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The Klondike Gold Rush Begins

In 1893 a considerable find on Birch Creek, a tributary that joined the Yukon at its northernmost reach, brought in additional miners.  By 1896 more than 1,000 prospectors, including some women, were in the Yukon basin on the Alaskan side of the border.  The great river and its tributaries had become a familiar highway network, allowing travel by raft or steamer in summer, by dog sled or snowshoes in winter.  The mystery of Alaska's interior was unfolding, and even a scant fabric of civilization began to form - that is if an occasional rude cabin roadhouse or trading post along the river could be called civilization.

A year later the Klondike discovery in Canada would bring the first of 100,000 gold-crazed fortune hunters storming through Alaska. 

The large strike in the Yukon began in 1895 when Bob Henderson had fair luck on Rabbit Creek. The next summer he met George Carmack and told Carmack of the prospects, who then went to Rabbit Creek to stake his claim. Carmack, along with James "Skookum Jim" Mason and "Tagish" Charlie, two Indian friends, began working their claim on Rabbit Creek. Carmack then officially staked his claim by blazing a small spruce tree with the note:

To Whom It May Concern:

I do, this day, locate and claim, by right of discovery, five hundred feet, running up stream from this notice. Located this the seventeenth day of August, 1896.

Word of a new strike traveled quickly in the close circles of the miners in the area and by the end of November 500 claims were staked in the district. Carmack had made it a point to tell those he met on his way to the outpost of Forty Mile to officially record his claim that Rabbit Creek looked promising. A point of contention in the history of the gold rush was that Carmack never told Henderson of the wealth that could be made on Rabbit creek and Henderson missed out on the strike, never to become rich.

The rest of the world was still unaware that there were vast sums of gold being mined on Rabbit Creek - which had been renamed Bonanza Creek.  Carmack and the others at Bonanza worked their claims, amassing more gold for nearly a year.

In early 1897 rumors trickled out about a fabulous new gold discovery somewhere in the North. On March 14 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted from a letter written in the gold fields in January: "I may as well tell you," wrote W. F. Cornell, "that in my 42 years' experience on the Pacific coast so much gold has never been found in the same extent of country.  In fact, you may believe anything you hear; it can hardly be exaggerated." At first these accounts were either ignored or discounted; it was simply too good to be true.  There were reports of nuggets the size of a man's thumb, lying on the ground just waiting to be picked up.  No one was certain precisely where the gold fields were; apparently they were along the Yukon River, but whether they were in Canada or the United States, no one seemed to know.  The area was described by a new term, the "Klondike."  

But, these early accounts were all it took to compel experienced miners to head for the Far North in the spring of 1897.  The ports of Seattle had begun to see the vanguard of what would soon become a frenetic rush to the Yukon.

The silence of the Bonanza strike was shattered publically with the arrival of two ships laden with gold. The first ship to arrive, the Excelsior, docked in San Francisco on the fifteenth of July 1897 carrying more than a ton of gold. Men on the docks were in awe when the miners lugged sacks full of gold down the gangplank. Two days later, on the on July 17th, the steamer Portland docked in Seattle. This ship carried more than two tons of gold. News of the Portland's arrival preceded it to port and by the time it arrived at Schwabacher's dock in Seattle a reported 5,000 people were present waiting for the ship and the gold that it carried.

The golden treasure on these two ships confirmed the early reports of the richness of the Klondike discovery and caused a dynamic public reaction. Newspapers boasted that the Klondike gold fields were ten times richer than those in California and that it was the richest gold field in the world. One of the miners on the Excelsior, Joe Ladue, brought back five million dollars of gold to San Francisco. This reported wealth that could be had spread like wild fire across the United States and around the world. Newspaper articles reported on the gold rush and the world soon knew of the Yukon and the Klondike.

By the end of July, 1897, the words 'Klondike' and 'gold' were on the tongues of every adventurous soul around the world. 

The following excerpts from a newspaper story, datelined Seattle, July 17, 1897, describe the excitement that existed in that city after the Portland's arrival:

It is safe to say that never in the history of the Northwest has there been such excitement as has prevailed in this city all day long and which is raging to-night.  It is due to the arrival ... of the steamer Portland, carrying sixty-eight men, from the Clondyke gold fields, every one of whom brings down a fortune.

There have been so many stories sent out from Alaska of great strikes which later proved to be without foundation that people were reaching that period where they refused to credit them.  But when the big Portland ran alongside the ocean dock at 8 o'clock this morning and those sixty-eight men ... walked down the gangplank struggling to hold up the weight of gold which was stacked high on their shoulders, the thousands of people who stood on the dock to receive them were suddenly seized with Clondyke fever, and to-night Clondyke is on the lips of every man, woman and child of this city.

One could not enter the ticket offices of the companies running steamers between here and Alaska without waiting at least an hour.  How the steamers are going to accommodate all who propose to go north is a mystery.  One steamer is expected to sail to-morrow.  There will not be standing room on it.

It is claimed that these people who are going north are making a mistake.  conservative men who have been in the country ... admit that all of the fields in the vicinity of the Clondyke have been taken, but every river in Alaska is, in their judgment, filled with gold, which can be secured if the men are willing to risk the hardships.

Overnight the West Coast hummed with activity as more than 100,000 men streamed in from around the world on one of history's strangest adventures.  Word of the new El Dorado spread from Seattle and San Francisco across the land like wildfire.  Though most people did not know precisely where the new placer field was, Klondike became the main topic of conversation wherever people gathered.  Day after day, newspapers carried illustrated front-page accounts of the wonders of the Klondike, inciting thousands of gold-crazed people to make plans for the long journey to the Far North.

Tuesday, July 20, 1897 Denver Rocky Mountain News, Denver Colorado

Page 1

SEATTLE, Wash., July 19. - The people of this town have gone wild over the Clondyke discoveries.  Not in the history of the town has there been such excitement.  Everybody who can raise the money is going north.  Steamer accommodations have all been taken.

The statement that the new fields would output $10,000,000 worth of gold this year has made the excitement greater and tonight everybody is burning the wires with telegrams to friends in the East to send them money to invest in the fields.


Friday, July 23, 1897 Kansas Semi-Weekly Capital, Topeka, Kansas

Page 3

SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., July 20. - When the steamer Alki left Seattle and Port Townsend, Wash., yesterday, it had 125 passengers, 800 sheep and 50 horses.  Thousands gathered to watch the departure and the scenes were remarkable.  Some of the passengers had slept on the deck all Sunday night and crowded the vessel at daybreak.  None would leave to get food.  Not an inch of room was left on the vessel.  The same scenes will be repeated with each vessel which leaves.

The Klondike stampeders, unlike the veterans who had been prowling Alaskan creeks for a generation, were mostly cheechakos, as newcomers were known in Chinook, the hybrid jargon of the Pacific Northwest.  By and large, these men were not miners or prospectors, but were clerks, teachers, accountants, and other urbanized people.  They had little qualification beyond an ardent desire to get rich. 

A strange madness had gripped the world. 




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