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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Gold is Discovered in the Klondike

William Moore, a former steamboat captain who lived more than 500 miles from the site of the gold strike in Canada's Yukon Territory, had long believed that gold lay in the Klondike because it had been found in similar mountain ranges in South America, Mexico, California, and British Columbia. He was so certain, in fact, that in 1887, he and his adult son Ben claimed a 160-acre homestead at the mouth of the Skagway River in Alaska. Moore settled in this area because he believed it provided the most direct route to the Yukon Territory and, therefore, to potential gold fields. He and his son built a log cabin, a sawmill, and a wharf in anticipation of future gold prospectors passing through on their way to the Klondike. Although he was not interested in mining himself, Moore hoped to profit from the business gold prospectors or "stampeders" would bring as they passed through his property.

Moore was well acquainted with the north country. As a member of an 1887 boundary survey expedition he had made the first recorded investigation of a pass over the Coast Mountains which later became known as White Pass. White Pass appeared to be a possible route for a wagon road across the mountains and into the interior of northern Canada. Although the nearby Chilkoot Pass had been an established trade route used by the Tlingit Indians for hundreds of years, the terrain was too steep for a wagon road. The 2,900-foot White Pass summit was several hundred feet lower than that of Chilkoot Pass. By the time gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, Moore had applied to the United States and British Columbia governments for permits to build a wagon road over the White Pass summit. He envisioned a town developing in the valley and expected to earn money selling lumber and charging fees to use his wharf and wagon road.

The trickle of miners who had previously used the White Pass and Chilkoot Pass Trails became a torrent when news of the Klondike discovery reached areas outside of Alaska and northern Canada in July 1897. Stampeders had to pass through the Moores' property to reach the White Pass Trail. To get to the Chilkoot Trail they had to pass through the new town of Dyea (pronounced Die-ee), located a few miles west. The first swarm of stampeders who chose to attempt the White Pass Trail arrived at the Moores' homestead in late July and early August 1897. Here they hastily set up tents and prepared for the next leg of their long journey. Frustrated by reported conditions on the poorly marked and narrow White Pass Trail, some stampeders decided to remain in the Skagway River valley. The Moores had no choice but to let them plat a town site over their homestead. Ignoring the Moores' claim to the property, self-appointed town government officials forced the family onto a five-acre tract and established the town of Skagway. The stampeders who continued to pour into the newly-created Alaskan tent city of Skagway found the conditions primitive. Tents lined the muddy streets, while horse manure and sewage filled the alleys. Lack of government protection led to widespread crime.

By September 1897 conditions on the treacherous White Pass Trail had deteriorated to such a degree that it was virtually impassable. Of the estimated 5,000 stampeders who started over this trail in 1897, only about 10 percent made it through successfully.¹ One gold rush participant claimed that "men are quitting the struggle every day and as we go along we see strong men coming back with tears running down their cheeks, completely broken down, and the stream of humanity passes on, paying no heed to their sufferings."² On the trail stampeders faced disease, malnutrition, and death due to murder, suicide, avalanches, and hypothermia. To make matters worse, the trail had become littered with the corpses of several thousand horses that had broken their legs or strained themselves hauling the stampeders' supplies through knee-deep rocks and mud. The trail soon earned the grim title "Dead Horse Trail." During this period most stampeders used the steeper but shorter Chilkoot Pass Trail from Dyea. Conditions along the White Pass Trail did not improve until the ground froze in late fall.

During the first year of the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders spent an average of three months transporting their supplies or "outfits" up the trails and over the passes to Bennett Lake. Both the White Pass and Chilkoot Pass Trails were less than 40 miles long, but stampeders could only haul a portion of their tremendously heavy supplies at one time. They covered hundreds of miles as they moved some supplies a short distance and then retraced their steps for the next load. Those that made it to Bennett Lake at the headwaters of the Yukon River still had to travel more than 500 miles by boat to reach Dawson City. The length of the journey to the gold fields and the desolate conditions along the way led the Canadian North-West Mounted Police to issue an order in February 1898 requiring stampeders to have a year's supply of food and equipment in order to enter Canada. They enforced this order at border crossings.

Between 1897 and 1900 more than 100,000 people set out for the Klondike. However, no more than 40,000 actually reached Dawson City. Realizing the time, money, energy, and endurance necessary just to get to the gold fields, many stampeders gave up their quest for gold. Some did not continue because they heard that most of the claims already had been staked. Some stampeders learned of an avalanche that occurred on April 3, 1898, on the Chilkoot Trail, killing approximately 70 individuals. Others heard tales of fellow stampeders who lost everything in the rapids of the Yukon River. Still others did not have sufficient supplies or money to continue the arduous journey.

Although most stampeders eventually returned to their homes, some decided to settle in the booming town of Skagway and earn a living providing goods and services to those who continued on to the Klondike. Certain of these men and women opened businesses with money they had planned to spend on their supplies. Some worked for merchants or packed goods over the trail for miners. Many of these entrepreneurs probably made a better life for themselves in Skagway than those who struggled on to the gold fields, where few found gold, and many lost everything. Regardless of their situation, however, these men and women participated in an adventure to remember for the rest of their lives.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did William Moore claim a homestead in Alaska? How did he and his son prepare for a gold strike?

2. How was the town of Skagway established? Describe the initial conditions in the town.

3. What hardships did stampeders face on their way to the gold fields?

4. Why did some people choose not to continue to the gold fields? What did they do instead? What might you have done in a similar situation?

Reading 1 was adapted from Catherine H. Blee, Paul C. Cloyd, and Robert L.S. Spude, "Historic Structures Report for Ten Buildings," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984; and Robert L.S. Spude, "Skagway, District of Alaska 1884-1912: Building the Gateway to the Klondike," Report prepared as a cooperative effort of the Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and National Park Service Alaska Regional Office, U.S. Department of the Interior, September 1983.

¹Robert C. Kirk, Twelve Months in Klondike (London: Wm. Heineman, 1899) 38-9.
²San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1897.



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