Battle for Life on the Road to the Klondike; Prospectors Dash to the Yukon as Gold Fever Grips the Nation

By Dempster, Raymond | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), July 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Battle for Life on the Road to the Klondike; Prospectors Dash to the Yukon as Gold Fever Grips the Nation


Dempster, Raymond, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


One hundred years ago this month gold fever swept Ireland as word of the major strike at the Klondike spread around the world. RAYMOND DEMPSTER looks back at the last great race for fame and fortune.

WHEN the Excelsior steamed into San Francisco on July 15, 1897, and her passengers disembarked - laden with gold - it confirmed rumours of a big strike in the Klondike and signalled the start of the last great American gold rush.

Modern communications spread the news quickly throughout the United States and beyond, with the columns of the News Letter telling its readers within days of the sensational find. Soon wild men - and even wilder women - were booking their passage to the United States in search of their fortunes.

Gold had been found in large quantities and they all believed it was there for the taking.

Although in terms of gold extraction, the Klondike would prove one of the smaller discoveries, the awful conditions of the region would ensure it became the most famous of all the gold rushes.

Short, hot summers in the Yukon were followed by long and bitterly cold winters. Of the thousands who made their way there between 1897 and 1899, few were prepared for the appalling hardships that lay ahead as they set out to dig for gold.

The Klondike was very different to earlier strikes in California and Arizona. It was much harder to get to and its climate unforgiving, with summer temperatures rising to 28 degrees, when a man would be eaten by mosquitoes, to -60 in winter, when he could freeze to death in a blizzard a few yards from his cabin.

Irishmen, like those from throughout Europe who made the hazardous trip, were to find out the hard way about conditions in the Yukon.

Only as they set out towards the end of summer in 1897 did they learn that the region was frozen over for eight months of the year and none of them would reach the town of Dawson before winter set in.

The first of the newcomers to arrive also discovered it was virtually impossible to leave the town - and that was why it had taken almost a year for news of the first strike to leak out.

The lucky prospector was George Washington Carmack, a Californian who had married the local Siwash Indian chief's daughter, Kate. He and two Indian friends, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, found gold in Rabbit Creek - soon to be renamed Bonanza Creek - on August 16, 1896, and staked their claims the following day.

Within a few weeks of the initial discovery, the whole creek had been staked out, together with all the other little streams that flowed into the Klondike River, itself a tributary of the mighty Yukon.

The routes to Dawson were fraught with danger. The easiest route was by ship to the mouth of the Yukon and then by paddle steamer 2,700 kilometres up-river to Dawson. …

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