Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Sunday, June 29, 1997

Nuggets of history: following in Mont's footsteps

by Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

Why are we doing this? Good question.

First, some history:

In the early summer of 1897, the Klondike was little more than a rumor drifting south from the virtually unexplored wilderness surrounding the Yukon River.

Nearly a year earlier, in August 1896, a couple of prospectors took a wrong turn in those rugged hills, some 1,500 miles from nowhere, and stumbled on a stream. In the stream bed, they found a gold nugget, and then another. In the months to come, those few acres of wilderness were to become one of the richest gold fields in history.

Word spread up and down the river, and prospectors converged on the Klondike Country. But it took months for the news to find its way south to The Outside. Even then, the news was greeted with skepticism; most such reports turned out to be wild exaggerations, if not outright fabrications.

That changed in July 1897, when two steamers from the Yukon arrived on the West Coast. On the 15th, the tiny Excelsior tied up at San Francisco with 40 prospectors carrying perhaps $750,000 worth of gold -- a staggering statistic for its day. The larger Portland arrived July 17 in Seattle with even more -- the storied "ton of gold."

Within hours, the stampede had begun. Thanks to telegraph lines and an extraordinary advertising campaign, Seattle soon became the gateway to the Klondike, starting point for the steamships and chief supply center for the prospectors.

Within hours or days, a motley fleet of ramshackle steamers was headed north loaded with fortune-seekers. They were men and women, white folks and black folks, old-timers and towheaded schoolboys.

They were Seattle Mayor W.T. Wood and former Washington Gov. John McGraw, a promising young novelist named Jack London and a mediocre poet named Robert Service. They were Swedish boatbuilders and Chinese railroad workers, Russian sailors and British nobles, a great tide of humanity all determined to reach the same God-forsaken corner of a frozen Canadian wilderness.

Most of them never made it.

If you were rich, it wasn't too rough; you could buy comfortable space on a steamer to St. Michaels, at the mouth of the Yukon, then travel by riverboat some 1,700 miles upstream to Dawson.

Most, like Mont Hawthorne, were not rich. So they traveled the hard way. They collected up to a ton of supplies -- clothing, tents, mining equipment, guns and ammunition, sacks of flour, sugar, beans, bacon... even horses, mules or dogs. They loaded their outfits onto crowded steamers or sailing ships and spent a couple of weeks beating into North Pacific storms to Skagway or other crude Alaskan ports.

Most crossed the Chilkoot or White passes in the dead of winter, enabling them to haul their gear much of the way on sleds. Temperatures dropped well-below zero and stayed there. Blizzards lasted for days. The summit of the Chilkoot was too steep for sleds, so they had to haul their outfits over one pack at a time -- 20 or more trips hauling 100-pound loads up and over a rugged mountain pass.

At Lake Bennett, they went to work sawing logs into planks for rudimentary boats. Mid-May, when the ice finally broke up, thousands launched their homemade boats onto the lakes and resumed the exodus -- 600 miles across vast lakes, through whitewater rapids and mosquito-infested bogs.

At each obstacle in the course, there were those who threw up their hands, sold their outfits and limped back home.

Others persisted, endured. Hundreds died for their efforts -- shipwrecked on the rocky Northwest coast, murdered for their outfits, buried in snow avalanches or frozen in their sleep, drowned in the Yukon River rapids or fallen by dysentery or other diseases in the muddy streets of Dawson.

Pierre Berton, a Canadian historian, figures 100,000 people set out for the Klondike in 1897-99. Of those, about one-third eventually reached it. Perhaps half of those actually worked in the gold fields, and a few hundred actually got rich.

And most of those who found their fortunes squandered them on booze or bad investments before they made it back to civilization -- if, indeed, they made it back.

Mont Hawthorne made it to Dawson, but he did not find much gold, barely enough to make his expenses back.

And then he went home.

What did he and thousands like him get for their efforts?

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Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company