If you have heard of the hardships of getting to the Klondike during the gold rush, it has probably been the tortuous Chilkoot Trail, or the White Passes, with its infamous Dead Horse Gulch. In fact, if the Klondike Argonauts got as far as Skagway or Dyea, then the worst part of their trip may already have been over.
A mania enveloped the continent when the discovery of the Klondike was announced in 1897, and a lemming-like urge overcame otherwise sensible people. In the mad scramble to get to the Yukon, common sense was first victim. There were plenty of entrepreneurs, schemers and con-men ready to take advantage of the situation. Demand for transportation was high, and the potential to capitalize on the opportunity was great, but the usual fleet that accommodated the somnolent coastal commerce wasn’t sufficient to handle the traffic.
Thus was spawned a flotilla driven by greed. Rotting derelicts and condemned vessels of all descriptions were resurrected and hastily put into service. Long since condemned as unseaworthy, many of these vessels were refitted and a coat of paint was slapped on, but they were neither seaworthy nor safe.
They were overbooked and overloaded. Supplies were hurriedly crammed aboard, piled high on the decks and improperly secured. Many ships were top-heavy and ready to keel over in the gentlest of ocean currents. These vessels then had to be navigated through poorly charted and unfamiliar waters, braving storms, inept crews, fogs, and deadly reefs.
When the Al Ki left Seattle, headed north on July 19, 1897, only two days after the gold-laden Portland docked there, it was said to carry 110 passengers, 900 sheep, 65 cattle, 30 horses and 350 tonnes of supplies. Another steamer, the Amur, left port with five times the number of passengers she was designed to accommodate – and they all had supplies.
One syndicate of gold-seekers secured an old rust bucket called the Blakely and modified the vessel to accommodate the large group of hopeful Argonauts. The members of this contingent departed from Seattle full of optimism, but it didn’t take long for that to change.
The Blakely left port February 24, 1898. As the weather deteriorated and the sea became rough, everyone suffered from seasickness. The captain remained locked in his cabin drinking whiskey until he had consumed his supply. The pumps on the little wave-tossed vessel worked full time to keep ahead of the leaks. One of the deck hands was swept to his death in the Gulf of Alaska, but finally the waters calmed on March 9, and for the first time in nearly a week, those who were able to eat were treated to a warm meal. They reached Yakutat March 24.
By this time the party was not in good shape. The supplies had become sodden with salt water and much was ruined. They then floundered in the glacier-filled coastal mountains. Few made it to the Klondike, and many perished.
Another unlikely vessel headed for Skagway was a converted coal ship named the Alice Blanchard. Aboard the vessel were 215 men and seven women plus assorted horses, cows, dogs, pigs and mules.
The voyage was a nightmare. There was only one toilet for the men to share, while the women used a facility in the captain’s quarters. Five days after leaving Seattle, the passengers were in revolt. There was not enough food or water, and after several meetings with the crew, they forced the boat to dock in Wrangell and Ketchikan to pick up supplies. The Alice Blanchard continued on its voyage to the Lynn Canal until early one morning, it hit an iceberg and started taking on water.
Utter confusion reigned as the boat settled into the water at the rate of one foot per minute. The lifeboats sank after being lowered into the water, and the terrified passengers manned the pumps as the ship was run aground at high tide. Once they had patched a 10-foot hole in the bow, the leaky ship continued north. Reaching Haines, the ship anchored as close to shore as possible, to make more repairs.
Fed up with their experience, more than 50 passengers abandoned ship at Haines, rather than continue.
Another ship, the bark Colorado, was towed out of Seattle harbour with 160 cattle and horses crammed into the after hold. Almost immediately after departure, it had to make an emergency stop at Port Townsend because the animals were in distress. Two steers and two horses had died from suffocation in the short sailing time.
The Colorado was so overloaded that it was impossible to provide adequate ventilation. The temperature in the animal pen was approaching 50 Celsius and even the men caring for the animals could not go down into the hold. The ship waited in port until 40 horses could be removed and held for another ship to transport them.
The S.S. Islander headed north with an overload of 90 tonnes, 450 passengers, 600 dogs, 8 oxen and 50 or more horses – all because of the desire of the transportation company to make as much profit as possible.
Ironically, she made it, but a couple of years later, she wasn’t as lucky. In the early hours of August 15, 1901, the Islander struck something on the port bow with a shudder and rapidly took on water. As her stern tilted crazily out of the water, she sank in less than 20 minutes.
The “stifling cries” of one of the stowaways could be heard trapped beneath the forward deck, but he could not be saved. Millions of dollars in gold were lost and 40 people perished.
It’s a miracle that more people didn’t die in coastal waters during the mad scramble for Klondike gold.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in good stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org