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

Gold Fever Strikes

Few events in the history of Seattle have produced more excitement than the stampede to the Yukon. Gold discoveries at Circle City and Cook Inlet in Alaska sparked a small rush in Seattle in 1896, but the fervor did not equal that generated by the Klondike strike. The discovery of gold in 1896 on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, heralded a momentous era for the city. In July of 1897, the ships Excelsior and Portland docked in San Francisco and Seattle respectively, carrying three tons of gold between them from the Far North.The media lost no time in spreading the news, sparking the "Klondike Fever" that gripped much of the nation and Seattle for the next two years. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer produced one of the most memorable accounts of the Portland's arrival. The paper chartered a tug so that one of its correspondents could meet this vessel as it sailed, laden with gold nuggets, into Puget Sound. "GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!," the headline of July 17, 1897 read. "Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland. STACKS OF YELLOW METAL!" [58] This would prove to be one of the most enduring images in Seattle's history, contributing to the city's identity. As one reporter observed 100 years later, "in a sense, Seattle itself arrived on the steamer Portland." [59]

Miners on board the Portland, along with fortunes from the Klondike gold fields, including the following:

Clarence Barry
James Clemons
Frank Keller
James Pickett
William Stanley
G.W. Anderson
William Sloan
Frank Phiscator
George Gray
Charles Warden
Jack Moffit
James Coslow

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 1897

The Seattle Daily Times conveyed the sense of excitement and exhilaration that swept the town. "All that anyone hears at present is 'Klondyke,'" it reported on July 23, 1897. "It is impossible to escape it. It is talked in the morning; it is discussed at lunch; it demands attention at the dinner table; it is all one hears during the interval of his after-dinner smoke; and at night one dreams about mountains of yellow metal with nuggets as big as fire plugs." [60] Similarly, the celebrated nature writer John Muir, hired by the San Francisco Examiner to describe the Far North, observed, "The Klondyke! The Klondyke! Which is the best way into the yellow Klondyke? Is all the cry nowadays." [61]

Confusion about the term "Klondike" added to the mystery of the gold fields. The press typeset the words "Klondike," "Klondyke," and "Clondyke," sometimes seemingly at random, although the Post-Intelligencer favored "Clondyke," while the Times preferred using a "K." In August of 1897, the U.S. government and the Associated Press chose "Klondike" as the official spelling. [62]

Whatever the spelling, it soon became clear what the word conveyed to readers. The national journal Leslie's Weekly, for example, reported that it "stands for millions of gold, and is a synonym for the advancement, after unspeakable suffering, of hundreds of miners from poverty to affluence in a brief period of a few months." [63] Four years of depression had increased the appeal of the gold fields. One ounce of gold was worth $16 in 1897 -- a year when typical wages totaled approximately $14 for 78 hours of work. Moreover, the Far North offered opportunity for adventure and exploration during an era that had witnessed the close of the "frontier." [64]

News of the Klondike strike quickly spread to the Midwest and East Coast, where stories of instant wealth were circulated with a vigor that matched the media coverage in the West -- at least initially. Two days after the Portland docked in Seattle, New York City was "touched" with gold fever. "Klondyke Arouses the East," announced The Seattle Daily Times on July 20, 1897. "Effete Civilization ... Affected by the Reports." New York City had contributed a large number of Forty-niners to the California Gold Rush, and observers expected it would again be well represented among the eastern argonauts headed for the Far North. [65] The New York Times reported the Klondike strike as monumentally significant. This publication quoted Clarence King, a celebrated geologist, as asserting, "The rush to the Klondike is one of the greatest in the history of the country." [66]

The Post-Intelligencer proved even more enthusiastic, describing the Klondike stampede as "one of the greatest migrations in the history of the world." [67] Both the Times and the Post-Intelligencer sent correspondents to the gold fields. Reporter S.P. Weston took a dozen carrier pigeons to send messages to the Associated Press and the Post-Intelligencer. [68] These Seattle papers also produced special Klondike editions, providing information on outfitting and prospecting. [69] Harper's Weekly, a national publication, sent special correspondent Tappan Adney to the Yukon to keep its readership informed, while The Illustrated London News sent Julius Price. [70]

The impact of this kind of media attention was immediate. Hundreds of spectators had crowded the waterfront in Seattle to greet the Portland. On July 18, 1897 -- just one day after that vessel arrived, the steamer Al-Ki departed for the Yukon, filled to capacity with miners and 350 tons of supplies. [71] As a Times headline explained on July 19, "Men With the Gold Fever" were "Hustling to Go." [72]

So strong was the lure of the Klondike that cities along Puget Sound had difficulty retaining employees. Much of Tacoma's fire department resigned to leave for the Yukon, while several Seattle policemen also quit. Some stores had to close because their clerks left abruptly for the Far North. The Rainier Produce Company lost its manager when news of the gold strike hit Seattle. [73] The labor shortage similarly affected the Seattle District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had difficulty retaining workers to complete its fortification projects in the Puget Sound region. "Due to the Klondike excitement," explained one contractor, it is "impossible to secure steady and reliable men in anything like adequate numbers." [74] Even Seattle's mayor, W.D. Wood, succumbed to gold fever, as did Col. K.C. Washburn, a King County and state legislator. "Seattle is Klondike Crazy," one San Francisco Chronicle headline explained on July 17, 1897. "Men of All Professions [Are] Preparing for the Gold Fields." [75]

Within a week, the Seattle city council raised the salaries of police officers, and the Post-Intelligencer issued a warning to job hunters that there was no labor shortage in the city, to prevent a rush for the abandoned positions. [76] The discovery of gold in the Yukon was even credited with lowering the crime rate in the Puget Sound area, "since the men who would ordinarily commit offenses against the laws of the city or state now have something else to think about." [77] These were crimes such as burglary, for the gold rush encouraged the development of vice-related offenses.

When the gold craze hit the nation, few Americans were familiar with the geography of the Far North. Many assumed that the Klondike was located in Alaska, instead of in the Yukon, in Canadian territory. Klondike guidebooks -- some of which were hastily produced in a matter of days -- further obscured the issue. The Chicago Record's Book for Gold Seekers, for example, used the terms "Klondike" and "Alaska Gold Fields" interchangeably. Blinded by visions of treasure, many prospective miners were ignorant of what a trip to the Far North would entail. [78] Upon hearing the news of the Klondike strike, a group of enterprising New Yorkers made plans to walk to the gold fields from the East Coast. [79] Similarly, one New York woman inquired upon arriving in Seattle, "Can I walk to the Klondike or is it too far?" [80]

(Courtesy of Terrence Cole)
Klondyke by Balloon Ad

Others planned to reach the Yukon by balloon. Charles Kuenzel, a resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, organized an airship expedition. "We may get lost away up in the air somewhere," he conceded. "The Western and Klondike country is strange to me, and I may make some mistakes in steering. There are no charts for the air. But I'll land all right." [81] Similarly, a group of enthusiastic Canadians planned to launch a "line of airships" to the Klondike. [82]

Although these whimsical, optimistic schemes can appear charming today, the stampede to the Klondike brought tragedy to many -- even to those who remained home. By 1898, the Seattle police had received hundreds of inquiries about missing persons. One distraught woman from Olympia reported that her husband had left for Seattle and was not heard from again. She feared he had fallen ill, or had become a victim of "the wicked part of the city." As The Times described the situation, "Children left behind and forgotten want to come to their fathers and mothers; old fathers in the East inquire for sons; wives in destitute circumstances for husbands; old, gray haired mothers write tear stained letters pitifully begging the Chief of Police to hunt up their wayward boys." [83]

The gold rush, according to the Post-Intelligencer, had resulted in a "Nest of Missing People." Clearly some gold seekers did [84] not want to be found. Even so, many died attempting to reach the Klondike -- and their identities were not always known. On a February evening in 1898, for example, the steamer Clara Nevada exploded and burned while en route between Skagway and Seattle. More than 70 of its passengers were lost, and aside from the crew it was not clear who was on board. [85] A month after the disaster, the ship's carpenter notified The Seattle Daily Times that although the newspaper reported his death, he remained "alive and hardy and well." [86]

The Klondike Gold Rush attracted approximately 100,000 miners, 70,000 of whom passed through Seattle, nearly doubling the population of the city. So extensive was this migration that the Post-Intelligencer ran a regular column titled "The Passing Throng." [87] Although the majority were white men, African-Americans traveled to the gold fields as well. Many women went, too, sometimes bringing their families. The Klondike Gold Rush was a multi-national event, attracting argonauts of various ages and ethnicity. [88]

For the most part, however, it was not the prospectors who profited from the stampede to the Klondike. Instead, it was the merchants who struck pay dirt, as the gold rush encouraged the development of businesses that outfitted and transported the miners. As noted, Seattle already had the transportation network, infrastructure, and local industries needed to benefit from the migration to the Far North. Seattle also benefitted from the farmlands, coal deposits, and forests in the surrounding area. All that was need was publicity promoting the city -- a theme that is analyzed throughout the following chapter.

End of Chapter One

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