Freezing Time

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In the words of historian William Bronson, it was “the last grand adventure,” and there is no denying the dimensions of the event: in 1897 and 1898, at least one hundred thousand people took passage to the scruffy little towns of Dyea and Skagway in the Alaskan Panhandle, inched over the mountains through Chilkoot or White passes, then floated, walked, and dogsledded the remaining five hundred miles to a new Golconda called Dawson in the heart of the Klondike gold fields.

Not all of them made it, of course; hundreds died, thousands turned back, cowed by the landscape of rock, snow, ice, and tundra. But among those tough enough to make it all the way were two brothers, Clarke and Clarence Kinsey, together with Clarke’s wife, Mary. They were photographers, part of a remarkable family in Snoqualmie, Washington, that had produced another brother, Darius, who was even then building a reputation as one of the finest documentarian photographers in the West (see “Daylight in the Swamp,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , October, 1958). Clarke, Clarence, and Mary settled in Grand Forks, a mining town at the confluence of Bonanza and Eldorado creeks, and the site of the original Klondike gold discoveries of 1897. Like nearly everyone else in the town, they staked out mining claims, but they also set up shop as photographers, and for the next decade recorded life as they and their neighbors lived it in one of the harshest environments on earth.

Today, there is nothing left of that hopeful little town, which at its height boasted a population of nearly ten thousand. By the 1920’s, what little gold remained in the area could only be profitably mined by great, corporation-owned dredges, which finally ate up the very ground on which Grand Forks had stood. And for decades, even the Kinsey Klondike photographs remained largely unknown, cast in the shade by the extraordinary Northwest logging pictures of brother Darius (and later Clarke himself, after he returned to Washington in 1908). It was not until twenty years after Clarke’s death in 1956 that the original glass-plate negatives were discovered in a relative’s closet. Now, both the town and the photographs have been revived by author Norm Bolotin in Klondike Lost: A Decade of Photographs by Kinsey & Kinsey , a pictorial history of Grand Forks soon to be issued by the Alaska Northwest Publishing Company of Edmonds, Washington. The photographs on these and the following pages have been excerpted from the book.