Wilfrid Laurier was barely a month into his new job as Canada’s Prime Minister in August 1896 when gold was discovered on Rabbit (later Bonanza) Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River.
Following that strike, local miners who dreamed of striking it rich quickly flooded the area. News of the find was confined to the Yukon until July 1897, when those first successful miners steamed into Seattle and San Francisco with their newfound wealth.
“GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” was the headline in the SeattlePost-Intelligencer. Its description of “a ton of gold” started a stampede of an estimated 100,000 prospectors.
But the Klondike was a long way from any civilized place in North America, and the trek there was arduous, back-breaking and, for many, impossible.
HOW THEY GOT THERE
Gold seekers used a number of routes to gain access to the Klondike, many of which involved long portages, mountains to climb and glaciers to cross. Many never made it. The fastest way to get to the goldfields was by steamer, from Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle or San Francisco, to Skagway or Dyea in Alaska. From there the fortune-hungry traveled to Bennett Lake, B.C., and then proceeded by river to the new town of Dawson City.
Getting from Alaska to Bennett Lake was difficult. Would-be prospectors could haul their supplies along the White Pass Trail from Skagway or take the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea. Both routes were about 30 miles long and each had its obstacles. So many pack animals were lost along the treacherous White Pass Trail that it became known as Dead Horse Trail. The Chilkoot Trail was an old reliable trail, but reaching the summit of Chilkoot Pass tested the strength and will of all who made the effort.
The average person, carrying about 50 pounds of supplies, took about six hours to climb the 1,000-foot-long “Golden Stairs.” And if one could not afford to hire packers, the pass had to be climbed 40 times because one ton of supplies were required to survive a year in the Yukon. At the summit—the border between the United States and Canada—the North West Mounted Police were ready to enforce the law, which included collecting duty.
The boat trip from Bennett Lake to Dawson City could take up to two weeks. Nonexistent before the gold rush, by 1898 Dawson City had every convenience found in Vancouver or Winnipeg: Saloons, hotels, stores, theatres, doctors, churches and graveyards.
The Klondike Gold Rush attracted tens of thousands of gold seekers, entrepreneurs, dancers, conmen and the North West Mounted Police who maintained order. The stampede ended in the summer of 1898. By then the gold seekers had spent as much on supplies and travel expenses as they extracted from the earth—about $50 million.