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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Rush for Gold

Seattle, Washington, buzzed with excitement on July 17, 1897. Word had come over the telegraph wires two days earlier that the S.S. Portland was heading into Puget Sound from St. Michael, Alaska, with more than a ton of gold in her hold. The gold strike had begun quietly on August 17, 1896, when three miners found gold in the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon. News of the strike spread slowly over the next year until miners began to return with their fortunes.

On board the Portland were 68 miners and their stores of gold. The local newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, sent reporters on a tugboat to interview the miners before they docked along the Seattle waterfront. Excited by the promise of catching a glimpse of gold, 5,000 people came down to the docks to see the miners and their treasure. The crowd was not disappointed. As the miners made their way down the gangplank, they hired spectators to help unload their gold. In a matter of hours, Seattle was swept with a case of gold fever. The great Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon Territory was on, as people dropped everything to head for the gold fields.

Seattle's Pioneer Square, the area of the town's first settlement, welcomed thousands of prospective miners, known as "stampeders." Merchants and ticket agents were beset with stampeders anxious to find transportation to the gold fields and to purchase supplies called "outfits." Store owners quickly stocked up with goods the prospectors would need and urged them to take advantage of their competitive prices. On average, an outfit for two people cost $250 to $500 and included such items as heavy clothing and boots; nonperishable foods like smoked bacon, beans, rice, and dried fruit; personal items like soap and razor blades; and mining tools. Stampeders had to buy enough supplies to last for several months because there were few, if any, opportunities to replenish supplies on the way to the gold fields. By early September, 9,000 people and 3,600 tons of freight had left Seattle for the Klondike.

Seattle became a temporary home to thousands of people as they feverishly planned their trip north. Steamers taking passengers to Alaska were over booked and often dangerously overcrowded. Even so, many people who came to Seattle were forced to wait weeks before space became available at all. Merchants welcomed the flood tide of customers to the city, but hotel rooms and boardinghouses became scarce. Whether arriving by boat or train, newcomers flocked to Pioneer Square to find a "flop" (a bed). Spare rooms, basements, and attics were converted to living quarters for stampeders awaiting transportation to Skagway, Alaska and other points north.

Pioneer Square offered filling meals and many amusements for those who had the time or the money to spare. Hungry stampeders could purchase a meal at one of the many restaurants, cafes, and eateries throughout the business district. Gambling halls, variety theaters, and saloons catered to the whims of many. Adding to the neighborhood's rough-and-tumble reputation, some dishonest people sold prospectors goods they did not need or substituted poor quality food for the better quality items the stampeders thought they were purchasing.

One of the immediate concerns of the stampeders was the route they would take to the gold fields. Few had any idea of how far they would have to travel after they left Seattle. Many were astonished to find that the Klondike strike was not in Alaska but across the Canadian border into the Yukon Territory. Since many of the stampeders were poor, they had to take the less expensive but extremely difficult route up to the Alaskan panhandle and over mountains to the Yukon River and then to Dawson, the town closest to the gold fields. Those who could afford the easier, all-water route, traveled to the delta of the Yukon River and then down the river to Dawson. Most stampeders who set out in the fall would not even reach the gold fields until the following spring because the Yukon River had frozen and the mountain trails from Skagway and Dyea, Alaska, were almost impassable. Most would return to Seattle in a year or two--some with riches, but most poorer than when they started. Others died before ever seeing the gold fields.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How was Seattle linked to the Klondike gold strike? What changes did the gold rush bring to Seattle?

2. Why did it take so long for news of the gold strike to spread?

3. What businesses grew because of the Klondike Gold Rush?

4. Using Map 1 as well as Reading 1, describe the routes stampeders could take to the gold fields. Why did it take so long to reach the gold fields?

5. If you were a stampeder, what problems might you have faced once you arrived in Seattle?

Reading 1 was adapted from The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898: A Teacher's Guide to the Last Grand Adventure (Seattle: Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, 1993); Pierre Berton, The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958); and Elizabeth Rider Montgomery, When a Ton of Gold Reached Seattle (Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing Company).

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