Gold Rush Part 2: The Klondike

Now my friends, we know a little of some of the hardships that the forty-niner’s suffered when travelling to the California gold fields, for some it must have been a living hell. In telling the story of the Klondike I wish to say that I am in no way belittling the forty-niner’s achievements, they were in a totally different environment and required skills that had to deal with desert conditions and many other related hardships.

Gold was discovered in the Klondike in August 1896 but it was not until July 1897 that news got around and the rush started. Although there were more expensive, easier routes to Dawson City (entirely by boat) this is a brief description of the conditions faced by the majority of people who travelled by boat to Dyea and Skagway and then over the Chilkoot Pass or White pass and then on to Dawson City. The complete journey could be made overland on the All Canada Route from Edmonton but would take an age to travel and was considered to be the poor man’s way. As I pieced together the story, I was in shock at the horror that faced the miners (also called stampeder’s) which set off to find their fortune. Many thousands did not make it and thousands of poor animals died en route.

Chilkoot Pass
Courtesy of Canadian National Archives

This photo leaves me in awe every time I look at it. Miners had to carry their gear (known as their ‘Outfit’) on foot as the slope was too steep for animals to carry up a burden. Some 1500 steps were cut into the ice to aid the accent (named The Golden Staircase), the miners had so much equipment (about 1 ton), many trips had to be made to get it all up to the top (tent, iron stove, food, mining gear and other equipment). It was a harsh and cruel time for the prospectors. The Chilkoot trail through the mountains was 26 miles long and this last slope to the top of the pass rose about 1000 feet in half a mile. 

There was  another route which some miners decided to take rather than face the very steep Chilkoot Pass, just a step further south-east was another way across the mountains called White Pass, not as steep as Chilkoot but very dangerous with sheer drops, narrow ledges and very rough ground. Large numbers of miners tried to make the journey over White Pass and it was here that the animals suffered the most. Starvation, fatigue, injury from rocks and falling over the edge of the narrow trail. It’s very sad and disturbing to me that people should have such little regard for the suffering and death their animals faced after they placed total trust in their owners and served them without question. It’s shocking that over 3000 horses and mules died on White Pass alone and because of this fact it was dubbed ‘Dead Horse Trail’  as animals were strewn everywhere. (As reported by Jack London – author).

White Pass which became known as ‘Dead Horse Trail’
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Some miners were suffering so badly from exhaustion and starvation that they ate some meat from the dead horses on the trail, this made some of them very ill and death was not uncommon. Exposure and hypothermia also took its toll too, remember that most of the miners were from warmer climes and they were just unprepared for the intense cold. The rush started in earnest just as fall was turning into winter and little did the prospectors know that temperatures could drop to 70 degree’s C. below (if you have not experienced this sort of cold before, you are in trouble). When the miners finally reached the top of the mountain passes they made their way down to Bennett Lake where they made boats and sailed the last 500 miles down the Yukon River to Dawson City.

Most authorities estimate that around a hundred thousand people set off on the Klondike Gold Rush but only between thirty and forty thousand eventually made it to Dawson City, of these only about 4000 struck gold. When the prospectors arrived they found that most of the decent claims had been taken by the local people and the stories about gold being found positively everywhere to be a gross exaggeration. Many either found jobs doing other things or returned home, one way or another. 

Dawson City was built on the flood plain where the rivers Klondike and Yukon join and so when the thaw came each year, Dawson became a city of mud.  Economically speaking, they built and expanded this city here as it was the perfect starting place for the gold fields but it was at the mercy of the river and the extreme flooding which came every spring.

Spring floods deposited tons of mud in Dawson City.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Again, as in the 1849 California Gold Rush, entrepreneurs made a much more reliable income, supplying the miners with whatever they needed to prospect and ‘survive’ in the wild (I don’t know about that)!

Supplying miners needs – easy money to be made!
Courtesy of  Fly fishing Gazette.com

In Dawson there would be the usual sorts of entertainment available, all for a nice price of course. There was definitely money to be made in the gold towns.

‘Ladies’ in Dawson City.
Courtesy of The Canadian Museum of Civilization

Timber was also in great demand and in normal times the usual price was $6 or $7 per 1000 feet, during the Rush the price went up to $140. Many people could not afford this so building a cabin was very difficult and shelter was essential if one were to survive the winter. The timber industry of the area was well established before the Klondike, the forests being further utilized for miners needs as they required timber for all sorts of things besides a cabin (sluices, sluice lines, sieves, rockers, furniture and other mining related equipment).

As the population grew in Dawson and surrounding area, food shortages became a serious issue (some miners had to be evacuated for the winter) and coupled with poor sanitation the spread of disease became a major problem. Typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria and scurvy took its toll on the people and although improved sanitation helped the following year disease was still a problem, more so down stream where the water was even more polluted from the waste put into the river at Dawson City. When spring finally arrived in 1898, new supplies of food began to be shipped in (after the thaw), eggs could go for as much as $3 or more each, salt and fruit were at a premium. As in the California gold rush, entrepreneur’s would charge as high a price as they could for any commodity and many made a good living buying and selling goods this way.

During the winter months (those miners who had enough food and shelter) would dig out dirt from the frozen ground in and around the river, sometimes removing many feet of earth to get down to the old river bed. When the thaw came this dirt was washed to separate out the gold (this is how the term ‘pay dirt’ came into being). From the top producing claims, millions of dollars in today’s money was mined, many times as much as in the California rush claims, the only thing being the deposits were not as widespread as in California, that’s why most miners were disappointed.

Both the California and the Klondike gold rush was awe-inspiring in their own ways, our next gold rush story comes from Australia and another tale of man’s battle against the extreme conditions our planet can give us. Cheerio for now, Supernova.

I’ll be back…..

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About James Oliver

Hi everyone, my name is James and I live in the North West of England, UK. I'm a microbiologist who is also passionate about metal detecting, ancient and modern history, wildlife, conservation, ecology, cosmology, oh and some other stuff! I have a small dog and a cat whom I treat like my children and a goldfish named "Fish". I hope you enjoy my blog and good luck to you all. Image by Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Posted on 12/10/2012, in All Blog Posts, The Gold Rushes and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Wonderful article and pictures. “Chilkoot Pass” photo is telling of the challenges…remarkable.

    • Thank you Beverly and your right, the photo tells how much hardship these folk and animals went through. Some of the miners diaries I have read were heart breaking.
      My best regards, James :-)

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