Imagine Skagway, Alaska in 1898—a chaotic, unkempt city. At any given time, 10,000 or so gold rush stampeders lived here in tents and other make-shift structures. Another 1,000 hopeful prospectors passed through every week. Thanks to a few colorful characters— especially notorious con artist and crime boss Jefferson “Soapy” Smith— corruption and gunfights were commonplace. You’ll find Soapy’s final resting place, and that of Frank Reid, beloved citizen who lost his own life when he killed Soapy, at the Gold Rush Cemetery on the outskirts of the city. You’ll also see grave proof of the epidemics that swept through the town because of overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Although Skagway is central to the Klondike Gold Rush, the alluring story actually begins in Seattle, Washington on July 17, 1897. Sailing down from Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory, the SS Portland arrived in Seattle with 68 rich miners and nearly two tons of gold on board. Three days earlier, the Excelsior had docked in San Francisco, also carrying miners and tons of gold from St. Michael, Alaska. Word and excitement spread quicker than wildfire. The headlines of every major newspaper across the country, and the world, exclaimed GOLD! STACKS OF YELLOW METAL IN THE KLONDIKE!
Fortuitously, Seattle immediately launched an unprecedented public relations campaign that established the port city as the place to get the “ton of goods” (about 1,000 pounds of food and another 1,000 pounds of gear) required by the Canadian Mounties for admittance into the Klondike. The campaign was ingenious. The majority of the 100,000 gold seekers on their way north thought of Seattle as the logical start to their expedition, and bought all or most of their supplies here.
It’s hard to imagine hauling 400 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 125 pounds of beans, plus cookware, clothes, and tools, but it was actually a smart mandate for the long trail to the gold. Having a year’s worth of food and equipment protected miners from starvation while they waited out bad weather and worked their claims in hope of finding the mother lode. By the spring of 1898, Seattle merchants had sold gold rush stampeders goods worth $25 million— far more than the value of the gold dug from the Klondike during the same period. “A ton of goods” became a catch phrase for the Klondike Gold Rush— all in hopes of finding a ton of gold!
An excellent place to learn about the frenzy of the “Klondike Outfit Rush” is at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in downtown Seattle. Signage, exhibits, and audiovisual programs fully document the exciting story of the stampeders. You can see demonstrations of early mining equipment here, and park rangers show visitors how to pan for gold. The museum is very well done and part of the broader Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park that also includes sites in Canada and Alaska.
Shop for gold mining equipment at GoldRushTradingPost.com