The Gold Rush

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War is the great, dramatic explosion which makes change obvious. There are lesser ones, less terrible, less harrowing to read about, which evoke simple nostalgia rather than horror. It is pleasant, for instance, to turn from a consideration of the incomprehensible agony of Europe to the gaudy tale of the great Alaskan gold rush of the late 1890’s. In its own way the big gold rush was something of a milestone, too. Its overtones were not so grim and the literature it has given rise to is less appalling, but it remains a significant experience that is well worth study.

The Klondike Fever , by Pierre Berton. Alfred A. Knopf. 457 pp. $5.75.

Pierre Berton brings to the study of this event a scholar’s passion for accuracy, a light and graceful touch, and a good deal of personal knowledge of the place where the stirring events happened, and his The Klondike Fever offers a delightful way for stay-at-homes to follow the great trail of ’98.

Here was the last great gold rush. In all probability there never will be another stampede like it, simply because the world no longer contains empty places with an undiscovered potential for appealing irresistibly both to innate human greed and to the universal desire for adventure. This was the curtain piece.

The gold rush was largely a nineteenth-century institution. There were California and Australia, and Colorado and the Black Hills, and then there was South Africa; and each time, a floating population, which wanted very much to get rich but which wanted even more to get off behind the ranges and escape entirely from civilization, went on the prowl and swarmed in to the new diggings; and then, at last, there was Alaska, and the Klondike, and the last chance of all to run from a world that was beginning to get just a little bit oversettled.

The world, in other words, had not quite been finished. It still had some vacant lots in it: deep valleys, thousands of miles away from anywhere, in which a spade and a pick and a tin pan might make a man rich, and in which at the very least a man was out of the city crowd, with mountains and cold rivers and trackless woods all around him, pioneering in a world which had outlived pioneers. Dawson City was the last stop. There would not be anything like this again, the trail would not go on any farther, the excitement and wonder were running thin; but here, in the final hour, they were still as fresh as creation’s dawn.

And the important thing about the Klondike trail, as Mr. Berton makes very clear, was not just the gold. It was there, to be sure, and some aspects of the rush up from Skagway are as ugly as anything you could find, with greedy men pushing on at any cost just for a chance at wealth; but very few of the men who made the long push ever got rich, or ever really expected to, and in the end it becomes clear that it was not really riches they were after. About 100,000 people, Mr. Berton estimates, set out to go to the Klondike. About a third of them actually got there; the rest died or turned back, the fires burnt out of them by hardships along the way; and of the ones who made it, about 4,000 actually found gold, and of these only a few hundred found enough to make themselves rich. And of these few, the merest handful managed to keep what they had found.

Yet in the end this mattered very little. Hardly anybody really got any gold; but “it turned out in retrospect to have been a golden period.” For while the gold rush brutalized a great many people, and ennobled just a few, it gave to everyone an emotional experience. Men then were looking for something they never really could find, something that probably did not actually exist; and they learned, as most of us do no matter what it is that we are seeking, that it is the search and not the finding that counts.

They were at the end of the procession. It never could happen again. The world was growing smaller and smaller; and here, just before the walls folded in forever, there was, as Mr. Berton so well puts it, “one of the weirdest and most useless mass movements in history.” Weird and useless, to be sure, and very brutal and sordid in spots; but it was a symbol of a changing world, a fragment left for us to examine from a world that had one more dimension than today’s world.