February 9, 1997

Golden Gateway Seattle Got Rich As Jumping-Off Point For Klondike

Jerome Richard Special To Travel
 

Klondike gold was discovered Aug. 16, 1896, but news didn’t reach the lower 48 until the following July. When the steamship Portland docked in Seattle with a reported “ton of gold” (actually 20,000 ounces), it triggered the last great gold rush.

Before the summer was over, some 10,000 locals, including the mayor, headed north to try their luck. Many thousands more from all over the country would soon be streaming through Seattle on their way to the gold fields.

As the gateway to the Klondike, Seattle prospered. The miners came to Seattle, it was said, and Seattle mined the miners.

Of course, some of that growth would have happened anyway, but catering to prospectors was a major factor. When you see how much in supplies each prospector took with him - most of it purchased in Seattle - you get a sense of the commerce involved.

And you can see it in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a small museum in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Many stampeders, as they were called, bought dogs to take with them as sled-pullers, companions, and, as a last resort, meat. When local hucksters ran out of huskies, they pawned off any breed they could get their hands on, and were not above dognapping people’s pets. There was even a scheme to train gophers to dig for gold.

It is sometimes forgotten that the Yukon Territory where most of the Klondike River ran was, and still is, part of Canada. The most popular route to it went from Seattle up the Inside Passage to the Alaskan panhandle, and then cross-country to the Yukon.

That meant that the Northwest Mounted Police represented law enforcement in the gold fields, and it was the Mounties who required each person entering the territory to have with them a ton of supplies, including 1,250 pounds of food. The goldhunters packed it 100 or so pounds at a time up and over Chilkoot Pass on the border with Canada.

That was the subject of the most famous picture of the Gold Rush - the long line of men, and a few women, climbing single-file up the mountain.

Like Sisyphus, the hero of Greek legend who was condemned to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain only to have it roll down again, they left one load of supplies on top of the pass only to slip, slide and scramble back down, and start all over.

Steps were cut in the ice to make the steepest part of the climb a little easier. You can see the picture at the museum. Maps, artifacts, real gold and short films, including Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, are also on view.

Some prospectors hired native packers to carry their goods for them, and in 1898 an aerial tram was built to carry the packs of supplies to the top. But to avoid the cost, most of the stampeders continued to be their own beasts of burden.

An alternate route up White Pass was made easier with the building of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, but by then most of the hopeful had already trudged up the hill. You can still ride this train between Skagway and Whitehorse.

A lot of men found a little gold and a few men found a lot, but most of the money was made in the towns that provided supplies, shelter, and entertainment to the miners.

And none prospered more than Seattle. Some who did strike gold, and many who didn’t, made Seattle their home when the Gold Rush was over.

The city’s population boomed from about 43,000 in 1890 to 80,000 in 1900, and 237,000 in 1910. Klondike fever accounted for a considerable portion of that growth.

Seattle in those days was centered around the area now called Pioneer Square, just south of the present downtown. It burned in 1889, but was quickly rebuilt with stone and brick, and many of those buildings still stand.

It was here that the stampeders came for supplies and temporary accommodations. You can still see the old State Hotel sign on First Avenue near Washington Street that advertises “Rooms 75 C,” though the building is no longer a hotel.

Rangers from the Klondike Gold Rush Park conduct tours of the neighborhood daily during summer months, and are experimenting with weekend tours the rest of the year. They point out the building once owned by George Carmack and Tagish Charlie, two of the three discoverers of the gold fields.

The Klondike Gold Rush building in Seattle is one end of a national park. The other end is in Skagway, Alaska, where miners who traveled by boat from Seattle would rest, resupply, and begin the overland part of the journey to the Klondike. There, too, rangers conduct summer walking tours. Several buildings from gold rush days are preserved. There is also a museum and visitor center.

Prospectors still pan for gold in the Yukon. Rangers at either end of this unique National Historical Park gladly offer advice to those hardy - or foolhardy - enough to follow the old trails in search of their fortune.

MEMO: Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is located at 117 S. Main St., Seattle, WA 98104; telephone (206) 553-7220; hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Skagway’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is at 2nd and Broadway, P.O. Box 517, Skagway, AK 99840; telephone (907) 983-2921; hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is located at 117 S. Main St., Seattle, WA 98104; telephone (206) 553-7220; hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Skagway’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is at 2nd and Broadway, P.O. Box 517, Skagway, AK 99840; telephone (907) 983-2921; hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.


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