The Gold Rush in Context
The 1898 Klondike Gold Rush was the single biggest event in Alaska history. You'll be hearing a lot about it. Here's some of the context for the barrage of anecdotes you can expect.
Prospectors sought gold in small numbers even before Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, but the Russians' main interest in Alaska was sea otter pelts, and they made few forays beyond the coast, leaving the great mass of the North and Interior unexplored. When the United States took over, Alaska had virtually no non-Native population, and what it had was concentrated in Southeast -- in Sitka, the Russian capital; in a few other Russian settlements; and at the trading post of Wrangell, which miners used as a jumping-off point for gold fields up the Stikine River in British Columbia.
After the American flag went up over Sitka, prospectors slowly worked their way into Alaska's vastness, often led by or in partnership with Natives who knew the country. Called sourdoughs for the live yeast-and-flour mixture they carried to make their bread, these were tough wilderness men living way beyond the law or communication with the outside world. A few of them struck it rich. In 1880, a major find on the Gastineau Channel started the city of Juneau and decades of industrial, hard-rock mining there. Finds followed on the Fortymile River in 1886 (on the Taylor Hwy.), near Circle in 1893 (on the Steese Hwy.), and near Hope on the Kenai Peninsula in 1895 (on the Seward Hwy.). Gold slowly brought more people to Alaska, but not enough to catch the nation's attention.
In 1896, white prospector George Carmack and his Native partners, Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim, found gold on the Klondike River, a tributary to the Yukon in Canada. Word traveled downriver to the gold fields in the Fortymile Country, and within 48 hours that area was empty and claims on the Klondike were being staked. The miners dug gravel from the creek that winter, and when they washed it in the spring, it yielded big hunks of solid gold, a massive discovery. They were instant millionaires in a time when a million dollars meant something.
It's hard to grasp today the impact of the news on the outside world. The U.S. economy was deeply in depression. The dollar was on a gold standard and the scarcity of gold had caused a deflationary vise that in 1893 brought a banking collapse and national unemployment of 18%. Suddenly, in 1897, a steamer arrived in Seattle bearing men from a place called the Klondike with trunks and gunny sacks full of gold. The supply of money suddenly grew and economic confidence returned. The national economy turned around on the news, and some 100,000 people set off for Alaska to get rich, too, plunging off into a trackless wilderness for which most were completely unprepared.
Contemporary Alaska marks the Klondike Gold Rush as the start of its history. Before the gold rush, Alaska largely remained as it had been for thousands of years, ruled and inhabited by its indigenous people. As late as the 1880 census, the territory had fewer than 500 non-Native residents, and only 4,000 by 1890 -- it was virtually empty from the point of view of those who discounted the Alaska Natives. In 1898, the stampede began, bringing an instant population. Even the mayor of Seattle left for Alaska. Within a few years, Alaska had cities, telegraph lines, riverboats, and sled-dog mail routes. Some 40,000 made it all the way to Dawson City. Few of that number struck it rich, but those who built the towns and businesses to serve them did -- there were suddenly saloons and brothels, dress shops, and photo studios. Promoters sold a credulous public newly laid-out towns on supposed routes to the gold fields, including routes that were essentially impassable.
The White Pass above Skagway and the Chilkoot Pass above Dyea carried the most stampeders. Gold seekers arrived in the crazily lawless settlements by steamer from Seattle, got robbed and cheated, and then ferried their goods over the passes to Lake Bennett. (Upon completion of the railroad through the White Pass in 1901, Dyea and the Chilkoot Pass were abandoned, but Skagway lives on.) The Canadian authorities wisely required each stampeder to bring a ton of supplies, a rule that undoubtedly prevented famine but made the single-file journey over the passes a miserable ordeal. Prospectors sometimes had to make dozens of trips up the trail to get their supplies over the pass. At Lake Bennett, the stampeders built boats, crossed the lake, and floated down the Yukon River, through the dangerous Five Finger Rapids, to Dawson City, more than 400 miles from the sea.
Imagine their disappointment when they found, on their arrival, that the gold claims had all been staked and big companies were taking over. Prospectors looking to strike it rich had humbling choices. The smart ones started businesses to make money off the other stampeders, and some of them did quite well. Others worked for wages or went home. But many continued in pursuit of the next find. Their wild chase for gold drew the modern map of Alaska, founding numerous towns. Many of these towns disappeared as soon as the frenzy cooled and now are entirely forgotten or live on only as place names, but some became real cities. Nome came in 1899; Fairbanks in 1902; Kantishna, now within Denali National Park, in 1905; Iditarod in 1908; and many others, until the rush finally ended with the start of World War I in 1914.
Even without a rush, there's still gold to be dug. Ever larger and more sophisticated machinery worked the Klondike claims and washed the gravel until the 1960s, and gold mining remains an important part of that area's economy to this day. Small-time prospectors are still looking all over Alaska and working their claims, and sometimes someone does make a significant new strike. A find still being explored in Alaska's Bristol Bay region is said to contain at least $300 billion in gold and other minerals, making it one of the largest deposits in the world.