American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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While stampeders waited for their ships to be fitted, they explored such mysteries as how to tie a diamond hitch, said to be the only knot capable of holding a load on a horse’s back on the trails through the St. Elias Range; or they dickered with horse traders whose asking price was twenty-five dollars for any brute still breathing. “The horses that are being offered for packing over the hardest kind of trail!” a reporter exclaimed. “Such ambulating bone-yards, the infirm and decrepit, those afflicted with spavins, the spring-halt, some with ribs like the sides of a whiskey case and hips to hang hats on. With their drooping heads and listless tails they look as if a good feed of oats would either break their backs or make them sag beyond remedy.”

For a time the streets were snarled with sled dogs, some trained, others just plain dogs, but all carrying prices like ransoms. Then the available supply of dogs was exhausted. “Seattle,” said a reporter for the Argus, “has become a cat’s paradise.”

When a ship did sail, horses whinnied in fright in their two-foot-wide stalls, and prospectors (most of them still in dark business suits) lined the rail or sat on the bales of hay. The docks were black with well-wishers, and there were cheers back and forth for the Klondike—cheers for gold. “God does not give us many scenes like this,” said the poet Joaquin Miller as he sailed aboard the Mexico.

Eric Hegg roamed the waterfront looking for photographs and, more important, passage to the Klondike. The pictures came easily—he got some good ones of crowded docks and of the waterfront stores spilling their wares across sidewalk and street. But passage was hard to find.

All ships scheduled for 1897 were booked beyond capacity before Hegg even reached Seattle. As additional ships were diverted into service north, the price of tickets shot up. Some men settled for deck passage and no baggage in the expectation that they would be able to buy everything they needed in Alaska. But Hegg doubted that he would be able to acquire photographic supplies up there.

Eventually he joined a party of Bellingham Bay men in chartering the Skagit Chief, a small sternwheeler that had been built in Tacoma in 1889 for service on Puget Sound and the lower reaches of the Skagit River. A victim of the depression and an enigmatic engine, she had been lying idle at New Whatcom. She was small for the run north, even by way of the Inside Passage, but she was available.

“How we ever made it still seems an act of Providence,” Hegg told a reporter some forty years later. The trip was made in late September or early October, when several severe gales struck the coast. But even with clouds stretching from the hilltops of the westward islands to the foothills to the east, the Passage was entrancing: the forests almost unbroken; the water a heavy green, excited by an occasional school of porpoises or pod of killer whales; the mystery of the shore line heightened by Indian villages with totem poles, grotesque and beautiful, facing the sea. Sometimes the voyagers saw Indian canoes, prows sleekly streamlined and barbarically decorated, hulls blackened with soot and seal oil. “Crawling along under the somber shadows of the dense overhanging trees in the deep passages,” one observer noted, “these canoes can hardly be seen until very near, and when a flash of water from the paddle reveals their presence they look more like smugglers or pirates avoiding notice than anything else.”

There were few ports of call along the Inside Passage, and those surpassing strange: Wrangell, “the most tumble-down looking company of cabins I ever saw,” in the opinion of a laureate of the Paris Geographical Society, but prospering nonetheless on the sale of Indian trinkets, prospectors’ supplies, and medicinal liquor (in theory, at least, Alaska was dry); Sitka, the onetime Russian capital; Juneau, already settled into its role of a no-nonsense industrial town of boardwalks and of merchants who knew the advantage of having distance to blame prices on.

Hegg photographed everything as the Skagit Chief moved up the waterway—the somber forests of cedar and spruce on mountains improbably near, the glaciers pouring down valleys to plunge silently into the sea, the men aboard quiet with the realization of the adventure on which they had embarked.

The Skagit Chief reached Dyea, the terminus of the water passage, early in the fall of 1897. Ships anchored well offshore in the mountain-bound harbor. There is a twenty-foot spread between high and low tides, and the bore of the waters up the narrow inlet is swift and dangerous. It was up to the Klondikers to beach their gear. Passage did not include landing costs.

At Juneau, if not before, the men on the commercial passenger boats had been told of the landing problems ahead. On most ships the passengers elected a beach command party to supervise unloading. Lots were drawn on ship for precedence, and cargo was generally put over the side in the order of the draw. No one was supposed to claim his goods on the beach until all cargo was ashore, but most did, for to leave it untouched was to risk having it caught by the next high tide.