Sunday April 4, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Klondike Gold Rush

On this Day:

In 1896, it was announced that gold had been discovered in the Yukon, Canada.

The Klondike Gold Rush was a migration by an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon, in north-western Canada, between 1896 and 1899. Gold was discovered there by local miners on August 16, 1896; when news reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it triggered a stampede of prospectors. Some became wealthy, but the majority went in vain. It has been immortalized in films, literature, and photographs.

To reach the gold fields, most prospectors took the route through the ports of Dyea and Skagway, in Southeast Alaska. Here, the “Klondikers” could follow either the Chilkoot or the White Pass trails to the Yukon River, and sail down to the Klondike. The Canadian authorities required each of them to bring a year’s supply of food, in order to prevent starvation. In all, the Klondikers’ equipment weighed close to a ton, which most carried themselves, in stages. Performing this task, and contending with the mountainous terrain and cold climate, meant those who persisted did not arrive until summer 1898. Once there, they found few opportunities, and many left disappointed.

To accommodate the prospectors, boom towns sprang up along the routes. At their terminus, Dawson City was founded at the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon Rivers. From a population of 500 in 1896, the town grew to house approximately 30,000 people by summer 1898. Built of wood, isolated, and unsanitary, Dawson suffered from fires, high prices, and epidemics. Despite this, the wealthiest prospectors spent extravagantly, gambling and drinking in the saloons. The Native Hän people, on the other hand, suffered from the rush; they were forcibly moved into a reserve to make way for the Klondikers, and many died.

Beginning in 1898, the newspapers that had encouraged so many to travel to the Klondike lost interest in it. In the summer of 1899, gold was discovered around Nome in west Alaska, and many prospectors left the Klondike for the new goldfields, marking the end of the Klondike Rush. The boom towns declined, and the population of Dawson City fell. Gold mining production in the Klondike peaked in 1903, after heavier equipment was brought in. Since then, the Klondike has been mined on and off, and today the legacy draws tourists to the region and contributes to its prosperity.

The Original Discovery:

On August 16, 1896, an American prospector named George Carmack, his Tagish wife Kate Carmack (Shaaw Tláa), her brother Skookum Jim (Keish), and their nephew Dawson Charlie (K̲áa Goox̱) were travelling south of the Klondike River. Following a suggestion from Robert Henderson, a Canadian prospector, they began looking for gold on Bonanza Creek, then called Rabbit Creek, one of the Klondike’s tributaries. It is not clear who discovered the gold: George Carmack or Skookum Jim, but the group agreed to let George Carmack appear as the official discoverer because they feared that authorities would not recognize an indigenous claimant.

In any event, gold was present along the river in huge quantities. Carmack measured out four claims, strips of ground that could later be legally mined by the owner, along the river; these including two for himself—one as his normal claim, the second as a reward for having discovered the gold—and one each for Jim and Charlie. The claims were registered the next day at the police post at the mouth of the Fortymile River and news spread rapidly from there to other mining camps in the Yukon River valley.

By the end of August, all of Bonanza Creek had been claimed by miners. A prospector then advanced up into one of the creeks feeding into Bonanza, later to be named Eldorado Creek. He discovered new sources of gold there, which would prove to be even richer than those on Bonanza. Claims began to be sold between miners and speculators for considerable sums. Just before Christmas, word of the gold reached Circle City. Despite the winter, many prospectors immediately left for the Klondike by dog-sled, eager to reach the region before the best claims were taken. The outside world was still largely unaware of the news and although Canadian officials had managed to send a message to their superiors in Ottawa about the finds and influx of prospectors, the government did not give it much attention. The winter prevented river traffic, and it was not until June 1897 that the first boats left the area, carrying the freshly mined gold and the full story of the discoveries.

[Editor: Prices in this article are given in US dollars throughout. Equivalent modern prices have been given in 2010 US dollars. The equivalent prices of modern goods and services have been calculated using the Consumer Price Index (1:27). Larger sums, for example gold shipments, capital investment, or land prices, have been calculated using the GDP index (1:800).]

In the resulting Klondike stampede, an estimated 100,000 people tried to reach the Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually did. It formed the height of the Klondike gold rush from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898.

It began on July 15, 1897, in San Francisco and was spurred further two days later in Seattle, when the first of the early prospectors returned from the Klondike, bringing with them large amounts of gold on the ships Excelsior and Portland. The press reported that a total of $1,139,000 (equivalent to $1 billion at 2010 prices) had been brought in by these ships, although this proved to be an underestimate. The migration of prospectors caught so much attention that it was joined by outfitters, writers and photographers.

Various factors lay behind this sudden mass response. Economically, the news had reached the US at the height of a series of financial recessions and bank failures in the 1890s. The gold standard of the time tied paper money to the production of gold and shortages towards the end of the 19th century meant that gold dollars were rapidly increasing in value ahead of paper currencies and being hoarded. This had contributed to the Panic of 1893 and Panic of 1896, which caused unemployment and financial uncertainty. There was a huge, unresolved demand for gold across the developed world that the Klondike promised to fulfil and, for individuals, the region promised higher wages or financial security.

Psychologically, the Klondike, as historian Pierre Berton describes, was “just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be accessible.” Furthermore, the Pacific ports closest to the gold strikes were desperate to encourage trade and travel to the region. The mass journalism of the period promoted the event and the human interest stories that lay behind it. A worldwide publicity campaign engineered largely by Erastus Brainerd, a Seattle newspaperman, helped establish that city as the premier supply centre and the departure point for the gold fields.

The prospectors came from many nations, although an estimated majority of 60 to 80 percent were Americans or recent immigrants to America. Most had no experience in the mining industry, being clerks or salesmen. Mass resignations of staff to join the gold rush became notorious. In Seattle, this included the mayor, twelve policemen, and a significant percentage of the city’s streetcar drivers.

Some stampeders were famous: John McGraw, the former governor of Washington, joined, together with the prominent lawyer and sportsman A. Balliot. Frederick Burnham, a well-known American scout and explorer, arrived from Africa, only to be called back to take part in the Second Boer War. Among those who documented the rush were the Swedish-born photographer Eric Hegg, who took some of the iconic pictures of Chilkoot Pass, and reporter Tappan Adney, who afterwards wrote a first-hand history of the stampede. Jack London, later a famous American writer, left to seek for gold but made his money during the rush mostly by working for prospectors.

Seattle and San Francisco competed fiercely for business during the rush, with Seattle winning the larger share of trade. Indeed, one of the first to join the gold rush was William D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle, who resigned and formed a company to transport prospectors to the Klondike. The publicity around the gold rush led to a flurry of branded goods being put onto the market. Clothing, equipment, food, and medicines were all sold as “Klondike” goods, allegedly designed for the northwest. Guidebooks were published, giving advice about routes, equipment, mining, and capital necessary for the enterprise. The newspapers of the time termed this phenomenon “Klondicitis”.


Only a handful of the 100,000 people who left for the Klondike during the gold rush became rich.They typically spent $1,000 ($27,000) each reaching the region, which when combined exceeded what was produced from the gold fields between 1897 and 1901. At the same time, most of those who did find gold lost their fortunes in the subsequent years. They often died penniless, attempting to reproduce their earlier good fortune in fresh mining opportunities. Businessman and miner Alex McDonald, for example, continued to accumulate land after the boom until his money ran out; he died in poverty, still prospecting. Antoine Stander, who discovered gold on Eldorado Creek, abused alcohol, dissipated his fortune and ended working in a ship’s kitchen to pay his way. The three discoverers had mixed fates. George Carmack left his wife Kate—who had found it difficult to adapt to their new lifestyle—remarried and lived in relative prosperity; Skookum Jim had a huge income from his mining royalties but refused to settle and continued to prospect until his death in 1916; Dawson Charlie spent lavishly and died in an alcohol-related accident.

The richest of the Klondike saloon owners, businessmen and gamblers also typically lost their fortunes and died in poverty. Gene Allen, for example, the editor of the Klondike Nugget, became bankrupt and spent the rest of his career in smaller newspapers; the prominent gambler and saloon owner Sam Bonnifield suffered a nervous breakdown and died in extreme poverty. Nonetheless, some of those who joined the gold rush prospered. Kate Rockwell, “Klondike Kate”, for example, became a famous dancer in Dawson and remained popular in America until her death. Dawson City was also where Alexander Pantages, her business partner and lover, started his career, going on to become one of America’s greatest theatre and movie tycoons. The businesswoman Martha Black remarried and ultimately became the second female member of the Canadian parliament.

The impact of the gold rush on the Native peoples of the region was considerable. The Tlingit and the Koyukon peoples prospered in the short term from their work as guides, packers and from selling food and supplies to the prospectors. In the longer term, however, especially the Hän people living in the Klondike region suffered from the environmental damage of the gold mining on the rivers and forests. Their population had already begun to decline after the discovery of gold along Fortymile River in the 1880s but dropped catastrophically after their move to the reserve, a result of the contaminated water supply and smallpox. The Hän found only few ways to benefit economically from the gold rush and their fishing and hunting grounds were largely destroyed; by 1904 they needed aid from the NWMP to prevent famine (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

What did the greedy gold prospector always say?  “This is all mine, mine, mine…”

Second, a Song:

John Shreve was born and raised in St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1968-1969, he spent a year as a foreign exchange student in Germany, attending school in Weilburg/Lahn. But he spent little time in school, preferring to hitchhike through most of Western Europe. After finishing high school in St. Joseph, he attended the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana, initially studying history. It was a time of political upheaval and protest against the war in Vietnam and for John Shreve it was a politically formative period. Today, he is a member of Democrats Abroad as well as the German Social Democratic Party.

Throughout the 1970s, he divided his time between Montana and Europe, living in West Germany, Sweden and France. He received a bachelors and a master’s degree in German from the University of Montana and also attended the Phillipps-University in Marburg in West Germany and, as a Fulbright scholar, the Technical University in West Berlin. 

Over the years, John Shreve has worked in a bread factory, in a library, as a printer’s assistant, a dishwasher, a street musician, an English teacher, a janitor, a tour guide, a translator, singer and writer. 

John Shreve met his future wife in East Berlin in 1977. Until 1983, when his wife and daughter were allowed to emigrate, he regularly travelled between West and East Berlin. Soon thereafter a son was born. The CIA classified him as a security risk. After the fall of the Wall, he gained access to the files of the East German State Security Service and learned that he had been suspected of espionage. Until his children entered school, he remained at home and took care of them. 

The earliest musical influence was his grandfather, Ralph Layson, a Free Methodist lay preacher who sang religious songs. John’s mother, Kay Shreve, was also a singer. In elementary school, music instruction consisted largely of singing folk songs and later John Shreve was strongly influenced by the recordings of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Utah Phillips and Si Kahn. He recorded a collection of old and new folk songs, Thinking of Home. In 2004 and 2006, he released the CDs From Texas to Montana and Wild and Windy Places, two collections of songs, poems and instrumentals about the American West. He followed those with a collection of songs about life, death, faith and the grace of God, Leap of Faith. John released his fourth CD, Oftimes Do I Think of Thee, a collection of old-time country songs in 2015. In the following year, he released the mini-CD Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall? to oppose the election of Donald Trump as president. 

In 2019, John released three limited-edition CDs. “Let it Shine” is a collection of songs for his grandchildren, but which is certainly more than a children’s album. On “Known You of Old,” one can hear songs and dances with the Appalachian dulcimer. “just beyond silence” is a cycle of unaccompanied songs and texts inspired by the quiet and slowness of the city of Venice. All profits from these three CDs will go to Yad Vashim The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Here is John Shreve performing the original “Miner’s Song of the Klondike Gold Rush” set to images taken of the miners, the conditions during the gold rush, the people and the towns.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“If you’ve been wondering where the next gold rush is going to take place, look up at the night sky to our closest celestial neighbor. The next economic boom might just be a mere 240,000 miles away on the bella luna.” – Peter Diamandis

In response to the Pencil Smile, the Reverend Bob Beasley of Grimsby, Ontario writes:

We have a close friend whose daughter, Julie Kraulis, is an award winning pencil artist. According to her website ( “Julie Kraulis is a visual artist focusing on a horological collection of graphite drawings. In 2015, she serendipitously stumbled into the watch world after coming across an article on iconic timepieces. Curiosity piqued, she discovered a fascinating world of soul, story and craftsmanship. As a design enthusiast, she weaves detail and distorts scale to offer a fresh perspective on the horological legends MAKING TIME. Julie lives and works in Toronto, Canada. Best place to follow along is over on Instagram where she shares life in the studio and work in progress of commissions for private collectors, brands and industry folk, as well as independent pieces.” If you want to see her exquisite work, and I encourage you to do so, check out her Instagram here: Her work is mind-blowingly good. And all with pencil.

I do look forward to receiving your daily epistles.

Happy Easter!


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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