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

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Selling Seattle

The Advertising Campaign

Brainerd's strategy was to promote the city as the only place to outfit for the Klondike. He devised a plan to finance the Bureau of Information by taxing Seattle merchants who stood to profit from the expected influx of population and increased trade. [7] Businesses that paid dues received lists of prospective customers. Brainerd devoted some of this money to advertising in newspapers and popular journals. He purchased a three-quarter-page ad in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal for $800, along with quarter-page advertisements in Munsey, McClure's, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Weekly, Scribner's, and Review of Reviews. [8] One of these advertisements pointed out that as the "Queen City of the Northwest," Seattle served as the manufacturing, railroad, mining, and agricultural center of Washington state. "Look at your map!" the ad urged readers. "Seattle is a commercial city, and is to the Pacific Northwest as New York is to the Atlantic coast." [9]

Brainerd also encouraged the Post-Intelligencer to issue a special Klondike edition on October 13, 1897, which began with the headline, "Seattle Opens the Gate to the Klondike Gold Fields." Seattle, the lead article assured readers, "is not a mushroom, milk-and-water town with only crude frontier ways." Instead, "it is a city of from 65,000 to 70,000 population, with big brick and stone business blocks and mercantile establishments that would be a credit to Chicago, New York, or Boston." The issue featured a map of transcontinental railroad lines leading to Seattle, "the Gateway." [10]

Rail Lines to Seattle
This map, which appeared in The Seattle Post Intelligencer in October 1897, depicted "all the great rail lines" leading to Seattle. San Francisco, Vancouver, and other rival cities -- which also offered rail connections -- did not appear.

Routes to the Klondike

Seattle or Vancouver to Skagway

Steamships sailed 800 miles through the Inside Passage to Skagway. This trip took approximately three days. From Skagway, gold seekers crossed the White Pass or Chilkoot Trails, to reach the headwaters of the Yukon River, and from there they continued to Dawson City -- a distance of 500 miles. Most prospectors took this route.
All-Water Route
Steamships sailed to the Bering Sea and the delta of the Yukon River. From St. Michael, gold seekers took a riverboat upstream to Dawson City -- a distance of 1,700 miles. This was the longest and most expensive route to the gold fields.
All-Canada Route
Gold seekers reached Edmonton on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. From there, they traveled overland to the Athabasca River, where they caught a steamboat to the Mackenzie River. After traveling on the river, stampeders still needed to surmount a mountain range to the west before reaching Dawson City. This was an extremely difficult route, due to the muskeg and willow thickets that covered the trail.

Routes to the Klondike
Routes to the Klondike
(Courtesy National Park Service)

The special Klondike edition offered advice to prospectors on what to bring to the gold fields, how to obtain an outfit, and which route to select. It provided much of the same information as the guidebooks produced throughout the nation during the late nineteenth century, while promoting Seattle.

[Source: Erastus Brainerd Scrapbook, University of Washington]
Brainerd Ad

For a week preceding the publication of the special Klondike edition, Brainerd placed advertisements announcing the upcoming issue and urging readers to send copies to friends and relatives in the East. The Post-Intelligencer printed 212,000 copies, making it the largest newspaper run that had been produced west of Chicago. Brainerd sent more than 70,000 to postmasters across the nation, requesting that they distribute them. Various newspaper editors received 20,000 copies, while 10,000 copies went to librarians, mayors, and members of town councils. The Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific received 10,000 and 5,000 copies respectively. [11]

In addition, Brainerd wrote feature stories on Seattle's virtues, which he distributed to publications throughout the nation. "The 'Seattle Spirit' has accomplished wonders," he assured readers of The Argus in 1897. "My impression is that wonders are yet to come." He claimed that observers in the East were convinced "Seattle is a remarkable place" and "something remarkable is sure to occur here." Relentlessly upbeat in tone, Brainerd's writing, like most booster literature, was given to hyperbole: "everybody in the East says Seattle is an extraordinary place." [12]

A subscription to a clippings service helped Brainerd keep track of his efforts as well as those of competing cities. Always vigilant, when he encountered a negative or misinformed article, he wrote to the editors, demanding a retraction. [13] Often Brainerd's letters employed a deceptively innocent tone, as though the publicity for his city had erupted spontaneously, and was not the result of his calculated efforts. "Seattle is not advertising the Klondike," he argued in one letter-to-the-editor. "The Klondike is advertising Seattle, and we are taking advantage of the Klondike excitement to let the world know about Seattle." [14]

Also effective was Brainerd's correspondence campaign, which employed tactics similar to those of modern political lobbyists. He sent a confidential letter to employers, organizational leaders, ministers, and teachers, encouraging them to ask the large numbers of people with whom they came in contact to write letters about Seattle to out-of-town friends and newspapers. The more spontaneous these letters could appear, the greater their impact. Brainerd thus generated what looked like a groundswell of unsolicited support. The Bureau of Information offered to furnish the details about Seattle as well as the postage to those who agreed to write letters. [15] "It is very important," Brainerd explained, "that Seattle should be first to catch the eye of the reading public and of the intending Klondiker." [16]

Another masterful public relations effort was the production of circulars that promoted Seattle as the gateway to the Klondike. Brainerd designed and wrote one of these to look like an official government publication -- and he convinced Will D. Jenkins, Washington's Secretary of State, to sign it. The circular reassured gold seekers of the safety of the trip to the Yukon, "making it sound like no more than an invigorating outing." The publication also cautioned that no person should embark on the journey with less than $500. [17] A number of European countries -- including France, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland -- found the circular so appealing that they reprinted it and had it distributed. Encouraged by this success, Brainerd sent pictures and information about Seattle and the Klondike as Christmas presents to the heads of European nations. When Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany refused the gift, fearing it was a bomb, Brainerd used his distrust to gain further publicity. [18]

The Bureau of Information sent additional circulars to every governor and mayor in the United States. These included a series of questions about prospective gold seekers and where they planned to be outfitted. Ostensibly, the purpose of the information acquired was to help Seattle businesses prepare for the stampede of prospectors. The circulars served to advertise Seattle, however, and most recipients turned them over to local newspapers, which printed them. Also, Brainerd provided the information he received from the circulars to Seattle's merchants. [19]

Brainerd's questions elicited some humorous responses. An official of the city of Plymouth, Connecticut, for instance, informed the Bureau of Information that "the 'fever' has had but one victim here as far as we can learn. The young man having married since....has recovered. Think there is no danger from this point." [20] Similarly, a Detroit official indicated that he could not answer Brainerd's questions, reporting as follows: "How many women there are who intend to go; where people would secure their outfits if they did go; when they expect to go, I respectfully submit is a matter probably known only to Providence himself, and I doubt that if you could communicate with Providence that he would give you reliable data." [21] Omaha responded with some boosterism of its own: "'Klondike fever' has not reached us nor is it likely to do so. This species of disease is apt to strike Cities where business is stagnated and people have lost their faith in the return of prosperity. In Omaha however prosperity is no longer a prophecy but a grand reality." [22]

One of the most celebrated of Brainerd's publicity schemes was a traveling exhibit of $6,000 of Klondike gold. Although it cost the Bureau of Information only $275, the Great Northern Express Company carried this display all over the nation, providing exposure to thousands of spectators and prospective stampeders. [23]

In March of 1898, the Bureau of Information's charter expired. At that time, the Chamber of Commerce's finance committee reported that $9,546.50 had been collected for the advertising campaign -- and Brainerd had "made the most of every penny." [24] As a result of his efforts, Seattle received five times the advertising exposure as other cities on the West Coast. [25] In early 1898, The Seattle Daily Times reported that Seattle had become the recognized center of Klondike trade. "There is probably no city in the Union today so much talked about as Seattle," the article informed readers, "and there is certainly none toward which more faces are at present turned. From every nook and corner of America and from even the uttermost parts of the earth, a ceaseless, restless throng is moving -- moving toward the land of the midnight sun and precious gold, and moving through its natural gateway -- the far-famed City of Seattle." [26]

For six months, Brainerd had promoted Seattle at a furious pace. By March of 1898, the work had become "wearing." [27] The next month, he took a new job for the Chamber of Commerce: lobbying in Washington, D.C. for an assay office in Seattle, which would convert the prospectors' gold into cash. An assay office in Seattle would provide returning miners with money that they could spend in the city, allowing merchants to prosper from their business not only on their way to the Klondike but also on their return. While Seattle boosters had advocated this measure from the outset of the gold rush, delegations from San Francisco to Philadelphia opposed the idea, fearing a loss of business in their assay offices. Even so, Brainerd's efforts were successful -- and in June of 1898 Congress passed a bill establishing an assay office in Seattle. [28] The government selected a building owned by Thomas Prosch, a prominent city resident. Located at 613 Ninth Avenue, it was a two-story concrete structure featuring a spectacular view of Puget Sound and the busy harbor. [29]

Erastus Brainerd in the Yukon, 1898
Erastus Brainerd in the Yukon, 1898
(Courtesy Special Collection Division, University of Washington)

The assay office opened in mid-July of 1898 to a long line of miners recently returned from the Klondike. They received money for their "glittering piles," which employees melted into bars and shipped to Philadelphia to be coined. [30] "It was a sight not quickly to be forgotten," noted one observer. "The looks of anxiety depicted upon the faces of those in waiting, the furrows caused by the rough touch of the north wind, and the general unkempt appearance of the miners, told the bystander that these were men who had escaped none of the hardships incident to life in the wilds of the [Far North]." [31] The first day it opened, the assay office took in $1 million in gold, and for the next six months the average receipts totaled one million dollars per month -- far exceeding expectations. [32] By 1902, the assay office had cleared $174 million in gold. [33]

After helping Seattle obtain the assay office in 1898, Brainerd himself headed for the Klondike, perhaps succumbing to his own "gold-rush propaganda." Like many prospectors, Brainerd did not strike it rich in the Far North. He returned to Seattle the following year, becoming involved in numerous professional ventures. He served as "an irrepressible editor" of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for instance, from 1904 to 1911. During the early twentieth century, he argued for harbor improvements, public health measures, and civic beautification. He also became vice chairman of the Republican City Committee of Seattle. Given the extent of Brainerd's contributions, his final years seem especially tragic. By 1920, he had become mentally ill -- and the next year he entered Western State Hospital at Steilacoom. He died there on Christmas Day of 1922. [34]

Strangely, Brainerd's obituary in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer mentions very little about the Klondike -- and nothing about his role in promoting Seattle. [35] This omission could suggest that the gold rush represented a minor event in Brainerd's expansive career -- yet later biographers would note that if Brainerd is remembered at all it is for publicizing the link between Seattle and the Far North. [36] It would be difficult to credit Brainerd with single-handedly securing Seattle's place as the outfitting center, since the city's press and business leaders seized the opportunity to advertise weeks before he assumed responsibility for the publicity campaign. Still, Brainerd's efforts to promote the city proved to be enthusiastic and inventive -- even for a booster.

Erastus Brainerd and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce
The Advertising Campaign | Competition Among Cities

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Last Updated: 07-Jul-1999