The Klondike Gold Rush began with a wild war whoop from the throats of three men -- two First Nations Canadians and one white -- that broke the silence of Bonanza Creek on the morning of August 17, 1896: "Gold!" they screamed, "Gold, gold, gold!" That cry rang through the Yukon, crossed to Alaska, and rippled down into the United States. Soon, the whole world echoed with it, and people as far away as China and Australia began selling their household goods and homes to scrape together the fare to a place few of them had ever heard of before.
Some 100,000 men and women from every corner of the globe set out on the Klondike stampede, descending on a territory populated by a few hundred souls. Tens of thousands came by the Chilkoot Pass from Alaska -- the shortest route, but also the toughest. Canadian law required each stampeder to carry a ton -- literally 909kg (2,004 lb.) of provisions up over the 914m (2,999-ft.) summit. Sometimes, it took 30 or more trips up a 45-degree slope to get all the baggage over, and the entire trail -- with only one pack -- takes about 3 1/2 days to hike. Many collapsed on the way, but the rest slogged on -- on to the Klondike and the untold riches to be found there.
For some, the riches were real enough. The Klondike fields proved to be the richest ever found anywhere. Klondike stampeders were netting $300 to $400 in a single pan (and gold was then valued at around C$15 for 28g/1 oz.)! What's more, unlike some gold that lies embedded in veins of hard rock, the Klondike gold came in dust or nugget forms buried in creek beds. This placer gold, as it's called, didn't have to be milled -- it was already in an almost-pure state!
The trouble was that most of the clerks who dropped their pens and butchers who shed their aprons to join the rush came too late. By the time they had completed the backbreaking trip, all the profitable claims along the Klondike creeks had been staked out and were defended by grim men with guns in their fists.
Almost overnight, Dawson boomed into a roaring, bustling, gambling, whoring metropolis of 30,000 people, thousands of them living in tents. And here gathered those who made fortunes from the rush without ever handling a pan: the supply merchants, saloonkeepers, dance-hall girls, and cardsharps. There were also some oddly peripheral characters: a bank teller named Robert Service who listened to the tall tales of prospectors and set them to verse (he never panned gold himself). And a stocky 21-year-old former sailor from San Francisco who adopted a big mongrel dog in Dawson, then went home and wrote a book about his canine companion that sold half a million copies. The book was The Call of the Wild; the sailor, Jack London.
By 1903, more than C$500 million in gold had been shipped south from the Klondike, and the rush petered out. A handful of millionaires bought mansions in Seattle, tens of thousands went home with empty pockets, and thousands more lay dead in unmarked graves along the Yukon River. Within a decade, Dawson became a dreaming backwater haunted by 30,000 ghosts.
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