American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!


The ships carried rude scows of casual seaworthiness that were used for lightering cargo, then were broken up and sold board by board to the lumber-hungry men ashore. Horses were swung over the side in slings and dropped into the bay to find their own way to the beach. Lumber was simply dumped over the side on an incoming tide; it was up to the owner to corral the boards and chevy them ashore. When time was a factor, they even floated in the bales of hay that had been brought along for the animals.

Hegg’s own problems in getting ashore are not on record. But he photographed the difficulties faced by his peers. Gray, soggy, and dismal, the tidal beach stretched up to a dreary plain furrowed by the Dyea River and rutted by the wheels of wagons. The plain was piled with the impedimenta of the Klondikers: great stacks of food and blankets, stoves and sleds, boats of strange design, portable pianos, and casks that gurgled and were marked “medicine.” A quarter mile back from the beach wrack the first tents blossomed. Another quarter mile away crude buildings formed a funnel through which a muddy street led back toward the mountains. Thus Dyea.

A year earlier a visiting official had described the place as “an Indian village of 250, a white town of four.” The Indians were Chilkats, a branch of the Tlingit family. They were a short, swarthy people, the men broad-shouldered and addicted to mustaches that were sparse but sweeping; the women equally broad-shouldered and given to blackening their faces with a mixture of grass and soot, for beauty’s sake. Their habitations were small, crowded, and redolent of fish. The white man’s town had consisted of a single frame building, used as both store and house.

Estimates of Dyea’s population by the fall of 1897 range from three thousand to ten thousand. The figures would have gone higher had there been a chamber of commerce. The town offered clapboard hotels of minimal comfort, log-cabin restaurants, tent saloons, open-air real-estate “offices,” and other establishments where a man could dispose of money rapidly. Its reason for existence was a notch in the mountains, the Chilkoot Pass, some twenty miles distant, which had long been the favorite path of Indians and experienced explorers going to and from the interior. Wrote one veteran of this route: A trail in Alaska should not be confused with the ordinary highway of settled states. When a trail is spoken of as existing between two points in Alaska it has no further meaning than that a man. and possibly a beast of burden, may travel that way over the natural surface of the ground. There is a very strong improbability concerning the beast, unless it be a dog. The path may consist of nothing more than a marked or blazed way through an otherwise impenetrable wilderness, and unless it is used more or less continuously the traces are apt to disappear in one of Alaska’s seasons. No eager prospector stops to make it easier for someone else. A man carrying his food, his cooking utensils, and working tools on his back has no time nor disposition to cut down trees. When he comes to an unfrozen stream he wades it, or if a tree has fallen across it so much the better. The Chilkoot trail possesses the advantage of having been used by miners since 1880 but it was laid out by Indians, who are too lazy to improve it: and besides, they make a living because it is almost impossible for pack animals to go over it.

At first the Chilkats monopolized the packing business out of Dyea. It was their pass, though the white storekeepers had improved the first few miles of the trail slightly and for a time were able to persuade the Klondikers to pay tolls. The Chilkat bearers initially charged twelve cents a pound to carry goods the twenty-seven miles across the pass to the upper end of Lake Lindeman. By the end of the first season of the rush the price had risen to thirty-eight cents a pound for goods in convenient packages, higher for lumber, stoves, pianos, trunks, and other oddly shaped impedimenta. The Chilkats were physically powerful, knowledgeable about the trail, shrewd, and not unaware of the advantages of having a monopoly. But what the Klondikers objected to most about the Indians was that they were Presbyterians—Christians to a fault: they wouldn’t work on Sundays. Other days, however, they shrugged into harness, straightened under loads of up to two hundred pounds (women and children carried “a white man’s burden” of seventy-five pounds), and shuffled up the trail undeterred by anything except rumor that someone was receiving more pay per pound—information that usually precipitated a strike.

The Yukon was, of course, Canadian territory, and the Canadian authorities, fearful that more persons were coming in than the wilderness could support, insisted that each man bring supplies for a year. That roughed out at a ton of goods per man, which had to include seven hundred pounds of food. Few could afford to hire anyone to move such a quantity. It was do it yourself—at least part of it—and the stampeders shuttled back and forth along the trail, carrying their duffel through the pass to the headwaters of the Yukon River.