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HISTORY CORNER: Gold in the rugged Yukon

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| February 13, 2022 1:00 AM

“Law of the Yukon: Only the strong shall thrive; that surely the weak shall perish, and only the fit survive.” — Robert W. Service, Bard of the Yukon

History says 100,000 or more jumped at the news that gold had been found in the Yukon Territory in the 1890s. They remembered the California Gold Rush, and the stories of creeks filled with gold nuggets — and wondered if they could get rich doing the same in the Klondike?

In August 1896, American prospector George Carmack, along with his Tagish First Nation wife Kate and her fellow tribesmen Shookum Jim Mason and Dawson Charlie found gold at Rabbit Creek — later renamed Bonanza Creek — a tributary of the Klondike River near today’s Dawson.

They weren’t the first to find gold in the Yukon River basin. About 1,500 others had been prospecting there since the 1870s, and one of them was Carmack.

His find at the creek was a nugget about the size of a dime.

That was enough to change the history of the Yukon.

Word got around quickly and locals raced to the action and staked their claims. But it would take another year before the hordes of outsiders from everywhere heard the news and swept in.

How many of them who caught “gold fever” would throw caution to the winds, pack their bags and close their ears to the pleas of family and friends not to go — convinced that Lady Luck would surely smile on them?

Even the mayor of San Francisco quit his job and headed north.

The Klondike Gold Rush started in the spring of 1897. The newcomers to the Klondike were called the “stampeders.” By that summer, the city of Dawson probably had about 25,000 of them. Most of them however didn’t stay very long.

The Yukon is beautiful, rugged and exciting — but it can also be very unforgiving.

Fearing starvation could face the newcomers, the Canadian government required that they all have at least a year’s food and supplies with them to survive — and the North-West Mounted Police were charged with enforcement.

When the first detachment of Mounties arrived in July 1895, “they were the territory’s only official government presence,” according to a Yukon source. “They collected customs duties, tried to curb the whiskey trade and did what little actual policing was required. During the gold rush they were also inspectors of licenses, postmasters and registrars of births and deaths.”

Those mandated prospector supplies weighed about a ton, and getting them through the rugged wilderness would take many trips — unless they used pack animals or hired freighters.

Some stampeders made so many trips, that they had to walk nearly 1,000 miles to carry all their supplies just the 33 miles from Dyea on the Alaskan coast over the mountains to Lake Bennett — and that wasn’t the end of the trek.

Once over the mountain range that blocks the Klondike from the Pacific and the rest of the world, the prospectors had to build or rent boats and head to the mining fields 500 miles down the Yukon River to Dawson City where they’d set up camp and hope to stake their claims.

(The Yukon River flows nearly 2,000 miles from British Columbia, through the Yukon and Alaska into the Bering Sea.)

Many died during the river trip.

Most of the hopefuls heading for the Klondike arrived by ship at Skagway, Alaska. From there, it was over the mountains through the White Pass, a trail that was narrow and muddy that “turned into a quagmire in late August from heavy traffic and 11 days of rain, and had to be closed for repairs for four days.”

White Pass was a nightmare for man and beast.

“Anxious prospectors overloaded and beat their pack animals and forced them over the rocky terrain until they dropped,” one report said. “More than 3,000 animals died on this trail; many of their bones still lie at the bottom of Dead Horse Gulch.”

They called White Pass “Dead Horse Trail.”

And still the people poured in.

The “rich man’s route” was by ship from Seattle or San Francisco, and then over the coastal mountains on foot — like everyone else. The “poor man’s” was by foot all the way. It took some of them two years to make the journey.

All of that was before the 500 miles down the Yukon River to the gold fields.

Others who arrived by sea landed at Dyea close to Skagway, and they used the Chilkoot Trail, that was steep, icy and snowy. When their pack animals reached that trail, the stampeders had to abandon them and carry their supplies the rest of the way themselves — usually making multiple trips up the 1,500 steps of the “Golden Staircase” carved into the snow and ice.

Trekking across the Yukon, the prospectors had to contend with winter temperatures that dipped as low as minus 75 degrees, and summer temperatures as high as 100 degrees, and also suffer from “seemingly unending hordes of mosquitoes” that easily survived the winter cold and relished the brief summer heat.

Mosquito nets were on the government’s supply list for prospectors, but reports say the annoying critters seem to be able to find a way in.

“The Yukon refused to surrender her riches easily,” a North-West Mounted Police account said, “and the entrepreneurs continually battled the realities of their harsh environment. Only a few found gold.

“Injury-and-death was the reward for many who dared to venture. Not many found their Eldorado and most left the inhospitable climate as quickly as they had come.”

Author Jack London was 21 when he tried his luck in the Klondike — but he failed too. He caught scurvy and went home without the gold. He did however bring a year’s experiences that rewarded him handsomely after he wrote about them in "Call of the Wild."

Today, the cabin he stayed in can be visited in Dawson, along with a nearby cabin occupied by Robert Service, the Bard of the Yukon.

The Yukon gold rush wasn’t just a man’s world. “Women did travel to Dawson,” a Yukon government report said. “Some accompanied their husbands; others came to work; some as clerks, cooks, domestic servants, teachers and nurses, some as dance-hall girls or prostitutes.”

There was even a female doctor in one mining camp.

As the 19th century ended, so too did the Klondike gold days. In the summer of 1899, word arrived about gold on the beaches of Nome and the exodus was swift, with Dawson’s population of 17,000 plummeting to 8,000.

The last great gold rush was over, but Dawson has survived and still has the feel of the old days.

The Alaskan port of Dyea that was the starting point for the Chilkoot Trail didn’t last however, and today it’s hardly even a ghost town.

On April 3, 1898, a massive snow slide called the Palm Sunday Avalanche hit the Chilkoot Trail, killing some 70 people. “This brought worldwide negative publicity,” according to the National Park Service, and the disaster triggering a mass exodus of stampeders dashing for Alaska.

Tourists still do some gold panning for fun in the Klondike, but there are also plenty of other treasures to enjoy — and no one has to go home disappointed:

There’s the ethereal Aurora Borealis and the majesty of the mountains at Tombstone Territorial Park, a scenic trip on the historic White Pass & Yukon Railway, White Pass Trail where the drama of the gold rush took place, the animals in the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, the massive glaciers, and of course — historic Dawson.

George Carmack, one of the original discoverers of Klondike gold, became wealthy enough that he lived in relative prosperity for the rest of his life, while Skookum Jim continued prospecting for gold until he died in 1916.

Sadly, Dawson Charlie died in Carcross, Yukon, when he fell off the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway bridge in an alcohol-related accident.

In a poem about the Yukon, Robert Service wrote:

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;

I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.

Was it famine or scurvy — I fought it;

I hurled my youth into a grave.

I wanted the gold, and I got it — 

Came out with a fortune last fall.

Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,

And somehow the gold isn’t all…

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

• • •

Yukon in a nutshell…

The rugged Yukon is best known for the Klondike Gold Rush — but there’s a lot more: It’s the best place to see the northern lights, has 17 out of 20 of Canada’s tallest mountains, biggest ice fields, smallest desert, and is home to incredible wildlife, including grizzlies, polar bears, moose, caribou, wolves, foxes, mountain lion, lynxes, bison, wolverines and more.

The Great Migration…

Some 12,000 years ago, humans, woolly mammoths, bison and moose migrated from Asia to North America across the Beringia land-bridge that then existed linking Asia with Alaska, while horses, caribou and black bears migrated in the other direction.

Gold panning locations today…

Apart from a few places in the Klondike, other top places to pan for gold are the American River in California (where veteran scuba diver Dick Anderson found a nugget the size of a brick), Rogue River in Oregon; Fairbanks, Alaska; Black Hills, S.D.; Northern Nevada; Pike's Peak, Colo.; and Dahlonega, Ga.

Sourdough for diabetics…

Sourdough means more than the early gold prospectors, or a type of bread — it also means something beneficial to diabetes. Sourdough bread has a low glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike blood sugar, and eating it for breakfast will help process lunch. In 2500 B.C., the ancient Greeks were already making more than 80 types of bread.

— South Florida Reporter

Fighting the mosquitoes…

Mosquitos don’t like windy, breezy conditions or house fans — so that’s where humans should go. Recommended anti-mosquito tactics include wearing tight-weave cotton shirts and pants — they work better than more porous synthetics, and also wear khaki or neutral colors because mosquitoes like dark colors — especially blue. Don’t use scented soaps, lotions or shampoos, but do use repellent and wear a head-net if you’re in mosquito territory.

— Alaska Trekker

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DUCKDUCKGO IMAGES

Yukon Gold Rush Prospector (c.1898)

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SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM

Prospectors hoping to strike it rich climbing up the arduous “Golden Stairs” from Scales tent city on the Chilkoot Trail (c.1898).

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STEFANO BIANCHETTI/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Miners en route to the Klondike gold fields, with most heading back disappointed within two years.

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NPS/RASMUSON FOUNDATION

Klondike “stampeders” waiting in Dyea, Alaska (now a ghost town), with their supplies to start the dangerous trek to the gold fields, with returning home, suffering, injury and death more likely than getting rich.

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BETTMANN

Yukon miners

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WHITE PASS AND YUKON ROUTE RAILWAY

White Pass Trail

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DUCKDUCKGO IMAGES

Rugged as the Yukon is, women joined the men to dig for gold.

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WHITE PASS AND YUKON RAILWAY

Starting the railroad in Skagway, Alaska, heading 20 miles to White Horse, Yukon Territory (c.1897).

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PHOTO COURTESY TRAIN FANATICS

The Skagway to White Horse railway is operating — with a steam locomotive.

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KLONDIKE VISITORS ASSOCIATION

The S.S. Keno, a historic sternwheeler that once churned the Yukon waterways.

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PINTEREST IMAGE

Graveyard of 17 steamships on the Yukon River in Dawson, Yukon Territory.

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YUKON DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM & CULTURE

The rugged Yukon was too much for most of the gold prospectors who hoped to strike it rich in the 1890s, but it’s a natural treasure to today’s trekkers.

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YUKON DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM & CULTURE

Every day, Dwayne Kelly, the Piano Man daily travels by canoe across the Klondike River, treks to the highway, then hitchhikes to Dawson City to entertain the folks with his repertoire of 1,200 songs — his performance a pleasure to watch on YouTube: https://www.travelyukon.com/en/discover/yukon-story/the-piano-man

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YUKON LARGER THAN LIFE

Canada has 14 First Nations (Indian tribes) in eight language groups living in the Yukon Territory.

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FETV-TV

The Yukon was popularized by a radio show series (1938-55) featuring Paul Sutton as Sergeant William Preston, then followed by the Sgt. Preston TV series (1955-58) starring Richard Simmons and dog “Yukon King,” an Alaskan Malamute raised by a female wolf.

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RCMP

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent 19 Mounties into the vast sparsely populated Yukon in 1895 to bring the territory its first official law and order.

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REDDIT

Prospecting for gold is no longer the attraction to the Yukon, but trekking, back-packing and day hiking is — as shown in this photo of Tombstone Territorial Park.

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D. FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY VIA AP

Scientific analysis from a woolly mammoth frozen in permafrost reveals they roamed the Yukon and elsewhere in Canada until 5,000 years ago.

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