• historic photo of men with gear at the Alaska-British Columbia border in the snow

    Klondike Gold Rush

    National Historical Park Alaska

Palm Sunday Avalanche Page 4

The roar of the third avalanche, much louder than those before, could be heard all the way to Sheep Camp. The camp was alarmed by the ominous rumble, but its residents had no way of knowing if any stampeders had been involved. Soon an eyewitness to the event -- possibly one of those that had been holding the rear portion of the rope -- staggered into camp bearing news of the disaster. Guns were fired to summon help, and fifteen hundred stampeders responded.16 Within minutes they headed up the trail. They probably arrived at the site of the slide within the hour; they joined those who had been unhurt by the slide, or those who had dug themselves out, in the rescue operations.17

 
Men holding shovels standing in a snowfield
Historic photo titled "Klondikers recovering the bodies of the tramway workers buried in the avalanche on Chilkoot Pass April 3, 1898"
Photo courtesy of University of Washington's Eric A. Hegg Collection
 
 

Rescue operations continued for the next four days, and traffic over the trail halted. Rescuers first attempted to save as many lives as possible. Estimates varied widely as to the number of lives that were saved. Edwin M. Wold noted that "only one or two persons were taken out alive." The New York Times, however, noted that 25 had been rescued, and the Dyea Press claimed that 40 or 50 were pulled from the snow pack because they held onto the communal rope. Even more extreme was William Hunt's assertion that "frantic rescuers pulled over 100 men to safety." A compilation of accounts appears to indicate that at least ten people who were initially buried by the snow pack were dug out alive. At least four of those, however, later died of exposure.18

The number that died in the snow slide is even more open to conjecture than the number who were saved. At first, wild reports were circulated that two or three hundred lives were lost.19 But after the rescue process began, more modest estimates were made, and several lists of the dead were compiled. Four different lists, each appearing in different publications, were known to be produced. The number of names on the four lists was 48, 51, 65 and 70. Significantly, few names appear on all four lists. The sources for these lists are not known, and because almost no biographical information is known about the large majority of the victims, there is no practical way to verify the authenticity of the various lists. A fifth list of names appears on the headboards at Dyea's Slide Cemetery. Because many remains were shipped Outside for burial, this list is not complete. It is significant, however, that several of the names on those headboards do not match those found on any of the published lists.20

 
 

Endnotes

17. Several sources have implied that the Sheep Camp rescuers were on the scene within fifteen minutes. Inasmuch as two and one-half miles separated Sheep Camp from the slide site, this is unlikely. It is true that some rescue work, by the survivors from the Scales party, began immediately after the slide. But the lives of those involved in the slide were not contingent upon the speed by which the rescuers arrived. Some victims, such as the tramway workers, may have been killed immediately, while others evidently suffocated several hours later. This conclusion is disputed by a report which claimed that those buried most deeply in the largest slide were killed instantly by the great weight of snow which cascaded down upon them. Hypothermia did not appear to be a major cause of death. Dyea Trail, 4/9/98; Lung/Martinsen, Black Sand and Gold, p. 378; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 119; Dyea Press, 4/6/98.

18. Lokke, Klondike Saga, p. 62; New York Times, 4/10/98; Dyea

Press, 4/6/98; Hunt, North of 53, p. 49.

19. Tuck, "Klondike Diary," p. 7; John J. Hjelsing, "My Trip to the Gold Fields of the Klondike," unpub. mss., p. 8; Lung/Martinsen, Black Sand and Gold, p. 378.

20. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, pp. 181-87; Dave Clabaugh, unpub. mss., 1979, in KLGO "Tragedies" file.

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