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There’s more than one way to cash in on a gold strike – mining it from the hard frozen ground is one way. Mining the miners is another.
Just days after George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie made the big strike on Rabbit Creek, Joseph Ladue – knowing a rush was on – staked out lots on a bit of swampy ground close by the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers.
Only a few people inhabited the territory in those days, most of them wandering the creeks and tributary rivers of the Yukon, looking for something more than ten cents worth of gold in a pan. When the big discovery happened, the news floated up and down the Yukon – carried on the wind like fireweed seeds.
In those days, rivers made the best roads. In summer people traveled by canoe, raft or stern wheeler; in winter via dog sled. River junctions were logical places to camp, meet up with other inhabitants and trade news and gossip about gold prospects up and down the river. Occasionally, these meet-ups grew into settlements.
The junction of the Fortymile River and the Yukon, about 50 miles downstream from where the Klondike and Yukon rivers meet, was one such place. Not surprisingly, the settlement came to be known as Fortymile and at the time of Carmack’s find, nearly 600 people called the town home.
After staking his lots, Ladue headed down river to Fortymile, the only settlement in the Yukon where he could register his new township. At the time of the Big Discovery, he operated a sawmill located about 60 miles upstream from the mouth of the Klondike. Halfway to Fortymile it dawned on him that a great need for lumber was about to blossom, along with the need for a town.
Sending someone else to pursue his application in Fortymile, he spun around and headed back upstream to retrieve his mill and all the finished lumber he had in store. In a very short time after floating everything downstream to his new town site, Ladue had built a warehouse and opened a saloon. Mining the miners had begun.
This was the beginning of the town of Dawson City, Yukon Territory. And at its peak, lots on the main street would sell for $5,000 per front foot. In 1898, about 30,000 hopeful prospectors would descend on the riverside hamlet – but by then most of the gold had been pulled out. Of the newcomers, many would sell their outfit (one ton of food, plus implements and tools required for a year’s life in the Klondike) at a discount to pay for passage on the next boat out.
Only a few would file claims, and of those just one or two would find any gold. Most never bothered to look, but hunkered down, ate their ton of food and waited for spring so they could leave.
The Yukon is a unique place. During the long winters, you are either in… or out. Mail required a year to transit in and out. The Yukon River – the main highway – runs about 1,200 miles from Dawson city to the Yukon Delta. Paddle wheelers were lucky to log one trip up and back in a season. Many got caught in the river’s fall freeze-up, and spent a cold 8 months locked in the ice, passengers and all. Until spring, options for travel were limited.
So being “in was most likely a year-long endeavor as once the river froze there was no practical way out. Fifty below temperatures kept everyone who was “in” hunkered next to a red hot sheet-iron stove. Once the last stern wheeler headed out, folks were sentenced to one winter in the Klondike with absolutely no contact with the outside world. Thus, 30,000 people spent the winter in Dawson city, in a region where the largest settlement heretofore housed about 600 folks. Imagine the chaos.
Dawson city has waxed and waned over the years since 1898. Fires and mass desertions for new gold fields have reshaped the town so that little of the original chaos remains. Yet somehow, Dawson City manages to maintain an allure that has kept it alive. Today’s visitor – who can make the trip “in” on paved roads — will find a small town with streets of white quartz sand and a few remnants of the glory days tucked away here and there.
More than a century ago, miners carried tons of food, supplies and equipment over the Chilkoot Pass and then floated it 560 miles down the Yukon to the Klondike. After the spring break up, steam boats hauled supplies up and down the Yukon — at great expense. Once someone decided to leave, the cheapest way out was to abandon everything; buildings, furniture, toiletries, shovels, pans, extraneous clothes, sheet iron stoves —— everything!
Consequently, today the area is rich in artifacts, even though many of the original buildings have long since turned to ash. The Dawson City Museum has an excellent showing of life and times in 1898.
The gold fields in the Klondike continue to produce, and the area is busy with excavators and trommels sifting through piles of gravel left over from dredging operations. Prospectors continue to seek new finds on various creeks and tributaries in the region.
And speaking of mining the miners, the process has taken on a new twist lately as Holland America busses carry tourists up from Skagway and other ports on the coast for a few day’s visit. Yes, brightly painted buildings and facades line a couple of blocks on Fifth Street and remind one of the plastic mess in Skagway. Fortunately, inaccessibility has kept things in check, and by stepping over one block, one can still feel the allure that pulled Joe Ladue from his sawmill all those years ago.