10 Fun Facts About The Klondike Gold Rush

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Vote up all the golden nuggets of info that reveal what life was like in the Yukon gold rush.

In 1897, the US was at the tail end of an economic recession now known as the Panic of 1893. Many Americans were struggling to feed their families or keep a roof over their heads. So when news got out that gold has been found in the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon, thousands of people hastily uprooted themselves and headed north to take part in rushing to remote northwestern Canada. 

Although some of the stampeders were experienced miners, far more were completely unprepared for the hazardous trip to the gold fields or for the Wild West-type conditions they found upon arrival. And although George Carmack - credited with first finding gold in the Klondike - became a rich man, the majority of gold-seekers did not. By 1899, the Klondike Gold Rush (also called the Yukon Gold Rush) was all but over.

  • After Arriving In An Overcrowded Boomtown Like Dawson City, You Had To Avoid Rampant Diseases While Waiting For The Ground To Thaw
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    After Arriving In An Overcrowded Boomtown Like Dawson City, You Had To Avoid Rampant Diseases While Waiting For The Ground To Thaw

    Several boomtowns prospered thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush, the most significant being Dawson City. Shortly after news of the gold got out, enterprising prospector Joseph Ladue staked his claim to a slice of land near the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers and called it Dawson City after his contemporary, a Canadian geologist named George M. Dawson.

    The site was already in use as a fishing ground for the native Han people, but they were relocated to a nearby reserve. Ladue divided the land into lots, which he sold to would-be prospectors for $5 to $25, depending on the lot size. This established Dawson City as the commercial center of the Klondike.

    By the winter of 1896, the city's population reached approximately 500, with most people living in tents. In the first year of the gold rush, the cost of living in Dawson City was very high; a nice restaurant meal could run between $1.50 and $4.50 (in comparison, a similar meal would likely cost less than a dollar in Seattle, WA, at the time).

    In the fall of 1897, Dawson City had about 5,000 residents living in tents, shanties, and log cabins. Streets were filthy and crowded, with no sanitation and scarce food. But there were also dozens of saloons with gambling and dance halls, plus a street called Paradise Alley, where women plied the world's oldest profession.

    The city experienced a huge boom in the spring of 1898, with hundreds of stampeders arriving in hopes of striking it rich. The lots Ladue had sold for $5 to $25 just two years earlier started going for as much as $40,000.  

    Dawson City sat on ground prone to flooding. That factor, plus winter temperatures that fell well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, made the area inaccessible to newcomers during the long winter months. Mining was also near impossible, as the prospectors had to wait for the ground to thaw.

    In April 1899, a large fire consumed about 75% of the city, reducing many buildings to piles of ashes. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police declared martial law to try to keep order as homeless residents were forced to sleep in the snow and looters took advantage of the chaos. The total financial loss to the city was estimated at $4 million (or approximately $140 million in 2022).

    In addition to natural disasters, the people in Dawson City faced the threat of infectious diseases such as typhoid fever, smallpox, and measles; in fact, infectious diseases accounted for 38.5% of the deaths in the Yukon from 1898 to 1904. STDs from prostitution were also a health risk.

    Dawson City's prospects waned as prospectors either left to return home, or moved on to other adventures.

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    You Had To Make Several Trips On The Chilkoot Trail, Carrying Your Supplies Up And Down The ‘Golden Staircase’ - 1,500 Steps Carved From Snow And Ice

    The Chilkoot Trail is a 33-mile path that begins at Dyea, AK, and connects the Inside Passage and the Pacific Ocean to the head of the Yukon River. At the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, it was one of just three passes to offer year-round crossings. That makes it a popular route for stampeders attempting to make their way to the gold fields.

    About 20 miles along the Chilkoot Trail is Sheep Camp, where many prospectors elected to spend the night before continuing their journey. It's about 3 ½ miles from Sheep Camp to the Chilkoot Pass at the top of the trail. However, it's also an uphill climb of 2,500 feet, which includes crossing an area known as The Scales.

    In early 1898, a series of steps and ledges where hikers could rest were carved into the slope leading from The Scales to the trail summit. Quickly tagged “The Golden Staircase," this route became the most popular way to get to the top of the trail, as it is much shorter - albeit steeper - than Peterson Pass, the other main pathway (also called Pederson Pass).

    As the hikers approached the summit, Canadian Mounties examined their' supplies to ensure each person had the required one year's worth of goods. Upon passing inspection, stampeders then traveled down a steep slope to reach Crater Lake. In the summer, the men took a ferry across, but in the winter that wasn't possible.

    When the first wave of prospectors arrived at Lake Lindeman in 1897, they built boats and sailed down that lake, through Lake Bennett, and on to Dawson City. But in 1898, Lake Bennett remained frozen through late spring, resulting in hundreds of people having to set up camp at Lake Bennett or Lake Linderman. Finally on May 28, 1898, news came that Lake Bennett was open, and within 48 hours, about 7,000 boats were on their way to Dawson City. 

    No matter the time of year, hiking the Chilkoot Trail is hazardous. Among the earliest prospectors was 21-year-old Jack London (yes, the novelist), his brother-in-law, and a court reporter named Fred C. Thompson. Leaving from San Francisco in July 1897, they sailed to Juneau, AK, then hired Tlingit canoes to make the 100-mile trip to Dyea. As the Chilkoot Trail is too steep for horses or pack mules, they hired Tlingit packers to haul 3,000 pounds of supplies to the summit, paying them 22 cents per pound; the trio carried the remainder of their supplies on their own backs. It required numerous trips up and down the trail to get all the supplies to the summit. 

    To cross the rivers, they walked on downed trees; many stampeders drowned when they lost their balance and fell into the raging waters. Others, like one of the men in London's group, abandoned their journey at this point rather than risk their lives.

    The rest of London's group pressed on through the heavy rain and mud and reached Sheep Camp - “a very tough hole,” according to Thompson - on August 21, where they crowded into a muddy tent city along with some 1,000 other stampeders.

    London would later describe the dozens of prospectors attempting to climb up the extremely steep path (The Golden Staircase hadn't been carved yet) to Chilkoot Pass as “like a column of ants.” Some men climbed and descended 20+ times to retrieve all their supplies. This was another point in the journey that many would-be prospectors abandoned their dreams, dumped their supplies, and made their way back down the trail. London's group safely reached the summit, and eventually arrived in Dawson City.

    But not everyone was as lucky. On April 3, 1898, the deadliest single event of the Klondike Gold Rush occurred between Sheep Camp and The Scales. Due to dangerous weather conditions, the Native trail guides refused to pack above Sheep Camp, while veteran white trail guides also warned that conditions were ripe for an avalanche. However, some stampeders, eager to make their way to the gold fields, ignored the warnings and set off on the trail. By the end of the day, five avalanches took place; three of them were deadly, killing dozens of prospectors.

    In 1898, construction got underway on a narrow-gauge railway running from Skagway, AK, to Whitehorse in the Yukon. With its completion in 1900, the railroad supplanted the Chilkoot Trail as the most direct way of reaching the gold fields.

  • Your Wealth Determined How You’d Reach The Gold Fields: Via The Rich Man’s Route Or Poor Man’s Route
    Photo: National Park Service / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    Your Wealth Determined How You’d Reach The Gold Fields: Via The Rich Man’s Route Or Poor Man’s Route

    On July 17, 1897, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer proclaimed the Klondike discovery with the not-so-subtle headline: “Gold! Gold! Gold!” According to the article, “68 rich men” had arrived in Seattle on the steamer Portland, bringing with them “stacks of yellow metal."

    The news quickly spread throughout the country, resulting in thousands of people uprooting their lives to head north in the hope of striking it rich.

    Depending on how much money you had, there were several ways to get to the Klondike. The easiest route - but most expensive - was to travel by water. If you had the funds, you could choose this “rich man's route" of simply sailing around Alaska and then up the Yukon River.

    Most stampeders chose one of the most direct routes, either taking the White Pass Trail or the Chilkoot Trail. These were called the “poor man's routes" because it cost far less to travel them. You would navigate up the Inside Passage - often on a homemade boat - then hike across the mountains to get to the head of the Yukon River. These routes to the gold fields were approximately 500 miles.

    Some stampeders took alternate routes, like traveling the entire way on foot, only to arrive at their destination two years after those who took more direct routes. Others attempted to reach the Klondike by crossing the glaciers near Yakutat and Valdez. Many of these travelers dealt with getting lost and suffering snow blindness.

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    If You Didn’t Return Home Right Away, You Probably Helped Establish The Yukon Territory, Alberta, Or British Columbia

    Although many stampeders left the Yukon to return home or head to the Alaskan gold fields, others stayed. By mid-1899, Dawson City has gone from an unsanitary, overcrowded tent community to a real city where residents felt safe and which boasted such modern amenities as electric streetlights. In fact, the city's growth was one of the main reasons for the Yukon becoming an official Canadian territory on June 13, 1898.

    Dawson City isn't the only place that underwent major growth because of stampeders deciding to remain in the country; Vancouver, British Columbia would see its population double, while the population of Edmonton, Alberta tripled.