The Klondike Gold Rush and Seattle’s Rebirth

by Milton Lum, Contributing Writer

On the afternoon of June 6, 1889, a glue pot boiled over igniting the wood floor of a factory on the waterfront in Seattle. The fire department arrived 30 minutes too late to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjoining saloons and liquor stores. Fueled by the alcohol, the fire burned out of control until it had consumed 120 acres (twenty-five city blocks) resulting in over twenty million dollars in losses. A year later, aided by financial donations from Tacoma and San Francisco, the city had rebuilt itself with four hundred sixty-five new brick buildings replacing the wooden structures. Seattle’s growth was accelerated by the events in the Klondike which catapulted Seattle from a sleepy frontier town to a major metropolis on the world’s stage.

The Gilded Age at the close of the nineteenth century was a period of great economic disparity. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of railroad barons and industrial capitalists. For the common man, striking it rich was the only way he could get ahead. Prospectors combed the hills of the West searching for that elusive mother lode. They gradually moved north toward the Yukon Territory where such a vault was rumored to exist.

George Washington Carmack moved to the Yukon to seek his wealth. He was a second-generation miner who unlike most of his peers integrated with the local indigenous people. He hunted and fished with them, learned their language, and married a daughter of a local chief.  In the late summer of 1896, George and his two Tagish companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, made their way over a mountain and through a swamp to the headwaters of Rabbit Creek, a stream the other prospectors neglected. They panned enough gold to fill an empty Winchester shotgun shell, staked their claims, and hurried downstream to record it. On their way they shared the news of their find with the other prospectors they knew. Some were skeptical but the more trusting ones soon discovered their own pot at the end of a rainbow.

Word spread quickly throughout the region and before long claims were being staked and gold extracted from the land surrounding the newly christened Bonanza Creek. In the spring of the following year when breakup finally freed the mighty Yukon from winter’s icy grip, a group of eighty prospectors headed down the river aboard two steamboats, the Portus B. Weare and the Alice. They brought with them caribou-hide pokes, suitcases, crates, packing cases, and soup cans, all filled with gold dust and nuggets totaling three tons. At St. Michael’s, an Inuit village at the mouth of the Yukon River on Norton Sound, the passengers and cargo boarded the Portland, an ocean steamshipdestined for Seattle, and the Excelsior bound for San Francisco. Ten days following the arrival of the Portland, fifteen hundred people left Seattle bound for the Klondike. In the harbor nine ships were packed to the gunwales and ready to sail. The gold rush was on.

Fortune-seekers came from all parts of the globe as the telegraph and newspapers spread and exaggerated the stories of riches to be had in the North. From New Zealand, the Orient, Europe, and all the states in the U.S., they headed to Seattle and San Francisco, the major ports of embarkation for the gold fields. Many were too addled by gold fever to know what they would need or that they would arrive during the most inhospitable time of the year. The thousands flooding the streets of Seattle and San Francisco seeking passage to the gold fields were easy prey for the suppliers, hucksters, con men, saloon keepers and prostitutes who made their fortune without leaving the comforts of the city.

The madness abated a year later in the spring of 1898, tempered by the realization that America was going to war with Spain. Historians recorded that a hundred thousand people set foot on the trail to the gold fields, and thirty to forty thousand managed to get to Dawson, the closest town. Of these, perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand prospected for gold, and a few hundred actually struck it rich. The richest claims belonged to those already there.

Seattle of all the port cities gained the most from the frenzy. Its population doubled in that one year and continued to grow. Twelve hundred new homes were built in 1899. Business earnings went from three hundred thousand dollars per year to close to ten million. John Nordstrom was one who returned from the gold fields with enough to buy a shoe store from a cobbler he met there. We know how that story turned out.

Editor’s note:  This article is part one of two; be sure to see Part Two in our October Voice.