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American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!
How a bunch of the boys—and some of the girls, too—slogged up to the gold diggings in the Yukon; and how Hegg the photographer joined in the scramble, leaving a record of one of the most rugged adventures of modern times.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
One hundred years ago, Alaska became part of the United States when Secretary of Slate William Henry Seward bought the vast territory from the Russians. For years the whole negotiation was labelled “Seward’s Folly,” and it was not until gold runs discovered nearby in the Yukon that Americans paid much attention to their new acquisition. The, first gold strike was made in 1896 on the Klondike, River, a tributary of the Yukon in Canada, but in rushing to get to the irresistible riches, thousands of Americans crossed and recrossed the sparsely settled territory Seward had purchased twenty-nine years earlier (see “Seward’s Wise Folly” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE).
Among the “stampeders” was a young Swedish photographer, Eric A. Hegg. He came for pictures, not for gold. If the land was forbidding for prospectors, it was equally forbidding for a photographer. Lugging his bulky camera, improvising chemicals from herbs and egg whites to sensitize his unwieldy glass plates, working with a minimum of sunlight and often in ferocious temperatures, Hegg still managed to record with beauty and detail the whole astonishing spectacle of men searching for gold.
Hegg’s photographs survived only by chance. Unable to carry around all his delicate glass negatives, he cached them in various places along his route. One large group, stored in the walls of a house in Dawson City, was found by a later occupant who decided to use the glass to build a greenhouse. The negatives were saved only because the gardener could not figure out how to get the “gray stuff” off the glass, Gradually all the prints and negatives known to exist have been assembled in the University of Washington Library. This summer, to coincide with Alaska’s centennial, the University of Washington Press is publishing One Man’s Gold Rush: A Klondike Album, with a text by Murray Morgan to accompany Hegg’s photographs. The following article and pictures are excerpted from this book.—The Editors
The Reveille of New Whatcom, Washington, reported during the third week of July, 1897, that two ships carrying gold had put into Pacific coast ports. The dirty, rusty, stubby Excelsior docked July 15 at San Francisco. She carried a score of prospectors and nearly a thousand pounds of gold. Among the passengers were Mr. and Mrs. Tom Lippy of Seattle. Tom Lippy was somebody nearly everybody on Puget Sound knew or knew of—the eighteen-nineties equivalent of a high school coach. He had been a clerk and physical-education instructor at the Seattle Y.M.C.A.; a wiry, likeable little man, he had tired of Y.M.C.A. penury and had taken a fling at prospecting. But here was Tom Lippy coming home, staggering down the gangplank of the Excelsior, barely able to carry his suitcase even with his wife’s assistance. It held more than two hundred pounds in nuggets and gold dust. Gold then averaged seventeen dollars an ounce; good old Tom was bringing out more than $54,400.
There had been no advance notice of the Excelsior’s arrival in San Francisco. But the wires carried word north that a second and richer ship was due in Seattle. Five thousand persons were waiting at Schwabacher’s Dock when, at six o’clock on the morning of July 17, the Portland, larger, dirtier, and more gold-encumbered, edged up to the wharf. Beriah Brown, an enterprising reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had boarded her from a chartered boat some miles out and, with echoing understatement, had telegraphed that she was carrying “more than a ton of solid gold.” She was, in fact, carrying approximately two tons.
Most important, the prospectors brought word that there was more gold, much more, where theirs had been found—on the Klondike, a Canadian tributary of the Yukon. Until then the name Klondike, often spelled Clondyke in early reports, had been known to few, and to them it had connoted salmon rather than gold.
It was a time when there was magic in the word “gold”—but where there is magic there is also disbelief. The United States lay bogged in the long depression that grew out of the Panic of 1893. The Puget Sound building boom that had swelled with the completion of the Northern Pacific’s railroad lines had collapsed with an abruptness that ruined thousands. Workmen who had pushed steel over, and sometimes dangerously through, the mountains found themselves unemployed. They moved unwelcomed into the cities, where jobs were few. Farm prices sagged. And while Nature’s bounty prevented much actual starvation in the Pacific Northwest, there were few cash crops and almost no cash. It was said that the exact location of every double-eagle gold piece in every town was known each night to all bankers and merchants. The shortage of gold was the curse of the common man, and William Jennings Bryan’s call for cheaper silver money found many listeners.
Thus there was a fairy-story quality to the reports that men whose names were known in the community and whose weaknesses were familiar in bar and barber shop lurched ashore with almost more wealth than they could carry. Every detail incited avarice. The golden nuggets, it was said, had jagged edges—evidence that they had not been washed far from the mother lode. Great riches awaited the enterprising.
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.
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.
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.
By the time Hegg reached Dyea it was too late in the year for him to hope to get down the river to Dawson. He decided to wait on the seaboard side until spring and sell pictures to the men headed across the pass. He set up a studio in a shack made from the remains of scows that had been smashed on the beach. The shack leaked. It let in both rain and the infrequent bursts of sunlight, and he finally had to put up a tent indoors for use when developing plates.
The best of his Dyea photographs show the sweep of tideflats, the jackstraw piles of supplies at the edge of town, and the raw board buildings flanking the muddy main street—Trail Street it was rightly called—that led back along the river into the narrowing canyon that rose toward Chilkoot Pass.
Hegg made frequent trips up the trail. The first few miles were deceptively easy. The only real problems were some boulders dropped in the distant past by the glaciers that had scoured the valley, a few soft spots in the trail, and the occasional necessity of fording the shallow but swift Dyea River.
About five miles back from tidewater an enterprising Irish family named Finnegan had built a convenient though precarious bridge, for which they charged a toll. In time the stampeders became so numerous and bold that they simply ignored Finnegan’s demands. He thought it over and opened a bar, for this was an area where, one man noted in a letter home, “a tent, a board counter a foot wide and sixfeet long, a long fellow in a Mackinaw coat, and a bottle of whiskey make up a saloon.” They named the town after Finnegan and it prospered. A blacksmith set up shop, charging—at peak—ten cents a nail for horseshoeing. Two sisters from Seattle pitched a tent and served beans and bacon, bread and butter, dried peaches, and coffee for seventy-five cents.
“After five miles of good road,” a British officer reported, “hell begins.” The terrain was rough, wooded with a tangle of spruce, hemlock, and cottonwood. The trail narrowed, and the hoofs of the pack horses and the wheels of wagons chewed the vegetation into a quagmire. To stay on it was to risk bogging down; to leave it was to fight through clutching branches and to risk falls on the wet rock.
Dyea Canyon itself was a crevice about two miles long and fifty feet wide at the bottom. The packers shared the bottom with the river. Boulders were piled in dangerous heaps. The grade in places was eighteen degrees. Then, after achieving an elevation of some five hundred feet, the trail dropped slightly to Pleasant Camp. The pleasantness was relative. The camp got its name because a few trees able to survive in the rocky ground afforded some shelter.
The more favored stopping point was Sheep Camp, thirteen miles from tidewater. It lay beside the Dyea, milky white here, cold, and furiously swift until the freeze. The community consisted of a scattering of tents around a nucleus of two frame buildings and a log cabin set among stunted spruce and hemlock. One of the two board buildings was a hotel. It consisted of a single room, twenty by forty feet, with a calico curtain to shut off the portion where the proprietor and his family lived. Said a correspondent for Harper’s Weekly:
At noon, but more particularly at evening, the floor of the hotel is crowded by a wild, dirty, wet, unkempt crew of men from Chilkoot, who advance in relays to a long table, where beans, tea and bacon are thrown into them at 75 cents each, payable strictly in advance. When supper is over the floor is thrown open for guests. All who have blankets unroll them and spread them on the floor, take off their socks and shoes and hang them on the rafters, place a coat under their heads and turn in.
It was the last place offering bed and board west of the Coast Range divide and the Canadian border. Beyond Sheep Camp horses could not scramble. Nor, in winter, did many men find it worth pulling sleds. The camp was the next to the last staging area for the assault on the summit, four miles distant. From Sheep Camp to the top it was back-packing all the way. The grade for the first three miles was between twelve and eighteen degrees; it steepened to twenty-five degrees the rest of the way to the little valley known as The Scales; and from there to the summit the grade was thirty degrees. The ascent was 1,950 feet in three miles, then 1,250 feet in the last mile.
The climb was no challenge for an alpinist; women and children crossed the Chilkoot with no complaints other than shortness of breath. But to carry packs over it from twenty to forty times, with the weather changing, the food getting no better, the expenses mounting, time running short, and each load seeming heavier than the last—that was the challenge of the Chilkoot and the reason that those who met it were left with the memory of a unique experience.
The first stopping point above Sheep Camp was the Stone House, so called, said the veteran prospector William Haskell, “because nature seems to have arranged the rocks here with more symmetry than usual, which is saying very little.” Next came the long climb to The Scales, where the Chilkats paused to weigh their loads on a crude balance before starting straight up the mountainside to the notch opening onto the interior. Back and forth from Sheep Camp to The Scales the stampeders trudged until they had their gear assembled below the pass.
Many, looking up, despaired. Equipment was discarded by the ton. Men gladly sold out at a dime on the dollar. The final climb was forbidding enough in summer, when men could zigzag up the mountain. In winter it was hell on ice, a lock-step procession up a flight of 1,200 steps cut into the frozen snow, the pace of the line determined by the slowest man.
There is something of Hieronymus Bosch in Hegg’s photograph of the scene: the bleak valley, the dark line of men moving up the slope bent under the weight of their packs, the scatter of returnees walking or sliding down the slope to the right on their way back for new burdens. Yet Canadian customs officials, who waited at the summit to check the amount of supplies each stampeder carried, reported that forty thousand persons checked through the Chilkoot during the stampede. And in spite of the dangers of the trail, there was only one major disaster. A continuing blizzard in late March and early April of 1898 added two yards of wet snow to the pack on the summit. The Indians saw the danger and withdrew to Dyea. The more knowledgeable Klondikers waited at Sheep Camp. The bold and the foolish camped at The Scales, while those in a desperate hurry struggled up the ice steps in the coldest hours of early morning, when slides were less likely. But not everybody took the time to be cautious. It was just before noon on April 3 that the anticipated avalanche poured down from a peak overhanging the trail.
Tons of wet snow covered an area of ten acres to a depth of thirty feet. Several hundred stampeders were entombed. Most clawed their way out, but others found themselves held motionless, cast in the cold concrete of snow, denied even the distraction of pain as they awaited rescue—or death by freezing.
Men by the hundreds scrambled up from Sheep Camp and Stone House or down from the summit to dig out those who were trapped. Hegg, rushing up from tidewater, made the climb to The Scales in a day and photographed the last of the rescue operations. Most of those buried under the avalanche were saved, but sixty-three bodies were taken from the snow. When the ground thawed they were buried in an alpine draw just off the trail. The rush resumed.
Beyond the summit of Chilkoot Pass it was downhill most of the way to Dawson, though not without danger. Stampeders found the first part of the descent a delight. There was a well-stomped trail to Crater Lake, an expanse of clear ice held in a volcanic goblet. A bar at the lake provided an opportunity to celebrate with supplies somebody else had packed over the pass, while the lake itself offered easy sailing. Men raised blankets as sails on the sleds they had lugged through the pass, and they made a strange, brave sight as they moved out across the frozen water (see page 41). Hegg himself obtained a team of trained goats that pulled a long sled, encumbered not with a blanket sail but with a canvas streamer advertising “Views of Alaska.”
Beyond Crater Lake lay Lake Lindeman, where many of the early stampeders camped, awaiting the thaw. Those who reached Lindeman first cut down the trees big enough to provide lumber for boats. Since boats were the next necessity, most of the Klondikers who followed went farther along the frozen river to Lake Bennett. There they created a community, built their boats, and waited for the Yukon—which descended northward to Dawson City and the golden Klondike—to thaw.
There was another way to reach Lake Bennett. This second route started at Skagway, like Dyca a debarkation point, and led through the mountains across White Pass, which—at 2,900 feet—was lower than the Chilkoot. White Pass had no upward tilts comparable to the Chilkoot’s scramble from Stone House to The Scales, let alone from The Scales to the summit. Moreover, in theory it was open year-round to pack horses and even wagons.
Only two things were wrong with the White Pass trail, Hegg was to discover as he followed the stampeders up it. First, it hardly existed. Second, what trail did exist debouched from the pass into bogland that slushed swampily toward Lake Bennett. When deeply frozen, it was difficult enough; after the thaw it presented frustrations undreamed of by the tormentors of Tantalus. A man in a race toward a gold field who found himself slowed to a mile a day had cause for dismay:
The opening of the White Pass as a summer trail was not a blunder, it was a crime [said one of those who had tried to cross it]. When the British Yukon Company was advertising the White Pass Trail and booming its townsite proposition, the trail was not cut out beyond the summit of the pass. There was no trail and there has been since no trail but only something that they have called a trail.
By July, 1899, a railway was completed between Skagway and Lake Bennett—a seemingly impossible feat; unfortunately, it came too late to help most of the stampeders.
While still in Dyea, Hegg had been joined by his brother Pete and by W.B. Anderson, another Scandinavian from New Whatcom. Anderson, a tall man with a drooping mustache, was expert with tools; he had worked as a logger, a carpenter, and a butcher. The men entered an agreement to pool their resources: while Anderson and Pete Hegg crossed the mountains to Lake Bennett and built boats for the run down the Yukon, Eric Hegg stayed behind and earned money making pictures.
A few Klondikers carried prefabricated boats over the passes. Others lugged boards, though packers charged grievous rates for lumber. There was a small sawmill at Lake Bennett—”a steam-driven gold-mine,” some called it—but it could not meet the demand for lumber. Young Hegg and Anderson had to cut their own.
They started by selecting suitable trees. Two logs were sufficient if they were of large enough diameter to yield nine-inch boards, but Lake Lindeman and Lake Bennett were near the timber line and most trees were too small. Once trees were located and logs cut, the boatbuilders erected a saw pit, a simple but sturdy frame of logs on which to rest the saw log. Putting one up required more sweat than artistry.
When the saw pit was ready, skids were leaned against it and the saw log was rolled up the skids. Its ends were settled in notches on the top, the bark and sapwood were skinned off, and slabs were marked out with a chalk line. Then the men went to work with a whipsaw—a long, coarse-toothed instrument tapering at one end, with handles fixed to each end at right angles. The whipsaw was part of the Klondike experience. Sourdoughs claimed it ended more good friendships than any institution except marriage. “It should be suppressed,” said one. “No character is strong enough to withstand it. Two angels could not saw their first log with one of these things without getting into a fight. It is more trying than the Chilkoot pass.”
As the stampeders worked, members of the Northwest Mounted Police moved through the chaos of improvisation, advising the builders to make their boats long and strong. Similar advice was found in the December 15 edition of the Dawson City News, which circulated in the camps. “Boats should be about 18 to 22 feet long. Make them strong. Take your time. Alaska and the Klondike are big and gold has no legs.” The paper, which was read to tatters, also described “the ten greatest dangers of the trip to the Klondike,” a compendium of risks climaxed by the rapids at Whitehorse. Voyagers memorized the description like a catechism:
The rapids are about a half-mile long and the only dangerous point is at the very foot, where there is a reef of rock that makes out from the left shore. It narrows the stream from 160 feet to less than half that distance. The waters boil considerable at this reef and the waves run from two to five feet high. A short boat bobs about at the mercy of these waves. Here a long boat, 18 to 22 feet, comes in handy. The landing to the left is below the reef and over to the right opposite this landing are graves of those who drowned in the attempt to shoot White Horse Rapids.
At Lake Bennett, Anderson and Pete Hegg teamed up with a former whaler named Snow, another able practitioner with saw and axe. They whipsawed boards and built two good boats, one with a small cabin forward that could be used as a darkroom.
There were ten thousand men at Bennett, ten thousand at Lindeman, and twenty thousand shuttling their goods up the trails from Dyea and Skagway when Hegg joined the party sometime in May. He operated a studio in the tent town, but when the ice broke on the lake on May 29, he turned the studio over to Edward J. Hamacher (who was to become one of the leading photographers of the Yukon Territory) and joined the fantastic flotilla headed north.
Seven thousand one hundred and twenty-four boats, by Mounted Police count, started down the river: skiffs and scows and canoes and barges and kayaks, boats of canvas and boats of balsa, boats that had been screwed together and boats that had been glued together, boats that looked like packing boxes and boats that looked like coffins—which some of them turned out to be.
The run north was alternately a time of work, discomfort, and danger, or all three at once. Every boat was overloaded; thirty million pounds of food alone were floated down to Dawson in the first months of summer. The winds were strong, usually adverse, and often dangerous. There were long stretches of slack water through which the boats had to be rowed, sailed, poled, or dragged. Sometimes ice floes poured out from the tributaries. Where the river ran free, it was dangerously fast. There were snags and sand bars to steer around, and rapids that could be avoided only by backbreaking portages. And there were mosquitoes.
Even Lake Bennett was dangerous. It was twenty-five miles long, narrow at the upper end but about five miles wide to the north. The winds—prevailing from the north in the early summer—kicked up a chop that threatened boats that were loaded so heavily they had only inches of freeboard. In a following wind, when the blanket sails were spread on the crude masts, the man at the tiller oar had to fight every minute to keep the craft from veering ashore. “Cap’n” Snow, the old whaleman, rigged a canvas wave catcher at the bow of Hegg’s boat, and it proved helpful.
The lake narrowed into a stream, the stream opened onto Tagish Lake, a spangle of inlets down which winds rushed treacherously. There were said to be more drownings off one of these inlets—Big Windy Arm—than at Whitehorse Rapids. The Hegg party made it through without incident.
A slow, shallow stream about six miles long led to boglike Lake Marsh, so shallow that it was the last to break in the thaw, and here Hegg took a series of eerie pictures of boats maneuvering through the floes.
Twenty-three miles below Lake Marsh, after a run down swift water, they came to Miles Canyon, second only to Whitehorse in ill repute. The current strengthened and the voyageurs could begin to hear the dull roar of rapids. At one bend a flag of red cloth warned of danger, and a sign painted on a board said “CANNON.” The river constricted to about a hundred feet between sheer walls of black basalt. The water piled up in midstream. The trick was to ride the hogback about halfway through the canyon, then fight off toward the right to avoid an immense whirlpool on the port side, then to regain the center and stay in midstream almost to the foot of the canyon, where it was best to fight one’s way to starboard again to avoid the large rock that speared up dead center in the stream.
There were professional pilots at Miles, but a dour note in one guidebook suggested: “Select a man with references, if possible.” Hegg and his party went through on their own.
The best thing about Whitehorse Rapids, which lay just below, was that only an idiot could blunder into them by mistake. A blaze of pale rock striped the basalt cliff and marked the approach to the canyon. There was always an assortment of boats pulled onto the left bank, while their owners weighed the cost in time and dollars of portaging against the risk of trying to ride out the rapids.
“Go get a good view of the rapids and then decide whether you will portage,” a popular guidebook urged. Those who walked along the trail down the left bank encountered notes of triumph and encouragement tacked to blazes on trees or to broken oars: “Sept 8, 1897. Boat Cora and Meda 20 ft long 8 ft 3 in beam, 26 in. deep, safely shot the White Horse Rapids loded with 4000 pounds.” And, “Gudmond Jensen/G. G. Tripp/Tom/Mike went/threw all right.” But farther on, beyond the fang of the reef, they could see the waves, towering, white-crested, and so close together that any boat overloaded or poorly handled was still nose-down from the first wave when the second one swallowed it. During the first days of the 1898 rush, 150 boats were sunk or smashed. With more firmness than legal authority, Superintendent Samuel Benton Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police imposed rules for the rapids: no women were to try the river; all boats must be inspected; only experienced boatmen could try to go through.
The Hegg party portaged one of its boats along the tramway of wood rails that a young man named Norman Macaulay was building across the five-mile portage. The other they ran through. Below Whitehorse Rapids it was clear sailing until they reached Lake Laberge. This was a long, misleading body of water where the current lured unwary boatsmen to the east shore, which was lined with cliffs and offered no refuge from the lake’s sudden and frequent squalls.
Laberge emptied into the Thirtymile River, a stretch of the Yukon system noted for being swift, crooked, and full of rocks. Past the mouth of the Hootalinqua River they floated, past the Big Salmon and the Little Salmon, to Five Finger Rapids, a beautiful and dangerous barrier. This was only a little more than halfway to the Klondike—316 miles from the head of Lake Bennett, still 244 from Dawson—but beyond Five Finger Rapids there was just Rink Rapids and then the broad, open water of the main stem of the Yukon River.
Though the danger was past, discomfort was not. This was the worst of the mosquito country. Klondikers came to welcome rain as an insect repellent and invented stories about Yukon mosquitoes that carried off eagles as food for their young. But the truth was bad enough. At Stewart City, where there were some amenities, a man could relax in the knowledge that the goal was only eighty miles ahead, but the irritation of the mosquitoes was so great that more parties dissolved in dispute here than anywhere else on the river.
The Hegg party survived intact. At Stewart City they heard that lumber was in great demand at Dawson; an American there had a concession on timber for five miles along the Klondike and was subletting the right to cut wood at five dollars a cord. They stayed long enough for Anderson to make up two rafts of logs, which they towed the rest of the way north.
It was July, 1898, when, above a cluster of islands, they caught a glimpse of a few tents high up on a hillside, and beyond them the huge gray slide of rock and gravel called the Moosehide. They rode the swift, yellow-gray flood around a great bend, then fought their way over to the right bank and up into the dark waters of the Klondike.
So this was Dawson, the golden city; or, as others put it, a rectangle in a bog.
Only two years earlier this land at the juncture of the Yukon and the Klondike had been a moose pasture, true wilderness, back of beyond. Some twenty miles away stood the Dome, the highest mountain in the area, 4,250 feet above sea level, 3,050 feet above the confluence of the rivers.
In August of 1896 an American squaw man had stood on the heights and studied the watershed. “Below and far in the distance,” George Washington Carmack wrote later, “I saw the low hills rolling and undulating in great windrows of living colors; the tops of the bald hills seemed to be painted in bands and stripes of green, yellow and red, showing that they were highly mineralized. Far back in the blue distance, close to the sky, towered the huge battlements of the Rockies, as though acting as bulwark for the protection of their offspring.”
Carmack was a strange one, more moose hunter than prospector, more interested in salmon than in gold. Perhaps he had read a lesson in his father’s life: the elder Carmack had joined the rush to California in ’49 but died broke. His son had come north in 1885 to prospect but took to the Indian life and spent more time fishing than panning.
He had built a cabin near Five Finger Rapids, where he lived with his Indian wife and read the Scientific American and wrote occasional poetry. Such was his makeup that when, a few days before climbing the Dome, he dreamed of a salmon with goldpieces for eyes and nuggets for teeth, he took it as a sign that he should go fishing.
But Carmack’s lack of interest in gold was not total. He had come to the Klondike on a tip from Robert Henderson, a spare, dour Canadian who told of finding strong evidence of gold on a creek that drained off the Dome. After climbing down from the Dome, Carmack and two Indian companions paused to rest near the point where a stream known as Rabbit Creek ran into the Klondike. Looking down at the stream, Carmack saw a long, narrow strip of bedrock just under the water.
“I reached down and picked up a nugget about the size of a dime,” he recalled later. “I put it between my teeth and bit at it like a newsboy who had found a quarter in the street. Looking up at my two companions, I held up the nugget between thumb and forefinger and shouted ‘Hi yu, goldl Bring down the pan and shovel. Hi Yak.”
“I took the shovel and dug up some of the loose bedrock. In turning over some of the flat pieces I could see the raw gold laying thick between the flaky slabs like cheese sandwiches. Putting some of the broken bedrock into the pan I washed it down and got about a quarter of an ounce, mostly coarse gold.…
“We did a war dance around that pan... a combination war dance, composed of a Scotch hornpipe, Indian fox trot, syncopated Irish jig and a sort of Siwash hula-hula. Then we sat down to rest and smoke.”
The Indians claimed later that they had made the first discovery and that they had had to wake Carmack to tell him about it. No matter. This was the richest gold strike ever made. It was to change the history of Alaska, western Canada, and the Pacific Northwest.
Carmack says he renamed Rabbit Creek “Bonanza” then and there (others take the credit for this, too); measured out two claims for himself, the second being allowed by right of discovery, and a claim for each of his two Indian companions; then he started down the Yukon to Fortymile to record his claim at the police post. Somehow he neglected to tell Bob Henderson, who was camped not far away, that his tip had been a good one.
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.
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.