Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!

Those four words, well one word repeated four times, were the headlines in the newspapers which announced the discovery of gold near Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory of Canada, in August of 1896. Subsequently 100,000 people from 33 countries followed their dreams of finding gold by taking part in the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and 1898. But how did you get there? Why by boat from Seattle or San Francisco, finally landing at the top of the Inside Passage in Alaska, then hiking 33 miles over the mountains and down to Bennett Lake, where you built your boat and sailed down the Yukon River and into Dawson City.

How do I know all this, you say. Well today Skagway is part of a National Historical Park and we went to the Park Services offices where we watched a film chronicling the great Klondike Gold Rush and later we had a guided walk around the historic part of town with a US ranger who regaled us with the history and anecdotes of the glory days of Skagway. There were only six of us on the tour and the ranger did an excellent job. He was a bit of a ham actor, but in a very nice way and only at the end, when he thanked us for coming, did he tell us that this was the very first tour he had given here in Skagway, as he had recently transferred from the park service in Richmond, Virginia.

Now, at the top of the Inside Passage, were two small settlements. One was Dyea, where the Tlingit Indians controlled the 33 mile long Chilkoot trade route over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River. From here thousands of gold seekers toiled up the famous Golden Stairs, a climb of 1000 ft over 1/4 mile, not once but 20 to 40 times, shuttling on their backs, 50 pounds at a time, the ton of food ( a year's supply) and equipment required before the Northwest Mounted Police allowed entry into Canada. Skagway, the other port, grew from a population of 5 homesteaders to a tent city of 10,000 overnight. From Skagway, the White Pass route was the longer by ten miles but slightly less arduous and the summit was lower. One stampeder, who had made the journey over both passes, said, "It didn't matter which one you took, you'd wished you had taken the other."

Since Skagway was a better port it soon became the "Gateway to the Klondike", a bustling city with 80 to 100 saloons, one church, three breweries, many brothels and businesses supplying services to the miners. In a matter of months, the tent city gave way to wooden buildings and wooden sidewalks and it literally turned into a lawless frontier town as opportunists conceived schemes to part the miners from their money. The most infamous of these scoundrels was Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith who set up a telegraph scheme, offering to send messages from miners and even concocting replies supposedly received over his non existent telegraph service. After he was shot by a disgruntled man he had cheated and after a group of British investors began building a railroad over the White Pass, Skagway settled into a more normal existence. However, by the completion of the railway to the top of the pass in 1899, and finally to Whitehorse in 1900, the rush was over. The opening of the railway sounded the death knell for Dyea, which ultimately was abandoned. So few people made their fortunes in this mad enterprise but many people made this journey into the wilderness with hopes of a better future for themselves and their families. While they did not find gold many said they would do it all over again regardless.

The Skagway of today is a town of 400 people who overwinter here, with an increase in population to 800 during the summer, when seasonal businesses open for the tourist season and the cruise ship arrivals. The town has preserved its 1898 look, with buildings lovingly restored and the sidewalks are still made of wood. Even new buildings are constructed to fit in with the flavour of the old town and it is a perfectly charming town to visit. It is totally surrounded by snowcovered mountains and the weather is usually good as the rainfall is very low for the region. Today was fine, although there was a bitter wind coming up the sound making the 8 degree celsius or 51 degree fahrenheit temperature feel like below freezing. We spent our time visiting the museum and some of the stores which have beautiful Alaskan artwork. One gallery in particular had very beautiful carvings in soapstone and whalebone. There were many fine museum quality pieces and since it was not busy, the gallery owner was very happy to discuss some of the pieces with me. I would be very happy to own many of the pieces if I could afford them and I didn't already have a house full of "stuff" that I have acquired over many years. In any town visited by cruise ships there are always many stores selling high class jewellery and watches and Skagway is no different in that. However these hold no interest for me and I like to follow the history and look at the local art work, even if I do not buy any.

The White Pass and Yukon Route railway operated as an integral part of the economy of Skagway, providing the means to bring goods, mainly minerals, in and out of the Yukon until 1982 when the route was suspended due to the closure of a large mine in the Yukon. However the summer tourist industry continued to grow and the railway was reopened in 1989 as a summer excursion route. Last time we came to Skagway we took this incredible three hour round trip train ride through the majestic mountainous countryside to the summit and back. It makes you appreciate what difficulties those stampeders had to overcome to make that journey at the end of the nineteenth century. A journey that 100,000 started but only 30,000 succeeded in making.

But such is the power of the lure of gold. So many left their homes, their jobs and their families and set out with such hopes and dreams, and so few had those dreams fulfilled. While 30,000 people actually reached the gold fields, about 4000 found gold and only a few hundred struck it rich, with a mere handful keeping their fortunes. This is a story that has been repeated over and over throughout history, but one that still fascinates us all, no matter where it took place.

Join me tomorrow for the next episode in my cruise to Alaska.


Voyager said...

Thank you JMB for the travelogue about the gold rush. I visited Skagway in the early 1980's in the dead of winter, having arrived on the White Pass & Yukon railway from Whitehorse. You brought back lovely memories of that trip for me.

Janice Thomson said...

This is great info Jmb. I'm enjoying every word of it...look forward to tomorrow's post.

mhr said...

Ah, lottery is the new gold rush nowadays :)
Your post is a mine of information, jmb!
The words "gold rush" never fail to conjure up in my mind images of the famous film by Charlie Chaplin, particularly the scene with the dance of the bread rolls stabbed with forks.
I enjoyed your account of Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and the telegraph scheme. The gold rush certainly didn't bring out the best in people.

jmb said...

breeThank you all for your kind words, I am glad you are enjoying my commentary, even without the images. I am trying not to waste my precious internet minutes so one comment is all I can manage to you all. This satelite connection is very slow, sometimes blogger refuses to load. But I am managing.
Tomorrow, Glacier Bay.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Wonderful story again and actually you have made clear to me an episode in history which I've never been quite sure about. Can't wait for the next episode!