Thirty-eight years before Washington became a state, no settlers lived in the place that now holds its largest city. Then 24 people arrived from Illinois and started a town where Pioneer Square is today. The year Washington became a state, 1889, a fire destroyed Seattle’s central business district. Seattleites began rebuilding with new construction rules that banned the use of wood. Eight years later a steamship named Portland arrived in port. Aboard were 68 miners and almost 2 tons of gold. As these miners turned the gold into fortunes, they told stories about rivers full of it in northwest Canada. Three prospectors working Bonanza Creek the previous year had discovered what would become the largest concentration of placer gold ever found. A rush lasting only a few years began. Seattle became the main gateway to the gold.
In 1976 the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park opened in Seattle’s Pioneer Square in the post-fire Union Trust Building to tell the exciting story of this era. Before it moved to a larger space in what was once a hotel, the Klondike Gold Rush NHP was the 2nd smallest facility in the National Park Service. Now it’s the 8th smallest because it has been expanded into a 5 Compass attraction. That this NHP is in Seattle is very appropriate because 70,000 of the 100,000 humans who headed for the Klondike in search of gold came through here and outfitted themselves. Even Seattle’s mayor quit his job and headed north.
There were 4 routes to the gold. Those who could afford to do so sailed to the mouth of the Yukon River and moved up it. The most difficult route was overland from Edmonton. Only 200 prospectors who used it made it to the Klondike by 1899 and 70 died trying to get there. Getting there was a major disappointment. Most of the good stakes had been taken by miners fortunate enough to be there during the original strike. Only 1 of 5 got to actually prospect and a mere 300 made more than $15,000 in gold. Most left and opened businesses elsewhere. For example, John Nordstrom went back to Seattle and opened a shoe store that grew into a department store chain.
The Northwest Mounted Police soon began requiring that each miner entering Canada have enough provisions to last for a year. This required arriving at the gold fields with about 2,000 pounds of stuff. Seattle merchants benefited. I didn’t. As I read about the difficulties the stampeders faced in buying and getting their provisions to the Klondike, I experienced sympathetic exhaustion and felt extremely sorry for them. A minimum of 350 pounds of flour headed the list of what they would need, and it would cost almost $500 to get fully provisioned. Most of the hopefuls climbed the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail 20 to 40 times with part of their ton of necessities on their backs each time. The Chilkoot included a 1,000 feet vertical section. I imagined that most of them had nothing left after they visited several of Skagway’s 80 saloons.
The story of the Klondike Gold Rush is endlessly fascinating and extremely well told in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.