Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush
Trip Start Dec 27, 2008
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Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush
No, I did not arrive at a Disney Western Theme Park. I am in Dawson City, a town of about 2,000 people, located at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, referred to as the Klondike region.
It is a town that still largely reflects its defining moment in history - the Klondike Gold Rush (1896 - 1899). The town has gone to great lengths to preserve the authenticity of the Gold Rush era through the use of strict codes governing its buildings and restorations, wooden sidewalks and earthen clay streets.
Designated as historical sites are The Palace Grand Theatre, Bank of British North America, the river boat SS Keno and Gold Dredge no. 4.on the Bonanza Creek Road.
This is what remains of a city that once had a population of over 30,000, was the biggest town west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco and was referred to as the "Paris of the North", all because of the Klondike Gold Rush.
With the discovery of gold in August 1893 at nearby Rabbit Creek, later called Bonanza Creek, a stampede of over 100,000 fortune seekers was eventually unleashed.
At first the news of the gold find spread slowly, but when a ship arrived in Seattle almost a year later with a ton of gold, the Klondike Gold Rush was on. The news of the strike spread quickly far and wide and the lure of riches was difficult to resist by many.
It was a gold rush of gargantuan proportions which enticed men from various parts of the world to seek their fortune in a most demanding, hostile and foreign environment. Only the strongest, toughest and the fittest need apply but many left anyway, as the temptation of getting rich quick could not be denied.
Of the 100,000 who launched themselves into this venture, only about 30,000 got to their destination and became prospectors. The rest were defeated by the terrain, misfortune, cold and snow, the sheer logistics of moving a year's supply of provisions to Dawson City and a broken spirit brought on by the hopelessness of the situation. For many, the defeat was total and translated into a loss of their own life.
"The North-West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) required that all Klondikers bring with them a year's supply of provisions" was a phrase I heard or read more than once along the Klondike corridor. That stretched my credulity to its limits. How could one man manage to drag a year's supply of goods over this treacherous terrain and not have most of it lost or stolen?
Perhaps I should get over my skepticism because the official tourist guide of Dawson City lists the mandatory goods which had to be brought over the Chilkoot Pass and it is staggering - 200 lbs of bacon, 800 lbs of flour, 200 lbs of corn meal, 75 lbs of sugar, 150 lbs of dried fruits, coffee and one case of condensed milk!
There were three main routes to get to Dawson City and the Klondike goldfields.
Since Edmonton was the northern end of the railway, the Canadian route was an overland trail from Edmonton. It was an arduous trek along what initially was a pack horse trail through places like Peace River, Fort St. John, Watson Lake, Whitehorse and then Dawson City.
Americans, as well as prospectors from other parts of the world, had two options - a sea route and a sea-land route.
The sea route was a 4,000 mile voyage from Seattle, Washington to St. Michael, Alaska located on the Bering Sea at the mouth of the Yukon River. Access to St. Michael was limited since the port would not be ice free till early July and then freeze up in October. From there, the voyage would continue with a 15 day trip up the Yukon River by steamboat to Dawson City. This was the easiest but also the most expensive access to Dawson City.
The most common route was a sea-land route from Seattle to the port of Dyea, Alaska located near Skagway at the head of the Lynn Canal. This was a voyage of 1000 miles.
Immediately ahead lay the 53 km Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, AK to Bennett, BC on Bennet Lake. This trail crossed the Coast Mountains via the legendary Chilkoot Pass on the border between Alaska and British Columbia.
If there is a symbol of the Gold Rush of 1896, it has to be the famous photo of the prospectors loaded down with huge packs fighting their way, step by step, across snow covered Chilkoot Pass.
Chilkoot Pass is a sacred name in Alaska and the Yukon. That point is made clear among other things, by its depiction on the Alaska vehicle license plate. The Yukon vehicle license plate continues the theme by depicting a kneeling gold panning miner.
An alternative to the Chilkoot Trail was the near-by Skagway Trail, also referred to as the White Pass Trail, which went over White Pass and ended at Carcross on the Yukon River. While it was an easier route, it was apparently rife with outlaws.
To this date both these trails/passes are still celebrated. The Chilkoot Trail is a premier hiking route for wilderness hiking and has been designated as a National Historic Site by Parks Canada and is also part of the Klondike International Historic Park.
The Skagway Trail and White Pass are celebrated by a tourist train - the White Pass and Yukon Railway - that runs during the summer between Whitehorse, YK and Skagway, AK.
From Bennett Lake or Carcross the remaining trip of 600 km was made on steamers, rafts or horse pack trails to Whitehorse and then Dawson City.
While the Klondike Gold Rush started in 1896, it was short lived as the euphoria was over by 1898. During that time, the so-called "Klondike Kings" did mine over a billion dollars of gold by today's standards. By 1899, gold had been discovered in Nome, AK (close to Siberia) and many fortune seekers needed little excuse to launch them selves on a new adventure.
Its place in history however is well documented because the Klondike Gold Rush proved to be the fourth largest gold producer in the world. Dawson City's association with the Gold Rush is also well merited since 88% of all gold mined in the Yukon was mined in the Dawson City region.
At that point the population plummeted to 8,000. While gold mining has continued in the area at a much smaller scale to the present day, time has not been kind to Dawson City as the present population has declined to 2,000.
I visited Alaska and the Yukon during the so-called "shoulder season" and tourist were hard to come by which I did not mind at all. However even the Tourist Office in Dawson City was closed for the season and to a large extent the town almost had the feel of a ghost town.
I was fortunate therefore to catch the last show of the season at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall. This of course is a classic here in Dawson City.
The gambling hall is named after Diamond Tooth Gertie who was one of many dancehall queens.
So who was Klondike Kate? She was Kitty Rockwell - the legendary "Queen of the Klondike" after whom a Hollywood film by the same name was made.
Since women were not permitted to stake claims, some women like Gertrude Lovejoy and Kitty Rockwell followed the "money/gold" to achieve their own wealth and fortune in the business of entertaining the sourdoughs. To say that they led interesting and convoluted lives would be an understatement.
Another Dawson City classic is the Downtown Hotel which is the home of the famous Sourdough Saloon.
Have a look at it, if you can hack it!
The term "sourdough" appears often here in Dawson City and to the best of my knowledge, refers to anyone of the 30,000 who were involved in the search for gold during the Klondike Gold Rush.
From locals, I found out that the place to hang out was not the Sourdough Saloon but the saloon in the Westminster Hotel, known as "The Pit".
Incredibly, I did not manage to hit the saloon during the two evenings I spent in Dawson City. My only visit there was during noon hour and while I had the opportunity to take photos, the ambiance was pretty quiet. However, it was quaint enough that I instinctively kept looking for signs that Ernest Hemingway may have been a patron here. Just for the record, Hemingway did not come anywhere near here but it reminded me of the quaint bars in Seville where Hemingway used to rub shoulders with the legendary bull fighters.
My regrets about not having dropped by at "The Pit" in the evening were not lessened the next day when someone commented - "Boy was it crazy at The Pit last night!"
Speaking of writers, a visit to Dawson City would not be complete without seeing some evidence of the "Bard of the Yukon - Robert Service".
He arrived in the Yukon during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush and lent his considerable talent to writing about this period of Yukon history. His most famous piece was "The Cremation of Sam McGee".
Continuing the author theme, I would be remiss to blog Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush without mentioning the great literary works done by Pierre Berton. One of Canada's most popular and prolific writers brings to life this period of Canada's history in Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush and The Klondike Quest - A Photographic Essay 1897-1899.
On a personal level, I was profoundly touched by my short visit to Dawson City.
Bluntly put, I felt just a little more complete as a Canadian after my visit to this historical place.
I came to realize that the Klondike Gold Rush was far greater than the sum of its parts. As its fame spread and the lure of gold attracted fortune-seekers from many parts of the world, it put Canada on the map more than any other event up to that point in time. It proved to be a magnet which brought about great changes in the Canadian West. Among the changes was the rapid growth of such cities as Edmonton and Vancouver as well as to the means of transportation and communication. Like "the driving of the last spike" on the trans-continental Canadian Pacific Railway" in 1885, the Klondike Gold Rush was another step in bringing the West and particularly the North out of its backwater status.
Dawson City elicits the past because it presents itself like a huge stage ready to replay the glories and anguishes of the past. It is for that reason that one cannot pass through this town without some reflection and rumination about what has occurred here and how it affected this country.
That is Dawson City and that is how I saw it!
Coming Next: Another Second Chance I Could Not Refuse
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