American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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On the strength of Brown’s scoop for the Post-Intelligencer about her cargo, the Portland was booked full for her return voyage even before she reached Seattle. Among the fifty passengers going first cabin was John H. McGraw, ex-governor of Washington. And Colonel W.D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle, who chanced to be in San Francisco when the Excelsior put in, had wired his resignation to the city council, to be accepted if he succeeded in organizing an expedition north and failed to return to Seattle before his statutory period of absences ran out.

Within three hours after the docking of the Portland, Seattle’s waterfront streets were so crowded that horse-drawn trams couldn’t push through the jam. Some teamsters simply dropped their reins and hustled to the booking office, where they found themselves competing for passage north with bank clerks, whistle punks, cooks and bull cooks, attorneys, pimps, fishermen, merchants, ministers, the more prescient of the box-house girls from the skid road, and even an occasional experienced prospector. Unions and congregations and social clubs were holding meetings to raise funds to send representatives north to stake claims. As the crowds pressed up to the ticket desks, newsboys hawked papers that detailed the good fortune of the sixty-eight sourdoughs who had just debarked from the Portland. They were men like these:

Nils Anderson of Seattle, who had been unable to find work in the lumber camps in the summer of 1895, had borrowed three hundred dollars and gone north with nothing in his favor except desperation. His wife, whom he had left with several small children and no income, had been waiting on the dock for him, hopeful that their luck had changed. Indeed it had. Anderson debarked with so much gold that a friend had to help him carry it—$112,500 worth.

Another Scandinavian rushed to the express office with a canvas sack he wanted to forward to the mint at San Francisco, Seattle having no assay office at the time. “I tank I have twenty tousand five huner dollar,” he told the clerk, who put the gold on the scales and corrected him. It weighed out at approximately $42,000.

William Stanley of Anacortes, Washington, had left his wife with only twenty dollars when he went north. She had been supporting herself by taking in washing and picking blackberries. He wired her from Seattle to stop washing and start buying they were worth $90,000.

So the stories went, losing little in the telling. The tall of gold echoed across the country. Eric Hegg, a twenty-nine-year-old Swedish photographer who owned two small photographic studios on Bellingham Bay, Washington, was among the first to respond. He was apparently never tempted to prospect, only to photograph the rush. It was not gold but excitement—and the chance to practice his trade—that lured him. He locked the doors of both studios, entrusted the keys to his younger brother Peter, bought all the chemicals and plates and paper he could afford, and went to Seattle to seek passage to the Yukon.

Two routes led north.

The traditional way into the interior of Alaska and the Yukon was the all-water passage by way of the Pacific, the Bering Sea. and the Yukon River. It involved a roundabout trip of 4,200 miles or more. From Seattle to the mouth of the Yukon, it was agreed, was about 2,800 miles, but every riverboat captain had his own guess about how far tip the river Dawson lay. Some said 1,250, others 2,250, and 1,600 miles was the favorite estimate. Under favorable circumstances the voyage took about forty days—but it might require eight months. The Yukon usually becomes navigable in May, but the Bering Sea doesn’t open as far as St. Michael, Alaska, until late June, and it freezes in late September. The danger of being caught aboard a riverboat between St. Michael and the Klondike was considerable. Even so. there were more passengers than berths.

Ten times as many Klondikers used the more direct but more difficult water-and-overland route. The water portion followed the protected sea lane—called the Inside Passage—between the rim of the continent and the fretwork of islands off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska. The islands are a screen against the full force of the Pacific storms. Ships unfit for the unprotected waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea could be pressed into service between Puget Sound and the various northern termini that boasted the easiest way through the mountains to the Yukon.

The established ports of embarkation—Victoria, Port Townsend, Seattle, Tacoma, and to a lesser degree Portland and San Francisco—were confusions of activity as shipyards blossomed to build new craft and refurbish relics dating back to the first days of steam on the Pacific coast. Comfort was nothing and safety a minor consideration; capacity was everything. Colliers were diverted from the coal trade and their holds were converted into stables for the horses needed to pack food and prospecting gear across the mountains. Many ships sailed with bales of hay stacked on the bridge. Bunks were tacked everywhere. Tents were pitched in lifeboats. On most ships the only spot considered sacrosanct was the saloon.