Ezra Manning Meeker (1830–1928) was a pioneer who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852 with his wife, their young son, and his brother, a journey which took them nearly six months. In his late 70s, after making and losing a fortune, he repeatedly re-traveled the route, meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt and working to memorialize the Trail he’d travelled as a young man.
Once known as the “Hop King of the World” for growing the hops used in making beer, Meeker was the first mayor of the town of Puyallup, Washington, in the Puget Sound region. By 1887, his business had made him wealthy, but in 1891 an infestation of hop aphids destroyed his crops and thereby much of his fortune.
In 1896, gold was discovered both in Alaska and in Canada, and the Meeker family, seeing the finds as a possible road to financial recovery, turned their attentions north. After a few less than successful ventures, Meeker was certain there was a way to make money from the gold rush. He and his wife spent much of the winter of 1897–1898 drying vegetables, and Ezra Meeker departed for Skagway, Alaska, on March 20, 1898 with 30,000 pounds of dried produce, His son Fred Meeker and his wife Clara were already across the border in what would soon be designated as the Yukon Territory
Meeker, far right, stands before his first grocery store, Dawson City, November 19, 1898.
The 67-year-old Meeker, with one business associate, climbed the steep Chilkoot Pass, floated down the Yukon River to Dawson City, and once the ice broke up in late May, and sold his vegetables in two weeks. He returned to Puyallup in July, only to set out again with more supplies the following month. This time, he and his son-in-law, Roderick McDonald, opened a store, the Log Cabin Grocery, in Dawson City, and remained through the winter.
Meeker returned to the Yukon twice more, in 1899 and 1900. Most of the money earned through groceries was invested in gold mining and lost. Ezra’s son Fred died of pneumonia in Dawson City on January 30, 1901, and a few weeks later, in April, 1901, Ezra departed the Klondike for the last time.
In his autobiographical book, The Busy Life of Eighty-Five Years of Ezra Meeker, he wrote about his northland adventures:
THE KLONDIKE VENTURE.
I had lived in the old Oregon country forty-four years and had never seen a mine. Mining had no attraction for me, any more than corner lots in new, embryo cities. I did not understand the value of either, and left both severely alone. But when my accumulations had all been swallowed up, the land I had previously owned gone into other hands, and, in fact, my occupation gone, I concluded to take a chance in a mining country; matters could not well be much worse, and probably could be made better, and so in the spring of 1898 I made my first trip over the Chilcoot Pass, and then down the Yukon River to Dawson in a flatboat, and ran the famous White Horse Rapids with my load of vegetables for the Klondike miners.
One may read of the Chilcoot Pass the most graphic descriptions written, and yet when he is up against the experience of crossing, he will find the difficulties more formidable than his wildest fancy or expectation had pictured. I started in with fifteen tons of freight, and got through with nine. On one stretch of 2,000 feet I paid forty dollars a ton freight, and I knew of others paying more. The trip for a part of the way reminded me of the scenes on the Plains in 1852—such crowds that they jostled each other on the several parallel trails where there was room for more than one track. At the pass, most of the travel came upon one track, and so steep that the ascent could only be made by cutting steps in the ice and snow—1,500 in all.
Frequently every step would be full, while crowds jostled each other at the foot of the ascent to get into the single file, each man carrying from one hundred (it was said) to two hundred pounds pack on his back. Nevertheless, after all sorts of experiences, I arrived in Dawson, with nine tons of my outfit, sold my fresh potatoes at $36.00 a bushel and other things in like proportionate prices and in two weeks started up the river, homeward bound, with two hundred ounces of Klondike gold in my belt. But four round trips in two years satisfied me that I did not want any more of like experience.
As I have said, the trips to the Klondike became real adventures. Fortunately detained for a couple of days, I escaped the avalanche that buried fifty-two people in the snow, and passed by the morgue the second day after the catastrophe on my way to the summit, and doubtless over the bodies of many unknown dead, imbedded so deeply in the snow that it was utterly impossible to recover them.
I received a good ducking in my first passage through the White Horse Rapids, and vowed I would not go through there again, but I did, the very next trip that same year, and came out of it dry; then when going down the thirty-mile river, it did seem as though we could not escape being dashed upon the rocks, but somehow or another got through safely while the bank of that river was strewed with wrecks, and the waters had swallowed up many victims. When the Yukon proper was reached, the current was not so swift but the shoals were numerous, and more than once we were “hung up” on the bar, and always with an uncertainty as to how we would get off. In all of this experience of the two trips by the scows no damage resulted, except once when a hole was jammed into the scow, and we thought we were “goners” certain, but effected a landing so quickly as to unload our cargo dry. I now blame myself for taking such risks, but curiously enough I must admit that I enjoyed it, sustained, no doubt, with the high hopes of coming out with “my pile.” But fate or something else was against me, for the after mining experience swept all the accumulation away “slick as a mitten,” as the old saying goes, and I came out over the rotten ice of the Yukon in April of 1901 to stay, and to vow I never wanted to see another mine, or visit another mining country.
First Oregon Trail marker erected by Ezra Meeker, in Tenino, Washington
Small wonder, you may say, when I write, that in two weeks’ time after arriving home I was able to, and did celebrate our golden wedding with the wife of fifty years and enjoyed the joys of a welcome home even if I did not have my pockets filled with gold. I had then passed the seventy-year mark, and thought my “pet project,” as some people call it, of marking the old Oregon Trail, was hung up indefinitely, but the sequel is shown in what followed and is the answer to my foreboding. I am now at this writing past the eighty-fifth year mark, and cannot see but I am as strong as when I floated down the Yukon in a flatboat, or packed my goods over the Chilcoot Pass, or drove my ox team over the summit of the Rocky Mountains on my recent trip to mark the historic Oregon Trail.
• Read more about Ezra Meeker’s life
• My Busy Life of Eighty Five Years at Gutenberg.org
• Meeker Mansion, Puyallup, Washington