American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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During that first frozen, fantastic winter after Carmack’s strike, men became millionaries—but millionaires in frozen muck, millionaires short of cash in a town short of goods. Carmack himself worked at Ladue’s mill to pay for material he needed to work his claim.

Nobody starved, but scurvy killed some and crippled others; alcohol, far more. Tensions rose as the winter wore on. The Mounties permitted no men to carry sidearms; there were no shootings but fights were not unknown, even among Dawson’s female population. A surviving copy of the town’s first newspaper—it was handwritten—carried the good word that Mountain Molly had regained the consciousness she lost when brained with a bottle by a colleague during an argument over a customer. “Women are few and we can’t spare any,” the editor cautioned.

During the summer of 1897, Dawson received a replenishment of women, mining equipment, food, and other necessities. Even before the Portland and the Excelsior carried the first beneficiaries of Carmack’s strike outside and made the rush world-wide, prospectors from Alaska and British Columbia began arriving. The likely creek beds were claimed their full length several times over, and the latecomers spread over the countryside scraping and digging.

A pair of veteran Scandinavian prospectors, Nathan Kresge and Nels Peterson, noted that high on the benchland above Bonanza, where diggers had denuded the hills of their protective cover of trees, the spring rains sometimes exposed patches of white gravel. Since this was considered a sign of gold in the stream beds, they started digging and panning high up on the ridge, to the brief amusement of more conventional diggers. Thus the riches of French Hill were uncovered.

A raw tenderfoot named Oliver Millett, who had quit his job at a Seattle sawmill the day the Portland arrived, reached Dawson in October of 1897. Unhampered by experience, he studied the lay of the land, guessed out the course of the long-dead stream that had brought the riches of Eldorado and Bonanza down from the Dome, and, on a claim derisively called Cheechako Hill, unearthed the last of the great strikes.

By the time Hegg and his party arrived in July of 1898, the era of discovery had ended (though rumors and rushes still occurred) and the period of exploitation and development was in full flower. Forty thousand persons were in, or about, Dawson by the end of summer. More poured off each southbound steamer and northbound scow. Joe Ladue was getting five thousand dollars a front foot for his best lots, and the nonproducers (as miners called everyone from ministers to reporters) were battening off the golden overflow from the claims.

Dawson was a town where everybody soon knew everybody else’s business; a town ninety per cent American in population but under Canadian law. Most of all, Dawson was a town where the chaos of individual panning was being institutionalized into the production of gold. Hegg was experienced in photographing such phenomena.

He set up a studio in a cabin with log walls and a tent roof that he boarded over when he found the time and money. He was in and out of Dawson for the next three years and recorded the change from tent town to clapboard metropolis. He pictured celebrations and fires; he photographed the official thermometer stuck at minus sixty-eight one January, and the townsfolk at work under the midnight sun in June; he aimed his camera at laundresses and society women, at dance-hall girls and the dreary whores in “cribs” outside the town.

Most of the time Hegg worked alone, but occasionally he collaborated with other photographers. Thus he was able to make frequent trips out to the goldfields, where he photographed not only the mines and cabins and the proliferation of sluices, but also the roadhouses that blossomed beside the trails and the growth of a transportation complex. He also made a few trips back to Skagway and one outside, during which he went to New York. On his return he liked to tell the sourdoughs of a carriage jam he caused on Fifth Avenue when he exhibited pictures of the climb over Chilkoot Pass.