Klondike Gold Rush

Photo above: Miners climbing the Chilkoot Trail. Photo Courtesy Library University Washington; first published in 1900, "The Klondike, a souvenir", Rufus Bucks Publisher, Seattle, 1900 Cantwell, George G. Right: Poster from the play, Heart of the Klondike. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Klondike Gold Rush

Klondike Gold Rush

What? There was another gold rush. That might be the first thought that most non gold rush oriented historians might state when thinking about the rush for western gold. And yes, that's predominantly because the San Francisco 49ers name keeps the 1849 California Gold Rush and Sutter's Mill in the forefront due to NFL domination. But, in fact, the 1897 Gold Rush from Seattle to the Klondike of Alaska and Canada caused the same amount of fury and fever, and even has a vibrant National Park devoted to it in two states, which trumps the California rush, which only has a state park in Coloma to commemorate its role in western lore. And there's even a Canadian National Park about this one to boot.

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Klondike Gold Rush

Klondike Gold Rush

It all started on Bonanza Creek on August 16, 1896 when gold was found by George Carmack, Dawson Charlie, and a man named Skookum Jim, and when the news would reach Seattle and San Francisco one year later, the rush was on. One hundred thousand miners would flood the Canadian and American soil from Skagway and Dyea, Alaska to the Yukon River. The first arrived in Skagway on July 29, 1897; within one year that town would be Alaska's largest. They would make boom towns such as Dawson Creek in the Yukon swell from five hundred residents to forty thousand, create towns like Dyea from small trading post to boom then back to bust so fast, your head would swim from the same vertigo many miners felt when climbing the Chilkoot Trail toward the gold fields, and make fortunes of few and disappointment to many. The trip was arduous, a 33 mile walk through steep permafrost terrain from Dyea to Bennett Lake, then a boat trip of five hundred miles. There would be snowslides and less gold than most thought. A railroad was constructed from Skagway to Whitehorse, making the trail itself obsolete. By the time it was completed in 1900, much of the rush would be over. Of the thirty thousand miners who actually made it to the Klondike fields, it's said only four thousand found gold. The fields would be abandoned by 1903, and many had left even before then, back in 1899, when gold was found in Nome. Some who remained would turn to farming land around the boom towns, such as E.A. Klatt, but there was nary a fortune to be found in that.

Just how did they get there once the fever started. There were a variety of passageways from the United States and Canada. Most, however, came to Skagway and onto the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass route. Others came from Edmonton through the Edmonton Backdoor route, from Ashcroft through the Ashcroft Route, the All-American Glacier Route, or a long all-water route that took passengers all the way toward Nome, Alaska, then south down to Dawson City.

Today, most of the history, at least on the American side, focuses on the routes from Skagway or Dyea, and on the history of the towns that boomed, then busted.

Photo above: Mining camp at Bennet Lake, May 1898. Photo courtesy Woodside, H.J., 1858-1929. Library and Archives Canada. Below: Scene of the mountains surrounding Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site. Courtesy National Park Service.

Mountains above Klondike Gold Rush

Klondike Gold Rush Now

There are three park units that focus on the Gold Rush. A small single building Visitor Center in Seattle, which includes the story of how the men began their journey north, prompted by the Gold! Gold! Gold! headline in the newspaper of July 17, 1897. One of the unique features of this small park is a partnership with the Living Voices theatre company, who puts on summer performances of the Klondike, the Last Adventure, a play in the park theatre at 2 p.m. There's limited seating and it's unkown whether this program will be offered other years.

At Skagway, the Visitor Center and over a dozen other restored buildings in the town give a wonderful vision of what life was like in this Klondike Gold Rush decade. There's even the sense of capacity with more than one million visitors coming per year to a town that dips to under one thousand in the winter. If you venture ten miles north to Dyea, you get the real sense of what bust is ... there's almost nothing there to remind you that a gateway to mining city once existed at this trailhead to Chilkoot.

Dyea, Alaska today is an abandoned oasis of forest with few remnants of a vibrant community, now part of a ranger tour from Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site. Dawson City is more vibrant than that, but certainly not boom, containing just over a thousand citizens today.

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Klondike Gold Rush

Klondike Gold Rush

Things You Should Not Miss

1. Check in at the Klondike Gold Rush, Skagway Visitor Center, and find out about the ranger tours for the day. The visitor center is located in the historic railroad depot of the White Pass and Yukon Route. From late May to late September, there's a guided tour of the Skagway historic district, with its seventeen restored historic buildings, including three saloons. Yes, the men of the mines had their diversions. If you are at the park from late June to August, there's a ninety minute guided tour of the Dyea abandoned town site. You can visit that on the tour or your own. There's something oddly cool about being in a place that once was and pretty much isn't any more.

2. Both the visitor centers in Seattle and Skagway have films for you to enjoy; Gold Fever: Race to the Klondike in Skagway and Klondike Gold Rush in Seattle. There's also a daily auditorium program at the Skagway Visitor Center for those that like a sit down experience.

3. For those that are experienced hikers, and we do mean experienced, take a walk on the Chilkoot Trail. The entire length is thirty-three miles. It stretches from Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, British Columbia. During the peak season, you must have a permit to backpack the entire trail. For a day trip, that's not necessary. For others who want to walk the Klondike at a less rigorous pace, there are a variety of trails throughout the park. Ask at the Visitor Center for the trail that might be right for you.

Photo above: Skagway Visitor Center. Courtesy National Park Service.

Visitor FAQ

Klondike Gold Rush