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

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Selling Seattle

Competition Among Cities: San Francisco

Initially, San Francisco seemed to be a formidable rival. The vessel Excelsior had landed there heavy with Klondike gold three days before the Portland docked in Seattle in July of 1897. The Excelsior's berths sold quickly a week later, as the steamer prepared to return to the Far North. [39] The oldest and most populated of the cities vying for the Klondike trade, San Francisco promoted its vast experience outfitting Forty-niners during the California Gold Rush. [40]

Moreover, this city featured significant rail and shipping connections -- and it enjoyed a longstanding link to the industries of the Far North. Before the Klondike Gold Rush, San Francisco served as the gateway city for the Yukon. [41] The Alaska Commercial Company, associated with fur sealing and other activities, was based in San Francisco -- and it was this firm that operated the Excelsior. As the Alaskan Trade Committee pointed out, San Francisco was "many times larger" than other cities on the West Coast -- and its size kept prices competitive. [42] At the time of the Klondike craze, San Francisco had more than 300,000 residents. [43]

Yet San Francisco's advertising campaign was no match for that of Seattle. To be sure, its newspapers publicized the gold strike and the Bay Area's role. As noted, the Examiner hired John Muir to provide observations on the stampede. This naturalist, however, was hardly a booster, viewing the gold rush as "a wild and discouraging mess." [44]

San Francisco also established an Alaska-Klondike Bureau of Information. Staffed with "competent, courteous and painstaking men," the Bureau maintained up-to-date reports on the Yukon, along with an "educational exhibit." It advised prospective miners to travel through San Francisco "because you save time, money and annoyance." Among the more compelling arguments in favor of this city included the number of businesses, which kept prices low and goods in stock, and the ample hotel accommodations. Interestingly, the Bureau also highlighted recreational opportunities, promising that those who traveled to San Francisco would encounter scenery superior to that of northern routes. San Francisco itself, moreover, was "worth seeing." [45]

According to the The Seattle Daily Times, San Francisco merchants organized an advertising campaign in 1897 that emphasized the California city's advantages over Seattle. "The stocks of San Francisco merchants are practically inexhaustible," they claimed, "as against the similar stores of Seattle, which on several occasions....were totally depleted in several lines. Being forced to telegraph to San Francisco for goods, prices were boosted out of sight in Seattle." Not surprisingly, such disparaging claims provoked Seattle promoters, who complained that the California city was "scheming" to take the Yukon trade. [46]

The Seattle Daily Times assured its readers in 1897 that most of San Francisco's Klondike business was local. [47] Located much farther south of the Yukon than the other competing cities, San Francisco encouraged argonauts to take the all-water route. Seattle boosters counteracted this approach by claiming that the trip up the Inside Passage from Puget Sound was safer. [48] The route over Chilkoot Pass to the interior, developed during the 1880s, gave Seattle an advantage over San Francisco. [49] Even so, rail line connections made San Francisco accessible and attractive to prospectors outside California. These included Wyatt Earp, who departed from Yuma, Arizona. "It was hot as Hades," his wife recalled, "and we were fondly remembering cool San Francisco." [50]

For all the early interest in San Francisco, the city did not seriously threaten Seattle's position as the gateway to the Klondike. As Seattle author and historian Archie Satterfield has explained, "somehow the chemistry wasn't right" in San Francisco. [51] The California city did not experience the level of excitement that gripped towns farther north -- and attempts to advertise itself as the point of departure were lukewarm. John Bonner, writing from San Francisco to the national journal Leslie's Weekly, offered a similar explanation in December of 1897. "San Francisco has only just begun to wake up," he pointed out, while Seattle "was the first in the field" to take advantage of the opportunities that the gold rush presented. He characterized Seattle residents as "energetic" and "enterprising" people of the "git-up-and-git kind," who flooded eastern cities with advertising. The people of San Francisco, on the other hand, were "torpid," inclined to "jaw-smithing when they should be acting." [52] In summary, Seattle proved far more aggressive than San Francisco in pursuing the Klondike trade.

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

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

Last Updated: 07-Jul-1999