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MailTribune.com
  • Following the Klondike Trail

    Miners leaving Seattle found themselves in Skagway, Alaska
  • Editor's Note: Last month Paul Hadella visited the spot in Seattle where Klondike gold miners prepared for their trip to the Alaska gold fields. This month he writes about their landing spot in Alaska.
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  • Editor's Note: Last month Paul Hadella visited the spot in Seattle where Klondike gold miners prepared for their trip to the Alaska gold fields. This month he writes about their landing spot in Alaska.
    Skagway, Alaska, has the sheen of a theme park. This little town, situated at the tip of Lynn Canal about 100 miles north of Juneau, played a central role in the Klondike gold rush of 1897-98 — a heritage that it wears handily to this day.
    Its old buildings are fixed up to look the way they did at the end of the 20th century, though they were probably not so neat and spiffy back then. Gone is the gauntlet of saloons and brothels of yesteryear. There's a fascinating ivory museum now, courtyards with manicured flower gardens and a National Park visitor center dedicated to the history of the gold rush.
    "Working girls" wave to tourists from second-story windows, but they're just college students in costumes, of course. It's all good, clean fun in Skagway these days — with plenty of opportunities to shop for T-shirts, jewelry, native crafts, etc.
    I arrived in Skagway by boat from Seattle, just like thousands of hearty "stampeders" who took part in the gold rush. The similarities between me and them end there.
    My vessel was an enormous cruise ship, a spacious floating city complete with restaurants, a theater, sitting lounges and nightclubs. Theirs was a crowded steamship without enough private cabins to accommodate all passengers. Besides, if a stampeder could afford such luxury, he wouldn't be crazed to find gold in the first place.
    I came as a loafing tourist, they as desperate dreamers. The Panic of 1893 had thrown America into an economic depression. Going on an epic journey for a chance at striking it rich actually seemed like a good idea for people without secure futures.
    During my few hours in Skagway, I joined a walking tour conducted by a Park Service ranger. The Skagway of 1897, he told us, was a corrupt town. Notorious scoundrel Soapy Smith had paid the local U.S. marshal to look the other way as he and his thugs carried out their various cons.
    For example, Smith ran a telegraph office where men straight off the steamships would pay to send messages back home. A day or two later, when they dropped by to find out whether there was a reply, Soapy's clerk would tell them: "Yes, and it's urgent. Your family needs you to send them money immediately."
    It was all a scam. The telegraph office was phony — no messages were ever sent or received. Smith was pocketing the money.
    Our tour guide repeatedly urged us to imagine what it was like for prospectors who, after the long voyage to Skagway, were in for an ordeal that would test the limits of human endurance. But how could I, a creature of comfort, really wrap my mind around what they went through?
    It was 600 miles from Skagway to the Klondike gold fields, and the way to get there was through mountain passes and down rivers. A train, pulled by a steam-powered locomotive, takes tourists into the mountains these days — but there was no railroad yet in 1897. The prospectors had to hike, hauling a year's supply of food (required by Canadian law) with them on their backs.
    They would divide their load — weighing up to 1,000 pounds — into manageable units, carry one unit some yards up the ice-covered mountain slope, drop it and then go back for another. In this way, they inched their way up Chilkoot Pass to the Canadian border. It took about three months just to cover the first 25 miles out of Skagway.
    Next, they would need to build a raft because the rest of the journey was via water. Often they would team up with other men to fell trees, saw wood and construct the vessel. But these rugged individuals were not the best team players. Arguments and fistfights were common.
    Their boat had to be sturdy enough to withstand a stretch of treacherous rapids. If they made it through the whitewater successfully, they could sit back and relax until they reached the Klondike — a mere 550 miles of calm water ahead.
    These intrepid folks would find out there really was as much gold in the Klondike as newspapers had reported. Unfortunately, most of them arrived way too late to get any of it. After risking their lives to make it to Canada, the luckiest of the prospectors wound up working for wages from companies with claims.
    Business owners in Skagway profited more from the gold rush than most stampeders ever did. During the mania, this isolated location was bursting at the seams with men seeking lodging, meals and supplies, as well as whiskey and women.
    Present-day Skagway resembles its past in one way: the crowds. Today, it's a regular stop for several cruise lines touring Alaska's Inside Passage. With a main drag not much larger than Southern Oregon's own 19th-century boomtown, Jacksonville, Skagway is short on elbow room at the height of cruise season in summer.
    Seeking a break from the throng at the end of the walking tour, I ventured to the end of the tourist zone and strolled through a quiet, residential area. A creek narrow enough for me to jump across flowed through the yards of a row of houses. Amazingly, it was stuffed with salmon.
    I watched the fish literally swim over each other in their wild scramble upstream. Finally, I was able to imagine what the gold rush must have been like.
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