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

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Interpreting the Klondike Gold Rush

Modern Interpretations

During the last 30 years, historians have continued to emphasize the economic growth that the gold rush sparked. Many contrasted the success of Seattle businesses with the relative failure of most miners. Some commentators took an additional step, analyzing what it was about Seattle that positioned the city to take advantage of the opportunities that the stampede presented.

Earl Pomeroy offered one of the most intriguing interpretations, drawing on longstanding descriptions of the "Seattle spirit." In The Pacific Slope, published in the mid-1960s, Pomeroy presented the gold rush as Seattle's "most colorful experience" -- one that set it apart from other western cities. He argued that Seattle lacked the complacency of Portland, which remained economically secure in its "reliable traffic with the farmers of the Columbia Basin." Seattle businesses were "free in their imaginations to seek after new visions of fortune overseas," which motivated them to "improve themselves by developing and advertising their city." To achieve economic prosperity, Seattle merchants had to cultivate ambition and acumen. When gold arrived in Seattle in 1897, the city perfected these qualities, cultivating a "speculative excitement" that "remained for a long time," fueling a continuing interest in the Far North and Asia. In Pomeroy's estimation, the success of the gold rush represented "a triumph for generations of frontier optimists who had dreamed of a thriving city rising out of the wilderness to traffic in silk and gold as well as in salmon and lumber." [15]

In their classic book, Empire of the Columbia, Dorothy O. Johansen and Charles M. Gates offered a similar analysis. Published in 1967, this work claimed that partly through its "energetic promotion" during the gold rush, "Seattle helped establish itself as the fastest growing city in the Northwest." [16] As noted, MacDonald demonstrated that Portland actually grew at a faster rate during that period.

William C. Speidel put a different spin on this interpretation. A popular historian who reached thousands of readers through his books, Speidel also launched the well visited tours of underground Seattle. These tours continue to feature what remained of the city's infrastructure before the fire of 1889 had raised the level of construction, and they include numerous stories of the gold-rush era. While historians like Morgan and Pomeroy presented the drive and pluck of Seattle promoters in a positive light, Speidel adopted the cynical view that the city's leaders were simply consumed by one longstanding pursuit: the desire for monetary gain.

His book, Sons of the Profits, published in 1967, applied this thesis to most of the major events in Seattle's history. In keeping with his theme, Speidel titled his chapter on the gold rush "This Little Piggy Stayed Home." Like other observers, Speidel noted that the merchants in Seattle benefited far more from the stampede than did most prospectors who traveled to the Yukon. "By the time the big strike came along in 1897," he wrote, "we had the business of mining the miners honed to a fine edge.... We got the miners coming and going." [1]

Despite Speidel's relentlessly flip tone, he did place the gold rush in the larger context of Seattle's longstanding cultivation of the Alaskan trade and the development of shipping and rail connections. In essence, Speidel's interpretation was not radically different from that of Binns or Morgan. It was his style of expression and his desire to shock readers that distinguished his writing.

For all the discussion of the economic impact of the gold rush on Seattle, popular historians also continued to focus on the flamboyant details of the stampede. As a journalist and former editor of the Post-Intelligencer, Nard Jones depicted the gold rush as a raucous event that rocked "Seattle to its foundations." According to his book, Seattle, published in 1972, "virtually all of Seattle crowded the waterfront" to greet the Portland in July of 1897. Jones regaled his readers with stories of Diamond-tooth Lil, a leading madame who sported a large gem embedded in her front tooth, along with descriptions of brothels featuring "plush red velvet interiors hung with oil paintings of provocative nudes." [18] Such vivid images made for more interesting reading than did discussions of the number of grocers and shoe makers that prospered during the gold rush. In part, the colorful aspects of the stampede seemed to attract attention from historians because they provided appealing anecdotes. As historian Pierre Berton noted, "the Klondike odyssey has been subject in the past to some fantastic misstatements, errors, half-truths, garblings, over-romanticizations, and out-and-out fabrications." [19]

Yet most modern historians continued to present the Klondike Gold Rush as a pivotal event essential to the city's development. David and Judith Clarridge, for example, claimed in 1972 that the stampede was "more than just an interesting story." To them, "It was the major turning point in the city's history." [20]

Not everyone agreed with this view. Roger Sale, an English professor at the University of Washington turned historian, conceded in 1976 that the gold rush "was exciting and of course it did help." Even so, he concluded that "the boost Seattle received from the gold rush was not a major contributor to its essential economic development." According to his reasoning, "if it had been the crucial event it often has been taken to be, we would expect a falling off in Seattle when the gold ran out, as it quickly did." Nor did Sale place much stock in the value of Seattle advertising. In his analysis, Bellingham, Port Townsend, and Tacoma "could have had five Brainerds and would have gained little from them." Seattle already possessed the transportation facilities and the manufacturing goods to supply the gold seekers. [21]

This interpretation is noteworthy mostly because it presented a novel perspective in the modern era. Sale himself acknowledged that historians have "often" depicted the gold rush to be a "crucial event"; his book in fact refuted half a century of commentators. In any case, Sale's narrative skirted the point that the gold rush might have stimulated business that could be sustained after "the gold ran out."

His assessment of Tacoma also seems off the mark. As noted, Tacoma had transportation connections and access to manufactured goods that could rival those of Seattle -- and it was comparable in size. While it is simplistic to credit Brainerd with single-handedly focusing national attention on Seattle, the point that advertising of the city increased dramatically during the Klondike Gold Rush -- and that the publicity benefited city businesses -- is difficult to deny. And historians have demonstrated that the gold rushes of the late nineteenth century proved essential to Seattle's continuing trade links to Alaska, which in turn represented an important component of the city's economy. [22] Moreover, the Klondike Gold Rush and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition were specific events that strengthened the link between Seattle and the Far North in the public mind -- a point supported by the sheer numbers of people that participated, as well as the pervasive nature of the advertising.

Furthermore, Sale's interpretation implies that the Klondike Gold Rush was an isolated event, when in fact placer production continued in the Far North into the early twentieth century. The Alaska trade was an ongoing process for Seattle, and it did not end abruptly in 1898. Sale was mistaken in assuming that there should be a spike in the city's growth in 1897-1898, followed by a collapse. Such an assumption misses the significance of the Klondike as the first in a series of northern gold rushes, followed by stampedes to Nome, Fairbanks, Kantishna, Iditarod, Ruby, Chisana, Livengood, and others. [23]

Although Sale's estimation of the Klondike Gold Rush differed from those of many modern historians, it could help explain why scholars and academics have not devoted more effort to this topic. The volume of books and articles on the California Gold Rush of 1849 far exceeds that pertaining to the Klondike stampede. That the California rush occurred 50 years earlier -- and it involved more people and a greater quantity of gold -- might help explain this discrepancy in attention. Even so, major books on western history, including Ray Allen Billington's Westward Expansion and Richard White's "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West, barely mentioned the Klondike or its importance to Seattle. White devoted half a line to the gold rush -- which he placed in Alaska -- in his 600-page book, published in 1991. [24] Yet as Paula Mitchell Marks pointed out in 1994, the Klondike fever exhibited numerous similarities to the California rush, including "the international scope of the response and the high level of interest exhibited by the American populace." [25]

Analyzing the significance of the stampede in Seattle's history prompts the question of what the city might be like today had the event not occurred. Would Seattle be the same place? As Sale pointed out, the city had already established transportation connections, trade with the Far North, and thriving businesses. Kathryn Taylor Morse noted a similar point in her dissertation on the Klondike stampede, completed in 1997. She observed that it was during the gold rush that Seattle became the gateway to the Far North, replacing San Francisco as the principal link between Alaska and the "outside" world. The Klondike Gold Rush assured Seattle's position as "the urban marketplace which funneled people and supplies to and from the north." In Morse's estimation, however, this point does not explain Seattle's development. "The gold certainly boomed the Alaska trade," she wrote, "but it was not, in and of itself, the only cause of Seattle's subsequent emergence as the Northwest's leading metropolis. The initial 1897-1900 boom was accompanied by, and then followed by, a prolonged economic expansion, beyond the Alaska trade, into world-wide markets in wheat, flour, fruit, forest products, salmon, and general merchandise. Those markets included Alaska, but the expansion was fueled as much by rail and steamer connections to the eastern United States, California, Europe, Hawaii, and South America." [26]

If it was not a pivotal event, however, the gold rush can at least be viewed as a striking and colorful manifestation of the larger forces that shaped the city. Although the railroad arrived in Seattle long before the stampede, the story of special "Klondike cars" that displayed gold nuggets reveal the general importance of railroads in late nineteenth-century America. Promotions by steamship companies similarly indicated Seattle's longstanding association with the Far North and its importance to the city's commerce. Similarly, the advertisements that pervaded local newspapers and national publications reveal the range of businesses operating in Seattle during the era.

The story of the gold rush also offers a glimpse of the city in a major period of transition, since the event occurred during the era that transformed it from a town to a metropolis. The event has become an important symbol of this development; as one reporter recently observed, "in a sense, Seattle itself arrived on the steamer Portland." [27] The gold rush also makes an interesting story. As historians throughout the century have demonstrated, the Klondike story has high drama (bringing hope to a nation reeling from a depression); spectacle (the image of gold seekers crowding the waterfront); tragedy (the wreck of the Clara Nevada, to name just one); and whimsy (marketing and design of Klondike opera glasses, bicycles, and other products of ingenuity and questionable utility).

The gold rush further provides an interesting look at the character of the city. As Pomeroy pointed out, Seattle exhibited distinctive qualities during the gold-rush era that pushed it ahead of other communities, expanding its economy and population. Similarly, an article in The Economist reported in 1997 that Seattle "is remarkable for its golden touch." The metropolitan area serves as a base for Bill Gates, America's richest man, along with several thousand Microsoft millionaires -- and the city supports numerous companies recognized as "standard-setters in their businesses." According to this article, what sets Seattle apart from other successful cities is a series of traits, including energy and risk-taking entrepreneurship, that resulted from the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. Today, these qualities remain a "recipe for business achievement," fueling sales of everything from coffee to computer software. [28] Bill Gates, the personification of a quality called "hard drive," exemplifies the commercial spirit that was also evident during the stampede -- and he has observed the parallels between the industry that he helped build and the business of outfitting gold seekers. [29]

As noted, this interpretation is a product of its time. The parallels between the late 1890s and the late 1990s are striking: both were periods of rapid growth, high energy, and national attention. What makes this analysis intriguing is that it explains the significance of the gold rush in terms that are relevant to Seattle today. As the city's history continues to evolve, historians will continue to reassess the legacy of the Klondike Gold Rush.

End of Chapter Five

Early Interpretations | Mid-Twentieth Century Interpretations
Modern Interpretations

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

Last Updated: 18-Feb-2003