“Strangely enough, and as if by some good fortune, I had come down the river about the same time McCormack left Gold Bottom, and had picked out a town site where Dawson City now stands…”
So recounts Joe Ladue in his book Klondike Facts, written in 1897 to take advantage of the frenzied demand for information about the Klondike. In his version, Ladue doesn’t clearly explain why or how he came to be at the mouth of the Klondike when George Carmack discovered gold on Rabbit Creek, soon to be renamed Bonanza.
Neither does Pierre Berton, who, while stating that Ladue built the first cabin in Dawson City, affirms that trader Ladue didn’t rush off downstream with the prospectors when Robert Henderson showed up at his trading post in mid-summer 1896 with word of a new gold strike over on Gold Bottom Creek.
The credit for getting Ladue to the Klondike in the first place goes to Jack Dalton, the renowned pathfinder and entrepreneur.
This and several other revelations about the founding of Dawson and its early days goes to Alaska historian and Dalton biographer, Mark Kirchhoff in his new booklet , Clondyke: The First Year of the Rush, which arrived in my mailbox just before Christmas.
Kirchhoff uses the
highly unusual spelling “Clondyke” over other early variants such as “Tro-dg, ‘Klondak” or “Cloendyke,” as it was the most common usage by the miners during the early days of Dawson.
“This,” he notes, “evolved to ‘Klondyke,’ in the summer of 1897 due to some Canadian officials’ preference for that spelling, and finally to ‘Klondike’ in 1898 by order of the Canadian Board on Geographical names.”
The booklet, soon to be on retail bookshelves in the Yukon, is the spinoff of research that Kirchhoff has been doing on the historic beginning of the Chilkoot Trail, the abandoned town of Dyea.
Kirchhoff noted an “odd gap” in the early history of Dawson, from August 1896 to June 1897, and digressed to assemble this interesting account of the town’s early days.
Using accounts from the Alaskan and other newspapers of the day, he constructs a more detailed description of what happened at the future site of Dawson City in August of 1896.
Floating down the Yukon that summer with a load of supplies headed for Forty Mile, Dalton stopped at Ogilvie,
the site of Joe Ladue’s trading post on an island at the mouth of the Sixtymile River.
Both being in the mercantile business, they knew each other from previous encounters.
Ladue told Dalton that he was running out of timber for his little sawmill and was looking for a new place to establish his mill. Dalton knew of a place at the mouth of the Klondike River, and together they floated down to this location.
While having dinner near the mouth of the Klondike, they met a couple of prospectors who had heard about Carmack’s new discovery. Dalton said this might be a good place to stake a lot. Perhaps he was thinking that this could be a place for a trading post, like the ones he had at Haines Mission on the coast, and Dalton House, a hundred miles to the interior.
Similarly, Ladue, sizing up the situation, thought this would be a good location for his sawmill.
If he staked the ground
in the flats, he would give Dalton a lot right where they were standing. Dalton never got his prime lot, to the best of our knowledge, and Kirchhoff explores the reasons why that might be the case.
This may also explain the curious wording Ladue used to describe how he came to be at the site at such an opportune moment. I corresponded with Ladue biographers Ed and Star Jones, who seem to agree that the Dalton connection “adds a little more meat” to Ladue’s vague and evasive statement.
After staking 160 acres (65 hectares), Ladue sent a man to the Mounted Police at Forty Mile to file an application for the land. Meanwhile he and three other men constructed a tiny cabin on the banks of the Yukon River with a door and two windows facing the river. Thus, the first building on the new town site was completed by September 1, 1896.
Ladue went back
to Ogilvie, where he packed up his sawmill and his store, and moved them to the new location, which he named in honour of George Mercer Dawson. Dawson, a renowned geologist, and head of the Geological Survey of Canada, had surveyed the Yukon for minerals nearly a decade before. Ladue was soon producing lumber at $130 per thousand “board feet” at the new mill site and selling booze in the first saloon operating at the new town.
Within three months, there were several hundred prospectors in the Klondike (Ladue says 500, while another account places the number at 1,000). There were soon more than two dozen cabins in the frozen moose pasture along the shore of the Yukon, but every commodity, excepting alcohol seemed to be in short supply.
Kirchhoff discusses why Ladue never gave Dalton credit for his role in the establishment of Dawson in the first chapter of this book. In the second, he describes the conditions and events surrounding Dawson in the first months of its existence.
In a third chapter, he asks: did the arrival of the steamships Excelsior and Portland in San Francisco and Seattle spark the Klondike gold rush, or was it already well under way?
I won’t tell you what Kirchhoff concludes on that matter, but I can say from my own research on the Dalton Trail that several herds of cattle were already on the trail to Dawson City before the explosive news landed on the world stage in July, 1897.
This new booklet will stimulate plenty of discussion about the long-accepted account of the early days of Dawson City, and will be a definite “must read” for any gold rush enthusiast.
Clondyke: The First Year of the Rush, by Mark Kirchhoff, is published by Alaska Cedar Press in Juneau Alaska
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available in good stores everywhere in the territory.