American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Carmack held out on no one else. He felt he had “just dealt myself a royal flush in the game of life, and the whole world was a jackpot.” He told everyone he met of his discovery, and those who believed him and acted on his advice became rich. And when he went into Bill McPhee’s saloon at Fortymile, glowing with beneficence, and told of his strike and backed his words by pouring from a cartridge the rough flakes panned from Bonanza Creek, the stampede started.

This was what prospecting was about. The chance of getting rich by making an original strike was far less than the chance of getting rich by staking a claim adjoining someone else’s strike. No telegraph wires ran through the wilderness, but the word spread, the word that George Carmack—Stick George, Siwash George, Old Lying George—had found gold on the Klondike. It emptied camps like Fortymile. It drew the old timers from the remote streams. It caused merchants and missionaries and saloonkeepers to lock the doors of their establishments and head for the new diggings.

Within two weeks, Bonanza was staked its entire distance in a welter of conflicting claims, and men were probing other streams in the area. On the last day of August, Austrian immigrant Antone Stander, a twenty-nine-year-old ex-cowboy who had been roaming the Yukon country for two years in an unsuccessful search for gold, knelt by Bonanza’s south fork. A trickle of dark water that flowed in from the far side of the Dome, it had been dismissed as Bonanza’s pup by more experienced prospectors. From his first pan Stander took six dollars worth of coarse gold grains. He and his four companions paced out claims, each of which was to yield more than a million dollars, and the pup became known as Eldorado.

What was being found was surface gold, profuse enough to make a man well-to-do but no proof that enormous riches lay below. The only way to determine what a prospect was really worth was to get down to bedrock by digging—slow, discouraging, often fruitless digging—through the permafrost.

To sink a shaft through the frozen earth of the subarctic, it was necessary first to thaw the ground. That meant logging the nearby streams, or going up the mountainside to cut firewood and packing it to the claim. Then a hole was scraped in the surface moss and debris and a fire was built on the cleared surface. When the fire died, the ashes and thawed dirt were dug out and another fire built. The process was repeated until bedrock was reached. The average rate of descent was about a foot a day. Bedrock lay from five to twenty-five feet down.

After a prospector reached bedrock, he began “drifting.” That is, he built his next fire at the side of the shaft in what seemed to him the most promising direction and kept thawing and shovelling and hauling out the muck until he found what he was looking for or gave up.

Throughout the first winter, during the long nights when the temperatures hung in the minus sixties and the great stars blazed overhead and the northern lights flared, when it was so cold and still that the camp dogs shied from the spark of a touch, the rich, sweat-crusted, scurvy-plagued prospectors grubbed in their holes, piling up fortunes in dirty gravel outside cabins less commodious than kennels, and dreamed of spring, when the streams would run again and there would be water for sluicing.

Most of the lumber for sluice boxes had to be whipsawed, though Joe Ladue, a shrewd backwoods merchant and promoter, had immediately brought in a mill and set it up on the townsite he staked out at the mouth of the Klondike. (He called his site Dawson City after George M. Dawson, a government geologist.) The mill couldn’t keep up with the demand for boards for commercial buildings, let alone sluices, nor could most of the prospectors afford the luxury of sawed wood.

Their boxes were usually about ten inches high and twelve or fourteen inches across the bottom; in length they varied according to the number of men working the diggings and the amount of muck to be washed, but usually they ran about fifty feet for two men. Across the bottom lay successive riffles. These were usually small, round poles set lengthwise so that they lay an inch and a half to two inches apart. At the lower end of the box was another set of riffles with slats about an inch square. When the streams thawed in the spring, water was diverted to the sluices. The pay dirt hauled up during the winter’s grubbing was shovelled in. The earth was washed away while the small gravel—and gold, if any—settled in the rimes. The catch in the tail riffles was then panned for gold.