The Last Gold Rush: Stampede to the Klondike (Part 2)

(Klondike "cheechakos" panning for gold inside their cabin, Winter 1897.)

Many Turned Right Around

Those cheechakos arriving at Dawson City and its environs soon discovered that the town was filled with idle stampeders whose race to the Klondike's gold had been thwarted by the simple fact that nearly all the good placer ground within 50 miles was already "claimed up." Desperation took hold among many who sank into depression, drunkenness or worse. Many cheechakos, disgusted or their spirits broken, turned right around and headed for home, wherever that might be.

Those plucky souls who persisted found themselves wandering farther and farther away from Dawson City through unforgiving and unfamiliar terrain in their desperate search for a stretch of workable ground. Others spent hour after hour in long lines outside the Claim Recorder's office hoping to get a chance at claims not yet legally documented or open for filing. For nearly all of these latter stampeders, the wait was in vain.

Gold Prospecting Books
Gold Pans
Gold Concentrators

Gold, Overburden, and Permafrost

Only about half of the estimated 30-40,000 cheechakos who fought their way over Chilkoot Pass (and other grueling terrain) to Dawson City actually did any placer gold mining. Of those, only about 15-20,000 were "lucky" enough to find themselves actually working claims. These soon realized that getting all of that gold out of the ground would take a Herculean effort. In this, they were absolutely correct.

Most of the rich paystreaks lay on bedrock, buried under 10-50 feet of gravel and rock overburden, nearly all of it frozen by the permafrost into cement-like layers. Taking a cue from Russian miners, the cheechakos used fires to thaw the permafrost, laboriously removing layer after layer of overburden and piling it into heaps or piles around their cabins where it would be sluiced or rocked during the short Yukon summer. What was left would be panned inside their cabins during the long and bitterly cold months of winter.

Some Struck it Rich, Most Didn't

Those cheechakos who survived all this travail eventually became "sourdoughs," or experienced prospectors and gold miners, who received this moniker because of their proclivity for baking sourdough bread and biscuits in their Dutch ovens. Some sourdoughs struck it rich. George Carmack, the finder of all this wealth did, as did also some members of his family. Other lucky sourdoughs, finally reaching bedrock in certain locations, found pounds of gold packed into nearly every depression, pothole, crack, and crevice.

Most sourdoughs, however, just barely managed to eke out a living, finding just enough gold to keep them supplied and able to continue the search. Others did somewhat better, managing to send home $500, or $1,000, or even $5,000 or more to their wives, sweethearts, or families. Others, broken in body, mind, and spirit, simply gave up the ghost.

What Did It All Accomplish?

What did all this human effort, toil, and sacrifice accomplish? The statistics tell the true story, and depending on your point of view, they may imply great things or conversely, very little:

1) Dawson City's population fell to 15,000 in the winter of 1898 and by the following spring another 5,000 said goodbye to the Klondike.

2) The Klondike stampeders spent an estimated $40-50 million for transportation and supplies while recovering about $10 million in placer gold.

3) By contrast, large mining companies employing huge bucket-line dredges took an estimated $300 million in gold from the Yukon.

3) By 1908, Dawson City's population had shrunk to about 5,000 souls.

4) The Klondike Gold Rush helped open up Alaska and made profitable commercial cities of Seattle and Portland.

5) The Klondike stampeders, the cheechakos, and the sourdoughs were the last, great mining individualists of our time, perhaps for all time and the Klondike stampede would prove to be the last, great gold rush.


"A life of pure freedom has a fascination that grows rather than diminishes. The privations and hardships we all endured taught us better to separate the good from the bad and the essential from the non-essential" (quote from an anonymous Klondike sourdough).

There it is..........

If you liked this post, you may want to read: "The Last Gold Rush: Stampede to the Klondike"

(c) J. R. 2008

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