• Artist rendering of Pioneer Square during Klondike Gold Rush

    Klondike Gold Rush - Seattle Unit

    National Historical Park Washington

HARD DRIVE TO THE KLONDIKE: PROMOTING SEATTLE DURING THE GOLD RUSH Historic Resource Study for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Chapter Three

Reaping the Profits of the Klondike Trade


 

"This town of thirty to forty thousand was all Klondike"

- Robert B. Medill, Klondike Diary: True Account of the Gold Rush of 1897-1898

"The stores are ablaze with Klondike goods; men pass by robed in queer garments; ... teams of trained dogs, trotting about with sleds; men with packs upon their backs, and a thousand and one things which are of use in the Klondike trade."

- The Seattle Daily Times,1897

An "All-Klondike" Town


 

Descriptions of Seattle from 1897 and 1898 share a common theme: a sense of energy and purpose had gripped the city. After years of depression, the stampede to the Klondike invigorated the economy, rekindling the Seattle spirit. As was the case with many gold rushes throughout the West, it was generally not the miners who struck it rich. The business district -- centered around what is now Pioneer Square -- flourished, as thousands of gold seekers bound for the Yukon poured into the city, and a variety of merchants stepped forward to meet their needs.

One observer, returning to Seattle after a seven-month absence in the late 1890s, marveled that the sluggish, stagnant town he left bustled with new prosperity. "Up First Avenue and down Second Avenue is one train of fanciful, kaleidoscopic pictures from real life," he wrote. "The stores are ablaze with Klondike goods; men pass by robed in queer garments; ... teams of trained dogs, trotting about with sleds; men with packs upon their backs, and a thousand and one things which are of use for the Klondike trade." [1] Martha Louise Black, a prospector headed for the Yukon, had a similar reaction to Seattle's streets. "Everywhere were piles of outfits," she recalled. These included camp supplies, sleds, carts, and harnesses, together with dogs, horses, cattle, and oxen. [2] The increased commercial activity affected the mood of the city. As one miner summarized, "We found no discouragement in Seattle. This town of thirty to forty thousand was all Klondike." [3]

So profitable was the Klondike trade that during the late 1890s Seattle became the financial center of the Pacific Northwest. [4] By 1900 Seattle's bank clearances -- the amount of money that changed hands in the daily course of the city's commercial life -- had soared more than 400 percent, surpassing those of Portland and Los Angeles. At the turn of the century, only San Francisco enjoyed a greater volume of business among West Coast cities. Seattle bankers attributed this prosperity to the gold rush. [5] The city's merchants, too, remained well aware of the source of their profits. Wa Chong & Company, for example, reported in 1898 that "times are very good.... Klondike gold has helped things very much." [6]

The amount and variety of goods in a typical Klondike grubstake boosted numerous businesses in Seattle. During the winter of 1898, the Northwest Mounted Police required that each miner bring enough provisions to last a year, which could weigh between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds. The "one-ton rule" helped ensure that prospectors would arrive at least somewhat prepared to withstand the difficult environment of the Far North. It also benefited the merchants, who sold the miners this vast quantity of supplies, along with a myriad of services. Approximately 70,000 stampeders passed through Seattle during the Klondike Gold Rush -- each one a potential customer. Some gold seekers invested as much as $1,000 for supplies and transportation. [7]

Not all were men. [8] Although the Seattle Chamber of Commerce discouraged women from traveling to the Yukon, it established a Women's Department, which distributed advice on purchasing an outfit. Moreover, some entire families set out for the Klondike, providing additional opportunities for sales. Articles commonly purchased included groceries, clothing, bedding, sleds, hardware, medicine chests, tents, and harnesses and packsaddles. [9]

Some of the materials marketed to gold seekers were manufactured in the city. The Seattle Woolen Mill, for example, produced blankets and robes "for the Arctic Regions." [10] Another firm made a "special miner's shoe," turning out several dozen pairs per day. [11] Seattle also featured food processing plants, breweries, and foundries that supplied gold seekers. [12] Even so, Seattle merchants obtained many products -- including dry goods and clothing -- from suppliers in New York and Chicago, who shipped their goods west. Sometimes wholesalers in Seattle re-packaged these products under new, Klondike-related brand names. Lilly, Bogardus, and Company, Inc., a Seattle grain and feed dealer, sold products purchased from the Chicago stockyards as "Alaska Dog Feed." [13] By purchasing goods from the East and Midwest, Seattle merchants forged important commercial connections that allowed large stocks to move quickly and efficiently, at reduced costs. [14]

In addition to collecting fees from various merchants to finance its advertising campaign, the Chamber of Commerce gathered testimonials from miners to help Seattle businesses. "I never ate better bacon," one prospector vouched for The Seattle Trading Company. "The flour and beans could not be beat." Moreover, he and his partner did not lose any provisions, indicating that "the packing was first-class." Erastus Brainerd published these testimonials, many of which mentioned specific businesses, in Seattle newspapers. [15]

From the summer of 1897 throughout 1898, the Seattle press was filled with large, illustrated advertisements directed at stampeders. Merchants used the word "Klondike" to sell everything from arctic underwear to insect-proof masks. Crystallized eggs and evaporated foods were heavily advertised. Advertisements promoted an array of ingenious gadgets, including Klondike frost extractors (boilers) and air-tight camp stoves. The smaller "want ads" during this period further demonstrated the range of businesses that used the gold rush to sell their products and services. Vashon College, for example, offered Yukon-bound parents a place to leave their sons and daughters, "while their home is broken up." [16] The connection between the Yukon and what was being sold often appeared tenuous. One business advertised, "Going to the Klondyke? Have your watch repaired." [17] Even clairvoyants used the Klondike craze to sell their services. Flo Marvin, for instance, had predicted the gold strike -- and she frequently advertised her "occult powers," which included locating mines. [18]

Such an array of advertised products made it difficult for gold seekers to distinguish the essential from the useless and cumbersome. Miners had to decide whether to buy an air-tight camp stove, for example, or whether one of Palmer's Portable Houses would prove to be a better investment than a tent. [19] Purchasing agents were available to assist gold seekers in selecting and buying an outfit, but this approach had its drawbacks. Some unscrupulous purchasing agents -- called "cappers" -- took money from naïve miners and bought inexpensive, inadequate food and equipment, pocketing large profits. [20] In any case, some observers reveled in the city's unbridled consumerism during the gold rush. "I like Seattle," William Ballou noted in 1898, "all its different fakirs trying to sell you a gold washer, a K. stove, or a dog team with one lame dog which would get well by tomorrow." [21]

 

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