Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Gold-rush Literature

According to mining historian Duane Smith, the mining frontier has not inspired authors of fiction as have cattlemen and fur traders. Given the miserly treatment of mining themes in fiction for the entire trans-Mississippi West, we cannot expect to discover many literary treatments of Alaska-Yukon mining. The great triumvirate of early 20th century writers, Jack London, Rex Beach, and Robert Service, of course did found their careers with books focusing on northern mining. A few other writers, like Sam Dunham, worked similar veins, but the flourishing period was short-lived.

Jack London

"I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy," wrote Jack London of his great northern adventure. Of course, this was not true. He had gold, the glittering dust that had lured him from California, but he did not boast about it. It was not that he was above bragging on occasion. But his portion of the fabulous wealth of the Klondike amounted only to $4.50, so he was inclined to modesty.

Earlier Jack had reported more accurately on his gains. "I never realized a cent from any property I had interest in up there," he told a friend. "Still, I have been managing to pan a living since on the strength of the trip." [1]

Accounts differ on how Jack spent his time in the North. Some contemporaries claimed that he spent more time telling his stories and listening to others in Dawson's saloons than digging the frozen ground. Whatever the truth, the results of his observations were later to be expressed in wonderful ways. Tens of thousands of men and women shared London's goldrush experience—and millions since participated vicariously in their travails through his fiction.

Jack London landed at Dyea with thousands of other Klondike gold stampeders in August 1987. The vibrant-looking, husky 21-year-old was new to prospecting, but he had plenty of other adventures behind him as a seal poacher, hobo, oyster-bed raider, jute mill hand, and cannery worker.

Aboard ship he had formed a party with a few other young men eager to pool their resources and their labor for the work ahead. When the fellows hit the beach at Dyea they knew just what to do. No hired packers for them! They had strong backs and weak wallets.

As Jack and his companions packed along the Chilkoot Pass trail, he began to feel good about his physical prowess. Again and again he had to relay loads of provisions averaging 150 pounds and managed about 24 miles each day of the passage to the summit and beyond to Lake Lindeman. This tough work took a couple of memorable weeks. [2]

Along the way to the gold fields Jack rejoiced in participating in an event that offered so many opportunities to view the behavior of others under stress. He noted illustrations of courage and fellowship and less admirable examples of cowardice and greed. It was all grist to his mill. Some of his observations showed his good humor. He could even praise the cunning of the fierce mosquitoes that were such a burden to all travelers. A journal entry recorded behavior unknown to natural science:

Badly bitten under netting—couldn't vouch for it but John watched them and said they rushed the netting in a body, one gang holding up the edge while a second gang crawled under. Charley swore that he has seen several of the larger ones pull the mess apart and let a small one through. I have seen them with their proboscis bent and twisted after an assault on a sheet iron stove. [3]

One Yukon winter was enough for Jack. In summer 1898 he voyaged down the Yukon through interior Alaska for St. Michael and the trip south. He had not money enough for passage so worked as a fireman aboard ship.

Back in Oakland the young writer pondered his experiences. By 1899 the world no longer hungered for news from the Klondike. Journalists had filed millions of words with their editors to finally satiate the public's curiosity. The papers still carried Klondike and Alaska stories but not on the front page where other events dominated.

In fact, the Klondike was old news by the time London returned to California. But when the editors of the popular magazine, Overland Monthly, read the stories Jack submitted, they liked the robust prose the young man contributed. Overland took nine of his stories in 1899, and eastern journals snapped up 10 stories in 1900. Books followed year after year, and most sold well.

By his own admission London was poor at making up plots. He frequently purchased ideas from young unknown writers like Sinclair Lewis. Newspaper stories also provided some of his best material. One story told of the sad death of a Sausalito man at Rampart. John Snell, hoping to make a fortune in commerce, started upriver from St. Michael in 1898 with 1,500 dozen eggs. He had invested everything he owned in the eggs, a food item reported to command fabulous prices in Dawson. Unfortunately, low Yukon water halted his steamboat at Rampart, then winter closed river navigation. Snell was stuck with 1,500 dozen eggs. Rampart miners would have been glad to buy some of them but, alas, they were all spoiled.

Snell brooded for a time, then affixed a note to his cabin door saying "Gone Out." Several days later a friend forced open the cabin to see Snell "suspended by a wire rope from the rafter of the cabin cold in death." "One Thousand Dozen" was the story London told of this tragic incident. [4]

Published narratives on the gold rush provided the writer with factual background material and, occasionally, with the inspiration for a good tale. Jeremiah Lynch's "Three Years in the Klondike" included an account of a miner who froze to death on the trail. He had been traveling from his claim to Dawson and suffered from exposure after falling into a stream. Evidence of the doomed man's attempt to light a fire to warm himself and dry his clothes struck London's imagination powerfully. The moving little story, "To Light a Fire," was the result.

Among the books London carried with him to the Klondike was Miner Bruce's Through the Goldfields of Alaska to the Klondike. Once he returned to Oakland he bought other books useful for fleshing out his stories, including Tappan Adney's Klondike Stampede and Harry DeWindt's Through the Gold Field of Alaska. Adney's book was helpful in his planning of Daughter of the Snows. Adney had paid particular attention to trader John J. Healy's role at Dawson and made a spirited defense of his policies when starvation threatened the town. London made Healy the father of his novel's heroine but did not show more than a superficial interest in the trader or his commercial world. He found Adney's description of Swiftwater Bill Gates useful in both Daughter of the Snows and Burning Daylight. [5] Another source for Burning Daylight was a miner named Elam Harnish, whom London met in the Klondike. Harnish was a hard worker and determined prospector, but hardly the heroic figure London described, a tireless musher who wore out three Indians and two dog teams carrying the mail from Circle to Dyea, then danced all night before starting back over the trail in the morning. [6]

Sometimes Jack waded through some heavy waters in pushing too earnestly his theories of Anglo-Saxon superiority and social Darwinism. But, generally, he maintained a lively pace and even managed to grace weak stories with good character depiction and superior natural description.

Perhaps no other journey to the Klondike and Alaska cast as long a shadow as that made by London in 1897-98. His stories of the North have been popular for nearly a century and have given countless readers their strongest impressions of the region. No other writer concerned with the North comes close to London's place as the premier adventure storyteller. Jack London achieved legendary status as America's first writer/hero—a personality whose life was as interesting to the public as his books.

Some critics were not pleased with London's work. The nation's ranking expert on Alaska, William Healy Dall, derided London's efforts. Dall, who had been a member of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition from 1865-67, reigned over Alaskan scientists from his post at the Smithsonian.

Dall had little good to say about London's first collection of stories, "The Son of the Wolf," when he reviewed it in the "New York Times." London defended himself to a friend. Dall was a scientist not an artist, London complained, and he did not understand art. "When I have drawn a picture in a few strokes, he would spoil it by putting in the multitude of details I have left out . . . His trouble is that he does not see with a pictorial eye. He merely looks upon a scene and sees every bit of it; but he does not see the true picture in that scene." [7]

Other Alaskan "experts" also poked fun at London. Wilson Mizner, probably the wittiest man who ever caroused in the saloons of Dawson and Nome, later wrote about the "London school" of Klondike fiction, with "its supermen and superdogs, its abysmal brutes and exquisite ingenues." [8]

Another critic cried that the writer's craft consisted of turning men into brutes and brutes into men. And still another man charged that the writer was guilty of "spreading a false gospel of the true Alaskan conditions." [9]

But how did the Alaska miners feel about London's stories? An unpublished letter in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives written by a Rampart miner in 1900 presents one view. Hunter Fitzhugh had only a little time to look at London's novel before another eager reader took it away. The book reached the Yukon River gold mining town in October 1900. Its owner was besieged by men keen to read about London's north. "The fellow who owns it says he will lend it to me when about two dozen others have read it," Fitzhugh wrote his mother.

I can see that it is an A-1 sketch of our life up here. The dog tales, the descriptions of our costumes, and all the stage settings and business are just as I would have put them if I had been able to write. The Indian talk is a little off color, as he makes them use too much Chinook of which they are entirely ignorant. [10]

Tastes differ on writers and London's stories varied in quality. But he is well loved. Among national writers he holds a singular place as the most widely read American novelist in the world. His preeminence abroad has been maintained for decades against distinguished rivals like Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway. A Russian writer described his nation's infatuation with London in evocative terms: "This is the first cigar we smoke in our youth." [11]

Alaskans, of course, hold London in special regard. His is the only major writer who made Alaska and the Yukon the setting of a major part of his work. Though London wrote other books not concerned with the North, he launched his career and did some of his finest writing about this region.

London felt very strongly about his Klondike experience. Writing to Sam Dunham in 1913, he praised Dunham's The Men Who Blaze the Trail and The Goldsmith of Nome, two books of northern poetry. "I cannot express to you how I have enjoyed it, but I can say this: Your verse has struck the truest note of the Northerland." London did not think that Dunham's poems would be pleasing to those who did not know the north because the "truest note" would not be popular. His comment was shrewd if the relative popularity of Dunham and Robert Service may be compared. Service, rather like London, wrote very colorful poems about improbable events, and his work became as famous as London's. Dunham's realistic lyrics had few readers. [12]

London had only 40 years for his prodigious work and hectic play. Boozing wasted him, as did the habit of treating ailments with narcotics, heavy smoking, the strain of unfortunate investments, his grandiose ranch development and construction schemes, and all around helter-skelter lifestyle. But his marvelous exuberance lives on in his stories. Somehow it is so easy to picture him at work, tearing through his mandatory daily stint of completed pages. Some voice was always calling to him—Run, Jack, run! And he ran, too hard and too fast.

When he laid his pen down for the last time, he had left us something monumental, including 50 published books of fiction and nonfiction—500 articles and essays, 200 short stories, and 19 novels. And he also left us a dazzling, never fading picture of a man of parts—adventurer, social commentator, novelist, Socialist, and more. He helped draw the picture to the extent that he directed his own self-publicity in years of fame—but it was not faked. He was truly a protean figure, a fellow of legendary proportions, a character well fit to play the lead in a novel by Jack London.

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham, a representative of the U.S. Department of Labor, arrived at Dawson on September 23, 1897. After investigating labor and related economic conditions, there he moved downriver to Circle on the steamboat Bella, arriving there on October 14 after a 13-day voyage. Dunham's work on his report was excellent, but in Circle he had time to write the poems about "The Men Who Blaze the Trail." Dunham wrote respectable verse:

So while others sing of the chosen few
Who o'er the Fates prevail,
I will sing of the many, staunch and true,
Whose brave hearts never quail,—
Who with dauntless spirit of pioneers
A state are building for the coming years,
Their sole reward their loved one's tears,—
The men who blaze the trail! [13]

Dunham had a good time with a famous western poet, Joaquin Miller, in Circle. They were good enough friends to permit some playfulness over Miller's heroic verse on crossing the Chilkoot in the form of a Dunham parody of some verses.

Dunham returned outside in 1899, then returned north in 1900 to help with the census and report for the Labor Department on Nome. While in Nome he wrote poems on actual events like the conspiracy to take over wealthy mines by Alexander McKenzie and his cohorts and on the disenchantment of miners with the government's service. His "Alaska to Uncle Sam" was an emotional, good-humored plea for statehood. Other poems caught the disappointment of unsuccessful prospectors:

We're too slow for the new breed of miners,
Embracing all classes of men,
Who locate by power of attorney
And prospect their claims with a pen. [14]

Robert Service

Dunham knew the gold-rush era far better than Robert Service but failed to tap the literary gold. He had emigrated from Scotland to North America as a young man and bummed his way out to California. There he was thrilled by the stories of Jack London. The Klondike excitement had not yet faded in 1902-03 when Service became aware of the North, although he did not imagine that, "while other men were seeking Eldorado, they were also making one for me." [15]

Quite by chance, in 1904, he was offered a bank clerk's job at the Whitehorse branch of a Canadian bank. Service lived sedately in Whitehorse but did enjoy reciting famous verses like "Casey at the Bat" and "The Face on the Bar-Room Floor" at social gatherings. After one such performance Stroller White, the well-known Whitehorse Star journalist, urged him to write original verse: "Give us something about our own little bit of earth . . . There's a rich paystreak waiting for someone to work. Why don't you go on in and stake it?" [16]

Service thought about White's suggestion for some time before inspiration came. He described the moment in his autobiography. It was Saturday night, and he was still working at the bank. Music and revelry from a neighboring saloon penetrated his reflections. Just then a pistol shot roared in his ear, fired by the bank watchman who thought Service's after-hours presence was that of a burglar. Explanations followed but instead of retiring for a drink or other repairs to his jingling nerves, Service sat tight and wrote about a shooting at the Malemute Saloon. His first scribbled words were:

"A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malemute Saloon." Hours later he finished what was to become the most declaimed of all verses of the North, a lurid, exciting ballad of unrequited love and vengeance entitled "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."

Good fortune followed immediately upon Service's first recitation. A miner told him "a story Jack London never got" that became "The Cremation of Sam McGee," a lively tale that climaxed with a happy scene:

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
in the heart of the furnace road;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
and he said: 'Please close that door.'
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear
you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
it's the first time I've been warm. [17]

Service's Songs of the Sourdough appeared in 1909 and has not been out of print since.

Rex Beach

Rex Beach made significant contributions to Alaska's mining literature. His stories and novels were not as popular as London's because he was not as good a writer, but they had wide readership. Beach's experience in the North certainly exceeded that of any other author.

As a college lad he had joined the gold stampeders and ended up at Rampart, where he spent two years mining. At the time he had no literary aspirations, yet was intrigued when a friend argued that the North would never generate a Mark Twain or Bret Harte—writers capable of chronicling the stampede as had been done for California. "There's no drama up here, no comedy, no warmth. Life is as pale and cold as the snow." Beach accepted this dictum at first, then, later on, realized what nonsense it was. Why should the Yukon country lack for drama and color when the actual conditions were appreciated? It should not be hard to imagine romance in a community like Rampart, an instant town full of anxious fortune seekers confronting a severe climate and wholly unfamiliar surroundings. [18]

Later, Beach got in on the Nome stampede before returning to Chicago. While working for a building materials firm he started writing stories about mining events and eventually achieved great success. The Spoilers, based on the McKenzie-Noyes conspiracy in Nome, was a best-selling novel and has had several reprintings over the years. Another novel, The Barrier, treats the world he knew as a Rampart miner. The Iron Trail, based on the construction of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, did well in several editions. Beach had traveled to Cordova and the Copper River country after the railroad's completion to research the novel.

In his choice of historic events at Nome and the Copper River for novels Beach reached more readers than did Alaska's historians. But Beach also influenced events with a series of articles, "The Looting of Alaska," on the Spoilers of Nome published in 1906. The magazine articles created a sensation and angered U.S. Senators who were associated with Alexander McKenzie, but they gave the 1900-01 conspiracy the first general publicity they received.

London, Beach, and Service had many imitators, but no other writers who focused on the mining frontier have enjoyed large commercial or artistic successes. Though there is some risk in predicting the future of literature, it seems unlikely that many writers will be attracted by the northern gold-rush theme because neither the region nor the time command general interest. The odd romance or adventure popular novel will continue to surface from time to time but probably will not make much of a commercial stir. In other forms of popular culture, television productions and theater films notably, the gold-rush era has been treated at times but not very successfully from any point of view. It does not appear that the general consciousness of northern mining history is high enough to make its treatment popular in the future.

Referring back to historian Duane Smith's comments on the comparative paucity of mining frontier fiction, it is evident that his analysis does not apply to Alaska. The rivals of miners in other parts of the West—cattlemen and trappers—are not observable in Alaska's past. There were trappers, if not cattlemen, in the North, but none who captured the popular fancy as did those wonderful pathfinders and Indian fighters of the Plains and the Rockies. Alaska had fishermen, but romance does not cling to that severe pursuit. Thus far, authors viewing the North, excepting those who focus on natives, see the mining frontier alone as a colorful setting for literature.

Personal Narrative Literature

Considerations of mining frontier literature usually focus on the creative branches—fiction and poetry—to the neglect of personal narratives. Early published travel narratives were eagerly studied by stampeders, who used them as sources of information and, as has been seen, by writers like Jack London for inspiration and source material. But the personal narratives form a body of nonfiction literature worthy of respect for its artistry and wisdom. Many of the more interesting of the narratives have been reprinted in recent years because of their intrinsic reading value, including Edwin T. Adney, Klondike Stampede; Mrs. George Black, My 70 Years; Alfred H. Brooks, Blazing Alaska's Trails; Joseph Grinnell, Gold Hunting in Alaska; L.H. French, Seward's Land of Gold; and others.

As an illustration of the richness of the travel-adventure accounts on the North, Addison M. Powell's Trailing and Camping in Alaska is a superlative example. Powell landed at Valdez in 1898 to investigate the Copper River country and published a book of his observations some 10 years after his return. As a witty and wise observer of other stampeders, Power was matchless. Even before leaving Seattle he caught the peculiarities of gold fever, telling a funny story about an angry man who "knew" an acquaintance was on to a good thing in the Klondike because he insisted that he had no intention of leaving Seattle. At Copper Center he observed that "in the wild rush to this country, there were about two prospectors to every hundred invaders, and two others who were willing to learn, while the other ninety-six were waiting for a "strike." While waiting they kept busy "in holding miners' meetings over dog-fights and other such trivial matters." [19]

Prospectors, Powell said, lived on hope and beans, and the hope was the more important driving force. He did admire the spirit of Ole Allson of Minnesota, whose claim location notice stated: "I take one mining claim and if it's good I take two." [20]

Powell understood quitters and paid them particular attention:

Every outgoing steamer was loaded down with quitters who, as prospectors, were helpless incompetents. To avoid being ridiculed, they pretended to be returning for horses, larger outfits or more assistance from home. One young man, to have an excuse, said he was returning for cigarette papers. . . . When a man was seen whittling, it was generally conceded to be an indication that he was going out on the next boat.

Another quitter blamed his wife: "I am a married man, and this is no place for me. My wife thinks I'm a peach, a blossom, and a hero! She thinks I am a loo-loo bird and I feel through my whole system that I ought to be at home doing something! You can't imagine how my wife loves me, my person and my ways!" Some quitters were good-humored about it. One told Powell that "the reason I came to Alaska was that I had nothing to lose; and, I'll be hanged, gentlemen, if I didn't lose that." [21]

Powell reflected the miners' contemptuous view of mining promoters, making an addendum to Mark Twain's famous comment: "It has been said that the miner is a liar with a hole in the ground, but I say, generally speaking, the promoter hasn't even a hole." [22]

Powell's good-humored way of seeing things did not obscure his relations of travails of the trail. His description of trudging across the Valdez glacier facing the perils of crevasses catches the dangers and hardships well enough. Everywhere he heard of deaths in blizzards, falls, avalanches, drownings, or other dire circumstances. He crossed the summit by the Valdez Glacier at 5,000 feet in a blinding snowstorm; "I broke through the crust of snow that covered a crevasse, and with one leg swinging around in space beneath, declared I never again would attempt to cross that glacier." [23]

In Powell we gain a feel for the vast country of his travels, its beauties and its discomforts, including tearing winds and mosquitoes so harassing as to cause "us fully to realize the mistake that had been made when we were born." [24] Many readers find the personal narratives of Powell and other participants more meaningful than fictional representation of the same events. The narrative expresses a truth and immediacy that may not come across with even the most adroit novelist and thus bridges the gap between actor and reader, past and present, more effectively.

But whatever the literary merits and interest offered by personal narratives, they are less likely to attract readers of a later time than fiction. We are fortunate when ever a previously published narrative is reprinted and even more so when an old unpublished narrative gains a printing. We can expect few publications of personal narratives or, for that matter, of historical works treating the mining frontier because of the small Alaska-Yukon population and correspondingly small universities. Publishers, except for the few regional specialists, must look to books that will interest general readers of history in the states and Canada because high sales among northern residents cannot be expected.

There is no reason to be gloomy about the prospects of narrative and historical literature. Rich archives of historical material have been established in Alaska, the Yukon, and elsewhere in the states and Canada where personal papers of gold-era participants have been preserved. Whenever the novel writers, poets, or historians need to search for documentation the research material is at hand.

Popular Culture

The northern gold rushes have been featured in a number of movies. Hollywood has produced at least three versions of The Spoilers, including one with Clark Gable. Of all the gold-rush films none has compared in popularity to Charley Chaplain's Gold Rush, the stirring silent classic that finds new fans in each generation. On television the gold rush appears only infrequently.

Other gold-rush stories have been radio shows, including a serial of the 1940s, "Refrew of the Mounties," children's books, and comic adventure books. But the event's lasting impact on popular culture has not been great. There is no popular, perennial stock representation in any cultural form comparable to the western cowboy or gunslinger themes.

Reasons for the relatively light impression of the mining frontier on popular culture are not hard to find. The event was sensational and dramatic enough for a time, but it was soon crowded off stage by other events. It could not continue to grip public attention except through the genius and persistence of artists and performances. The great literary triumvirate, Jack London, Robert Service, and Rex Beach, could inspire film, radio, and other media productions for a limited time only. What was lacking was the emergence of artists strong enough to establish the gold-rush theme for a long run. If someone like Will Rogers, for example, had been a Klondiker and continued to bring forward his experiences to his varied huge audiences, the impact would have been considerable.

Revivals of interest in the popular arts will surface periodically, and some future revival might become hugely popular. Meanwhile, we maintain our stimulants. Visitors to the wonderfully restored towns of Dawson and Skagway and other preserved northern mining sites will continue to be impressed by the "dear, dead days" of '98.

Notes: Chapter 8

1. Franklin Walker, Jack London and the Klondike (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1966), 213.

2. Ibid., 58.

3. Ibid., 174-75.

4. David M. Hamilton, "The Tools of My Trade," The Annotated Books in Jack London's Library (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986), 189.

5. Ibid., 8-15.

6. Terrence Cole, "Go Up, O Elam," (Alaska Journal, Vol. 6, No. 4, Autumn 1976), 235-41.

7. Walker, Jack London and the Klondike, 219-20.

8. Richard O'Conner, Jack London (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), 84.

9. Melvin Ricks Alaska in Literature (Juneau: Alaska Historical Library, 1960), 289.

10. Fitzhugh to mother, October 29, 1900, Fitzhugh papers, UAF.

11. O'Conner, Jack London, 6.

12. Hamilton, "The Tools of My Trade," 198.

13. Frank Busbe, "Sam Dunham: Forgotten Goldrush Poet," (Alaska Journal, 1981 Annual Collection), 130.

14. Ibid., 132.

15. Robert W. Service, Ploughman of the Moon (London: Benn, 1946), 257.

16. Ibid., 274.

17. Robert W. Service, Collected Poems (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1945), 36.

18. Rex Beach, Personal Exposures (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), 20.

19. Addison M. Powell, Trailing and Camping in Alaska (New York: Wessels & Bissel, 1910), 51-52.

20. Ibid., 58.

21. Ibid., 24; 53; 90.

22. Ibid., 107.

23. Ibid., 39.

24. Ibid., 56.

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Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008