows too, men who kept wary eyes on their baggage, which included gold.

For the Yukon voyage, passenger accommodations were either on the steamboat itself or a barge that larger boats pushed ahead. A barge could carry up to 175 people in crude fashion with rows of berths lining its sides separated by a long dining table running the length of the vessel. There was no protection from mosquitoes nor from the tedium of the lower river landscape, and anxieties mounted when the vessels grounded on sandbars.

Sometimes passengers endured major delays that were particularly aggravating in late season. In the fall everyone aboard scanned the skies apprehensively for weather signs and viewed the first ice with sinking hearts. Usually progress was steady, if slow; the boats pushed against a 4-to-5-mile current and made about 6 miles an hour. Halts to take on wood took about two hours daily in the commercial boats, but much longer for independents who did their own wood-cutting. Whatever the range of comfort provided, steamboat fare was expensive because of high costs. One important cost factor was the price of wood—varying from $7 a cord downriver to $14 nearer Dawson. A large steamboat driving a barge needed 30 cords a day. Stops at real towns provided some diversion. At places like Rampart, Fortymile, Fort Yukon, and Circle some passengers met acquaintances from Outside and could enjoy some gossip and opinions on the country that might be more trustworthy than those gathered from strangers. Some passengers ended their voyage at ports like Rampart, either voluntarily because mining prospects seemed better than those at Dawson or, involuntarily, when ice stopped navigation. [29]

Food Shortage

While stampeders fretted about travel routes and trail conditions they, along with the working Klondike miners, were forced to worry about possible famine conditions as well. Newspapers were quick to report the first alarms about a possible food shortage in Dawson. There was a whimsical appeal in imagining men with pockets full of gold threatened by starvation. As the '97-'98 winter neared there was an increasing awareness of Dawson's remoteness and the limitations of food stores as people continued to enter the country. "How About Grub?" one editor asked: "Miners Cannot Eat Gold." Reporting from St. Michael to the Chicago Tribune, August 17, 1897, Sarah Beazley predicted certain starvation. She praised the efforts of the North American Transportation and Trading Company to get goods upriver and noted the concern of company officers that no blame fall on them: "they having reportedly warned people to wait until next spring before going in." Beazley heard much praise on "the generalship and management of Captain J.J. Healy" and expected that" he will not desert these poor miners." [30]

Criticism of Healy and the North American Transportation and Trading Company from August '97 was more common than praise. Rumor had it that the company's policy of hiring cheap labor for boat crews resulted in the sandbar grounding of Weare, thus reducing prospective food supplies in Dawson. Both companies were condemned for bringing in whiskey rather than food. "Avarice," argued one returning miner, "is the marked characteristic of both companies at St. Michael." And avarice caused the companies to encourage stampeders to come into the country despite the food shortage. Other charges against the North American Transportation and Trading Company came from stampeders at St. Michael who were advised by company agents in Chicago to buy their food and supplies when they got to the Yukon. [31]

What probably incensed the established miners more than anything else against Healy and the North American Transportation and Trading Company was his refusal to fill 1897-98 orders placed and paid for long before navigation closed in September. Arthur Celene had deposited $900 for grub and received one sack of flour "and a few other things, in proportion," and his remaining deposit back. Celene and about 500 miners treated similarly could not accept Healy's dismissal of their priority. They did not blame the Circle miners when they held up the steamboats in September '97 and were reassured when both Weare and Bella unloaded quickly and headed for Fort Yukon to collect cargoes left by other boats. Meanwhile, prices had risen. "Everything eatable was selling at figures from $1 up per pound. Flour was $1.50 to $2.00 per pound. Fresh meat was about the same price." [32]

Meals cost $2.50 at Dawson in '97-98 at a time when a hungry man could fill up for 50 cents in the states. A very hungry man in Dawson might spend up to $10. In restaurants and homes the flapjack was a popular standby. "It is the glory of the Klondike and appears in the most remote and impoverished diggings," noted a visitor. "Always palatable, it is, in the language of the miner, 'tough, but filling.'" Of course, rich men wanting a treat ordered fresh fish in season, savoring the disparity in taste, texture, and novelty between fish and flapjacks and other standbys, beans and salt pork. [33]

Reports differ on price gouging by the major trading companies. Thomas Magee, who left Dawson shortly after the stores ran out of food, reported that prices had not increased as the situation became threatening, but the store price had been $2 per pound for flour. Other reports placed the highest price of flour at $1. [34]

By October 15, 1897, Healy was openly "distressed" by the outlook. He had not anticipated that several boats would fail to reach Dawson and that so many rushers would reach there in late fall—and there were 700 unfilled orders on North American Transportation and Trading Company books. The North American Transportation and Trading Company stock was gone, yet it appeared that one-quarter of the Klondike residents needed winter supplies. [35]

Urgent calls for government aid against famine induced Congress to appropriate $20,000 for Sheldon Jackson's scheme of a reindeer relief expedition. The U.S. Army took charge of the Laplanders, Finns, and Norwegians and the 539 reindeer purchased in Norway for shipment through New York, to Seattle, and Dyea. The expedition was not a success. Because of the lack of proper food, most reindeer either died en route or reached the interior in an emaciated condition. As it turned out the fiasco's failure did not cause any hardship. The long predicted specter of starvation at Dawson abated. There were some shortages of food over the '97-'98 winter, but supplies were enough to prevent disaster.

By late September 1897 some miners running from the threat of starvation came close to disaster. Thomas McGee, a San Francisco capitalist, chartered a little river steamer to carry his party upriver from Dawson to Fort Selkirk, where they would take the Dalton Trail to the coast. After the steamer broke down, the 15 men hired Indians to carry them by canoes. Large ice blocks hampered progress, but they managed to reach Fort Selkirk. They could not find the Dalton Trail as they headed for the coast until, 75 miles out of Fort Selkirk, they fortunately met Dalton who advised on the route and the location of hidden food caches. But for this chance meeting they might have died of hunger and exposure as it was late October by this time. Finally, after 40 days en route, they reached Haines Mission. [36]

By January 1898 there were about 6,000 people in the Canadian Yukon, including 5,000 at Dawson and nearby camps. Of these, 75 percent were Americans. Another 1,000 whites were in the Alaska Yukon, most of them stranded when en route to Dawson. During winter and early spring of 1897-98 about 28,000 argonauts crossed the Chilkoot and White passes, while 5,000 to 6,000 started upriver from St. Michael. Alfred H. Brooks estimated that two-thirds of those who started from St. Michael failed to reach their goal for various reasons, and overall only 34,000 of 60,000 stampeders reached the Klondike. By the close of navigation in 1898, 30,000 persons were left on the Yukon. Of these, 13,000 were in the Klondike and 4,206 at Dawson. An estimated 35,000 persons disembarked at Skagway and Dyea in 1897-98; 5,000 at Wrangell for the Stikine River route; 3,000 at Valdez for the glacier route; 1,000 on Cook Inlet; 2,000 tried all-Canadian overland or river routes. In all, probably 60,000 folks started for the gold fields, and if each had only two backers or family members—a conservative estimate—this meant that more than 200,000 people "had a more or less direct financial interest in the gold rush." [37]


There were numerous tragic conclusions of winter treks, particularly among men with too little appreciation of conditions and their lack of experience. J. Maidhof, formerly U.S. Consul in Germany, was among those aboard the steamer Merwin when she became frozen in near the Yukon's mouth. Wasting the 1897-98 winter on Merwin was intolerable to Maidhof, so he acquired a dog team and sled and headed to Rampart. On Christmas Eve he arrived at St. Michael. H.M. Morgan, an Associated Press correspondent, restive at the prospect of sitting out the winter at St. Michael, agreed to join him. On January 7 they started over the ice for Unalakleet, intending to reach the Yukon at Kaltag, then move upriver. With two sleds and 13 dogs they reached Unalakleet in six days, rested several days at the Swedish Mission, then pushed on 20 miles to a native settlement where they hired a guide to get them to Kaltag. Snowstorms delayed their departure from the village until January 25. After two days run, one sled was damaged. While repairing the sled, beset by a heavy snowstorm, the guide left them.

At this point the travelers would have been well advised to turn back. The trail had been obscured by the snow, and they could only depend upon uncertain compass readings to find Kaltag. Yet they started off, wading through deep snow, making only 5 miles a day at best—and sometimes only half that. Extreme cold and a dwindling of provisions foreshadowed their fate. Maidhof froze his hands, and by February 3 it was apparent that they had lost the trail. Their only hope lay in continuing on through snow depths of 10 feet in a generally northeastern direction to hit the Yukon.

Eventually they cleared everything but sleeping bags and blankets from their sleds to lighten loads for the starving dogs. On February 6, they killed their first dog to provide food for themselves and surviving dogs. Soon Maidhof froze his feet and Morgan his hands. On the 11th they only made a mile, and Maidhof refused to go on. As they started back towards Unalakleet Maidhof collapsed. Morgan killed another dog and tried to force soup on the stricken man, but he died after some hours. Morgan buried him in the snow marked the grave with snowshoes and continued on, killing more dogs for food as needed. By March 3, Morgan, incapacitated by snow blindness, bundled up in his sled to await the end. After four days natives found him and carried him to safety. [38]

Miners Help Themselves

Miners were not willing to face the hardships of food scarcity when food was within reach. Miners at Circle forcibly took stores from steamers of the Alaska Commercial Company and the North American Transportation and Trading Company in September '97. Capt. P.H. Ray of the U.S. Army feared that Fort Yukon miners would show the same disregard for property. On November 1, he communicated his anxiety to Washington, reiterating recommendations he had made earlier for a military takeover of the Yukon:

Sir: I have the honor to report that since my return matters here have assumed a very serious aspect. The crew of the Weare and others caught in the gorge at the same time as myself are in camp here at the site of the old fort; 4 miles above the Alaska Commercial Company have a cache of about 200 tons of stores, landed there last fall when their steamers failed to pass the bar.

The North American Trading and Transportation Company have a cache here. On the afternoon of the 29th ultimo I received a note from Mr. Davis, agent of the Alaska Commercial Company, saying that he was informed that there was a movement on foot to seize the cache, and a meeting was being held for that purpose.

I went up at once with Mr. Richardson, and soon after arriving there was waited upon by a committee from a miners' meeting, who stated their demands: That there were 75 of them, and they demanded they be furnished on credit with an 'outfit of provisions and clothing for nine months.' This, Mr. Davis, the agent, declined to do.

I am still of the opinion that it should be a military government, with power to hunt to the death the lawless element. [39]

Conditions on the Yukon appeared critical to John J. Healy of the North American Transportation and Trading Company who shared Ray's fears that food thefts and disorders would continue. In December '97 he hired E.H. Wells to carry his letter to the adjutant general in Washington:

We have advanced for the Government $1,000 to pay Mr. Well's expenses, he to look to the Department for compensation for his services to Washington and return. In behalf of the American miners on the American side of the Yukon Valley we appeal to the Government to send us the strong arm of the military for protection from Fort Get There, St. Michael Island, to the boundary line between Yukon, Alaska, and Yukon, Northwest Territory. Our Government should act at once, as there are many valuable mines on the Koyukuk, Tanana, Manook, Birch Creek, Seventy-Mile, American Creek, and all of that portion of Forty-Mile mines lying within the American possessions.

The mining industries of the American portion of the Yukon Valley will be seriously crippled, if not entirely paralyzed, by reason of it not being safe to run steamers and land supplies at any of the mining camps along the river.

The great rush of the people to the Yukon makes it probable that armed raiders will hold up the steamers and loot the stores of their supplies, consequently the merchants and transportation companies will be obliged to confine their business to the Canadian side of the Yukon Valley, as the Northwest mounted police offer protection to life and property. [40]

Other alarming reports were also reaching Washington and stimulated both the several relief efforts and, more significantly, the eventual establishment of a judicial district for the interior.

Commercial Expansion

Valdez, Skagway, and Dyea were Alaska's chief gold-rush boom towns but Yukon River traffic also accelerated business at St. Michael. Activity there justified the efforts of the North American Transportation and Trading Company in building a commodious hotel in summer '98. Prior to 1897 there had never been more than three or four ships calling at the old Russian trading post during the season. Thirty-six ocean going ships and 15 riverboats entered the port in 1897; in 1898 there were 118—24 from foreign ports—and 113 riverboats. Construction activity flourished because many of the river steamers were shipped in knocked-down condition and assembled there—as was the hotel.

Such brisk acceleration of commerce strained the frail governmental system. The highest judicial office, aside from the district judge based at Sitka, was that of U.S. Commissioner. Commissioner L.B. Shepard of St. Michael lacked authority to deal with the most common civil cases—disputes concerning sailors; wages, libels against vessels, and other admiralty law matters beyond the jurisdiction of a justice of peace court. On several occasions, as when stampeder Homer Bird murdered another man on the Yukon, Shepard had to advance personal funds to secure a timely arrest. The commissioner wished Washington to know that his ability to meet financial demands in advance of repayment of governments vouchers, which could take a year, was limited. Shepard, who was also the North American Transportation and Trading Company's agent, distributed all company mail received at St. Michael and reported to Chicago on all news from the gold fields. He was in full agreement with his Dawson-based manager, John J. Healy, on the great starvation scare of '97, sending dispatches on Portland leaving St. Michael on August 16, "that all danger of starvation among the miners is over." Reporting this, a Chicago newspaper described the freight sent upriver as "principally goods," although other sources indicated that whiskey and hardware made up the bulk of riverboat cargos. Charles A. Weare in Chicago insisted that the company's food priority had been communicated to all riverboat captains. If this was true, the order must have been ignored. [41]

It was on Shepard's advice that the North American Transportation and Trading Company determined to build a hotel in anticipation of there being numerous miners whose downriver passages would be ended by freeze-up, inducing them to trudge down to St. Michael for its amenities, "most . . . will be well supplied with dust and eager to spend it," warned the agent. News of the company's investment at Fort Get There, their name for their St. Michael station (later changed to "Healy") was very stimulating to Outside investors. It suggested that Alaska itself—not just the Canadian Klondike was being developed and would probably prove rich in gold when prospectors gave it more attention. [42]

Shepard's performance was criticized by miners, particularly those who distrusted the North American Transportation and Trading Company and Alaska Commercial Company, because he was also St. Michael's North American's agent. There was no illegality in working for the North American Transportation and Trading Company, yet it attracted condemnation. An anonymous letter of 1899 scorns Shepard as "an illiterate man of no honor, no knowledge of law or justice," accused him of cheating other Yukon companies to force them out of competition with the North American Transportation and Trading Company, and with the Alaska Commercial Company agent, "gobble up most of the Cape Nome mining claims through fictitious powers of attorney." The disgruntled writer believed Shepard "used Laplanders and other foreigners and accepted filings of citizenship to get these claims." Since the complainant's linking of Shepard's supposed corruption with the much disputed claims of Nome's discoverers is nonsense, perhaps charges that he "accepts bribes in trials" was equally slanderous, although such charges were made by others. [43]

In addition to the hotel North American Transportation and Trading Company officers were proud to announce the augmentation of its Yukon fleet by the launching of Hamilton on August 8, 1898. A storm the next day came close to ending the steamboat's career, as fierce winds swept across the Bering Sea inland to damage some buildings. Hamilton survived but was not fitted out and under way early enough to complete its maiden voyage before being caught by the ice.

Neither Shepard nor any other adviser to companies and potential investors could be counted on entirely when they forecasted future events, but their reports had more credibility than those contributed by the hoards of newsmen. Shepard was amazed at the numbers of journalists gathered at St. Michael: "Every newspaper of note in the world seems to be represented, and the strife for news is so great that all kinds of stories are being sent out." This message was itself a warning to his Chicago headquarters—a hint that stories of competitive journalist might hold elements of fantasy. [44]

Cunning businessmen did not give all their attention to building, buying, and selling. They knew the value of lobbying in Washington or Ottawa for special advantages. Usually their requests were routine ones, but North American officers looking ahead to means of securing a stronger position in the territory proposed a bold scheme. Citing "a deplorable deficiency in the exercise of judicial authority," they proposed carving out the Yukon section as a separate territory. Lincoln Territory was the suggested name, with its capital at Weare (Tanana) about halfway between St. Michael and Dawson on the Yukon. Since Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage's son, Eli, worked for the North American Transportation and Trading Company, the secretary might favor a proposal that included Eli's appointment as governor. Boundaries would be: Mount St. Elias on the Southeast from which the eastern line would run to the Arctic Ocean; the western boundary would run downcoast from St. Michael to the top of the divide between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers; the southern boundary would follow the 62nd parallel east to the Copper River, thence to Mount St. Elias. The Alaska territory would then encompass the Aleutians, Alaska Peninsula, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Copper River, and southeast Alaska. Though Charles Barber, the Fort Get There hotel manager, who announced the scheme while en route to St. Michael, indicated a bill to be introduced by Senator Thomas Carter of Montana had already been written, nothing came of the scheme. [45]

The abortive territorial division effort had no importance in itself but, like the North American Transportation and Trading Company's expansion and the establishment of other shipping and trading companies on the Yukon, it reinforced a view of optimistic prospects. People thinking about the North were impressed by the splurge of capital flowing that direction.


There were horrors on the Valdez Trail, terrible disasters on the Chilkoot, carnage of pack animals on the White Pass, anxieties about food shortage, and aggravating delays in the Yukon River passage. Many stampeders quit their quest along the way or reached Dawson to find their money depleted by unanticipated expenses in transport or packing or travel delays. Some gave up at this point or altered their plans for investment or maintenance.

"Getting There" was, in a special sense, what the gold rush was all about. Travel timing and hardships often dictated the longevity of one's enthusiasm, acting as a kind of "survival of the fittest" check on the masses who sought their fortune. Evidence of the importance of the travel ventures shows clearly in the many narratives of the stampeders. Their stories focus sharply on their experience while en route to the gold fields. Though such an emphasis is understandable among those who lost too much in money, time, and zeal to pursue their original goals, it is also pronounced among those who stayed in the North for long periods. Overall, the gold rush stampede venture held several distinct chapters or stages, but the post-travel stages did not dominate memories to the extent that "getting there" did.

Notes: Chapter 4

1. Alaska Mining Record, November 6, 1897; San Francisco Chronicle, November 29, 1897.

2. San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 1897.

3. Robert L. Spude, Chilkoot Trail: From Dyea to Summit with the '98 Stampeders (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Cooperative Park Studies Unit, 1980) ix.

4. Ibid., 33, 13.

5. Ibid., 102-103.

6. Ibid., 127.

7. Ibid., 147.

8. Franklin Walker, Jack London and the Klondike (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1966) 58.

9. Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1897.

10. Seattle Times, August 19, 1897.

11. Juliette C. Reinicker, Klondike Letters (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., 1984) 23-24.

12. "Autobiography of Lester L. Monnett," 2, unpublished manuscript, NPS file copy.

13. Seattle Times, January 5, 1898.

14. New York Journal, February 13, 1898.

15. San Francisco Chronicle, August 2, 1897.

16. Ibid., August 2 and August 4, 1897.

17. Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1897.

18. Jane Apostol, "Charles W. Watts: An Oregonian in the Klondike," (Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 1, Spring, 1986) 8-9.

19. Colonel S.B. Steele, Forty Years in Canada (London: Jenkins, 1915), 295-297.

20. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, passim; Roy Minter, The White Pass: Gateway to the Klondike (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1987) passim.

21. J.G. MacGregor, Klondike Rush Through Edmonton (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1970) 1-3.

22. Brady to Secretary of Interior, December 21, 1897; July 7, 1898, Interior Papers, FRC.

23. Howard Clifford, Skagway Story (Edmonds, WA: Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., 1975) 85.

24. Dyea Trail, January 19 and April 9, 1898, quoted in Edwin C. Bearss, Proposed Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Resource Study, (Washington, D.C.: NPS, 1970), 105, 121, for this and following quote.

25. Stratford Tollemache, Reminiscences of the Yukon (Toronto: Briggs, 1912) 27.

26. William R. Hunt, North of 53° (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1974) 75-77; Hamlin Garland, Trail of the Gold-Seekers (New York: McMillan Publishing Co., 1899) passim.

27. F.C. Schrader, "A Reconnaissance of the Port of Prince William Sound and the Copper River District, Alaska, in 1898," Compilation of Narratives of Exploration in Alaska. Senate Repts., 56th Cong. 1st sess., No. 1023 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1900) 368-9.

28. William R. Abercrombie, "Copper River Exploring Expedition, 1899," Compilation of Narratives of Exploration in Alaska. Senate Repts., 56th Cong., 1st sess., No. 1023, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1900) 14-15.

29. Numbers of published narratives describe the Yukon route, including Jeremiah Lynch, Three Years in the Klondike (London: Arnold & Co., 1904). Other references to the Yukon route may be noted throughout this text.

30. Chicago Tribune, September 11, 1897; San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, October 21, 1897.

31. San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 1897.

32. Alaska Mining Record, November 24, 1897.

33. Oakland Engineer, March 16, 1898.

34. San Francisco Chronicle, November 29, 1897; Seattle Times, December 1,1897.

35. San Francisco Chronicle, November 29, 1897.

36. Edwin C. Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush 100, citing Ella Lung Martinsen, Black Sand & Gold (Portland, OR.: Metropolitan Publishing Co., 1967) 216-18.

37. Alfred H. Brooks, Blazing Alaska's Trails (College: University of Alaska Press, 1953) 350.

38. San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 1898.

39. P.H. Ray and W.P. Richardson, "Suffering and Destitute miners in Alaska," Compilation of Narratives of Exploration in Alaska, 542-43.

40. Ibid., 540-41.

41. L.B. Shepard to C.N. Bliss, June 1, 1899, District Court Papers, ASA, RG 305, Letters sent; Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1897; Virginia Burlingame, "John J. Healy's Alaskan Adventure" (Alaska Journal, Autumn 1978), 316; and Pierre Berton, Klondike Fever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974) 178 used other sources indicating Healy's anger that so little food was sent.

42. Ibid.

43. Anonymous letter enclosed with Attorney General to Judge Charles S. Johnson, November 16, 1899, ASA, RG 505, Letters Received.

44. Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1897.

45. San Francisco Chronicle, October 14, 1897.

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