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The “Real” Gold Rush

For those of you that tune each week for the latest trials and tribulations on the TV reality show “Gold Rush,” what was it like to visit the Klondike along the path of the original gold seekers during the Gold Rush in 1898?  In the TV series, you see panning as a way of checking for color before launching into a possible source of gold, or watch the resuscitation of a massive gold dredge as it chews its way through a gold field. The importance of a “paying” sluice box was essential in 1898, as well as 2015. But, the scale of the show’s gold operation is gigantic in comparison to the simple wooden sluice boxes of the 1890s. There is even one episode that shows hydraulic mining for gold – a practice that became heavily-regulated in California during the same period due to the environmental destruction it wrought.

The cast of characters in the show and during the 1890s are very similar – they came from all walks of life, various non-mining occupations, all infected with gold fever.

This article from Frank Leslie’s Weekly, presents a picture of the Klondike gold fields by Mrs. C. R. Miller, a reporter…

The Golden Treasure of the Klondike Creeks

BY MRS. C. R. MILLER

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

TO OBTAIN a correct impression of the real condition of gold-seeking in the Klondike a trip to the “creeks” is necessary. It is surprising with what comparative ease and comfort this journey may be made, and for this the traveler is indebted to the progressive and liberal policy of the government. In all that immense territory which constitutes northwestern Canada, wherever the enterprising spirit of the gold-hunter has discovered a field worth working, Canada has immediately followed with an official investigation which, if favorable, leads promptly to the establishment of a good wagon road to that point. These assist in the rapid opening up of the country by attracting those people who would not settle there under less advantageous conditions, and by materially reducing the cost of transporting the machinery and implements necessary for extensive and productive mining operations. That part of the Yukon territory known as the Klondike covers about eight hundred square miles, and during the last nine years the Canadian government has expended more than a million dollars in the building of public highways, with the result that the great mining district is covered by a network of roads over which passenger and freight stages pass daily. The Klondike has produced about $110,000,000 in gold since its opening, and is likely to continue productive for many years, now that the machinery which reduces the cost of working the gravel has been installed at nearly all the mines.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

The stages, known as the “Royal Mail,” leave Dawson at nine A. M. every day during the summer, and twice or three times a week in winter, and for an hour before there is considerable activity around the stage office, packing and preparing bills-of-lading. The firm operating these coaches has stage routes of about two hundred and fifty miles leading to the different gold fields of the Klondike, and uses from four to six splendid horses in each vehicle. Some of the freight is loaded in with the passengers, and the morning I started for Grand Forks one man sat between a bag of bread and a camping outfit, which were so high that only the top of his hat could be seen from the sidewalk, while another was perched on a pile of blankets. I elected to sit high with the driver, and during the trip our feet rested on two kegs of valuable beer, while a bundle of newspapers to be delivered at different claims was wedged between us. The stage-driver was known as “Fred,” and he weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds. We started off with a great cracking of whips and went through Dawson at a rapid gait. The Klondike River was soon reached, and here a gold dredge was bringing up the precious metal from the bed of that swift-running stream. The rental of the river from the government costs the dredge-owner, who may secure a concession of five miles, $100 a mile the first year, after which he pays ten dollars a mile, and may lease for twenty years, with privilege of renewal. The dredge buckets pick up the gravel from the bed of the river and empty it into a sluice-box, over which the water is constantly rushing. The gold drops in the little gutters of the box, while the gravel and large stones fall back into the stream. Once a month a clean-up is made, and thousands of dollars’ worth of gold has been obtained by this method.

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

The river was unusually high and had covered the road, and as we passed over it the water came up to the hubs. A boatman was on hand to ferry pedestrians across, as hundreds of men from the mines walk this highway daily. The road skirts the river for some distance, after which a sharp turn to the right is made, and the scant waters of the rich Bonanza Creek came into view. Acres of wild roses covered the hills and valleys, and the air was laden with their fragrance. The day was warm—in fact, hot—and at each road-house a stop was made to deliver mail, examine the horses, and for refreshments if the passengers wished to partake. The big stage-driver mopped his brow as we jogged along and gave me the gossip of Dawson with the same reckless assault upon character as the hired hack-driver does to the tourist at Newport.

“Ever tried mining yourself?” I asked.

“You bet!” came the answer. “I took out $6,000 at Nome with an ordinary rocker (the simplest contrivance for mining), and then I lost my claim. That was in the days of Judge Noyes, who, you know, was removed for crookedness. I spent most of the money with lawyers, trying to recover my stake, and after I lost I went to work for another man, and didn’t work fast enough; so here I am, fat and healthy.”

He was one of the many persons I met in Alaska and the Yukon who lost in that tangle of claims at Nome a few years ago.

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

On the side of the hills are located the claims, and they begin only a short distance from the city. A hill or creek stake consists of ground 250 feet in length, measured on the base line or general direction of the creek on which it is located, the “base line” having been laid out by the government. The claim may run back one or two thousand feet. The prospector staking it must set up two posts, one at the upper end and one at the lower end of the creek line. He must post the name and a description of it, including trees or rocks by which it may be identified. Within ten days his claim must be filed in the recorder’s office at Dawson, but before so doing he is required to take out a miner’s license, the charge for which is $7.50. No miner in the Yukon Territory can stake more than one claim on a single river, although he may hold any number by purchase. He may, however, stake a claim on other creeks or on a “pup,” which is a small creek leading to a large one. Every man must develop his claim at least to the value of $200 each year, or be forced to pay $200 to the mining recorder for three years, after which it will cost him $400 a year to keep his unworked claim. This does away with the dog-in-the-manger policy of staking off a number of claims and holding them unworked for higher prices—a plan which is quite common in Alaska. There are no tangles in titles of mining property in the Yukon, and clear and definite information in respect to any claim in the territory can be had on application.

Nearly the whole output from this district is sent to the Seattle assay office, and assays from fifteen dollars and fifty cents to seventeen dollars an ounce. An export duty of two and one-half cents is paid to the Canadian government. Each stake is numbered as being so many claims above or below a certain claim, which is usually the one where gold was first discovered. They are known by that number, and a letter directed to “John Smith, 30 below Bonanza, Y. T.,” will be delivered as promptly as a letter sent over the rural free delivery in the States.

As the gold in the Klondike is coarse and nuggets the size of a pea are frequently found, the placer method is used, and at the larger mines a hydraulic apparatus, flowing twenty thousand gallons of water a minute, tears down the hills with astonishing rapidity. The men then shovel the rich gravel into long wooden troughs containing a lattice-work made to fit the bottom. Water is caused to flow swiftly through the trough, and the gold, being heavy, sinks into the ripples of the lattice-work, while the stones are sluiced out through the lower end to the waste pile. The sluice-boxes vary in length, and when the clean-up comes the water is stopped and the lattice-work lifted out, leaving the gold in numerous little piles, many of which often contain half an ounce. Five thousand dollars for a week’s clean-up is not regarded as a large amount.

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

Panning is the most interesting process, but too slow for the large mine-owner. It consists of filling a pan about the size of an ordinary milk pan with gravel. This is dipped in water until enough water is in the pan to make the gravel move around freely, and by shaking the pan the gold, being much heavier than the other substances, begins to percolate through the gravel toward the bottom. The water is then poured off and carries with it some of the sand and gravel, but none of the gold. Stones and larger gravel are thrown out with the hand. This process is repeated for about half a dozen times, and eventually nothing remains but the pure yellow gold. It takes from five to ten minutes to wash out a pan, and anywhere from one to five dollars’ worth of “color” is found on good paying ground. In “big strikes” gold has been known to run twenty-five dollars to the pan. If the visitor is invited “to pan out some dirt,” he is presented with his results.

Few visitors, unless especially interested in mining, care to climb the hills over the sluiced gravel, which is anything but easy walking. In nearly every instance the ground must be thawed out, and steam pipes are sunk into or laid on top of the earth, and the expense of running an engine for that purpose eats a large hole in the profits. A stream is often diverted in order to reach some part of the claim, and this requires the use of strong horses and stout shovels. Hay was quoted at seventy-five dollars a ton during my stay at the creeks, and other horse feed at correspondingly high prices. When winter mining is done, large dumps of gravel are taken from below the surface and cleaned up with water obtained by melting snow. The dirt, however, must be very rich to pay the expense of sinking a shaft and hoisting the gravel in buckets. Lack of water is the great drawback to mining in the Yukon. There is little rain during the summer, and the miner must depend on the melting snows to swell the streams for his summer sluicing.

Villages have sprung up near the creeks, and living is a shade higher than in Dawson, owing to the extra freight. Sending souvenir post cards from these points becomes an expensive remembrance, as the plain, uncolored ones sell for $1.50 a dozen. The picturesque swagger miner of Cripple Creek, Creede, and Tonopah is not found here. The cost of getting “in” is heavy, money is not always easily made, and the winters are bitter cold and depressing on account of the long darkness. So the miner saves his earnings until he reaches a more congenial clime. To be sure, there are men on the creeks who drink whiskey—and the hardest kind of whiskey—and gambling goes on; yet, on the whole, the Klondike miner is a quiet, provident individual, who devoutly hopes that the gold fields are not to be his permanent home.

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

A man who works for a company or individual mine-owner receives from four to six dollars a day and his board. Many of them do their own cooking and live in cabins near the creeks. Flap-jacks (pancakes), bacon, and coffee are their chief diet during the winter, and in midsummer it requires a dexterous hand to turn the flap-jacks before the mosquitoes can settle on the unbaked side. The old-timer who has seen the ice come and go is known as a “sour dough,” and these men are the aristocrats of the camp. The newcomer, or the man who spends his winters outside, is always known as a “cheechako.”

If people in the States knew how letters from home are appreciated by the cabin dwellers of the Yukon they would send some message every day. I have seen miners sit in front of their cabins and read and reread old, tattered letters. At some particular passage their faces would light up with a smile and the entire letter would be gone over again. They have not all been successful like Clarence Berry or Alexander McDonald or J. S. Lippy—if they had, gold would not be so valuable. There are men to-day working as laborers in the Klondike whose injured pride at their failure prevents them from returning to the States, and they live on and work, expecting some day to “strike it rich.”

The Real Gold Rush - Frank Leslie's Weekly

The Real Gold Rush – Frank Leslie’s Weekly

One morning I stopped at a cabin not far from the Klondike River. The occupant had an exceptionally fine dog, and the devotion between the man and animal was so noticeable that I determined to make a photograph. A couple of “cheechakos” on their way to the creeks had stopped to rest at the cabin, and after they had gone I sat for a long time beside the man and his dog and listened to a pathetic story of “hard luck.” It seems that he came “in” during the rush of 1897, leaving a wife and three-year old child in Minnesota. Somehow things went wrong, and every summer he worked and saved, only to be compelled to spend what money he had accumulated for food during the winter. He moved from place to place, and finally letters from home ceased. His partner died during the typhoid-fever epidemic which swept over Dawson, and his savings for that year were spent in caring for the sick man. Another partner left him, and then came news that his wife had obtained a divorce and married again. On what grounds he never knew, but supposed that desertion was the plea. A few hours before my arrival he had received a picture of his child, now a pretty girl of twelve years, and who was living with strangers in Syracuse, N. Y. He told the story in a simple, honest fashion, but with a pathos not soon forgotten. When I spoke of his dog’s devotion and asked if he was a good “musher” (sled-puller), the man looked at me and slowly shook his head. “I don’t make him work,” he said. “He is just my partner, and the only living thing in this world who really cares for me.” It was hard on the wife to be left in the States with a baby, and perhaps no money; but somehow, as I looked at this man, whom ill luck had relentlessly pursued, now almost broken-hearted, with only a faithful dog for a partner, I could not help but feel that things might have been different if the sympathy and companionship of a woman and the prattle of a child could have cheered the lonely hours of that cabin home.

Source:  Frank Leslies Weekly, September 13, 1906
Top Image: Bodey, a mining ghost town in California, by Brigitte Werner (Age 61) from Canim Lake, British Columbia, Canada

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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