Why the Klondike Stampede Was So
Multiple factors lay behind the sudden mass response
to head for the Klondike.
In 1897, the world was in a state of economic depression. It was a
particularly grinding form of recession for it hit the small businessman,
laborer, and salaried white-collar worker especially hard. The "dole" was
common, bread lines were long, and no end appeared to be in sight as summer
Many who were hurt by the financial crises were motivated to try
their luck in the gold.
It struck the Pacific northwest with
particular viciousness, for this was a new land settled by men who had followed
Horace Greeley's advice after the California gold rush to go west, and many of
those who had done so were now trying to push back the frontier on borrowed
funds. Some were reduced to digging clams from the beaches of Puget Sound
to keep alive. Indeed, the people of western Washington State were so
dependent on clams that, in the words of Frank Cushman, a Tacoma congressman,
"their stomachs rose and fell with the tide." For years they had been
waiting for a miracle to deliver them. It came, like an electric shock,
when the Portland docked in Seattle with a ton of gold aboard.
Economically, the news had reached the US
at the height of a series of financial recessions and bank failures in the
1890s. The Klondike discovery was made while the
U.S. was suffering the effects of a long economic depression, largely caused by
the scarcity of gold for coinage and the payment of foreign debts. The
production of gold had not kept pace with the soaring population; in some years,
indeed, it dropped, and this drop was accentuated by demands from European
countries that had adopted a gold standard. As gold dollars grew scarcer
they grew more expensive until at one point a gold dollar was worth almost twice
as much as a paper dollar. People began to hoard gold, in socks and sugar
bowls and under floor boards and in personal safes, so that by the year 1892
there were only one hundred and ninety millions in gold coin and certificates
left in the U.S. Treasury out of a total of seven hundred and thirty million.
This drop in the circulation of gold was one of the reasons for the creeping
depression that gripped the United States in the thirty years prior to he
Klondike strike. It was a depression that favored the moneylenders and
bankers and wreaked hardship on the debtor classes, for those who had borrowed
money when it was cheap found that they must repay it when it was expensive.
Panic came in 1893 as a result of foreign fears that the government could not
maintain payments in gold, and the slump that followed was the blackest the
continent had known. This had contributed to the financial panics of 1893 and 1896,
which caused unemployment (reportedly between 12% and 14%) and financial uncertainty. There was a huge,
unresolved demand for gold across the developed world that the Klondike offered
to fulfill and, for individuals, the region promised higher wages or financial
Psychologically, the Klondike, as historian Pierre Berton describes,
was "just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be
accessible." Furthermore, the Pacific ports closest to the gold strikes
were desperate to encourage trade and travel to the region.
The mass journalism
of the period promoted the event and the human interest stories that lay behind
it. A worldwide publicity campaign engineered largely by Erastus Brainerd, a
Seattle newspaper man, helped establish the city as the premier supply center
and the departure point for the gold fields.
This was perhaps the chief reason for the
intensity of the stampede that followed out of all proportion to the
amount of gold that actually existed on the Klondike watershed. The
century had already experienced three other great international rushes, to
California, Australia, and South Africa - fields far richer than the Klondike.
But, in the phrase of the British Columbia Yearbook for 1899, they "did not move
the world as the Klondike moved it."
Conditions were almost exactly right for
the lunacy that ensued. The world was at peace, and the Klondike had no
rivals for public attention for more than six months; another year and the
Spanish-American and later the Boer wars would have interfered. Because of
the high purchasing power of the dollar, goods and outfits were cheap.
Rail and water transportation had reached a state of efficiency which made it
possible to move large masses of people swiftly and inexpensively; the Klondike,
in fact, started a railway rate war that saw the far from Chicago to the Pacific
coast drop to ten dollars. The Yukon was just far enough away to be
romantic and just close enough to be accessible. As well, the area might
not be extensive, but some of the claims were proving to be the richest in
There was also something magical about the
era, too. The Victorian Age was drawing to its close, and Englishmen,
raised on a diet of adventure in far-off lands, were ripe for a final fling.
In America, gullibility and optimism marched side by side and men were ready to
believe than anything was possible.
The Klondike stampede did not start slowly
and build up to a climax, as did so many earlier gold rushes. It started
instantly with the arrival of the Excelsior and Portland, reached a fever pitch
at once, and remained at fever pitch until the following spring, when, with the
coming of the Spanish-American War, the fever died almost as swiftly as it
arose. If war had not come, the rush might have continued unabated for at
least another half-year, but, even so, the stampede remains unique. It was
the last and most frenzied of the great international gold rushes. Other
stampedes involved more gold and more men, but there had been nothing like the
Klondike before, there has been nothing like it since, and there can never be
anything like it again.
From 1898, the newspapers that had encouraged so many to travel to the Klondike
lost interest in it. When news arrived in the summer of 1899 that gold had been
discovered in Nome in west Alaska, many prospectors left the Klondike for the
new goldfields, marking the end of the rush in the Yukon.