The Golden Stairs History of the Klondike Gold Rush

Gold! That one word sent shock waves across North America and stirred men to find a fortune – and lose their lives – over four extraordinary years. Prospectors knew the frozen Northwest of Canada had potential. But when men began to send millions in found gold back to U.S. cities, a fever gripped the country. Newspaper headlines fanned the flames as over 100,000 people set out. Just 4,000 struck gold. The final tally: over seven billion in gold at a price of blood, sweat and death.

Chapter 1 The First Glimmer

Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory of Canada was ground zero for the Klondike Gold Rush. Huge deposits of gold were discovered August 16, 1896 and credited to George Carmack, his wife Kate and brother Skookum Jim. The news traveled fast. Soon the entire territory was crawling with miners in search of the next hidden treasure.

The Han People

One group knew where a lot of the gold was and held it in much less value: the native Han People. If miners had communicated with the Han, instead of dismissing them as odd and ignorant, they could have been guided to their fortunes instead of searching in many of the wrong spots.

The Fever Begins

By July of ’87, boats loaded with lucky miners and millions in gold from the Klondike landed at ports in San Francisco and Seattle. Newspapers like the Seattle Post Intelligencer and others blew up the stories with headlines screaming of gold and fortunes just waiting to be made. An industry sprang up selling maps and equipment for mining the Klondike. Gold fever had struck.

The timing was just right – a country with high unemployment, men who couldn’t stand being closed in and working dead-end jobs, just itching for adventure and wealth, plus an economy based on gold combined to ignite a stampede of would-be miners from every walk of life. The fact many of them had no idea what they were doing seemed not to matter.

Watch video about what drove people to risk everything on a long journey to the Klondike.

Charlotte Gray Author, “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike”

Critical Supplies

To have any chance at finding gold and not dying, would-be miners needed to haul a year’s worth of supplies, nearly one and half tons, with them into the rugged terrain of the Klondike. A typical collection could include 800 lbs. of flour, 50 lbs. of dried fruit, bacon, sugar, beans, coffee, tobacco, soap, 30 lbs. of nails, snow goggles, shovels, knives, tin plates and pots, heavy underwear, wool socks, coats, shirts, tents, sleeping bags, fishing lines, a compass, a stove, gold pans, a gold scale, multiple saws, axes, shovels, picks, 150 lbs. of rope and much more. Today’s equivalent of $40,000 worth of stuff, mostly moved by sledge, boat and human hands.

Chapter 2 The Road To Riches

Getting to and through the Klondike, a region of the Yukon in Northwest Canada, east of Alaska, took everything you had. The area is extremely mountainous with high peaks and few to no paths between them. Winding rivers snake through the region, many so turbulent they are impassable.

The weather doesn’t help. Very hot, short summers combine with long, ferocious winters where temperatures drop to a mind-numbing 60 below zero or worse.

Despite the savage terrain, there were different routes to get to the gold in the Klondike. A journey many chose took them down the Yukon River. The river stretches 2,000 miles with some parts in black swamps swarming with mosquitoes, others frozen and icy. Along the way, the White Horse Rapids claimed dozens of lives.

Another path became known as Dead Horse Gulch. While miners could use pack animals here, the route was so treacherous it killed 3,000 horses and mules, the remains left there to rot and block the path.

The Golden Stairs

Then there was the infamous Chilkoot Pass. The fastest and least expensive way to get the men and their supplies over the mountains, it was also the most intense. The pass rose over 30 miles straight up and down with avalanches raining down regularly and killing hundreds. Too steep for animals, miners hauled their gear by hand in multiple trips over the pass while enduring rain, sleet, and snow bright enough to burn and blind them. In the winter, steps wide enough for men to travel only single file were carved in the ice and became known as the Golden Stairs.

See more about how the Chilkoot Pass discouraged and destroyed many who tried to cross it.

Charlotte Gray Author, “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike”

Chapter 3 Digging Deep

Gold in the water

Those miners with the guts and good luck to make it through the trip down the rampaging rivers and over murderous mountains could find themselves by creeks in the Klondike ready for prospecting. One way to find gold was panning.

Gold is 19 times heavier than water so each dip could mean a shimmer of gold flakes at the bottom of the pan. Backbreaking work, greenhorns found they had to do triple the work of grizzled vets.

Gold underground

If you wanted to get serious, you needed to dig for gold. The ground was so frozen even dynamite wouldn’t make holes so men burned fires day and night to soften the ground for digging. A test dig would tell if the hole held any gold or nothing but dirt. If nothing glimmered, it was time to burn and dig again. If gold appeared, miners would dig underground and in different directions looking for the vein and more and more of the shiny stuff.

Miners underground shoveled day and night, risking tunnel collapse and asphyxiation from smoke and methane that would build up as they dug. Men fell into open holes hurting and killing themselves. The men above the hole hauled out the dirt, getting frostbite, malnourished, wrecking their backs and suffering from everything from pneumonia to scurvy. But up came the gold. Big nuggets. Small flakes. And with it came a lot of newly rich men.

Chapter 4 Dawson City

The Boomtown

As more gold was pulled from the ground in the Klondike, more prospectors came looking to stay for the long haul. Soon small towns called Boomtowns began sprouting up around the region offering lodging, supplies and, at least, a hint of civilization. And no boomtown was bigger or richer than Dawson City. What started out as a 178-acre plot of land at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers with just 500 people soon exploded over two years into a thriving, sprawling, open 24 hours a day legendary hotspot. The town was constantly flooded with people looking for everything from the next golden opportunity to the next boat out of there.

Watch how Dawson was filled with piles of gold, flowing whiskey and desperate miners.

Charlotte Gray Author, “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike”

Dripping Gold

Tales of the amount of gold that passed through the Klondike area and Dawson City have become epic. Witnesses say they saw prospectors pulling the equivalent in today’s money of $500,000 out of the ground in a day and over $20 million in the span of weeks. Prospectors filled their cabins, shacks and lean-tos with hundreds of glass jars filled to the brim with gold. Once high-rolling prospectors rolled into Dawson City, it wasn’t uncommon for a man who’d struck it rich to drop $5,000 - $10,000 a night in saloons and music halls, showing off his wealth and buying rounds for everyone.

For those who could afford it, there were hotels with (fairly) clean beds and places to talk business. In town, guests stayed at The Fairview Hotel with room for over 25 visitors. Sixteen miles outside Dawson, close to busy mines and thirsty miners sat the three-story Grand Forks Hotel. Its bunks soon filled with exhausted men and its iron safe filled with their gold nuggets.

Meanwhile Dawson had few of the services most “proper” towns offered. There was no running water or sewage. Fire was a constant threat. One blaze in 1899 did over 800 million dollars worth of damage (in today’s value) to over 100 of the town’s grandest structures.

The main street of Dawson, Front Street, could become so muddy that boatmen would charge townspeople money to paddle or pole them down the street.

Brothels had little trouble finding lonely miners while dance hall girls showed off gowns imported from Paris.

Find out about how women in Dawson used brains and beauty to make their own money.

Charlotte Gray Author, “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike”

Everything from land to common necessities cost money and lots of it. A plot of land sold for $10,000 – the equivalent of $8 million dollars today. Prime locations on Front St., the heart of Dawson City, sold for $20,000 or $16 million dollars today. Salt sold for $28 and a pound of butter went for $5 – the equivalent of $760 and $140 in today’s value respectively. Fortunately for some a shortage of labor meant workers earned five times what the average worker made in the U.S. so even non-miners left the Klondike richer than when they came.

The fever that started at Bonanza Creek and spread to the U.S. ports of Seattle, San Francisco and beyond turned the Klondike into the most prosperous, dangerous and wildest territory in the West. There was a lot of pain and no guarantees if you were determined to head out and strike it rich. But in a place where even sweeping up the dirt in a saloon could net you a handful of gold dust in the process, the pull to try your luck and see what you were made of was too irresistible for many.

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