Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Interior Riches

Strike in Fortymile Region

In the mid-1880s prospectors of the interior made their first major gold discovery. The Fortymile River's headwaters lie within Canada, but the river's southerly course crosses the Alaska border before arcing northwards again to flow back to Canada. Such a wayward passage resulted in some confusion after the gold discovery as most of the diggings at Bonanza Bar, Franklin, Chicken, Jack Wade, and Steel Creek lay within Alaska while the community (usually spelled "Forty Mile" unlike the river's designation as "Fortymile," but for our purposes here, both will be referred to as Fortymile) was within the Yukon region of Canada.

Howard Franklin is given credit for the initial Fortymile discovery, but several other pioneers were on hand to share in the bounty. And, when the news reached the Outside, other hopeful men like Frank Buteau were eager to try their luck. Buteau, a Quebec-born rover who lived in Maine and Wisconsin before moving to the Northwest in 1882, reached Juneau with a party of prospectors in January 1886. After working for the Treadwell Mine to make a stake, he joined a Yukon prospecting party. The men crossed the Chilkoot Pass in August, bypassed the Klondike region, and settled on a little island a mile above the mouth of the Fortymile. That September, some 30 miles farther upriver, Howard Franklin and others struck gold on sand bars. The lucky miners on the upper river bars had staked claims extending 1500 feet—as the law allowed, but Buteau's party on "Sixteen Liars' Island" decided to limit their claims to 300 feet "in order to make room for others." [1]

The great news of the gold strike reached the coast in dramatic fashion. Anticipating an influx of miners, trader Arthur Harper prepared to move the pioneer store of McQuesten, Harper and Mayo from Fort Nelson on the Stewart River to the Fortymile mouth. In a tragic "message-to-Garcia"-like episode, Harper sent word to McQuesten, then in San Francisco buying trade goods, to prepare for a big spring rush. Tommy Williams and an Indian half-breed called Bob left Stewart River for the coast after Christmas. At Chilkoot Pass, a snowstorm held them up for three days. By then their only provisions consisted of a little flour. After the storm the chilled men went on and finally staggered into the Healy and Wilson store at Dyea. Tommy Williams died shortly from the effects of exposure. Healy took the Indian lad to Juneau for treatment of his frozen feet. On his return he found the letters Williams had cached on the trail and sent them on.

Back on the Fortymile, Frank Buteau made $3,000 in the summer of '87, more than any other Fortymile miner. Later Buteau bought Franklin's original discovery claim, working it in 1888 without substantial gain. Over the 1888-89 winter, Pete McDonald, George Madlock, John Campbell, and Buteau slaved over the construction of a half mile of flume built from whipsawed lumber. The flume, which conveyed water from Franklin Gulch to their bar at Troublesome Point, made possible the first hydraulic mining ever done in the interior. Buteau and his partners mined there until September 1892, then journeyed Outside, taking 37 days to reach Juneau. They were not yet millionaires but they were confident about the future and planned to return to the interior in the spring.

Lynch Law

The only instance of violence by Indians against whites of the 1880s occurred in 1888 when prospector John Bremner was murdered on the Koyukuk River. The response of miners was in sharp contrast to that on earlier occasions of violence. The slaying of trader James Beans' wife in 1878 had gone unpunished. Just four years earlier Alaska Commercial Company trader George Holt of Knik had been killed by Copper River Indians, but white men did not dare venture into the little-known Copper River country for revenge. But with the death of Bremner, the pioneer prospector who had encountered Lt. Henry Allen's expedition in 1885, the Yukon whites determined that their security demanded retribution. Their numbers at Fortymile were great enough to insure success, although they had to go a good 400 miles and the lower Koyukuk. Henry Davis related his experience:

July 10, 1888—We called for volunteers to go and have nineteen white men and two Indians, John Manook and Pitka, both fine, good natives. They did not want to go much as they were afraid the Koyukuk Indians would come back next winter and kill the Tanana natives. However, we talked them over.

July 14, 1888—We stopped to see if there were any signs of Indians. Yes, there was a cache full of white fish drying and Manook said the Indians had gone up the creek for sure. We looked in the cache and found Bremner's tools which had his name on them. We were sure we were on the right street. We saw smoke two bends upstream and all hands on the front deck got ready to jump when the boat hit the bank. Others jumped and spread out around the Indian camp. Their dogs were barking and jumping, and the Indians ran into the tents, scared stiff. Only one Indian moved for his gun and Folger hit him over the head with the barrel of his Buffalo Gun. We all got together in a bunch, and Manook asked the Chief for the Indian who killed the white man prospector. Then the Indian who Folger had hit stood out bold and said 'I killed the white man.' We took him on the boat as well as their medicine man and his wife and two bad-looking squaws. Then we smashed their guns over the woodpile and threw them in the river. We had to back down the stream about half a mile to turn around and we put the two squaws off at an old Indian camp. They took to the woods like rabbits. We then tried the medicine man but could not connect him up with the crime in any way, nor his wife, so we got ready for the hanging. There was a big tree being over the river. We made a noose, tried it and it worked too slow, that is, it didn't slip so well, so Hank sent me for axle grease or lard to grease the rope and it worked fine. We again put it on the Indian and everybody pulled on the rope and tied him up and started for home. Everybody was satisfied and in good spirits. [2]

Indian Packers

The other confrontations between whites and Indians in this period concerned travel over the Chilkoot Pass. Traveling into the interior the Chilkats has long maintained a monopoly over the pass. They had resented the Hudson's Bay Company's establishment of Fort Yukon in 1841 and Fort Selkirk in 1848 because the flow of trade goods from Canada ended the dependence of interior Indians on those the Chilkats brought in. As time passed, the Chilkats' animosity declined, but they did burn and pillage Fort Selkirk in 1852.

By September 1886, the trickle of prospectors venturing into the interior was swelling. A confrontation occurred when Henry Davis, one of the pioneers on the Fortymile, went out to Juneau for supplies, then tried to hire Indian packers on his return journey. With the increasing traffic of miners into the interior the Hoonah Indians were competing with the Chilkats in offering packing services to prospectors—and the Chilkats were angry. When Davis landed near Dyea with his winter supplies, Chilkat and Hoonah Indians milled on the beach. Negotiations for packers were impossible so Davis sent for John J. Healy, proprietor of the Dyea trading post. Since the potential for a Indian war had made Healy anxious earlier, he had already notified government officials in Sitka before Davis appealed for help. The U.S. Navy's armed tug warship Pinta with a show of force as the Indian rivals declaimed and threatened. Naval officers met with the Indian chiefs and Healy in a two-hour conference. After the chiefs agreed to keep the peace Davis, and others were to hire 10 packers willing to carry 100 pounds each to the Chilkoot summit. The $12.50 rate for each man was lower than it had been previously because of the Indian competition.

Disputes among the Indians at Dyea and between Indians and whites occurred on other occasions. In June 1888 the whites dispatched an urgent message to Juneau's U.S. Marshal:

We the undersigned write to you to have sent here a posse of armed men on the Dispatcher or some other steamer at once, should the Pinta not be within easy calling distance of Juneau. We last night dispatched an Indian by canoe with a letter to the Man-of-War but being in doubt as to his fidelity, or fearing that he may be intercepted, we send to you direct, as the situation is becoming hourly more alarming. Sam Matthews the bearer of this, will give you full particulars, regarding the shooting of one of our packers by Kla—not, and the death of the Sub-chief. We are not a lot of women to be easily frightened, but can take care of ourselves as long as ammunition holds out but something must be done for the safety of the white residents. [3]

As it turned out, the Indians calmed down quickly, but the incident shows that, on occasion, frontiersman in Alaska knew the fear that had haunted pioneers elsewhere in the west.

Healy and the North American Transportation and Trading Company

John J. Healy deserves credit for foreseeing the Yukon-Alaska boom and convincing men of wealth to invest in his vision. He kept a keen eye on developments over the late 1880s and was convinced that the interior's future was bright. In 1891 he wintered Outside and convinced an old Montana business associate, Portus B. Weare of Chicago, that a major trading company could successfully compete with the long-established Alaska Commercial Company. In the spring of 1892, the newly formed North American Transportation and Trading Company (NAT&T) entered the Yukon field with its first river steamboat and bases at St. Michael and Fortymile. Healy, as general manager, supervised the operation at Fortymile—or Fort Cudahy as he named his post. The well-known Chicago meat-packing Cudahy family had been induced by Weare to share investment in the North American Transportation and Trading Company. [4]

The North American Transportation and Trading Company's opportunity lay in a natural resentment among miners of the trading monopoly and the occasional sharp practices of Alaska Commercial Company agents. Occasionally, as Bill Leak and other Fortymile pioneers got to Juneau in November 1895, miners' complaints were reported in the newspaper. Leak had taken the steamer Weare down to St. Michael where the Alaska Commercial Company charged $2 daily for board and included the "poorest fare. Rotten ham was dished up to them for so many successive meals that the miners made a unanimous and just kick, knowing that a supply of wholesome ham was on hand." Miners cried out against grub that had been damaged through leakage in shipment and store prices at the Yukon's mouth that equalled those in Fortymile. According to Juneau's Mining Record,

this company had held a monopolistic sway over that section of Alaska for the past three or four decades but they now realize their days of indisputable regency are numbered, that other transportation and mercantile companies will soon be in the field that will crush them out of existence, and therefore they are bleeding it at every opportunity and for all they are worth during the short time they yet have to hold sway. [5]

Of course, the views of Juneau folks were not entirely objective. Businessmen wanted interior miners to use their town as a supply and recreation point, and did not mind criticism of the interior-based trading company. But Juneau businessmen had trouble convincing miners that a Juneau base made sense. Transportation charges and limited steamer service inhibited miners from wintering over at Juneau. Yukon River passage cost $50 and sea passage to Juneau from St. Michael via Unalaska and Sitka was $120. Board costs ran the bill to more than $200 for miners who might want to winter in Juneau. Thus, the newspapers commented, Juneau had lost the "fall and spring harvest" from miners "loaded with from $1,000 to $20,000 in dust." [6]

Healy, unlike McQuesten—one of the Alaska Commercial Company's greatest assets, was not popular with miners. Healy was far less congenial that he had been in Montana and cared little for social contact. He was also blamed for the company's unpopular no-credit policy, although the policy made good commercial sense under the circumstances. Healy did, however, grubstake miners whom he trusted as a company investment.

The Alaska Commercial Company had maintained a virtual monopoly on interior trade from 1870 until the challenged its dominance in 1892. With the little steamboats Yukon, St. Michael, and New Racket the company serviced its several trading posts efficiently. After the Fortymile development, the company prepared for increased trade by launching the Arctic, a larger vessel, in 1889. The Arctic's 140-ton cargo capacity was eclipsed by the North American Transportation and Trading Company's Portus B. Weare, modeled on Missouri River steamboats and capable of handling 200-tons. The Alaska Commercial Company responded in 1895 with Alice, also capable of carrying 200-tons, and the North American Transportation and Trading Company built the John J. Healy, 241-tons, in 1896, and two larger vessels in 1897. In 1898, the Alaska Commercial Company put three huge, 700-ton capacity vessels into service, the Susie, Sarah, and Hannah. [7]

By moving his base to St. Michael in 1892, then Fortymile in 1893, Healy left opportunities for other entrepreneurs on the coast. Jack Dalton, conspicuous among the other independent traders and commercial venturers for daring and initiative, cast his lot with the Lynn Canal entry route into the interior in 1893-94 when he established Dalton Post in Yukon Territory and commenced work on his Chilkat Pass Trail to the coast.

Healy's move to the interior provided a wider opportunity for William Moore, the veteran mariner and prospector who had called the White Pass route to Canadian surveyor William Ogilvie's attention in 1887. By 1895 Moore was certain that a gold rush would occur over the White Pass. He and his son, Bernard, filed on a homestead at what became Skagway, and began building on wharf there.

Signs of Civilization

When miners found diversions from the practicalities of transport and work it showed the advance of civilization. It can be said that civilization arrived on the Yukon in 1894. There were two clear signs in that year, the establishment of a Canadian Police post at Fortymile and the publication of the interior's first newspaper, the Yukon Press, at Fort Adams (Tanana).

Advertisements in the Yukon Press showed an acceleration of commerce because of the recent gold strikes near Circle. The North American Transportation and Trading Company moved fast to build a post there, but the North American Transportation and Trading Company and the venerable Alaska Commercial Company were not the only traders in the interior. There were also several independent traders as well as the veterans, Jack McQuesten at Fortymile, Al Mayo at Tanana, and Arthur Harper at the Pelly River—all associated with the Alaska Commercial Company with its base at St. Michael and a branch at Andrieffaki. Of these, H. Kokerine at Nowakakat, D. Belkoff at Anvik, T.H. Beaumont at Fort Yukon and Porcupine, and A. Romkoff at Kotultk were primarily fur traders, but the new wave of mining interest was well represented by Gordon Bettles at Arctic City and Nulato; George Carmack at Salmon River; and Joe Ladue at Sixtymile. The last named traders either prospected themselves or eagerly backed other prospectors. Two years later Carmack would make the strike that precipitated the Klondike gold rush; Ladue would lay out the townsite of Dawson while Bettles would give his name to a Koyukuk mining town near what would become the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The Yukon Press, published by the Rev. Jules L. Prevost with the help of trader Gordon Bettles, had as its object "to promote man's religious, moral and mental facilities, and to develop the great resources of the Valley." News of mining was of most importance in all issues. Bettles wrote a lead article on Koyukuk mining in the first issue, describing the difficulties of the country, and warning any interested parties outside: "I deem it necessary to advise . . . owing to the difficulty of opening deep diggings, as it will at least, take the greater portion of the first season before much, if any returns are realized, to come prepared if possible to meet those obligations." That winter there were 22 miners on the Koyukuk with another six wintering at Tanana who intended to move up the Koyukuk in the spring. [8]

"Local News," a popular column, included reports on Franklin Gulch mining and Stuart and Miller creeks. The compiler, probably Bettles, commented on several prospectors who came in the previous spring and left in the fall. They were "satisfied in their own minds that this is no country for them, [and] we are of the same opinion. Those who expect to meet with success in this country by mining, must expect to meet with many disappointments and failures, do a good deal of hard work, and suffer many hardships."

"Local News" also reported on the Birch Creek discovery, which led to the founding of the town of Circle City on the Yukon River. Bettles who encountered two Indians at Tanana who had $400 in dust, joined three Koyukuk prospectors who decided to try the upper Yukon in preference to the Koyukuk. They took passage on the little steamer, Arctic, upriver, landed 90 miles above Fort Yukon, hired Indian packers for a two-days portage "over a wet and disagreeable country" to reach Birch Creek 150 miles above its mouth. They prospected up Birch Creek for another 150 miles but with no success. Despite his vested interest in the Koyukuk, Bettles did not knock Birch Creek. He blamed the high water for his party's inability to prospect effectively: "We did not do the country justice."

Newspaper readers of Juneau and Seattle in April 1895 could have no doubt that things were picking up in the interior. An estimated 425 people, including children, were strung out on the trail from Dyea to the Yukon headwaters. Indian packers were in demand for the last stage of the trip to the summit, getting $1.50 per 100 pounds from "the foot of the last pitch to the summit." Technological advances included Peterson's tramway, which carried goods from base to summit for 50 cents per 100 pounds, "the miners doing their own work operating it." The tramway did not always perform well. Other aids to passage included a trail cut by Edgar Wilson, John Healy's partner at Dyea, around the canyon between Dyea and Sheep Camp.

Circle's Progress

Gold was discovered on Birch Creek, a Yukon tributary within Alaska, in 1892. As good gold prospects drew other men to join the discoverers mining on Pitka's Bar, the community of Circle City developed at the site of Manny Hill's store on the Yukon about 30 miles from the diggings. Other discoveries in 1893 on Birch, Mastodon, Deadwood, and Mammoth creeks attracted more stampeders. Although some of the prospects were as much as 80 miles from Circle, the new settlement served as the base for a burgeoning population. The new Alaska gold field soon proved itself. Although the yield in 1893-94 was only $9,000 from Mastodon, Deadwood, and Mammoth creeks, the production from the entire Birch Creek district by the end of 1895 was $150,000.

Circle's growth was encouraged by Jack McQuesten, who established a store and extended credit to at least 80 Fortymile miners. The population reached 700 in 1896, a sizeable community for Alaska and one that was destined to last. Circle's growing prominence drew John J. Healy and a North American Transportation and Trading Company store in 1894 and other amenities, including saloons and dancehalls, the Yukon Order of Pioneers (originally founded at Fortymile in 1894 and reorganized at Circle in 1895), and another significant society—the Miners Association, which determined mining regulations and, on the cultural side, developed the library book collection McQuesten had bought from Fortymile. By 1896 a school opened with 30 students, mostly native, and an Episcopal Church was constructed. Circle City also became the new location for the Yukon Press, which moved from Tanana. [10]

Sometimes there was some relief from the hard work of prospecting, mining, and household chores. As the prosperity and population of the Yukon Valley swelled in 1896, entertainers from San Francisco showed up at Fortymile. A variety troop managed by Jack Smith entertained grateful miners with songs and dance before moving on to Circle as it became the larger camp. Circle's miners paid $2.50 for seats in the Tivoli Music Hall, a two-story log building. After seven months the program became somewhat stale, but the 11-member company made good money, particularly as its six women were the only white women in the interior save for the wives of a few missionaries and traders.

George T. Snow added to entertainment possibilities when he opened the Grand Opera House in summer 1896. Theatregoers weary of the Tivoli fare could see the veteran thespian Snow, his wife, and son in such classics as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Old Kentucky, The Newboy, and Camille. Additionally, the Miners Association sponsored minstrel shows and other entertainment presented by James Dougherty and Casey Moran.

Harry Ash was another Yukon theatrical man who became famous. Juneau was the first Alaska town in which Ash entertained citizens before moving on to Circle and Dawson. Among his cast were the Drummond sisters, whose connections with Swiftwater Bill Gates and other romantic episodes in Dawson, would result in temporary fame for the women. By September 1897, Ash would be dubbed the "gambler millionaire" of the Klondike. When he turned up in Seattle with his wife, a previous wife he had forgotten was at the dock with police to arrest him for bigamy. A Juneau newspaper reflected that "things were not going as well in the land of sunshine and flowers as in the land of gold." [11]

Circle lacked a theater critic, but Ash's variety program drew favorable reviews in Juneau before he moved into the interior: "There are no waits, the entire mammoth show is run through with lightning-like rapidity and the entire show is a kaleidoscope of shining sensationalites. There is not a weak feature in it, everything is new, bright and up to date." May Hamilton and Georgie Roubein sang popular airs; Fred Breen and Fred Winans presented comic skits; Rose Davenport captured the mood of one of San Francisco's celebrated murder cases with her tragic narrative song, "The Durrant Case" and the Drummond sisters danced and did a contortion act. Other acts included a topical two-act drama, "The Miner's Oath," with James Townsend as the villain. All this cost only 25 cents. [12]

Circle's decline followed hard on its peak in 1896 but was not caused, as is usual in placer mining districts, by the exhaustion of local mines. What caused the exodus from Circle in 1896-97 was the stirring news of George Carmack's gold discovery on the Klondike—a development that marked a watershed in northern history.

Carmack's Discovery

George Carmack's prospecting with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie along the Klondike, a tributary of the Yukon, followed the suggestion made to him by Robert Henderson. Henderson, for reasons he had good cause to regret, did not stake any claims himself, and left the region before his friends struck gold on August 17, 1896. Some weeks later, Carmack showed some of his nuggets at Fortymile, and miners dashed to the new bonanza. It took longer for the word to reach Circle, but when it did, most of the population rushed to the Klondike.

The new town of Dawson boomed over the winter of 1896-97, where Joe Ladue had plotted a site near his store and sawmill. The progress of the community was orderly despite its rapid growth because Canadian officials at Fortymile moved quickly to establish order. William Ogilvie, who had been waiting at Fort Cudahy during summer 1897 for directions on boundary survey work, sent the first word to Ottawa:

I am very much pleased to be able to inform you [he wrote] that a most important discovery of gold has been made on a creek called Bonanza Creek, an affluent of the river known here as the Klondyke. It is marked on the maps extant as Deer River, and joins the river a few miles above the site of Fort Reliance. The discovery was made by G. W. Cormack [sic], who worked with me in 1887 on the coast range. The indications are that it is very rich, indeed the richest yet found, and as far as work has been carried on it realizes expectations. It is only two weeks since it was known, and already about 200 claims have been staked on it, and the creek is not yet exhausted; it, and its branches are considered good for 300 or 400 claims. Besides, there are two other creeks above it, which it is confidently expected will yield good pay; and if they do so, we shall have 800 to 1000 claims on this river, which will require over 200 men for their proper working." [13]

Ogilvie moved upriver to Dawson to provide an official survey of the townsite and of claims on Bonanza Creek and elsewhere. Mounties stationed at Fortymile also moved to Dawson to assume jurisdiction of police and court matters. Ottawa immediately dispatched a larger force of Mounties from the south to support the detachment in the North. It was the availability of a well-organized, fully empowered national police force that distinguished the Klondike from other western American and Alaska mining frontiers. The law-and-order lid went on at once—and stayed on; life and property were secure throughout the Canadian North.

By June 1897 Dawson had grown to a community of 4,000 people housed in some 500 buildings. For some months it was the most famous town in the world, a place that fascinated millions and attracted many thousands who hoped to join those on the ground before all the gold was gone.

The first full report on the Klondike development appeared in Juneau's Alaska Mining Record of February 10, 1897. Miners A.D. Nash and W.M. Cowley arrived in Juneau by canoe from Dyea with two Indians, including Schwatka, the native who had guided Lt. Frederick Schwatka's army exploring party in 1883 and taken the commander's name. Nash and Cowley had left Dawson on December 4, traveling over the Chilkoot with Capt. William Moore, hearty enough at age 72 to take the Canadian governments first mail contract. Everyone in Juneau read the Nash-Cowley report avidly:

The Clondyke river is a stream about forty yards in width at the point of its confluence with the Yukon about fifty-five miles above Forty Mile, and is about such a stream as Forty Mile creek. Its principal tributaries are Bonanza and Hunker creeks, each about twenty miles in length. Bear and Too-Much-Gold being smaller streams emptying into it all from the south, the mouth of Bonanza being about two miles above the point where the Clondyke empties into the Yukon. These streams and their branches are very rapid—much more so than the other prospected streams of the district. The discovery claim on Bonanza creek lies about twelve miles above its mouth, or some fourteen miles from the Yukon. The gold of this district is invariably found in the beds of the streams there being no bench diggings. The pay streak runs from three to six feet deep and lies under from twelve to twenty feet of gravel, and the district is distinctly and entirely a winter diggings, sinking and drifting being only practicable when the gravel is frozen.

One hundred and ninety-two claims are staked out along Bonanza creek, extending a distance of twelve miles, 102 below and ninety above the discovery claim. Boulder creek empties into Bonanza at No. 42 below and has twenty claims staked along it. Adams creek enters at No. 7 below and on it are located thirty claims. At No. 7 above, Boulder creek enters and has forty-five staked claims upon it. Victoria creek, Carmack gulch and two other small creeks—pups'—are also tributary to Bonanza and have an aggregate of forty-one locations, but are not yet surveyed. A total of 332 claims located on Bonanza and its tributaries. Baker creek is included in this district, having its source near the head of Adams creek, though flowing west and emptying into the Yukon some nine miles above the mouth of Clondyke. Baker creek has sixty claims located upon it. [14]

Glowing Reports

The northern miners were the ultimate source of all information, and some of the original Klondike reports caught the excitement among the men in the field. Gold struck prospectors told of wonderful things in private letters in terms of awe that could not be capped by outside journalists—even those who might be permitted flourishes of fevered imagination. And such letters were made available through publication. "Don't pay any attention to what anyone says but come in at your earliest opportunity," wrote Casey Moran from Dawson to his friend George Rice in March 1897: "My God! it is appalling to hear the truth but nevertheless the world has never produced its equal before." And Burt Shuler, writing to a friend in early June assured him that "I have seen gold dust until it looks almost as cheap as sawdust." He tempered his exuberance a bit by giving his friend practical advice: "Take someone who understands boating and take no chances." Shuler, despite his gold-common-as-sawdust reference calculated to inspire the most sluggish man, hesitated to advise his friend to come: "The journey is not entirely one continued round of pleasure." But how could his friend resist when he learned that work at $15 daily was assured to stampeders who did not care to risk prospecting their own claims? A $15 wage in '97 was a princely stipend almost beyond the ken of an American worker—and certainly beyond his grasp in ordinary circumstances. [15]

Exaggerations?—no, not really, when examined in the spirit of the times. And Juneau's newspaper editor saw no reason to warn his readers to avoid being carried away. How could Burt Shuler's friend hesitate, especially as another letter arrived in the same mail confirming that Shuler held a claim on Bonanza Creek and adding that Billy Leake's purchased claim on El Dorado "is supposed to be worth a million; there are 34 claims on the same creek which seem to be as good?" If a sober miner reported prospects of $34,000,000 on one creek and was believed by other Alaskans, is it any wonder that Klondike fever swept the world? [16]

The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle saw no reason to resist printing a letter from Dawson dispatched "by a prominent and wealthy young businessman of San Francisco to his brother" that glittered with rich details: "The excitement on the river is indescribable, and the output . . . almost beyond belief." Stories of huge gains "are substantiated by ocular demonstration . . . some of the stories are so fabulous that I am afraid to report them, for fear of being suspected of the infection." And the Klondike man was even able to confirm the reports of others on prevailing wages—cause enough for an exodus from poverty-ridden cities: "Labor is $15 a day and board, with 100 days' work guaranteed . . . men who worked for bits last year are now talking and showing thousands, and the air is full of millions." [17]

Since this letter appeared in the same Chronicle issue that reported the arrival of Excelsior, the first ship to reach the outside with Dawson miners and their well-filled pokes, it could be supported by local "ocular demonstration." And folks gawked at the dock as the 15 fortunate miners disembarked with their gold sacks, hurrying after them to hear their wonderful stories. When a reporter saw the scores of sacks valued at a reported $500,000 to $750,000 and heard the stories he could safely pass along the cheering news that "millions upon millions of virgin gold, according to the story, await the fortunate miner who has the hardihood and courage to penetrate into the unknown depths of the Yukon district." [18]

Key words and phrases seized on quite naturally by hurried writers contributed to developing myths and legends: "hardihood and courage . . . unknown depths." Something important is added here by the writers who endowed gold seekers with manly virtues. Thus it was that the public perceived that gold-seekers are not grasping profiteers, lazy men casting for the fast buck; nor were they anxious, unemployed family men willing to gamble for steady, high-paid work. Instead they were daring, brave adventurers willing to plunge into the unknown. Writers did no harm in perpetuating such images in Klondike stories. Reaching the Yukon would prove taxing enough for many hardy folks and sustaining existence over a harsh winter would be even more of a challenge for many.

The Chronicle followed its first Excelsior story with one repeating the advice received from returning miners: "Do not go unless you have good outfit, plenty of provisions and money enough to last a year." Travel presents difficulties "which stagger the average man." No one following events could miss the point that "dangers and hardships" faced any stampeders, nor that the rich ground was already occupied: wealth was available for those with "the money to buy claims and hire miners." [19]

But even a widespread acceptance of such warnings could not discourage hopefuls who figured that the vast northern region probably contained other Klondikes—as indeed it did—and that they could find them. It was this anticipation of Klondike conditions existing elsewhere that turned considerable numbers of stampeders to the Copper River, Koyukuk, Cook Inlet, Kotzebue Sound, although the Klondike still remained the goal of most argonauts.

By July 17, only two days after the Excelsior news, San Franciscans were already on the move: "Working men quit their jobs and joined the procession for the long and tedious journey northward," proclaimed the Chronicle. As might be expected, Californians could not forbear comparisons with the great stampede that had lured so many thousands to its shores: "Not since the days of '49 . . . has there been such excitement in mining circles." The excitement in Seattle, when Portland arrived a day after the Excelsior with its complement of successful miners, was even more intense, turning the Puget Sound town "upside down" with a "delirium" of gold fever: "Policemen are resigning from the force, every street car man that can raise a stake has given notice to the company . . . men neglect their businesses and congregate in groups on the street in excited discussion. [20]

When careful men like Inspector Strickland of the Northwest Mounted Police, a Portland arrival at Seattle, offered hope to those thinking of trying their chances, many felt optimistic. Once again the matter of high wages was stressed: "The claims now staked out will afford employment to about 5,000 men . . . If a man is strong, healthy, and wants work, he can find employment at good wages." Strickland accurately reported that wages in mines had been $15 daily and in sawmills $10 over the 1896-97 winter, and that Dawson's population totalled 2,000 to 3,000 residents. This meant that at least a couple of thousand more could earn tremendous wages in 1897-1898, but a flood of 20,000 stampeders would certainly cause extensive unemployment. [21]

Starvation Reports

Joe Ladue, justly acclaimed as "the founder of Dawson," was a trader and sawmill man with much to gain by the swelling of the town's population. He quickly perceived that enthusiasm was getting out of hand. "I am appalled at the prospect," he told newsmen. "Everybody seems to be gold mad, and if one-third of those who have talked about going to the Clondyke reach there death in its most horrible form will soon follow." Don't go at this season, he warned, winter was not far away when "privation and suffering is always the rule and not the exception." [22]

Ladue's cries triggered a debate that raged for months on the prospects of famine conditions over the 1897-98 winter, a controversy that did not finally end until Yukon River traffic reopened in spring '98. Concern over food supplies resulted in a number of projects and plans for the alleviation of forecasted distress. Some were sensible, like the Mounties' insistence that Chilkoot Pass travelers carry in plenty of grub. Others, like the Rev. Sheldon Jackson's promotion of a reindeer drive to Dawson were farcical and ill-conceived. But the starvation debate did underscore the greatest differences between the North and other regions of the West. There were no easy ways to service a district where climate impeded transportation so severely over a long season.

Exaggerated and false stories on Klondike conditions had proliferated in the nation's press by summer of '97. Editors pressed for colorful Klondike items did not discriminate. Thus when someone falsely reported the shooting of two thieves on the Chilkoot Trail to a Vancouver paper, other papers presented the story without reservation. [23] Reports that provisions would be short over the 1897-98 winter had substance because the trading companies knew what quantities were coming, yet the distinction between short supplies and certain famine was blurred by panicky reports. Trading companies had an interest in encouraging the traffic flow to the Yukon, yet would bear part of the burden if disaster struck. Healy in Dawson handled the matter much better than J.E Hansen, his Alaska Commercial Company rival who dashed frantically through Dawson's Front Street crying: "Go! Go! Flee for your lives!" Government officials joined in Hansen's alarm, but their unease was more understandable: an exodus from Dawson, even if unwarranted, was preferable to what might have occurred if starvation conditions came. [24]

If traders and government officials on the spot could not predict the future, the distant newspapers could not be more accurate. In September the San Francisco Chronicle assumed that the worst had already occurred and began taking credit for earlier editorial warnings: "The Chronicle wants no better attestation than its files that it told them not to go." In part, the paper was responding to general denunciations of the press for misleading readers to trigger a stampede into "the blackness of the long arctic night and the freeze of the long arctic winters" without food. [25]

A day later the Chronicle featured a story sent by correspondent William A. Ryan from Charles H. Hamilton enroute to Dawson. Passing the steamer John J. Healy coursing downriver with returning Klondikers sobered the passengers on Hamilton. "What're ye going to eat when yet get there?" called Healy passengers. Ryan and others had heard about the preponderance of whiskey landed at Dawson by Weare and condemned the North American Transportation and Trading Company. "But the criticism applies with equal force to each company. Avarice is the marked characteristic of both companies at St. Michael . . . it is nothing less than a crime for these transportation companies to scatter advertisements broadcast and bring so many people into the county." [26]

By January 1898 folks interested in the Klondike had access to much information from those who rushed in '97 and had then returned Outside. Sam Archer, for example, was a Seattle man who made no bones about the severity of the climate or the hard work packing into the country. His party took six weeks crossing the White Pass before building a boat on Lake Bennett and navigating the treacherous rapids on the upper Yukon. Archer and party carried their cargo around White Horse rapids because several lives had been lost already that season and many boats had been smashed.

Archer found conditions in Dawson tolerable, but deeply resented the reports of starvation fostered by sensational journalists because they created unnecessary anxiety among families of stampeders. Wildcat speculation on mining properties and the perjuries of locators who recorded claims that had not actually been prospected, created much hysteria in Dawson. Too many folks pretended that their discoveries were of bonanza proportions; they lied in hope of selling out at an inflated price. "The Klondike is the worst country for lies and liars I ever saw." Lying about a claim's prospects was understandable, but Archer marveled at lies about smaller matters and events occurring Outside. It was said that Jack Dalton died on the trail; that Swiftwater Bill Gates got his feet frozen; and that the U.S. and Japan were at war. [27]

Many rumors originated outside as well. The departure of the U.S. revenue cutter Bear from San Francisco for the relief of whalers stranded at Point Barrow triggered a story of "another object in view besides the one of humanity." Pundits argued that "somewhere in the frozen north, somewhere in that charmed arctic circle whose floes have always attracted so many daring explorers, there exists a region which abounds in little else than gold." Another rumor was that highly placed government officials had instructed Bear's commander to locate claims for them. The Seattle Times believed such stories must be taken with a grain of salt, yet pondered the alacrity of the government in fitting out Bear:

It will be remembered that a great deal more haste was employed . . . than in sending the relief outfit to alleged sufferers at Dawson City. It will also be remembered that some officers made exceedingly quick journeys across the country to go on the expedition . . . perhaps because of a vision of golden Eldorado. [28]

It soon became obvious that the Klondike discovery, however much it might be misrepresented, was momentous. Rather quickly the event began building a force capable of sweeping thousands of individuals around the world into its vortex. Few events cause the kind of impact that triggers a mass movement, but the Klondike stirred the kind of frenzy that induced thousands of people to uproot themselves.

Notes: Chapter 2

1. Herbert L. Heller, Ed., Sourdough Sagas (New York: Ballantine Books, 1967), 93.

2. Ibid., 49-51.

3. J.C. Moore et. al. to U.S. Marshall, June 6, 1888. NA. RG 60. Letters Received.

4. Healy — Adney correspondence, passim. Dartmouth College. Stefansson Collection; Healy to Porter, March 24, 1891; Crow et. al. to Porter, March 28, 1891. Alaska State Archives. RG 505. Box 4397. Letterbook.

5. Mining Record, November 13, 1895.

6. Ibid.

7 James Ducker, "Navigability Study for the Upper Yukon Region Alaska," (Anchorage: Bureau of Land Management, 1983), 234-36.

8. Yukon Press, January 11, 1894.

9. Seattle Post-Intelligence, April 18, 1895, quoted in the Juneau Record, April 8, 1895.

10. Melody Webb, The Last Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), 89-91.

11. Alaska Mining Record, September 15, 1897.

12. Ibid, April 8, 1896.

13. Allen Wright, Prelude to Bonanza (Sidney, B.C.: Gray's Publishing Co., 1976), 299-300.

14. Alaska Mining Record, February 10, 1897.

15. Alaska Mining Record, July 7, 1897.

16. Ibid.

17. San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1897.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., July 16, 1897.

20. Ibid., July 17, 1897.

21. Ibid., July 18, 1897.

22. Ibid.

23. Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1897.

24. Pierre Berton, Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 178.

25. San Francisco Chronicle, September 10, 1897.

26. Ibid., September 11, 1897.

27. Seattle Times, January 13, 1898.

28. Seattle Times, January 18, 1898.

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Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008