GOING FOR GOLD IN ALASKA
On 16 August 1896, 46 year old George Carmack set off with his wife, her brother and a friend to do a spot of salmon fishing at Rabbit Creek on the Klondike River, northwest Canada. Little did he know that he was about to mark history and set in motion a series of events that would change thousands of lives. He found gold.
As George was fishing, he noticed a thumb-sized nugget of gold in the creek bed. The following day he staked the first claim on Rabbit Creek (now renamed Bonanza Creek) along with stakes for both his brother-in-law and friend. In the gold-mining days, one would “stake a claim” by driving stakes into the ground along a 150 metre stretch of the creek. You could only make one such claim, thereby allowing other prospectors the opportunity to also stake claims without anyone having the sole claim.
Less than two weeks after George’s discovery, more gold was found on Eldorado Creek (a tributary to Bonanza Creek). By September of the same year, approximately 50 miners visited, reaping the rewards earning between $5,000 and $100,000 per person.
So began the Klondike Gold Rush. By December, the entire length of the Bonanza Creek had been claimed with 500 claims in place. In July the following year, a group of prospectors brought nuggets and dust worth $1.5 million and the word soon got out.
Some 100,000 people upped and left their homes hoping to make their fortune. Of those, only 30,000 actually made it to the goldfields. A combination of incredibly harsh winter conditions, not enough supplies, disease and treacherous tracks forced many to turn back, if they didn’t perish in their attempt. Miners were faced with the decision whether to take the Chilkoot Pass or the White Pass trails – neither of which were very enticing.
The White Pass was not as steep as the Chilkoot Pass but it was narrow and slippery. Pack animals, laden down with supplies and equipment, often became stuck or fell over cliffs, earning the track the name “The Dead Horse Trail.” Prospectors also had to face a criminal element via this route. Con-man Jefferson “Soapy” Smith and his consorts had taken over the town of Skagway, recruiting 300 men to fleece those coming for the gold rush. Smith erected poles and wires that weren’t actually connected to anything, then charged eager and homesick prospectors to supposedly “wire home.”
The Chilkoot Pass, on the other hand, was steep, icy and snowy. Once miners reached the Chilkoot Pass, the conditions were so steep they had to abandon their animals and carry their gear up and down an icy slope which included 1,500 steps carved in snow and ice, known as the “golden staircase.” Many gave up at this point and turned for home. Those who did make it, found they then had to navigate miles of rapids along the Yukon River. If they didn’t drown doing so, they eventually ended up in Dawson City.
With the arrival of the prospectors, Dawson City swelled in size with the population growing to six times its size in just two years. A welcome oasis, Dawson offered safety, amenities and job opportunities. Unfortunately, the majority of those who had trekked all those miles in the hopes of finding gold, found all the creeks had been claimed already and they had to work for others, rather than for themselves.
By the end of 1898, the gold rush was more or less over. Many of those had lost more than they made and many had turned to other occupations such as selling supplies and running hotels, although when gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska, in 1899 much of the Dawson population jumped on the trail again hoping for fame and fortune once more!
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