The Klondike gold fields cover an area of 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) southeast of Dawson City. It was in 1896 that a Nova Scotian prospector, Robert Henderson, discovered the first gold—about 20 cents’ worth per pan—in a creek he went ahead and named Gold-Bottom Creek. He spent the rest of the summer working the creek, while passing news of his find to fellow prospectors who were in the area.
One such man was George “Siwash” Washington Carmack, who with partners Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim struck gold in extraordinary quantities—$3–4 a pan—on nearby Rabbit Creek (soon to be renamed Bonanza). They staked three claims before word began to spread. By fall most of the richest ground had been claimed.
News of the strike reached the outside world a year later, when a score of prospectors, so loaded down with gold that they couldn’t handle it themselves, disembarked in San Francisco and Seattle. The spectacle triggered mass insanity across the continent, immediately launching a rush the likes of which the world had rarely seen before and has not seen since.
Clerks, salesmen, streetcar conductors, doctors, preachers, generals (even the mayor of Seattle) simply dropped what they were doing and started off “for the Klondike.” City dwellers, factory workers, and men who had never climbed a mountain, handled a boat, or even worn a backpack were outfitted in San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and Edmonton, and set out on an incredible journey through an uncharted wilderness with Dawson—a thousand miles from anywhere—as the imagined grand prize.
Out of an estimated 100,000 “stampeders” that started out, 35,000 made it to Dawson.
Meanwhile, the first few hundred lucky stampeders to actually reach Dawson before the rivers froze that winter (1897) found the town in such a panic over food that people were actually fleeing for their lives. At the same time tens of thousands of stampeders were heading toward Dawson along a variety of routes, including over the Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River.
Most hopefuls were caught unprepared in the bitter grip of the seven-month Arctic winter, and many froze to death or died of scurvy, starvation, exhaustion, heartbreak, suicide, or murder. And when the breakup in 1898 finally allowed the remaining hordes to pour into Dawson the next spring, every worthwhile claim had already been staked.
Heyday and Pay Dirt
That next year, from summer 1898 to summer 1899, was a unique moment in history. As people and supplies started deluging [nodeL97451 link Dawson], all the hundreds of thousands in gold, worthless previously for lack of anything to buy, were spent with a feverish abandon. The richest stampeders established the saloons, dance halls, gambling houses, trading companies, even steamship lines and banks—much easier ways to get the gold than mining it.
The casinos and hotels were as opulent as any in Paris. The dance-hall girls charged $5 in gold per minute for dancing (extra for slow dances), the bartenders put stickum on their fingers to poke a little dust during transactions, and the janitors who panned the sawdust on the barroom floors were known to wash out $50 nightly. Dawson burned with an intensity born of pure lust, the highlight of the lives of every single person who braved the trails and experienced it.
In 1899, most of Dawson burned to the ground, and at the same time, word filtered in that gold had been discovered on the beaches of Nome, and just as the Klondike strike had emptied surrounding boomtowns, Nome emptied Dawson. By the summer of 1899, as the last bedraggled and tattered stampeders limped into Dawson two years after setting out, the 12-month golden age of Dawson was done. The city’s heyday was as brief as its reputation was beefy, and Dawson quickly declined into another small town on the banks of the Yukon.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition