The Klondike Fever

by Pierre Berton

Published by Carroll & Graf

1985, 496 pages

Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899

by Pierre Berton

Published by McClelland & Stewart

Revised edition 1994, 472 pages







Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush

by Lael Morgan

Published by Epicenter Press

1998, 352 pages





Women of the Klondike

by Frances Backhouse

Published by Whitecap Books

1995, 224 pages




The Klondike Stampede

by Tappan Adney

Published by University of British Columbia Press

1994, 470 pages





Faith of Fools: A Journal of the Klondike Gold Rush

by William Shape

Published by Washington State University Press

1998, 136 pages



Trail to the Klondike

by Don McCune

Published by Washington State University Press

1997, 128 pages



Thar's Gold in
Them Thar Pages

by J. Kingston Pierce  

In many senses, the famous Klondike gold rush -- which climaxed a century ago this year -- "resembled a great war," writes Pierre Berton in his extraordinary history, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-99. "It was impossible to emerge from it unchanged, and those who survived it were never quite the same again. It brutalized some and ennobled others, but the majority neither sank to the depths nor rose to the heights; instead, their characters were tempered in the hot flame of an experience which was as much emotional as it was physical."

Those experiences were captured in 1890s newspaper reports and were repeated dramatically over the ensuing decades by the men (and far fewer women) who had given up their families and their jobs, and risked their futures for a shot at the "easy money" said to be available to anyone who could reach the rivers and streams of northwestern Canada's Yukon region. Few events of the 19th century drew as many folks from around the world as the Klondike stampede. Fewer still were so thoroughly or enthusiastically covered by the press, which in the so-called Gay 90s was conveniently enjoying the use of advances in typography and photo reproduction, faster printing equipment, and a new commitment to employing well-educated wordsmiths.

As a consequence of all this, the body of work -- both third-person accounts and first-person diaries -- that can be tapped 100 years later by readers interested in learning more about North America's last great frontier adventure is voluminous. And many titles have been published (or re-published) over the last two years to honor the gold rush centennial.

* * *

Berton's Klondike (published in the United States as The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush) provides the best overview of events leading up to and following what the author terms this "bizarre and unforgettable moment in history."

He recalls that rumors of vast mineral deposits in the Yukon had circulated ever since the early 1890s. But it was only in August 1896 that trail packer George Washington Carmack, together with his Tagish Indian brother-in-law Keish (familiar to whites as Skookum Jim) and another native man, Tagish (or Dawson) Charley, happened upon a significant bed of gold in Rabbit Creek, an offshoot of the Yukon's Klondike River that was later renamed Bonanza Creek. And not until July 1897 did the steamships Excelsior -- docking at San Francisco, California -- and the Portland -- nosing into the wharves at Seattle, Washington -- finally bring proof of these gold strikes to the outside world, disgorging the first loads of Klondike miners, grizzled, sunburned men who would probably have been greeted with disgust had it not been for what they carried: saddlebags, carpet valises, and fruit jars all cumbersome with gold dust and nuggets.

Within a week after those dockings, men from up and down the western shore of North America had turned in their resignations and bought boat tickets to the raw southeast Alaskan hamlets of Skagway or Dyea, from which two parallel trails --respectively, the White Pass route and the more popular climb over Chilkoot Pass -- led across the Coast Mountains separating Alaska from the Yukon and the Klondike Valley. Joining the stampede was seen by many as their best way to recover from a severe economic depression that had kept a stranglehold on North America and Europe, beginning in 1893.

Berton uses innumerable journal recollections, excerpts from letters, and personal interviews to explain the sentiment of those times and lend ample human interest to his story. "The man who had a family to support who could not go was looked on with a sort of pity..." he quotes J.E. Fraser, a "Klondiker" from San Francisco. "[T]he man who didn't care to leave his business or for other trivial reasons, was looked on with contempt as a man without ambition who did not know enough to take advantage of a good thing when placed in his reach..."

Not surprisingly, Klondike concentrates on several of the people whose activities -- noble or nefarious -- set the tone for the entire stampede. People such as Robert Henderson, a seasoned prospector from Canada's Atlantic provinces, whose offhand insulting of George Carmack's Indian kin cost him his chance to become one of the Klondike's richest men; Jefferson Randolph ("Soapy") Smith, a con artist whose reign as Skagway's uncrowned king of criminality ended in a deadly exchange of gunfire with the town's surveyor; and the inimitable Colonel Samuel B. Steele of Canada's North-West Mounted Police, who maintained the peace at Dawson City, at the very heart of Klondike country, and "enforced the order that no man could cross the border [between Alaska and Canada] without a year's supply of food" -- some 2,000 pounds worth.

This is history written -- thankfully -- to excite readers, not put them prematurely to sleep with frequent footnotes and ponderous passages designed to do nothing more than demonstrate the author's scholarship. Klondike is the type of work we've come to expect from Berton, a former newspaper and magazine editor whose multiple tomes about Canada's past (including The Last Spike and The Mysterious North ) have won him international plaudits. No single book does as fine a job of relating the trials and triumphs of the Klondike stampede as this one.

* * *

However, other works do add greatly to our understanding of related subjects that either didn't interest Berton as much or that he hadn't the time or space to explore himself. Prominent among these topics is the part women played in the rush.

"Women beset the [Klondike gold-mining] camps in the spring of [18]98," wrote an observer. "They were not the ordinary type of harlot but real adventuresses.... They were after money and they got it." No wonder. As Lael Morgan notes in the recently published Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, while tens of thousands of males sped to the Yukon during the late 1890s, even at the peak of the stampede there were few women in that area, and a large percentage of those were prostitutes or virtue-challenged entertainers who could become as wealthy as successful miners -- and with potentially less physical strain. The rank and file of this demimonde featured few Teri Hatcher-level beauties, and many of the women committed suicide or perished from disease, unmourned; yet their tales together form a distaff shadow history of the Far North that is at least as valuable as (and often far more compelling than) the official version.

An associate professor of journalism at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Morgan has spent years researching the "soiled doves" who participated in turn-of-the-century gold rushes at Dawson City, Yukon, and at Nome and Fairbanks, Alaska. A few are fairly well known, such as "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, whose Flame Dance ("in which she moved gracefully to music in flashy costumes at a pace that kept about 200 yards of chiffon airborne") made her the toast of Dawson. But most -- including former circus contortionist Myrtle Drummond, prosperous Fairbanksan Georgia Lee, and the mercenary Cad Wilson (whose manager introduced her on stage by saying, "Her mother told her to pick nice clean friends, and I leave it to you boys if she can't pick 'em nice and clean") -- are familiar now only from moldy gold rush journals.

Morgan makes a handful of peculiar errors in her chronicle (for instance, she gives Soapy Smith's full moniker as Jefferson Davis Smith). However, this shouldn't detract from the value of Good Time Girls. It is an engagingly written and generously illustrated volume for readers who prefer their history with all the lusty and licentious parts left uncensored.


Somewhat broader in its focus and equally involving is Women of the Klondike, written by Frances Backhouse of Victoria, British Columbia. Here are presented some of the forgotten females of the gold rush -- not just the singers and sinners whose tales have most easily found appreciative audiences over the last century, but also women who were seeking to save souls or gain professional recognition, and "wives who accompanied their husbands or joined them later," as Backhouse explains in her introduction. "Often they burned with gold fever just as intensely as their men."

Appearing in these pages are such colorful figures as Belinda Mulrooney, an Irish-American whose pluck and business savvy helped make her one of Dawson's leading entrepreneurs; Nellie Cashman, who was most passionate about gold mining, but managed as well to gain respect for her generosity and charitable deeds; and Kate Carmack, the Native American woman whose husband had started this whole rush after riches, but whose own life would turn out to be sadder than most. As Backhouse tells it, Kate and George Carmack tried to ride their celebrity beyond the north country. They traveled down to Seattle, but the press there treated them as curious savages, remarked on their disorientation among the city's tall buildings, and reported at length on Kate's disorderly conduct under the influence of alcohol. Carmack eventually disowned Kate, who moved back to the Yukon and from there proceeded to pummel her now ex-hubby with lawsuits until she died of influenza in 1920.

* * *

By one reckoning, only about 4,000 people actually found gold during the Klondike stampede. The majority, including veterans of previous mineral pursuits, didn't recoup so much as their travel costs. Newspapers had misled people by suggesting that anyone who could reach the gold fields was destined for mogulhood. Paul T. Mizony, a 17-year-old from San Diego, landing at Dawson in 1898, noted that "hundreds... expected all they would have to do was to pick the nuggets above the ground and some even thought they grew on bushes."

Only after these starry-eyed stampeders had reached wild, woolly Dawson did they realize that the best claims on Klondike River tributaries had already been staked back in 1896, a full year before the rush started!

Among those who didn't strike it rich was William Shape. Scion of a well-off Wisconsin clan, he embarked for the Yukon less than a month after the arrival of the gold ships at San Francisco and Seattle, and returned home 14 months later. But he didn't go back entirely empty-handed -- he had plenty of stories, not only filling his head but recorded in a diary. That diary was rediscovered in a California flea market not long ago and published earlier this year as Faith of Fools: A Journal of the Klondike Gold Rush. Illustrated with Shape's black-and-white photographs, it's an engrossing first-hand account of the stampede. Shape recorded his travels north from Seattle, his observations of Chilkoot Pass (including details of a well-known -- and deadly -- snowslide that occurred while he was there), and the tedium of searching in gravel for elusive gold while bloodthirsty insects caused him torment. Despite his hardships, Shape wrote after leaving the Yukon that "I would not hesitate to make the same trip again, providing I had something profitable to look forward to."

Tappan Adney went north with the exclusive purpose of gathering tales of human optimism and daring, pathos and death. An Ohio-born writer for Harper's Weekly and the London Chronicle, Adney was one of a small army of newspaper and magazine correspondents sent to the Yukon in 1897 to "furnish news and pictures of the new gold fields." His dispatches -- originally compiled in 1900 into his now-classic book The Klondike Stampede -- follow him as he sails north from Victoria to Skagway, inspects the treacherous White Pass Trail ("It is all rocks and mud -- mud and rocks"), boats down the Yukon River to Dawson City, and surveys conditions at the gold camps. Reading The Klondike Stampede, you feel as if you have a real handle on the splendid madness of the miners and the towns where they gathered. Adney's description of the folks who flooded the streets of Dawson in its gold rush heyday is one of the best I've encountered:

It is a motley throng -- every degree of person gathered from every corner of the earth, from every State of the Union, and from every city--weatherbeaten, sunburned, with snow glasses over their hats, just as they came from the passes. Australians with upturned sleeves and a swagger; young Englishmen in golf stockings and tweeds; would-be miners in mackinaws and rubber boots, or heavy, highlaced shoes; Japanese, Negroes -- and women, too, everywhere.

Not content with simply reading about the Klondikers' trek, more than a few latter-day adventurers have retraced their path, some of them publishing their own tales of that journey. Trail to the Klondike, for example, was penned by a longtime Seattle TV writer and narrator named Don McCune, who in 1969-70 traveled over the Chilkoot Trail and on to Dawson with a camera crew. After returning to Seattle, McCune began composing a book about that experience. But he died in 1993, and not until last year did McCune's manuscript finally see print.

The narrative here mixes McCune's observations and reflections with quotes from miners' journals and excerpts from the Klondike poetry of Robert W. Service. Photographs of McCune conquering the Chilkoot are interspersed with the more famous images by E.A. Hegg, who from 1897 through 98 hauled his camera from Skagway into the Yukon, taking pictures of men and horses slogging over the Coast Mountains, impromptu trail towns made of pale tents, and exhausted would-be Croesuses whipsawing timber to build the boats they needed for the final Yukon River leg of their northward pilgrimage.

At just over 100 pages long, neither Trail to the Klondike nor Faith of Fools is a difficult work to consume. And that might prove greatly relieving to people who'd like to expand their knowledge of this gold rush but don't want to commit days or weeks to the task. When they want to learn more... well, as you can see, works about the Klondike stampede have turned out to be a damn sight more plentiful than were the nuggets to be found around Dawson 100 years ago. | September 16, 1998


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is a contributing editor of January Magazine and the author of several books, including the PBS-TV tie-in America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995). A Seattle resident, he's currently working on a collection of essays about that city's past.