For Part I of “The Klondike Stampede,” see Sins of Omission in the December 2017 issue.
The 250 Indians who inhabited Dyea on the eve of the gold rush were Chilkats, members of the Tlingit tribe. They were short and stocky, and excellent packers. They commonly carried packs of 100 pounds or more. They charged by the pound and were never caught with their prices down. Most stampeders could not afford to hire Chilkats, though, and hefted their own loads.
During the summer of 1897 the population of Dyea reached 3,000. By fall it was pushing 10,000. Lining Dyea’s main street were clapboard hotels, log-cabin restaurants, and tent saloons. Twenty miles distant was 3,500 foot-high Chilkoot Pass, the gateway to the interior.
About five miles out on the trail from Dyea, the Finnegans, an Irish family led by Patrick Finnegan, had built a bridge over the swift Dyea River. Finnegan allowed Indians to use the bridge for free but charged a toll for whites. As the numbers of stampeders swelled they began to push across the bridge without paying the toll. The big, ruddy-faced Finnegan waded into the crowd, but before he could do much damage his sons restrained him, convincing their father he couldn’t fight thousands. Finnegan gave up collecting the toll and erected a tent saloon. He made money hand over fist. Soon other businesses sprang up around the saloon, and the town of Finnegan was born.
From Finnegan the trail narrowed and wended its way through rough and wooded country to Sheep Camp, eight miles further up the Dyea. Sheep Camp consisted of nothing more than two frame buildings and a log cabin, but it soon became a small village of tents. From there to the top of Chilkoot Pass was a four-mile climb that became progressively more arduous, requiring backpacking only. During the first three miles the grade steepened until it reached 25 degrees at a spot called The Scales, so named because Chilkat packers weighed their loads before the final ascent. From The Scales to the summit the grade was 30 to 35 degrees. The last stretch was so steep that firstcomers had hacked steps, some 1,500 of them, into the ice. The steps quickly became known as the Golden Stairs.
Climbing Chilkoot Pass with a hundred-pound pack in snow and ice as the wind howled was tortuous. To do so 20 or more times, as required to ferry enough supplies for a year in the Klondike, tested a man’s will. A few men beheld the summit of Chilkoot and gave up, selling their gear for a fraction of its value. Most, though, simply stepped to the back of a single file of men, each bent forward from the weight of his pack and the angle of the climb. To step out of the ant-like procession to rest meant a wait of hours before it was possible to find an opening in the line. One trip took two hours or more. Feats of physical prowess stunned observers. A big Swede crawled up on his hands and knees with three huge four-by-six timbers strapped to his back. An Iowa farm boy carried a plow up by himself. Most could do nothing but put one foot in front of another and trudge slowly and painfully upward. “But under it all,” wrote Jack London,
they were men, penetrating the land of desolation and mockery and silence, puny adventurers bent on colossal adventure, pitting themselves against the might of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses of space.
Waiting for the stampeders at the top of the pass where the trail crossed into Canada were the North West Mounted Police, who strictly enforced the 2,000-pound minimum of supplies per man and watched for whiskey being transported into Canada without payment of duties. The Mounties reported that 22,000 people crossed into Canada at Chilkoot during the fall and winter of 1897-98. Men collapsed and died climbing the pass, but the only major disaster occurred early in April 1898 when an avalanche rumbled down from a jutting ridge overhanging the trail. Several hundred stampeders disappeared under tons of snow. From all along the trail men rushed to the rescue and began to dig furiously. Miraculously, most of those entombed were saved; 63 died.
Beyond the summit of Chilkoot Pass the stampeders descended to Lake Linde man. The firstcomers had taken most of the trees big enough to provide lumber for boats, so later arrivals pushed on to Lake Bennett. By the end of winter 10,000 men were huddled in tents at Lake Lindeman, with another 10,000 at Lake Bennett. When weather permitted, they built rafts and boats for the spring rush to Dawson, 600 miles down the Yukon.
With a crack and a roar, the ice broke on the lakes on May 29, and nearly 1,000 boats started downstream. Within 48 hours the number reached 7,124 by the count of the Mounties. The stampeders, now boatmen, faced rough water at Miles Canyon and an especially dangerous stretch at White Horse Rapids. During the first few days of running the rapids, 150 boats were sunk or smashed, and five men died. As a result, Sam Steele, the tall, powerfully built superintendent of the Mounties who inspired the fictional character Sergeant Preston, imposed rules for the rapids: No women were to shoot them; all boats must be inspected; only experienced boatmen could make the run.
Below White Horse Rapids it was clear sailing until Lake LaBarge. Unwary boatmen could be swept by a strong current to the east shore, which was lined with cliffs and offered no landing spots. Lake LaBarge emptied into a stretch called Thirty Mile River, which was swift, crooked, and rocky. Then came Five Finger Rapids, about two thirds of the way to Dawson. Boatmen had to be careful to follow the right-hand channel, where a swift whirlpool appeared to dash the craft against a large rock but, at the last moment, spun each one about and into the clear. From Five Finger Rapids to Dawson, the Yukon River, now broad and deep, flowed peacefully. The stampeders faced new enemies—clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, and blackflies attacked without mercy. Without mosquito netting, sleep was impossible. Some men were driven nearly mad.
During the spring of 1898 a second route to Lake Bennett was opened. An old sea captain, Billy Moore, built a wharf at Skagway and began promoting the White Pass route, which was lower and less rugged than the Chilkoot. Supposedly, pack animals could be taken over it year round, but it proved hard for men and fatal for horses. The White Pass trail was 45 miles of steep hills and bogs, boulders and shale, and river crossings and dense tangles of trees. Horses dropped by the hundreds along the trail. They were shot, dragged off the trail, and left to rot. Eventually, the carcasses of 3,000 horses lined the route. “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost,” said Jack London,
and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps. Men worked them to death and, when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes, and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone, those which did not break, and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.
By the time the White Pass trail was in use, Skagway was controlled by Soapy Smith. Tall, lean, handsome, and black-bearded, Smith had been born in Georgia. He studied for the Baptist ministry as a youth but later moved to St. Louis and went into business. He was married there, and his wife bore him six children. Smith conducted an active correspondence with congressmen, civic officials, and prominent citizens. He seemed to be able to ingratiate himself with the right people and to manipulate the system. By the 1880’s he was working the mining camps of Colorado, establishing saloons and gambling dens. In 1892 he and his cronies took control of Creede, Colorado, by rigging the town’s elections.
In 1897 he turned his attention to Alaska. Smith soon had his men planted on the Seattle docks, on ships bound for Skagway, and all around Skagway itself. It was the job of these men to guide the gold-rushers to one of Smith’s many establishments in Skagway: a saloon, a gambling den, the telegraph office, a pack station, an information bureau.
As soon as an unsuspecting individual in one of these establishments showed that he had on his person a sizable amount of cash, he became a target for one of Smith’s boys. Smith had more than 100 men working for him. After they waylaid one of the stampeders, Smith would usually come to the victim’s aid and give him enough money to get back to Seattle. They thought Soapy Smith was a wonderful guy.
By the end of the summer of ’98 Smith’s sinister activities began to be known, and the honest citizens of Skagway, led by Frank Reid, secretly formed a vigilance committee, known as the Committee of 101. The Committee published a warning to Smith and his gang to cease and desist their activities and leave town.
Arrogant and overconfident, Smith dared the Committee of 101 to act. When Reid led his vigilantes into the streets of Skagway, Smith confronted him with a Winchester. Reid instantly drew his own gun, and the two men blazed away. Soapy Smith fell to the ground dead. Reid was hit, too, and he struggled on for several days before dying. With their leader dead, Smith’s men took to their heels. However, vigilantes guarded White Pass and the wharves of Skagway. Most of the gang members were captured and whipped before being banished.
Some 100,000 stampeders set out for the Klondike, but only about 35,000 actually got there. Most found some gold, but only 4,000 or so found it in significant quantities. Four hundred prospectors found enough gold to become (in today’s money) multimillionaires. A few dozen found enough gold to make them fabulously wealthy. Altogether, some $30 billion in gold at today’s prices was mined in the Klondike.
The cast of characters was as spectacular as the riches. There was Big Alex McDonald, who made millions by grubstaking prospectors; Oliver Millett, who was called a fool for working a hill thought barren but hit a rich deposit; Charley Anderson, who bought a worthless claim while drunk but dug a bit deeper and hit some of the richest pay dirt in the Klondike; and dozens more like them. Women were rare in the Klondike, but several of them, such as entrepreneurial Belinda Mulrooney and angelic Nellie Cashman, the Saint of the Sourdoughs, were larger than life.
I find it sad that students today are not familiar with such an epic event as the Klondike stampede and the characters who lived it. History should be high adventure.