History Behind the Parks: Klondike Gold Rush Historical National Park

MASCOT SALOON- Interior of the Mascot Saloon, taken in 1904.   Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection KLGO 55810, Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation

By Carla Charter

SKAGWAY, AK. – In 1897, newspaper headlines screaming Gold in the Klondike, appeared all over the country. By 1898, the rush was over. The Gold Rush National Historical Park, preserves the history of that time for visitors to learn about today.

At the time of the gold rush, George Washington Carmack of California was living in the Klondike with his native wife Kate as well as her family including Skookum Jim Mason, Dawson Charlie Henderson and Patsy Henderson. They subsisted on hunting and fishing and cutting wood and doing a little exploring. Skookum Jim was cleaning the dishes in Rabbit Creek one day when he found a gold nugget at the bottom of the creek.

In August 1896, the family staked a claim there.  After they staked the claim, George and Skookum went into a near-by community called Forty Mile, boasting about the strike. Jim stayed behind to guard their claim.Soon the villagers had staked claims nearby as well.

Word of the gold strike was getting out to the outside world by late 1896through letters the miners in the Yukon were writing letters to their families about the recent strikke and their luck in staking claims.   People were heading north to the Yukon as early as March 1897.

In the spring and summer of 1897, the first miners left the Klondike with their gold, arriving in San Francisco on the Excelsior on July 14, 1897.  On July 17, 1897, the Portland arrived in Seattle with more Klondike miners and their gold.  “The news that the Steamers Excelsior and Portland brought with them and their over two tons of gold, confirmed the strike and was like pouring gasoline on an already burning fire, it ignited the stampede.. The story soon went worldwide and thousands headed north,” said Karl Gurcke, Gold Rush National Historical Park historian.

The stampeders coming north landed in the towns of Skagway and Dyea. From there they followed the Chilkoot Trail to Lake Bennett and Lake Lindeman near the headwaters of the Yukon. Once there, they built boats and floated down to Dawson.  Estimates are that around 40,000 stampeders actually made it to Dawson, 10,000 stayed in Skagway and another 8,000 stayed in Dyea, Gurcke said.  “There are still families in Skagway who trace their family lines back to the gold rush days.  Skagway started out as a tent town. People quickly began building buildings. Within a month of the rush there was one to two to three story buildings, Gurcke said.

Among those who went North during the Gold Rush was Jack London who hiked the Chilkoot and floated down to Dawson writing stories from his experiences. “He loved to talk to the old timers.,“  Gurcke continued.

Another memorable stampeder to the Klondike, according to Gurcke, was Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith, a con man from Colorado.  “He owned gambling houses, and a house of prostitution.  In Skagway at that time there was a bit of law and order but the Deputy Marshal was sort of working for Soapy.” On July 8, 1898 Soapy was killed and his gang was rounded up and Skagway became a much calmer town, Gurcke continued.

A gold strike in Nome and the start of the Spanish American War soon took the headlines away from the Gold Rush in the Klondike and by 1898 the rush was over.  In the early 1900’s Klondike claims were consolidated under the Yukon Consolidated Gold Company. In the 1960’s the company closed up shop. Since then people have taken up claims mining for gold in the dredges left behind by the gold company.

The Gold Rush National Historical Park opened in 1976, with its visitors center being the old White Pass and Yukon Route Train Depot.  The visitors center has exhibits, movies and walking tours focusing on the Gold Rush era.

In Skagway, the park service has also restored a number of the gold rush era buildings.  These include the Mascot Saloon and the James Bernard Moore House restored as they were during the Gold Rush times, as well as Jeff Smith’s Parlor, a museum which houses gold rush era artifacts.   Other tourist attractions in the area include dog sledding, gold panning and the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Train which travels to Lake Bennett.

There is hiking on the Chilkoot Trail where hikers can view remnants of the Gold Rush era including boots, remains of an aerial tramway and several collapsed log framed structures Visitors are asked to leave the items where they are found. The area is also home to grizzly bears, black bears, otters and porcupines. Rarely there are also deer and moose.

The park is also interested in acquiring copies of family’s personal accounts diaries and photos related to the Klondike Rush.  Those able to share such information can contact Gurcke at Karl_Gurcke@nps.gov park historian.   More information on the Gold Rush National Historical Park can be found at www.nps.gov/klgo


Sign Up Now to Read More Great Stuff from TUGTA