Interpreting the Klondike Gold Rush
"The Seattle gold rush of 1897-98 was more than just an interesting story. It was the major turning point in the city's history."
- David V. and Judith A. Clarridge, A Ton of Gold:
"The boost Seattle received from the Gold Rush was not a major contributor to its essential economic development."
- Roger Sale, Seattle, Past to Present, 1976
Historians and other commentators wasted no time taking on the task of interpreting the Klondike Gold Rush. Early in the twentieth century they began examining the stampede's influence on the development of Seattle and the region, starting a process that has continued for nearly 100 years. Although popular and scholarly accounts have varied greatly throughout this period, a general trend emerged: many early histories downplayed the gold rush's role in economic and population growth, while later interpretations increasingly presented the stampede as a major influence in the city's history. Throughout the twentieth century, most historians have agreed that the gold-rush era brought monumental changes to the city; it would be very difficult to argue otherwise. The following chapter focuses on how the stampede as a single event has been interpreted.
During the early twentieth century, popular, promotional publications continued to tout the Klondike Gold Rush as a pivotal event. An article in The Pacific Monthly in 1905, for example, retained the spirit of the advertising campaign that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce had waged during the late 1890s. "Seattle is an achievement, not a mere growth," boasted the author. "Seattle is the result of a patriotic, unselfish, urban spirit which has been willing to sacrifice in order to gain a desired end -- the upbuilding of a great city." To his mind, the "turning point in Seattle's career came in the summer of 1897," when Seattle became "a busy, prosperous port" focused on outfitting thousands of gold seekers.  In 1909, four years after this article appeared, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition celebrated the gold rush as part of Seattle's connection to the Far North.
Edmond Meany was one of the first historians to tackle the significance of the gold rush. In 1910, he noted that the stampede brought immediate improvements in Seattle's economy. In assessing its long-term impact, however, he broadened the picture beyond the events of 1897 and 1898, concluding that "the industrial and economic life of Washington was profoundly affected by the series of events known as the golden era of Alaska." 
Welford Beaton, another early historian, presented the stampede in a different light. In The City That Made Itself, published in 1914, he claimed that the "greatest single factor in the upbuilding of Seattle was not the Klondike rush." To his mind, "it was the coming of the Great Northern Railway" that marked the turning point for the city, "for without the railway service which that company provided Seattle would not have been able to avail itself to the upmost of the possibilities the gold presented." 
Beaton was not the only observer to emphasize the importance of the railroad. In 1909, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce produced a pamphlet promoting the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Looking back, the publication credited the city's rail connections for its economic growth during the late nineteenth century. The pamphlet did not mention the stampede. Although this was a piece of boosterism and not a thoughtful reflection on the past, it is revealing that the very promoters who had once focused so intensely on the gold rush had all but forgotten the event a decade later. 
Similarly, Clarence B. Bagley's portrayal of the gold rush is interesting mostly for what he did not say. One of the best known early-Seattle historians, Bagley also served as secretary of the City's Board of Public Works. He produced detailed, year-by-year accounts of various events in his three-volume, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, published in 1916. Although this work mentions the Klondike stampede and the frenzied activity on the city's waterfront, Bagley's brief description is buried in a chapter on Alaska shipping interests. He did not indicate that the gold rush was responsible for the city's prosperity in the late 1890s. Nor did he present the stampede itself as an event of long-term significance. Bagley presented Alaska trade and commerce as the important influence during the era -- and presumably to him the Klondike stampede represented one small part of that larger topic.  Also revealing is the absence of Erastus Brainerd in Bagley's discussions of individuals important to the city's development.
Six years after Bagley's work appeared, Jeannette Paddock Nichols offered a similarly low-key interpretation. In 1922, she published an article devoted to advertising and the Klondike Gold Rush in The Western Historical Quarterly. Her strongest statement read as follows: "It cannot be gainsayed that the Bureau of Information of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce gave momentum to the growth of both the Klondike and Seattle."  The idea that promotions of Seattle "gave momentum" to the city's growth is very different from the notion that advertising proved to be essential to the city's growth.
In summary, the first historians to examine the Klondike Gold Rush had the difficult task of assessing the long-term impact of events that occurred only 10 or 20 years previously. Perhaps the early commentators needed sufficient time to place the stampede in a larger context, witnessing more of its aftermath. On the other hand, historians who lived during the gold-rush era, experiencing it firsthand, were perhaps in a good position to evaluate different types of evidence. In 1998, the most readily available primary documents specifically pertaining to the gold rush include newspaper articles, guidebooks, and promotional materials -- sources that by their very nature emphasize the importance and success of the event. As Nichols pointed out, the Klondike Gold Rush is a study in the effectiveness of advertising. It is possible that promotional sources wielded less influence on early historians, who were well aware of their intent -- and perhaps this point accounts for the reserved manner in which some of them presented the stampede.
Also, some of the early histories mentioned here generally focused on politics, economics, and prominent community leaders, in accordance with the standards of the time. Typically, they remained subdued in tone, avoiding a more lively, spirited presentation appropriate for a popular, general audience. It is difficult to imagine Bagley adopting a style that would later characterize the work of Murray Morgan or William C. Speidel -- whatever the topic.
Last updated: February 28, 2015