American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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One hundred years ago, Alaska became part of the United States when Secretary of Slate William Henry Seward bought the vast territory from the Russians. For years the whole negotiation was labelled “Seward’s Folly,” and it was not until gold runs discovered nearby in the Yukon that Americans paid much attention to their new acquisition. The, first gold strike was made in 1896 on the Klondike, River, a tributary of the Yukon in Canada, but in rushing to get to the irresistible riches, thousands of Americans crossed and recrossed the sparsely settled territory Seward had purchased twenty-nine years earlier (see “Seward’s Wise Folly” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE).

Among the “stampeders” was a young Swedish photographer, Eric A. Hegg. He came for pictures, not for gold. If the land was forbidding for prospectors, it was equally forbidding for a photographer. Lugging his bulky camera, improvising chemicals from herbs and egg whites to sensitize his unwieldy glass plates, working with a minimum of sunlight and often in ferocious temperatures, Hegg still managed to record with beauty and detail the whole astonishing spectacle of men searching for gold.

Hegg’s photographs survived only by chance. Unable to carry around all his delicate glass negatives, he cached them in various places along his route. One large group, stored in the walls of a house in Dawson City, was found by a later occupant who decided to use the glass to build a greenhouse. The negatives were saved only because the gardener could not figure out how to get the “gray stuff” off the glass, Gradually all the prints and negatives known to exist have been assembled in the University of Washington Library. This summer, to coincide with Alaska’s centennial, the University of Washington Press is publishing One Man’s Gold Rush: A Klondike Album, with a text by Murray Morgan to accompany Hegg’s photographs. The following article and pictures are excerpted from this book.—The Editors

 

The Reveille of New Whatcom, Washington, reported during the third week of July, 1897, that two ships carrying gold had put into Pacific coast ports. The dirty, rusty, stubby Excelsior docked July 15 at San Francisco. She carried a score of prospectors and nearly a thousand pounds of gold. Among the passengers were Mr. and Mrs. Tom Lippy of Seattle. Tom Lippy was somebody nearly everybody on Puget Sound knew or knew of—the eighteen-nineties equivalent of a high school coach. He had been a clerk and physical-education instructor at the Seattle Y.M.C.A.; a wiry, likeable little man, he had tired of Y.M.C.A. penury and had taken a fling at prospecting. But here was Tom Lippy coming home, staggering down the gangplank of the Excelsior, barely able to carry his suitcase even with his wife’s assistance. It held more than two hundred pounds in nuggets and gold dust. Gold then averaged seventeen dollars an ounce; good old Tom was bringing out more than $54,400.

There had been no advance notice of the Excelsior’s arrival in San Francisco. But the wires carried word north that a second and richer ship was due in Seattle. Five thousand persons were waiting at Schwabacher’s Dock when, at six o’clock on the morning of July 17, the Portland, larger, dirtier, and more gold-encumbered, edged up to the wharf. Beriah Brown, an enterprising reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had boarded her from a chartered boat some miles out and, with echoing understatement, had telegraphed that she was carrying “more than a ton of solid gold.” She was, in fact, carrying approximately two tons.

Most important, the prospectors brought word that there was more gold, much more, where theirs had been found—on the Klondike, a Canadian tributary of the Yukon. Until then the name Klondike, often spelled Clondyke in early reports, had been known to few, and to them it had connoted salmon rather than gold.

It was a time when there was magic in the word “gold”—but where there is magic there is also disbelief. The United States lay bogged in the long depression that grew out of the Panic of 1893. The Puget Sound building boom that had swelled with the completion of the Northern Pacific’s railroad lines had collapsed with an abruptness that ruined thousands. Workmen who had pushed steel over, and sometimes dangerously through, the mountains found themselves unemployed. They moved unwelcomed into the cities, where jobs were few. Farm prices sagged. And while Nature’s bounty prevented much actual starvation in the Pacific Northwest, there were few cash crops and almost no cash. It was said that the exact location of every double-eagle gold piece in every town was known each night to all bankers and merchants. The shortage of gold was the curse of the common man, and William Jennings Bryan’s call for cheaper silver money found many listeners.

Thus there was a fairy-story quality to the reports that men whose names were known in the community and whose weaknesses were familiar in bar and barber shop lurched ashore with almost more wealth than they could carry. Every detail incited avarice. The golden nuggets, it was said, had jagged edges—evidence that they had not been washed far from the mother lode. Great riches awaited the enterprising.