National Geographic : 1953 Sep
Along the Yukon Trail 395 On a Route of Tragedy and Treasure, Old-timers and Ghost Towns Recall the Stampeders of '98, "Clean Mad for the Muck Called Gold" BY AMOS BURG With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author HARDLY had the Portlandsteamed into Seattle on that momentous day in July, 1897, before paper boys were hawking the news through the streets. "Gold! Gold! Gold!" they cried. "Sixty eight Klondikers bring back a ton of gold!" It was the biggest strike in history, the papers said, a stream of gold in Canada's Yukon that flowed richer and richer as news of it flashed round the world. At first the nuggets were said to be as big as peas, then eggs, then potatoes. Gold nuggets of all sizes danced before the eyes of millions. Men of all callings, of many virtues and varied vices, fell victim to the lure. The rush was on. Main goal and port of entry was Skag way, 1,115 sea miles north of Seattle at the top of Alaska's Panhandle. So it was natural that I chose Skagway as my own starting point for a recent trip back over one of the main routes of the stampeders (map, p. 400). Like thousands of early prospectors, I had sailed northwest from Seattle through the Inside Passage along the broken Alaskan coastline. From Skagway I planned to go by train and boat 600 miles farther, to the famed Klondike gold fields in the Yukon. As our steamer glided up the Lynn Canal, a natural arm of the sea, to Skagway's port, I tried to imagine what it must have been like 50 years earlier. Not all the thousands who poured in had been hardy outdoorsmen. In Tacoma streetcar conductors got to gether and sent nine men to the Klondike. Clairvoyants in Chicago dispatched a medium to dig where the spirits directed. Within two months after graduation, half of California's fledgling doctors had left for the fields. Women Joined the Mad Rush Women went, too. Greatly outnumbered by men, they were more than welcome in the north. "Any woman, innocent or full of guile," one of the returning miners reported, "can become a bride within 30 minutes after she lands at the creeks." Most miners toted the standard 500 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of bacon, and 100 pounds of beans, plus tools and sundries which brought the typical pack to an even ton. To transport these mountains of supplies, plus the horde of humans and animals, every ves sel on the Pacific coast was pressed into use- every liner and whaler, every yacht, cutter, and ketch; even rusty old craft hauled out of their graves. On arrival at Skagway they simply dumped cargo and sped back for more. Horses, dogs, cows, and pigs were shoved into the water and forced to swim. As I hurried down the gangplank, I felt I was entering the wings of a stage on which one of history's greatest dramas had been enacted. One of the original actors walked ashore with me, an old-timer who had been here in '97 and had come back to visit. "Why, there's a wharf here now!" he exclaimed. After a long pause he added: "It's sure quiet." Broadway Was Knee-deep in Mud The old-timer walked with me along Skag way's Broadway, which resembles in places a Hollywood western set. In gold-rush days, my companion told me, when you walked the streets you sank in mud almost to your knees. Every 50 feet or so you'd stumble on a big lump, a dead horse that had keeled over from working too hard and eating too little. There was hardly a spot, he recalled as he looked down the nearly empty street, where you could pitch a tent. Some 15,000 people got here by '98. And there was a saloon for every 200. Now a respectable little town of 750, Skag way shows its past only in spots, mostly in deserted, gingerbread-trimmed buildings that stare back hollowly when you peer in. One of these is a saloon once owned by Jefferson Randolph Smith, even today a legend in Skagway. They call him "Soapy" Smith-but not because he lived clean; eventually he died in a gun fight with Frank H. Reid, a Vigilante. The Author Amos Burg, adventurer, author, lecturer, and cam eraman, was just 14 when he first went to sea. He has since piloted his own craft from one end of the Americas to the other. He cruised the Strait of Magellan in Dorjun, a 26-foot surfboat, and voyaged the lengths of the Columbia, Snake, Yellowstone, Missouri, Mississippi, Athabaska, Slave, Mackenzie, and Yukon Rivers in Song o' the Winds, his canoe. He conquered the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Charlie, a rubber boat. Viking by ancestry, Ore gonian by birth, Burg has been writing for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE since 1930 when his first article on the Yukon was published.