I love any reason to celebrate. Seriously, you come up with an occasion and I’ll be there with my fork poised to dig into some cake! Since August isn’t a big month for holidays, I’ve been going through cake withdrawal. Until now! I did a little research and learned that August marks a very special kind of Golden Anniversary. I’m not talking about the celebration of fifty years of marriage. I’m talking about the 119th anniversary of the date gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek, thereby starting the Klondike Gold Rush. If that doesn’t call for a cake, I don’t know what does!
The World’s Most Lucrative Rabbit Trail
On August 16, 1896, George Carmack, an American prospector, was traveling south of the Klondike River with his Tagish wife Kate, Kate’s brother, “Skookum Jim” Mason, and their nephew, Dawson Charlie. When fellow prospector, Robert Henderson, suggested they begin looking for gold on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike, they all were up for the adventure. It proved to be a very lucrative rabbit trail when one member of the group discovered gold. I don’t know who made the discovery, but George Carmack, as the only non-Indian, got the credit since there was a chance that mining authorities would refuse a claim made by an Indian.
Carmack and company measured off four claims and registered them on August 17. Word spread and by the end of the month, every last claim on Bonanza Creek had been staked. One gold thirsty prospector ventured off the beaten path and found gold in another creek that branched off of Bonanza Creek. By this point, two things were obvious: 1) There was gold for the taking, and 2) there were plenty of takers!
The gold seekers in Canada and nearby Alaska were the first to stake their claims. Those gold hungry first responders worked all through the winter, arriving via dog sled, if necessary. But it took until the summer of 1897 for news to spread to California and other parts of the West. When prospectors from the Yukon arrived in San Francisco and Seattle with gold in tow, that set off a stampede of people headed in the opposite direction.
An estimated 100,000 people set out to make their fortunes. Not everyone arrived at their destination, of course, but they did leave home with visions of gold in them thar hills. About 40,000 men are said to have finally arrived at their destination. Which brings to question, “What in the Sam Hill happened to the other 60,000 people?” Most people probably never made it because Canadian Mounties required each person to bring an entire year’s worth of food and supplies with them. I can barely squeeze one month’s Costco purchases into my car. The thought of lugging a year’s worth of provisions all the way to the Yukon blows my modern mind. But I’m picturing them traveling by ship and overland toting gigantic packages of toilet paper, bags of organic spinach, and a couple of rotisserie chickens.
Whatever they brought with them and however they got there, most of the men who arrived faced the same thing: Disappointment. By the time the stampede rushed into the boomtown of Dawson City, the best claims had already been snagged. There was nothing for the men to do but dry their eyes on some of that toilet paper they brought in with them, eat some of their rotisserie chicken, and then turn around and go home!
Math Word Problems
Question: 100,000 men attempted to go to the Yukon to get rich. Of those, only 40,000 men arrived. Of those 40,000 men who arrived, only half were able to stake claims. Of the half who staked claims, only 4,000 men found any gold. Of the 4,000 men who found gold, a few hundred struck it rich. What were the odds of striking it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush if you were not already there before 1898?
Answer: Bad. The odds were very bad.
Keep in mind that I’m no math whiz. But I’m pretty sure that’s the right answer.
All joking aside, the trip to the Yukon was a treacherous journey. It killed both man and beast. One of the saddest chapters of the Klondike Gold Rush is that of Dead Horse Gulch. Prospectors anxious to reach their destination overloaded and overworked their animals. Between the malnutrition, the beatings, and the rocky terrain, more than 3,000 animals died on the White Pass Trail. The bones of many still lay at the bottom of the gulch.
For the men, perhaps the most difficult stretch of the journey was the rugged Chilkoot Trail, which is a thirty-three mile trail through the Coast Mountain, with the last half mile extending almost straight up. An industrious group of entrepreneurs painstakingly worked to make the final half mile of the rugged Chilkoot Trail passable during the harsh Canadian winters. 1500 steps were carved into the ice, allowing the men to walk single file to the top of the trail. The miners who made it had to carry their thousands of pounds of gear, making trip after trip up this “golden staircase.” Meanwhile, the men who carved the stairs collected a toll from the travelers.
You didn’t have to travel to Canada in order to cash in on the Klondike Gold Rush. Shrewd businessmen on the west coast made a fortune selling just about anything with the word “Klondike” on it. There were Klondike mining schools, Klondike electric gold pans, Klondike medicine chests, Klondike bicycles, and entire Klondike outfits could be purchased. You could even by a portable Klondike house to take with you.
In fact, people all along the way were making money on the would-be gold hunters. In Canada, roadhouses popped up. It was like the original Airbnb. If you had a tent, you could pitch it, and rent it out to a weary traveler for the night. Structures sprung up overnight, promising miners protection for the elements and a hot meal.
They Worked Hard For the Money
Whether they struck it rich or not the Klondike prospectors worked hard for their money. We’re not talking about some mamby-pamby panning for gold (although some panning did take place). For the most part, men were mining deep underground. The frozen ground was so hard that a dynamite blast wasn’t strong enough to make much more than a dent. Fires burned around the clock in order to soften the ground for digging. If a test dig revealed gold, miners kept digging in search of the vein. If not, they began the entire process again at a different location. Deep under the frozen ground, miners shoveled day and night. The risk of a collapse or asphyxiation was very real, and the men above ground risked frostbite.
They did it all for a chance at wealth, though most did well to recoup the cost of their passage and supplies. It is said that some of those who struck it rich were collecting the equivalent of more than $20 million worth of gold in today’s money, in just a few weeks’ time.
In honor of the men of the Klondike, I would like to say, Happy Golden Anniversary, fellas. Now, for crying out loud, won’t somebody please cut the cake? I’m pretty sure it’s carrot, er, karat cake!
Here is an interesting video, with wonderful documentary photos of the Klondike Gold Rush!