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Why the Klondike Stampede Was So Intense

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 neared.  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 security.

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 history.

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.

 

 



 


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