“The entire nation’s response was a little short of madness,” William Bronson wrote in “The Last Grand Adventure.”
Money madness. On July 15, 1897, the S.S. Excelsior steamed into San Francisco and two days later the S.S. Portland arrived in Seattle - both with more than a ton of gold on board. The word went out, and the world’s biggest gold rush was on.
Gold had been discovered Aug. 17, 1896 (it took longer for news to travel in those days), by George Washington Carmack, a Californian, and his native friends, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, on Rabbit Creek (they promptly renamed it Bonanza), a tributary of the Klondike River in what is now Canada’s Yukon.
During the stampede of 1897-98 more than 100,000 fortune-hunters attempted to get to the gold fields near Dawson City (best estimate is that about 30,000 made it). About 40,000 began their journey from Dyea and Skagway in Alaska.
To commemorate the centennial, both Alaska and the Yukon have scheduled dozens of special events.
During the gold rush, Skagway was the largest city in Alaska, with a population close to 30,000. Naturalist John Muir, who knew his way around Alaska, described the “cheechakos” (newcomers) in the lawless frontier town as “a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick.”
Today Skagway - five blocks wide and 22 blocks long - is a bustling tourist destination sometimes described as “one long storefront.”
Dyea, overgrown with second-growth forest, is a ghost town with only a few ruins and the Slide Cemetery, where 60 victims of the 1898 avalanche are buried.
Skagway’s population numbers a little more than 800, but when the cruise ships dock (more than 200 a year) and the tour buses start rolling at 7 a.m., as many as 3,000 visitors crowd the streets.
The seven-block downtown area, with 65 original buildings, forms the core of the 12,900-acre Klondike Gold Rush Historic Park. At the visitor center in the 1898 railway depot, the National Park Service offers a free 30-minute film about the gold rush, as well as city and hiking maps.
Most of the wooden storefronts along Broadway, the main street, are restored as tidy as a Hollywood back lot. They now hold boutiques, restaurants, gift shops and art galleries.
The Red Onion Saloon, the only survivor of more than 80 drinking establishments, is still in business. Not so the brothel upstairs - despite a couple of skimpily-clad mannequins in the windows.
The small Skagway Museum displays gold-rush memorabilia, such as an old wooden menu board. (Back then, eggs any style were 25 cents; today, a breakfast of two pancakes with reindeer sausage costs $5.55).
You can spend the night at the oldest operating hotel in the state, the Victorian Golden North, which is about as luxurious as you’d expect a turn-of-the-century hotel to be.
Down the street in the 1902 Eagles Hall, Gold Rush Productions present “The Days of ‘98 Show” (as they have for 72 years), a historical play about con man Soapy Smith and his reign over Skagway in 1897-98 before he was gunned down in a duel.
Steve Hites, in late 1890s garb (or one of his similarly costumed employees), tells the story of Soapy Smith at the Gold Rush Cemetery. Hites also runs the Skagway Street Car Co., which escorts tourists around town in vintage 1936-37 White Motor Co. limousines.
For a more nostalgic ride, visitors can follow the route of the stampeders on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. Built during the gold rush, it’s one of the last narrow-gauge lines in North America.
A diesel engine pulls vintage cars 24 miles to the summit - past glaciers, waterfalls and forests. It parallels Dead Horse Gulch (where an estimated 3,000 pack animals died during the stampede), skirts the Skagway River and chugs through skirts the Skagway River and chugs through narrow box canyons and across dizzying precipices.
But it was the daunting 33-mile Chilkoot Pass six miles away that most prospectors chose to follow.
And getting there was not half the fun.
Temperatures dropped as low as 50 degrees below zero. At the 3,600-foot summit - the dividing line between American and Canadian territory - the Northwest Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) made sure each prospector had the required provisions and equipment - as much as a ton. This meant traveling back and forth in relays of move and cache (sometimes covering as much as 1,800 miles) to cover the 33 miles between Dyea and Lake Bennett.
After nearly three months on the trail, stampeders arrived at the lake in the spring of 1898, where they built boats and navigated 550 miles down the Yukon River to Dawson City.
Today, you can hike the still-demanding Chilkoot Trail (the largest National Historic Site in Canada) in three to five days, or drive the Klondike Highway between Skagway and Dawson in 10 hours.
Canada’s Yukon is larger than California, but with a population of only 31,000 (of which 23,000 live in Whitehorse, the capital). Wildflowers and wildlife inhabit most of the outdoors. One brochure touts “…six caribou per person and a grizzly bear for every family of five.”
Whitehorse, a staging area during the gold rush and now the territorial headquarters for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, is a good place to regroup and overnight before heading on to Dawson City.
You can tour the S.S. Klondike II, a 210-foot restored sternwheeler tied up on the banks of the Yukon River; visit the Yukon Transportation Museum; sign up for historical walking tours, guided nature walks or a river boat cruise; or take in the Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue, a variety show from the gold rush era, featuring cancan dancers and the poems of Robert Service.
During the gold rush, the population of Dawson City, 333 miles north of Whitehorse and 154 miles south of the Arctic Circle, swelled to 30,000; it’s now about 2,000.
Parks Canada now owns 30 buildings (the town is a Canada National Historic Site). Walking tours feature well-versed guides. “No one ever stole gold,” said Elizabeth Connellan, “but valuables were stolen, such as eggs which were $12 a dozen.
Dawson City is grittier, more real than Skagway. Many buildings are in disrepair. There are fewer tourist shops. Non-smoking areas are not yet de rigueur. The weathered boardwalks have rusted pickups parked alongside them. The streets are still unpaved. “Parks Canada will never pave the streets,” said Connellan. “It’s not historically correct.”
Starbucks Coffee has made it to Skagway, not to Dawson City, where the trendy drink is the internationally famous Sour Toe Cocktail. What started as a drunken joke (someone found a mummified toe in a glass of champagne) has become the obligatory Klondike experience. You’re supposed to drink up, then touch your lips to the alcohol-preserved toe that’s been placed in your drink. So far, more than 10,000 people have got a certificate that say they’ve done it.
Sourdoughs still spend money gambling at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest casino. (Gertie was a dance-hall queen who captivated everyone by wearing a diamond wedged between her two front teeth). It’s everything you’d expect - blackjack tables, modern-day slot machines, vaudeville show, cancan dancers, bar maids dressed in gay ‘90s costumes.
The old Canadian Bank of Commerce Building, where poet Robert Service once worked, is boarded up and empty (rumor says it’s destined to become a restaurant).
Service, who brought fame to the Yukon in his poetry, lived in Dawson City until 1912. Since the early 1980s, Tom Byrne has talked about the writer and read his poetry sitting in an old bentwood rocker on the front lawn of Service’s two-room cabin.
Author Jack London’s tiny, sod-roof log cabin is next door. When the original cabin was discovered on Henderson Creek, it was taken apart and two replicas made from the original logs. One was moved to Dawson City, the other to Oakland, Calif.
Dave “Buffalo” Taylor, dressed in bowler hat and a dandy’s suit from the late 1800s (and draped in several thousand dollars worth of gold jewelry), runs Gold City Tours and takes visitors for excursions along Bonanza Creek Road, including a guided tour of Dredge No. 4, another Parks Canada Historic Site. The monster 3,000-ton dredge, eight stories tall and two-thirds the size of a football field, was so noisy that the vibration could be heard 11 miles away.
Taylor also stops at the original discovery site on Bonanza Creek and drives past the gold fields where prospectors still work (about 250 claims are active).
“Anybody 18 years and over can come out here and stake a claim for $10,” Taylor said. “Mineral rights are yours for a year; the government owns the property.”
On a section of land now owned by the Klondike Visitors Association, hopefuls still come out to pan for gold on the creek. “They have to,” observed a local citizen. “It gets in their blood.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The Alaska and Yukon tourist season is short - May through September - but summer days are long. In Dawson City, there are 21 hours of sunlight in July. A wide variety of gold-rush centennial events have been scheduled; Alaska’s celebration runs through 2003. Even Seattle plans a week of festivities, kicked off by the arrival of a “Ton of Gold” ship July 19, nearly 100 years to the day that the S.S. Portland docked. The ship, Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West’s Spirit of ‘98, which regularly cruises the inside passage from Seattle to Skagway, looks like a turn-of-the-century steamer. For security reasons, the gold will not make the entire trip, but will be picked up, along with heavily armed security guards, shortly before the ship docks. For further information about scheduled events, contact: For Seattle: Klondike Gold Rush Centennial Committee of Washington State, 1301 Fifth Ave., Suite 2400, Seattle, WA 98101; (206) 389-7200. For Alaska: Alaska Division of Tourism, P.O. Box 110801, Juneau, Alaska 99811-0801, telephone (907) 465-2010; Southeast Alaska Tourism Council, P.O. Box 20710, Juneau, AK 99802, tele. (907) 586-4777; Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 415, Skagway, AK 99840, tele. (907) 983-2854; Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (National Park Service), Broadway Street, Skagway, AK 99840, tele. (907) 983-2921. For Yukon: Tourism Yukon, P.0. Box 2703, Whitehorse, YT, Canada Y1A 2C6, tele. (403) 667-5340; Yukon National Historic Sites (Parks Canada), 205-300 Main St., White horse, YT, Canada Y1A 2B5, tele. (403) 667-3910; Klondike Visitors Association, P.O. Box 389, Dawson, YT, Canada Y0B 1G0, tele. (403) 993-5575; Canadian Parks Service, tele. (403) 993-5462 year round, or write to the Superintendent, Klondike National Historic Sites, Box 390, Dawson City, Yukon, Y0B 1G0. Getting there: To Yukon: By car on the Alaska and Stewart-Cassiar Highways, which winds through British Columbia and merges with the Alaska Highway; from Skagway on the Klondike Highway. Whitehorse has daily air service from the U.S. through Victoria. To Skagway: There is scheduled and chartered air service from Juneau, Haines and Whitehorse. You can take a cruise ship or the Alaska Ferry System (reservations necessary) from Bellingham, Wash., which stops along the inside passage and takes about 36 hours. You can also bring your vehicle aboard the ferry. For independent travelers, the railroad advises reservations be made 30 days in advance by calling (800) 343-7373.
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