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article imageThe Yukon Territory's last great gold rush

By Karen Graham     Feb 8, 2014 in World
The Klondike gold rush of 1896-1899 was the last of the great gold discoveries of the Old West. It was forever embedded in our culture, through stories, poems, songs and movies. The photography of that time heavily influenced how we view that period.
Yukon is the smallest of Canada's three territories. The Yukon Territory split from the Northwest Territories in 1898, and after gaining royal consent in 2002, the federal government modernized the Yukon Act, and changed the territory's name to "Yukon." The territory takes its name from the Yukon River, meaning the "Great River" in the Gwich’in language, one of the official languages of the Northwest Territories.
Yukon has a shape somewhat similar to the state of Idaho, in the lower 48, but that's the only resemblance. Bordered on the western side by Alaska, with the Northwest Territories to the east, and British Columbia on the south, Yukon is a rugged and harsh paradise, a lasting scenic reminder of times past. It was, and still is the last of North America's Great Wild West.
Gold mining dredges were left in their tailing ponds once it became financially ineffective to use t...
Gold mining dredges were left in their tailing ponds once it became financially ineffective to use these specialised "boats".
Douglas Evans
Besides the territory's great watershed river, the Yukon, other rivers, like the Klondike, Stewart and Peel Rivers run through the vast boreal forests of stunted spruce and sub-alpine firs. Yukon is home to North America's second highest mountain, Mount Logan in Kluane National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, over 80 percent of Yukon is wilderness, with three-quarters of the population of almost 36,000 people living in Whitehorse, the capital. One-fifth of the territory's population is of aboriginal descent, members of one of 14 Yukon First Nations, speaking one of eight languages.
Gold discovered on the Klondike River
Early in the 19th century, the indigenous peoples of the region knew about the gold in the rivers and streams, but thought it of little value. Even Russian fur traders and the Hudson Bay Company ignored the tales of gold, instead sticking to trapping and fur trading because it was more profitable at the time.
Toward the latter half of the 19th century, with railroads appearing in North America, making travel easier, and the big gold rush in California fizzled out, fortune hunters looked northward, hoping to rekindle the excitement and adventure to be found in discovering the gleaming metal. In 1896, a group of adventurers, George Washington Carmack, an American prospector, along with his Tagish wife Kate, her brother, Skookum Jim Mason, and their nephew, Dawson Charlie, found gold in a tributary of the Klondike River.
Keish (Skookum Jim Mason) in 1898. Keish is today credited with making the gold discovery that led t...
Keish (Skookum Jim Mason) in 1898. Keish is today credited with making the gold discovery that led to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Joseph Duclos (1863-1917)
The date was August 16, 1896, and while traveling along one of the Klondike River's tributaries, Bonanza Creek (then known as Rabbit Creek), the party found gold. No one exactly remembers who found the gold, but it was decided to let George stake the claim, because they feared the authorities would question an Indian making a claim.
Carmack staked out four claims, two for himself, and one each for Charlie and Jim. He registered the claims the following day at the police post at the mouth of the Forty mile River. News spread like wildfire all up and down the river, and the rest is, as they say, history. Actually, they had no idea they would be responsible for setting off the greatest gold rush ever.
It took until the end of the winter thaw in 1897 before the word could get out about the gold finds on the Klondike and its tributaries. Canadian officials had managed to get the word to Ottawa about the influx of prospectors to the area, but the authorities didn't give the message a lot of attention. It took until June of that year for the Yukon's ice to break up, allowing for boats to travel, carrying miners and gold to the outside world.
The great stampede
The steamship, Portland, arrived in Seattle, Washington on July 17, 1897, and according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it carried "more than a ton of gold." The stampede was on. By January of 1898, six months later, 100,000 gold-seekers would take off for the gold fields of the Yukon Territory. Only 30,000 would complete the journey, with many dying or just plain losing enthusiasm for the adventure. Misfortune was a constant companion, with many men just not prepared for the harshness of this far-north territory, but the world was suffering a severe recession at that time, and the news media played a significant role in feeding the public a story of instant wealth to be had for the picking.
Steamer EXCELCIOR leaving San Francisco for the Klondike  July 28  1897. Excelcior was the first ste...
Steamer EXCELCIOR leaving San Francisco for the Klondike, July 28, 1897. Excelcior was the first steamer to carry pasengers to the Klondike after news of the discovery of gold in the Klondike was received. She was laden with 350 passengers and 800 tons of supplies. Photo taken: 28 July 1897
Partridge, Sam C. (date of death unknown)
The Northwest Mounted Police in Canada required all prospectors to carry a year's worth of food with them, totalling 1,150 pounds. Add other supplies, like mining equipment and camping supplies, and the weight jumped to a ton or more. This was to become a burden to many men. Even with a 12 month supply of food, many gold-seekers still died of starvation or suffered from malnutrition. The cold winter weather was almost too harsh for many to contend with, with only canvas tents for warmth. The temperatures in the mountains of northern British Columbia and the Yukon often dropped to -20 degrees F, and sometimes, -50 degrees F in the winter.
But even if a miner made it to Skagway, which was the preferred route for the majority of stampeders, the worst part of the trip was ahead of them. They then had the choice of traveling one of two rough routes, the Chilkoot or White Pass trails. Both were daunting trips, made even more so by the rugged terrain and temperatures. Imagine trekking either of these passes once. Then think about making the same trip 40 or even 50 times, each time bringing another part of your year-long supply of provisions with you.
To be sure, many gold-seekers came prepared, with dogs, mules, horses or oxen to use as pack animals. Those miners taking the White Pass trail were confronted with paths only two feet wide, or wider stretches covered with boulders and sharp rocks. This pass was soon to be called Dead Horse Gulch, because of the loss of so many pack animals. It was soon closed in late 1897, stranding many gold-seekers in Skagway.
Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass  1898
Picture taken in March or April of 18...
Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898 Picture taken in March or April of 1898.
Cantwell, George G.
The Chilkoot Pass was even steeper than the White Pass trail, but more people used it. On crossing the pass, a man would reach Lake Lindeman, and then the lake fed into Lake Bennett at the head of the Yukon River. But it was getting up the pass that was so treacherous. Pack animals were useless when one reached the steep part of the ascent, called the Scales. This was where all one's goods were weighed before entering Canada. The extreme steepness and the heavy weight of a person's equipment could make the 1,000 feet to the top of the pass an almost impossible accomplishment, taking a full day.
Dreams of riches are only dreams: The end of the gold rush
On reaching Dawson, a trip of some 560 miles that took over three months, the 30,000 gold-seekers lucky enough to make it were met with a stark reality. Almost every single claim had already been taken by long-term miners already in the area, or the first arrivals the previous year. Only about 15,000 gold-seekers stayed around Dawson, searching further afield for gold. Of that number, less than 4,000 struck gold, and less than 300 men became rich.
The end of the stampede came about almost as quickly as it had started. Skagway and Dawson, once wild and roaring boom towns, became more "sedate," acquiring the amenities of civilized living, and not at all conducive to a wildcat miner's sensibilities. But the biggest reason for the end of the Klondike gold rush was the discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska in the winter of 1898-1899. In August of 1899, a large number of miners left for the goldfields of Alaska, 8,000 from Dawson in one week alone. The gold rush was over.
What is remarkable about the story of the Klondike gold rush is the people who made the journey itself. Conquering exhaustion, near-starvation, a rugged terrain and harsh numbing winter weather, they managed to reach the streams that would get them to the Yukon River. Today's Yukon celebrates the intrepid spirit on those adventurers. "Larger than Life" is Yukon's tourism motto, and it says it all. From the pristine beauty of the surrounding countryside to the many cultural events celebrating the pre-colonial lifestyles of Yukon's First Nations, a visitor is taken back into the wild west.
More about Canada, Yukon, gold rush, Klondike gold rush, Wild west
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