The Last Gold Rush: Stampede to the Klondike

(Klondike "stampeders" packing supplies over Chilkoot Pass.)

In the late summer of 1896, trapper, fisherman, and sometime prospector George Carmack and his nephews found substantial amounts of placer gold on what would become Bonanza Creek in Canada's Yukon Territory. Although George had a reputation among locals as a "great liar" who often boasted of exaggerated gold finds, this find was no exaggeration and triggered the last great gold rush in North America, the stampede to the Klondike. By early 1897, hundreds of thousands of men (and not a few women) would endure unbelievable hardships after heading north to seek their fortunes.

Who Were These New Argonauts?

Like their predecessors almost 50 years earlier in California, the Klondike argonauts represented a cross-section of American life. Who were they? Aged '49ers who'd missed the big gold finds in the Motherlode, former athletes from Harvard and Yale, professional miners and prospectors who'd spent time in just about every mining camp of the American West, Oregonians who'd fled ranches, farms, and businesses to strike it rich, Canadians of every social element, Native Americans, foreigners, you name it. "GOLD, GOLD, GOLD! Gold in the Yukon" cried the newspaper headlines. And so the argonauts of '98 came, including over 100 women who were hell-bent on finding their fortunes along with the men.

Despair and Havoc at Chilkoot Pass

Few of these gold seekers fully understood the hardships that lay ahead for them, including at least 6 weeks of total darkness and temperatures that could lower to a bone-numbing minus 70 degrees F. Many arrived in Alaskan ports as winter drew near with pets, lawn tennis sets, pianos, and dubious gold-mining contraptions of every description in hand, these latter sold to them by numerous "quick-buck" hucksters in Seattle and San Francisco.

The Canadian government required that each would-be miner (known derisively as "cheechakos" by the locals) heading into the Yukon carry at least 2,000 pounds of supplies for survival in the harsh element that lay ahead. For most Klondike argonauts, this meant making as many as 50 trips (lasting 6 hours each) up the steep, 35-degree slope of Chilkoot Pass, struggling under back-breaking loads in the worst conditions imaginable. Those with money paid to have pack horses carry their loads, but even this strategy proved unworkable as thousands of these unfortunate animals died under the strain. Some would-be miners also expired in the process of ascending Chilkoot or from is effects while others, overwrought with exhaustion, sickness and despair, committed suicide.

Surviving Even More Madness

Those hardy and fortunate cheechakos who survived the devastation at Chilkoot Pass and the additional hardships involved in reaching the Klondike mining boom town of Dawson City found themselves struggling to survive even more madness. They built crude log cabins held together by mud and with windows constructed of empty liquor bottles. Temperatures were so cold that clouds of steam from cooking caused icicles to form on cabin rafters and walls, which the argonauts in turn broke, melted, and used for drinking water.

Like other gold boom towns that preceded it, Dawson City experienced terrific growth, gaining nearly 30,000 new residents in just a few weeks in 1898. With this stampede of frenzied gold seekers came the inevitable dregs of society, including thugs, thieves, murderers, pimps, prostitutes, and con men. Though Dawson City gave every outward manifestation of civilization including telephones, electricity (of sorts), churches, and a Masonic Hall, underneath its flashy exterior it shared much of the same filth, lawlessness, and corruption that had plagued its boom town cousins in the American West.

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.)  2008