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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Legacy of the Klondike Gold Rush

The Klondike gold strike in the Yukon Territory marked the end of an era when prospectors could hope to dig out a fortune from the earth. Perhaps because it came so late in time compared to other major gold strikes, or perhaps because some miners did take home millions in spite of the frozen environment, this gold rush left a lasting mark on the American imagination. Today, readers still enjoy The Spell of the Yukon, by Robert Service and the many works of Jack London such as Call of the Wild and White Fang, that tell of the immense hardships under which the miners worked. Yet these stories also tell of the pull that the far north had on many and, even today, they spark readers' fascination.

The Klondike Gold Rush was significant not only because it was the last great gold rush but also because it increased awareness of the northern frontiers of Alaska and Canada. Unimpressed, the press had labeled the purchase of Alaska as "Seward's folly" or "Seward's ice box." Alaska and the Canadian Northwest, including the Yukon Territory, remained sparsely populated until the end of the century. When the U.S. Census Bureau declared the western frontier closed in 1890, interest in Alaska grew. While there still were millions of acres of empty space in the lower states and territories, more people began to venture north, toward the lands they recognized as the last frontier. The discovery of gold, first in Yukon Territory and then in Nome, Alaska, raised the public's interest in what the far north had to offer.

Many changes took place in the Yukon as a result of the gold rush. A railway was built from Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in 1900. The population of Whitehorse swelled to 30,000 the same year. The gold-bearing gravel found between the Yukon and Klondike Rivers brought as much as $22 million in 1900, but it fell to $5.6 million by 1910 when most of the stampeders had left for Alaska, returned to Seattle, or set out to other regions.

Many of the stampeders who went through Seattle never reached the gold fields. In fact, between 1897 and 1900, more than 100,000 people from many nations attempted to reach the Klondike, but no more than 40,000 reached Dawson City. Some quit on the trail after experiencing too much hardship. Some returned to their original homes. Still others returned to Seattle and made it their permanent home. The city had many attractions and rewards for those who decided to stay, but the primary lure was the wealth of jobs for the unemployed. Merchants hired clerks and stockers to keep up with the rising demand for goods and services. Local manufacturers of equipment and clothing, food processors, and shipyards all needed workers, as well. Even the government of the City of Seattle was hiring, because city workers and police officers were needed to replace those who had quit and gone north in search of gold.

For Seattle, the gold rush created a boom that attracted people from all over the world even after the gold rush ended. In 1890, Seattle's population was 42,837. By the turn of the century, that figure had almost doubled, and by 1910, the population had reached 237,194. Matching this growth in population was an expansion of the city boundaries. By annexing small areas to the north and east of Pioneer Square, the size of the city more than doubled by 1910.

Seattle's business community continued to flourish. Many miners who returned to Seattle invested their fortunes in local businesses. For example, John Nordstrom invested $13,000 of Klondike gold into a shoe store, owned by a cobbler he had met in the gold fields. That shoe store marked the beginning of the Nordstrom department store chain. Outfitters, such as Edward Nordoff of Bon Marche, were able to capitalize on their successes during the gold rush and transform their small storefronts into major department stores that now have branches in many cities.

Seattle's links with the West Coast and the rest of the country continued to improve its economy. Manufactured goods, timber products, and other natural resources could be shipped by sea to San Francisco, Alaska, and the countries along the Pacific Rim. Goods also could be shipped by rail, with direct connections to Canada, California, the Midwest and the Northeast. At the dawn of a new century, Seattle had established itself as the premier city of the Northwest.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What impact did the Klondike Gold Rush have on the popular idea of the northern frontier?

2. Why did some stampeders stay in Seattle or return to live there?

3. Have you read books by Robert Service or Jack London? If so, what are some of the impressions these works gave you about the far north?

4. What was the long-term impact of the Klondike Gold Rush on Seattle?

Reading 3 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).

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