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Imagine stepping out your back door and digging money out of the ground. Imagine sifting through a shovel-full of dirt and gravel and gleaning enough to buy groceries for the week. Imagine you haven’t eaten for a couple of days when you learn that boat carrying a “ton of gold” from the Klondike has just landed on the docks in Seattle.
Every decade has a name and, in an amazing feat of double speak, someone dubbed the decade of 1890 – 1899, the “Gay Nineties.” Gaiety had nothing to do with it. Bank failures and inflation threw the U.S. economy into a Panic. Today we’d call it a depression or deep recession. More double speak.
Starting in 1893, banks failed, unemployment skyrocketed, soup kitchens proliferated and street corners saw mothers trading sex for food. Life was hard. Food scarce. Money worthless. Jobs nonexistent. Farms and railroads failed. Mortgages foreclosed. People worldwide were homeless and hungry.
So, when someone picked a newspaper out of the gutter and read about a ton of gold that had just docked in Seattle, the effect was instantaneous. It flashed out at the speed of light over telegraph wires, reaching the far corners of country and the world. Thousands of people saw salvation in an easy shovel full of nuggets.
In the Gay Nineties, money jingled; tangible in a pocket or purse. Heavy coins filled the cookie jar one or two at a time over years and years. Today we use credit cards, and our money is a line of credit or just a number printed on a 401k statement, a series of electronic ones and zeros stored in a computer somewhere. Hard to touch, feel or spend directly —— an intangible derivative of the real thing: gold.
A high wage earner in that decade would bring home a couple of dollars for a 10-hour work day. Gold’s value remained steady at around $20 per troy ounce. How many 10-hour days in a ton of gold? How many in one shovel full of pay dirt? Go, or die trying.
Worldwide, more than 100,000 people dropped what they were doing and lit out for Seattle. This bonanza was their personal Deus-ex-machina. But shovels full of nuggets would happen for just a few. Most would return home, owing all the money they begged or borrowed from family and friends. Wiser perhaps, but poorer for sure.
Those that risked all for the Klondike believed riches were there for the taking. The reality, however was much different and the gold for the most part lay on top of bedrock deep under layers of frozen Yukon gravel and muck. How do you get down to bedrock in the 1890s?
Assume for a moment that you’ve mucked around some Klondike stream and enough color has appeared in your pan so that you want to stake a claim. That’s the first step. Drive a stake in the ground, write your name and date on the stake and whether your claim runs upstream from the stake or down.
Once registered, your claim gives you mining rights on 500 feet of stream up or down, and stretching from ridgetop to ridgetop on opposite sides of the stream. If you’re the first, then you have the discovery claim and that entitles you to a double claim, or 1000 feet. What’s next?
Just below your feet, the ground under your claim is frozen hard and it stays frozen all year. Bedrock could be tens or hundreds of feet below. All winter, you build fires, melting the frozen earth a few inches at a time, and slowly dig your way down, down, down to bedrock. You work in a cylindrical shaft barely big enough to stand and wield a shovel. You choke on the smoke from the fire. In your spare time, you chop wood to keep the fire burning.
Your partner uses a windlass to pull up buckets you’ve filled with semi-thawed muck. Then he dumps it in a pile. Done? Down to bedrock? Start another shaft then and keep burning, digging and chopping. Worry about scurvy and frostbite when you’re rich.
Now the wait. All winter you toiled, starved and froze and you have no idea if you’ve struck it. You wait for spring when your hard-fought heap of muck – now frozen again – would thaw enough to be shoveled once more into a sluice where the gravel would be washed from your gold.
Thus, a full year of freezing, back-breaking labor could transpire before a miner would know if his claim was any good. So, for those lucky enough to find something in a pan, knowing if they were rich or poor required a year at hard labor. Not a small number died in the effort.
Yes, it was possible to dig money up in your back yard, and a few – like George Carmack, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and others – actually did. Theirs was the gold on the Seattle docks that started the rush of 1898. The great rush of 1898 lifted almost no one out of panic and poverty.
The Panic faded on its own, yet the image of shovels loaded with gold nuggets did not. Almost 120 years after gold was discovered, the Klondike continues to produce gold. Spend a few days in Dawson City and you’ll see and hear the sights and sounds of gold: trucks, dozers, loaders, excavators, trommels, moving, running, sluicing; gleaning that last bit of dust left by those who came before. And always, always hopeful of finding another Bonanza.