Tag Archives: gold rush

The Chilkoot Trail

 

From the January-February, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

Packers 1897 LoC 420

Packers on Dyea Trail, 1897. Photo by LaRoche, Seattle, Wash., from the Library of Congress, [www.loc.gov/item/2016653518/].

“The men take up the packs, and this is what happens: They walk to the base of the cliff, with a stout alpenstock in hand. They start to climb a narrow foot-trail that goes up, up, up. The rock and earth are gray. The packers and packs have disappeared. There is nothing but the gray wall of rock and earth. But stop! Look more closely. The eye catches movement. The mountain is alive. See! They are going against the sky! They are human beings, but never did men look so small.” ~Tappan Adney for Harpers Weekly, 1897

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Freight and supplies unloaded near the Long Wharf at Dyea, circa 1898. Photographer Eric A. Hegg. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, [HEG117]

The Dyea Trail, or as it would come to be known, the Chilkoot Pass Trail, began on the broad, flat flood plain delta of the Taiya or Dyea River. The trail ascended gently, following the 17-mile-long river through the mountains. After about 12 miles the trail began to rise sharply, gaining over 1,600 feet in just two and a half miles. Then the steep climb over the pass itself, followed by trails leading down the eastern flanks, where long lakes provided easier travel, whether by canoe or toboggan. The route had been used for travel and trade by the local indigenous groups long before the rest of the world discovered this part of the north.

GOLD GOLD 1897

GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!

On July 14, 1897 the S.S. Excelsior docked in San Francisco and sparked a fevered interest among the veteran California gold miners. Three days later the S.S. Portland arrived at the port of Seattle with its legendary ‘ton of gold,’ and the west coast—indeed the entire nation—went mad for the Klondike diggings. A special edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer desclared in bold headlines “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!” and local outfitting stores began emptying their shelves overnight, as men and women hastily grabbed for whatever supplies they could and caught the next ship north. Where there had been a trickle of hopeful prospectors searching for another El Dorado, there was now unleashed a flood tide of humanity in all its incarnations. Over the next few years an estimated 100,000 stampeders would join the rush to the north, and the bulk of them were headed for Dyea. 

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Art by Eustace Paul Ziegler

There were other routes, to be sure, such as the White Pass Trail out of nearby Skagway, of which Samuel E. Moffett wrote in 1903, “By the White Pass route you did not have the precipitous ascent of the Chilkoot, but you had to go twice as far, and you struggled through bogs in which you were likely to leave your horse and, perhaps, your entire outfit as well. The whole trail was blazed by the carcasses of dead horses.” That passage would come to be known as The Dead Horse Trail, but when the White Pass and Yukon Railway was completed in August, 1900, it quickly became the route of choice. 

Chilkoot Pass PC

Postcard, Library of Congress

Within a few years, as the rush to the Klondike assumed major proportions, the steps cut into the snow and ice of Chilkoot Pass would become known as the “Golden Stairs,” and men would proceed up in lockstep fashion, a image which might be utterly unbelievable if not for the photographs proving it so. Four miles below the summit, Sheep Camp would become a haphazard tent town of more than a thousand souls, with fifteen hotels, innumerable eating places, and even a hospital to tend those wounded on the trail. 

Far below, at tidewater, the boomtown of Dyea grew up around the Healy & Wilson trading post in the fall of 1897, as word of the Klondike gold strike brought increasing numbers of people north. The National Park Service website describes the growth of Dyea: “As late as September 1897, Dyea was still nothing more than the Wilson & Healy trading post, a few saloons, the Tlingit encampment, and a motley assemblage of tents. In October, speculators mapped out a townsite, but Dyea’s biggest growth did not begin until the Yukon River system began to freeze up and the winter storms slowed traffic on the Chilkoot Trail. Without the ability to dash up the trails, people began spending more time in Dyea and it became more town-like.”

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Deteriorating pilings are all that remain of the Long Wharf at Dyea. Photographed in 1986  by Jet Lowe for the Historic American Engineering Record (Library of Congress HAER AK-38)

A long wharf, almost two miles in length, was begun in 1897, shortly after the platting of the townsite, by promoter L. D. Kinney. The wharf was 50 feet wide, 4,000 feet long, and extended from low tide to deep water, being 34 feet deep at the shore end and 60 feet deep at the outer end, with pilings driven 25 to 50 feet into solid ground. Completed in May 1898, the great wharf extended almost two miles across the mud flats and into deep water, and connected to Broadway which led directly into town.

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From an 1897 book

During the winter of 1897-1898, Dyea grew until the downtown area was about five blocks wide and eight blocks long. At the height of its prosperity the town boasted over 150 businesses, mostly restaurants, hotels, supply houses, and saloons. There were also doctors, a dentist, attorneys, bankers, photographers, realtors, two newspapers, two telephone companies, a volunteer fire department, two hospitals and three undertakers, who were pressed into service when a devastating avalanche roared across the trail on Palm Sunday, April 3, 1898, killing over 70 people. 

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NPS map, click to enlarge

The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park was created in 1976, a four unit park comprised of the Dyea and Chilkoot, Skagway, and White Pass units in Alaska; and the Seattle unit in Washington state, memorializing the historical period during the Gold Rush. The site of the town of Dyea and the route of the Chilkoot Trail were designated as National Historic Landmarks in 1978, officially recognized by the United States government for their national historical significance.

RESOURCES

The Chilkoot Trail: Cultural Landscape Report for the Chilkoot Trail Historic Corridor, Nat. Park Service PDF, 2011.     

Klondike. The Chicago Record’s Book for Gold Seekers, 1897.

Klondyke facts, by Joseph Ladue, 1897. Library of Congress:

ExploreNorth, A comprehesive online guide      

Klondike Gold Rush National Park

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Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898. From “The Klondike, a souvenir”, Rufus Bucks Publisher, Seattle, 1900.

Ezra Meeker in Alaska

oie_2592726OeC5rLmpEzra 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.

oie_259246VQV1PkkbIn 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

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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.

Chilkoot pass

Chilkoot Pass

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.

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Whitehorse Rapids

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.

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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

Deering Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl's Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl’s Deering Roadhouse

The handwritten caption on the front of this photo by early Alaskan photographer Frank H. Nowell, showing three women, five men and three dogs, reads, “Anna Ruhl’s Road House – Deering, Alaska, September 25th 03.” There are two signs on the gable end of the building (to the viewer’s right): one reads ‘Restaurant,’ the other says ‘Bunk Room.’

The village of Deering, located on a sandy spit on the Seward Peninsula where the Inmachuk River flows into Kotzebue Sound, 57 miles southwest of Kotzebue, was established in 1901 as a supply station for interior gold mining near the historic Malemiut Eskimo village of Inmachukmiut. According to Donald J. Orth‘s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, a post office was located here in 1901 and the name came from the schooner Abbie M. Deering, which was present in the area around 1900.

Illustration from Capt. Winchester's book.

Capt. Winchester’s sketch of the Schooner Abbie M. Deering from his book: “Leaving Lynn, Nov. 10, 1897”

A first-hand account, written by Captain James D. Winchester and published in 1900, relates the story of the wooden schooner Abbie M. Deering, built in 1883, which was bought by a company of twenty men who wanted to sail to the Alaskan gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush. They left Massachusetts in November 1897, with Winchester, a merchant marine and the only seafaring man among them, at the helm. Capt. Winchester taught his crew to sail en route, and they sailed around the tip of South America, passed through the Straits of Magellan, and arrived at San Francisco five months later. They sold the ship, which was nicknamed ‘Diver,’ according to Capt. Winchester, “for the vigorous way in which she dove into a sea, giving many of us a good wetting in spite of every precaution.”

Records kept by the U.S. Department of the Interior show the schooner did eventually make it to Alaska, and some reports say the community of Deering was settled by its crew. There are apparently no records of Anna Ruhl’s roadhouse at Deering, and an extensive search turned up only the photograph above.

On August 26th, 1903, the town’s namesake, the Abbie M. Deering, departed Nome with a cargo of thirty tons of cigar case and mats, bound for Seattle and way ports. On September 4th, the schooner met heavy currents and an early morning fog, and drifted onto a reef on a small island on the northwest side of Akutan Pass, in the Aleutian Islands. The crew worked for thirty-eight hours trying to pull the vessel off of the reef. The schooner’s master assisted the crew of the U S Revenue Cutter Manning, upon their arrival, in the removal of the thirty one passengers and eight crewmen. The mate was left in charge of the wreck, and all the passengers and crew, except a few who remained in Dutch Harbor, went on to Seattle. The ship and its cargo was reported a total loss. Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous mentions the Abbie M. Deering by name.

 

 

 

This article is an excerpt from the book by Helen Hegener, Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, published in 2015 by Northern Light Media.

 

July-August Issue

Jul-Aug coverAlaskan History Magazine’s second issue ranges widely through Alaska’s past to bring an assortment of topics for readers to enjoy! In the opening photo feature the focus is on the missionaries who blazed trails across territorial Alaska, sharing their various versions and interpretations of God’s Word and building hospitals, schools, and churches which would change Alaska forever. Many missionaries, such as Hudson Stuck, wrote extenisvely about their northland adventures, leaving first-hand accounts and invaluable records of the times.

The cover touches on the main feature for this issue: the aviation pioneers who braved Alaskan skies with sketchy flying machines and even sketchier maps of the land below. Flinging themselves aloft with fragile contraptions of fabric and wood, they too changed Alaska forever. 

Ak Steamship Co 2 420Other articles in this issue explore Alaska’s first newspaper, the Alaska Steamship Company, a 1916 horseback trip across the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska’s first commercially successful novelist, and an exciting childhood in the gold rush town of Nome. 

The back section of each issue begins with a photo collection highlighting one aspect of Alaska’s history, and for tihis issue we’ve chosen the ubiquitous plain white canvas tent which gave shelter to countless explorers, pioneers and homesteaders. Here are tent stores, banks, schools, hospitals… One might say the history of Alaska was written on white canvas.  

Wrapping up this issue are brief highlights from half a dozen classic books on Alaska’s history, and a guide to some of the sources and resources used in researching this issue. You won’t want to miss this one!

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