Alaskan historian Terrence Cole stated that it was inflamed by “limited knowledge and unlimited enthusiasm.” He was referring to the phenomenon of the Klondike Gold Rush. Some of the antics that resulted would have been hilarious, had they not been tragic.
In many ways, the gold rush was a media event, and newspapers did very well fueling the public’s insatiable appetite for information from the land of gold. William Randolph Hearst, the father of “yellow journalism,” who is credited with starting the Spanish-American war through his inflammatory news coverage, put the Klondike on the front page of his newspapers.
All across the continent, people developed an obsession for the Klondike; newspapers were quick to publish reports about Klondike events and print letters from locals who were in the Klondike.
From this frenzy came much news copy of a sensational nature. Knowledge about the conditions in the Yukon and Alaska could not be found outside the small circle of veterans who had braved the conditions themselves, so newspaper editors could scarcely evaluate the credibility of many stories that they covered.
There were some really wacky schemes.
One prominent American newspaper declared that someone must have thrown open the doors to the asylum when news of the Klondike broke in a big way. Another made a list of 300 Klondike schemes and dismissed 295 of them as frauds.
But that didn’t stop the wild speculation. Even Nicola Tesla, the creator of alternating current, and a contemporary of Edison, proclaimed that they would soon be finding gold using X-rays. All kinds of crazy contraptions were flogged upon the gullible and enthralled public.
Looney ideas came thick and fast. One was to float over the mountains, snow and ice, in large hot air balloons. Much of the news was powered by hot air; too bad that this gas could not actually be harnessed for transportation purposes! Another clever scheme had a contraption screwing its way across the frozen landscape on huge tubes covered with spiral flanges.
George T. Glover, an American inventor, announced in the fall of 1897 that his eight-tonne steam-powered snow locomotives would haul a shipment of provisions to save the starving miners of Dawson City. Why, it would be a piece of cake to run these monsters over the ice of the Yukon River at 19 kilometres an hour, each one hauling a train of provision-laden sleds behind it.
Another scheme involved the American government financing a herd of reindeer to haul supplies to the same starving miners. When the herd finally reached Dawson, 18 months after the fact, they were more in need of relief than the citizens of the Klondike.
Many different devices were tried, and many abandoned along the Klondike trail. One shipment of collapsible canvas boats was abandoned at the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. Other contraptions were strewn along the trail, cast off when the reality of the harsh northern conditions displaced blind enthusiasm.
If the public was being bombarded by a barrage of advertisements promoting the wildest schemes imaginable, so too were individuals cooking up their own fantastic plans for reaching the Klondike and making a fortune.
In mid October, 1897, for example, Mrs. S.A. Hicks, a slightly lame, 57-year old 200-pound woman from New Jersey, announced she would be outfitting an expedition to the Yukon, consisting of her adopted son and four hardy mules. Starting from Haines, Alaska, they would transport their ton and a half of supplies, with Jack Dalton as their guide over the trail, and expected to arrive in Dawson City the third week in January.
At the time that she was making this pronouncement, Dalton, totally unaware of Mrs. Hicks or her plans, was struggling up the ice-choked waters of the Yukon River in a frantic effort to reach Haines via the Chilkat Pass. Dalton, perhaps the most seasoned frontiersman of the time, wasn’t interesting in making another trip over his trail that winter.
Many enthusiastic stampeders were forming companies or syndicates to achieve success in the gold fields. Collectively, they felt they could improve the chances for success and share the physical challenges before them.
They came from everywhere, and they came from all walks of life: clerks, farmers, railway workers and travelling salesmen. Some were young, and some were old; some would never return home.
Arthur Dietz was a member of one such syndicate of 18 men. Leaving New York City by train destined for Seattle, they met two other parties in Minnesota, and decided to work together to get to the Klondike. All they had to do was cross the massive glaciers in Yakutat Bay on the Alaska coast, and then they would have 563 kilometres of travel through rolling grasslands to reach the riches of the city of gold.
A terrifying stormy trip up the Pacific coast in a leaky overloaded rust bucket with a drunken captain at the helm did not bode well for them. The seasick party of 100 arrived at Yakutat and began the arduous work of hauling tons of supplies across a glacier field to the confluence of the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers. The Dietz party decided to tackle the Malaspina Glacier instead.
A year later, Dietz and the other survivors straggled back to tidewater. By then, 11 of the party had perished. While they camped on the beach, waiting for rescue, three more died in their sleeping bags; two others were blind.
Members of the other two syndicates trudged on. Eighteen months later, some arrived at Dalton Post; had they followed the established trail, they would have reached the post in a few days. Forty-two of the 100 who started out perished in the mountain wilderness without ever finding gold.
Other syndicates that went to different parts of the Yukon fared better; some had no delusions about what lay before them, nor unreasonable expectations regarding reward. All came away rich in experience and memories, if not in gold. Some wrote about their experiences, others talked about them for the rest of their lives.
George Black, a young lawyer from New Brunswick, who was a member of one of these syndicates, later took up politics and represented the Yukon in Parliament for nearly 30 years. But that’s another story.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.