A Historic Resource Study for the Seattle Unit of the
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

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"By-and-By": The Early History Of Seattle

The 1890s

The rebuilding of Seattle and the continued expansion of the town's infrastructure encouraged some residents to meet the 1890s with high expectations -- and the decade began favorably in Seattle. In 1890, The Overland Monthly, a national publication, characterized the industrial growth in Puget Sound as "very remarkable." [42] By that year, the population of Seattle had reached 40,000. According to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, newcomers were attracted to the town's "independent enterprise and go-aheadiveness." [43] The decade began in Seattle with a "building boom" prompted not only by the fire but also by the arrival of James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway. Judge Burke persuaded Hill to select the town as the terminus for his transcontinental line, which reached Puget Sound in 1893. Historians would later view this event as monumental in significance for its contribution to the growth of the city's economy and infrastructure.

The 1890s, however, proved to be anything but gay. In 1893, unchecked speculation on Wall Street and overexpansion of railroads created the worst economic downturn that the nation had yet experienced. Europe, South Africa, and South America also felt the effects of what came to be known as the Panic of 1893. Frightened foreign investors sold their American bonds, draining gold from the U.S. Treasury. The prosperity in Seattle stimulated by the Great Northern Railway "collapsed with an abruptness that ruined thousands." [44] Edith Feero Larson, who lived in Tacoma during the Panic of 1893, later recalled that "the Northwest should have boomed with the completion of the railroads.... It did for a few months, then money began to disappear and no one had any work. For a while our papa cut firewood for the railway for a dollar a day -- a fourteen-hour day. 'It keeps us eating,' he said." [45] So dismal was the economic depression during the 1890s that one local historian has portrayed it as "the decade of misery." [46]

Economic hard times strengthened interest in the People's or Populist party throughout the Pacific Northwest. Populism appealed to voters who regarded the "Gilded Age" of the late nineteenth century with disenchantment. While the industrialization of the country after the Civil War had brought vast fortunes to a few individuals, the gap between the wealthy and the poor had widened considerably. The misery of the depression gave rise to unrest. In 1894 unemployed workers from the Pacific Northwest -- known as Coxey's Army -- marched east toward Capitol Hill, intending to demand jobs. The U.S. Army overtook these desperate men in Wyoming, after they had commandeered a train. That year, the Pullman strike also marked the first nationwide walkout by railroad workers. Corruption in government added to the dissatisfaction that fueled Populist sentiment -- and by the early 1890s unprecedented unemployment increased calls for reforms. These included government ownership of railroad, telegraph, and telephone lines as well as federal anti-trust legislation to curtail corporate power. [47]

One of the most prominent platforms of the Populist party became the free and unlimited coinage of silver by the federal treasury. The hope was that this inflationary measure would stimulate the national economy, while bolstering the flagging silver mining industry in the West. Opposition to the Free Silver Movement generally came from eastern-based bankers and financiers who favored the traditional hard money, or gold standard. Many voters in Washington state, however, embraced the Populist party -- especially after the Panic of 1893. [48] By 1896, The Seattle Daily Times had become a voice of the Populist party, advocating free coinage of silver. The newspaper's masthead supported laborers against "the silk-stockinged gentlemen" who favored the gold standard. [49]

In the presidential election of 1896, Washington and Idaho supported William Jennings Bryan, the Populist and Democratic candidate and an advocate of free silver. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns," he warned the opposition at the Democratic convention. "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" His words revealed that free silver had become "almost as much a religious as a financial issue." Even so, Republican "Gold Bugs" triumphed over what they regarded as the "silver lunacy," with their candidate, William McKinley, winning the presidency. [50] The advocacy of Free Silver as a means to alleviate the depression in the 1890s directed national attention to the discovery and mining of precious metals throughout the West and Far North, helping to set the stage for the Klondike Gold Rush. [51]

The anxious tone of the early 1890s was further reflected in Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis. Delivered in 1893 before a Chicago meeting of the American Historical Association, this bold interpretation of American history suggested the national identity had been shaped by the so-called "frontier experience." As Turner explained, "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." According to him, the expansion into western lands had transformed immigrants into self-reliant, independent, inventive Americans. The frontier, moreover, represented the opportunity for fresh starts. Turner's thesis touched a nerve in the 1890s, as the forces that he claimed had shaped the American character seemed to be fast disappearing. Three years earlier, the U.S. Census had declared the frontier to be "closed," ending an era in American history. As the Superintendent of the Census explained in 1890, "at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." [52]

Scholars have debated Turner's thesis since it appeared in the 1890s. The New Western Historians in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, criticized its ethnocentric assumptions, pointing out that the "free land" Turner described was hardly a "frontier" to the Indian and Latino peoples already living there. [53] Even so, during the 1890s, Turner's thesis signaled a concern that the West no longer represented a land of promise or a safety valve for the laborers of the East. Although the number of Americans aware of it would have been limited in 1893, Turner's thesis exemplified "a growing perception that the frontier era was over." [54]

This concern was not limited to the perceived availability of western lands. The dispirited tone of the 1890s appeared in a variety of forums, including popular journals, which summarized the "mood of the age" as one of "pessimism." [55] As The Seattle Daily Times explained in 1897, "the great majority of the American people ... have suffered so much loss of property and the ordinary comforts of life, during the last four years." So "burdensome" had the economic hard times become "that endurance for another year seemed almost impossible." [56] For many Americans, the Klondike Gold Rush provided a welcome distraction. Although its precise impact on the depression is difficult to determine, the stampede became a focus for hope and expectation during the late 1890s -- even for those who did not leave for the Far North.

As the historian Roderick Nash pointed out, for many Americans the Yukon promised more than economic gain. The timing of the Klondike stampede, he explained in Wilderness and the American Mind, was particularly significant:

When the forty-niners rushed to California's gold fields in the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was still a developing nation with a wild West. The miners did not seem picturesque and romantic so much as uncouth and a bit embarrassing to a society trying to mature. But with the frontier officially dead (according to the 1890 census), the time was ripe for a myth that accorded cowboys and hunters and miners legendary proportions. Americans of the early twentieth century were prepared to romanticize the "ninety-eighters" and paint their rush to the gold of the north in glowing colors.

The image of the Far North as a wild, savage place proved appealing. The wide circulation of Jack London's novel, The Call of the Wild (1903), exemplified the popularity of this romanticized view of the gold rush. [57]

Founding the City | Early Local Industries
The 1890s | Gold Fever Strikes

Chapter: Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Table of Contents

Last Updated: 18-Feb-2003