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

NPS Arrowhead logo

Reaping the Profits of the Klondike Trade


Seattle's transportation facilities proved crucial to its success in securing Klondike trade. As noted, at the outset of the gold rush the city already had rail and marine connections in place. Miners could take a train to the city, where they could then obtain passage on a steamship to the Far North.

Hoyden Boat
Stampeders of '98.
(Courtesy Selid-Bassoc Collection, Alaska and Polar Regions Archives,
Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)


Rail links were especially significant. Seattle served as the terminus for the Great Northern Railway, completed in 1893. By the early 1890s, the city had also developed an extensive local railroad network. The Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad (originally the Seattle and Walla Walla), linked the city with the coal fields at Newcastle, Renton, Franklin, and Black Diamond. The Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern transported produce from the east side of Lake Washington to the city, while its northern branch connected Seattle with Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties. Moreover, Seattle could be reached through spur lines via the Canadian Pacific in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Union Pacific in Portland, Oregon. In addition to carrying passengers, railroads shipped lumber, coal, fish, and agricultural products from Seattle. [28]

While bringing stampeders to the city, these rail connections also delivered goods to merchants who supplied the miners. Rail shipments in Washington state increased dramatically -- as much as 50 percent per year -- during the late nineteenth century. Seattle became the "central point" of rail traffic, in part due to the "Alaskan trade." [29]


By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, Seattle also functioned as the central point for water traffic of freight and passengers to Alaska. Before the 1890s, San Francisco controlled trade with the Far North. During that decade, however, Seattle merchants gained a strong foothold. In 1892, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company of San Francisco shifted its center of operations from Portland to Seattle, which was closer and could offer an ample supply of coal. [30] As noted, the Alaska Steamship Company formed in Seattle in the mid-1890s -- and the North American Transportation and Trading Company also operated there. [31]

Gold seekers in Seattle board the Portland, bound for the Klondike.
(Courtesy National Park Service)

Gold seekers in Seattle boarding the Portland

The Klondike stampede boosted Seattle's shipping to the Far North considerably. According to a newspaper report, Seattle's fleet tripled in size between 1897 and 1898, in part due to the "Alaskan business." [32] So pressing was the demand for steamships in the late 1890s that some vessels of marginal quality were placed in service. Seattle's shipping "never was so entirely engaged," explained one reporter in 1897. "Not a single vessel seaworthy and capable of use" was overlooked. [33]

During the late nineteenth century, shippers filled these vessels to capacity. The Alaska Steamship Company, for instance, operated vessels that carried as many as 700 passengers apiece. In general, each ship ran between Seattle and the Far North one and one-half times per month. [34] To prospector Martha Louise Black, it seemed that steamships left Seattle for Alaska "almost every hour." [35] The historian Clarence B. Bagley noted that all this activity resulted in a "scene of confusion" on the Seattle waterfront that "has never been equaled by any other American port." The docks were piled high with outfits, and crowds of impatient miners "anxiously sought for some floating carrier to take them to the land of gold." [36]

Shipping continued to expand in Seattle during the subsequent gold rush to Nome in 1899-1900. By that time, according to Bagley, the city's fleet had become a "great armada." He detected an interesting trend: at the end of the nineteenth century, only 10 percent of the ships sailing from Seattle to Alaska were owned and operated by people based in Seattle. In 1905, however, more than 90 percent of the vessels sailing from Seattle to Alaska were controlled by Seattle residents and businesses based in the city. [37]


The increase in shipping stimulated the boatbuilding industry during this era. At the end of the nineteenth century, many shipbuilders in Seattle tripled their output as well as their number of employees. [38] Prior to this point, most ships constructed in the city included small fishing vessels or boats for local trade. During the decade 1880 to 1890, Seattle shipbuilders produced approximately 75 vessels, the average weight of each totaling 33 tons. In 1898, Seattle shipyards built 57 steamers, 17 steam barges and scows, and 13 tugs. [39] Wood Brothers of West Seattle constructed and launched the first steamer built "wholly for Yukon trade." This vessel measured 75 feet long and 20 feet wide. [40] Moran Brothers Shipbuilding Company produced many of the vessels constructed during the gold rush era. In early August of 1897, the North American Transportation and Trading Company ordered a fleet of 15 ships from this business. "A stroll through the extensive works of Moran Bros. discloses a varitable [sic] hive of industry," observed one reporter. "About 400 men are employed and separate forces are at work day and night." The "immediate cause" of this activity was the Alaska trade. [41] Gold strikes in western Alaska at the turn of the nineteenth century -- which required ocean-going vessels that could sail the Bering Sea -- further stimulated the shipbuilding industry in Seattle. [42]

Animals for the Yukon

In addition to encouraging the development of rail and marine transportation in Seattle, the Klondike Gold Rush also fostered businesses that assisted miners in getting around once they arrived in the Yukon. The stampede increased the market for dogs, horses, goats, and oxen -- all of which moved people and supplies to the gold fields.

(Courtesy Special Collections Division, Washington State Historical Society)
Dog sled

Dogs became the most heavily publicized animals for sale. The use of these animals in the Far North dated back centuries. By the turn of the century, Tappan Adney, a correspondent for Harper's Weekly, had observed an "extraordinary demand" for dogs to carry sleds and saddlebags. Yukon miners had "raked and scraped" the Canadian Northwest in search of dogs, resulting in a shortage. [43] A single dog could draw 200 pounds on a sled, and six of these animals could carry a year's worth of supplies for a miner. [44]

Adney described a variety of breeds, including Eskimo, husky, malamute, and siwash. So similar were these dogs in physical appearance that he had difficulty distinguishing them. He did, however, detect differences in characteristics among the various animals. The Eskimo dog, for instance, featured a "wolf-like muzzle," but lacked the "wild wolf's hard, sinister expression." The malamute, on the other hand, was a dog "without moral sense," often approaching "the lowest depths of turpitude." [45] The Klondike trade in canines was not limited to these large animals; Seattle dealers also sold "little dogs not much larger than pugs." [46]

The scarcity of dogs made sale of these animals a lucrative business. Miners, according to Adney, were "willing to pay almost any price," and dogs brought "fabulous" sums in the Yukon during the winter of 1897-1898. The best dogs sold for $300-400 apiece. By the summer of 1898, approximately 5,000 dogs had arrived at Dawson City, indicating the size of the market. [47] Teams of dogs waiting for transport remained a common sight throughout the commercial district in Seattle during the gold rush. [48]

Businesses such as the Seattle-Yukon Dog Company imported "all kinds of canines" from as far away as Chicago and St. Paul. In addition to transporting the animals, the company trained them in preparation for their service in the Yukon. "Dog drivers" placed the animals two at a time in a harness attached to a sled, compelling them to pull it for half an hour. "At first it is hard work," noted one observer, "but nearly all of the dogs soon understand what is wanted and pull the sled without trouble." [49] As Adney pointed out, however, not all dogs that reached the Yukon were trained. [50]

The vast number of dogs brought into Seattle for the Klondike trade created problems for merchants as well as for the animals. Some dog yards held as many as 400 animals at once -- all waiting to be shipped to the Yukon. One November morning in 1897, 200 canines, held together in a single yard, engaged in "one big dog fight." The noise was "deafening," prompting The Seattle Daily Times to dispatch a reporter to investigate the event. He described the animals as "snarling, biting, fighting canines who were doing their best to annihilate each other." Not surprisingly, nearly every dog was wounded in the brawl. [51]

The Klondike stampede also created a demand for horses. A Yukon horse market operated on Second Avenue and Yesler -- and the commercial district also offered horses "at every corner" for $10 to $25. By early October of 1897, within three months of the onset of the gold rush, 5,000 horses had been shipped to the Far North from Seattle. Encouraged by the volume of sales, one Seattle firm ordered 4,000 burros from the Southwest. Merchants selling tack and horseshoes also benefited from the trade. Many of these animals died, however, killed by exposure, lack of food, and overwork. Their carcasses littered the trails to the gold fields, serving as a grim reminder of the consequences of hasty marketing and ignorance of northern conditions. [52] Even so, the trade in horses, burros, and dogs remained active, prompting the Seattle newspapers to carry a special section devoted to this topic in the want ads.

Gold seekers not inclined to buy dogs, horses, or burros had another choice: goats. While merchants advertised dogs as faithful, hard-working animals, businesses trading in goats pointed out that their animals were less expensive to purchase and maintain -- and they could furnish milk, butter, food, and clothing. [53] Goats, they argued, also proved to be sure-footed on steep, icy inclines, and they could "gather their feed on the trail." [54] Miners also purchased oxen in Seattle, which they shipped to the gold fields. [55]

Wheels on Ice

(Courtesy Terrence Cole)
Wheels on Ice

One of the most colorful, whimsical means of getting around the Yukon was by bicycle -- and Seattle merchants advertised them during the stampede. [56] The gold rush coincided with the worldwide bicycle craze of the 1890s, when riding "wheels" became a fashionable pastime. One New York Company considered producing a "Klondike Bicycle," which representatives claimed could carry gold seekers across Chilkoot Pass to Dawson City. For all the impracticality of that particular idea, numerous miners brought bikes to Alaska -- and they were available for purchase in Seattle. Spelger & Hurlbut, dealers operating on Second Avenue, sold bicycles that they obtained from the Western Wheel Works factory in Chicago. By 1900, one Seattle newspaper had reported that "scarcely a steamer leaves for the North that does not carry bicycles." [57]

This mode of transportation offered several advantages: cyclists could follow the tracks in the snow left by dogsleds with relative ease; they could travel faster than dog teams and horses; and "iron steeds" were less expensive and easier to maintain than animals. Cycling in the Far North was not without hazards, which included snowblindness and eyestrain from attempting to follow a narrow track through the ice, and frequent breakdowns due to frozen bearings and stiff tires. [58]

Whitehorse to Dawson on Bicycle
White Horse to Dawson in 5 Days
Overland Bicycle Record, Winter of 1903
(Courtesy Selid-Bassoc Collection, Alaska and Polar Regions Archives,
Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)

An "All-Klondike" Town | Outfitters | Transportation
"A Hot Town" and "A Very Wicked City" | Population and Economic Growth
The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition

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

Last Updated: 18-Feb-2003