The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899
The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899
The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899 The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899 The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899 The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899

* Book Type:

Not Available Online
Publisher: Boston Mills Press

Edition Notes: 100th Anniversary Edition
Author Statement: Pierre Berton
Audience: Trade
Specs: 200 black and white archival photographs
Pages: 240
Trim Size: 9" x 10 1/4" X 5/8"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20050702
Copyright Year: 2005
Price: Select Below

The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899

Now in paperback: A special edition celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Klondike gold rush -- written by Canada's leading popular historian and illustrated with over 200 rare period photographs.

"It is interesting to watch how the expressions change as you progress through the book, from optimistic in the beginning, to almost hopeless by the end... The pictures alone will offer hours of viewing."
-- CM Magazine

"The story of the stampede is told well but shown even better."

This classic book is a truly great photographic essay of an historic event that made millionaires of an anonymous few but crushed thousands more in a hostile climate and unforgiving terrain anticipated by none.

We are nearing the 125th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush and no one has told the story as vividly as Yukon-born Pierre Berton. Canada's leading popular historian compiled over 200 rare period images from the more than 10,000 images in public archives and private collections. Depicting every aspect of what Berton called "one of the strangest mass movements in history," many of the compelling images were first published in this book.

The Klondike Quest brings to life the panoramic drama of the great stampede for gold as seen by the ordinary gold-seeker. The photographs are beautifully reproduced and informatively and colorfully captioned. "One million people, it is said, laid plans to go to the Klondike. One hundred thousand actually set off. And so the Klondike saga is a chronicle of humanity in the mass... For the next eighteen months, the Yukon interior plateau became a human anthill."

As a true story of real men looking for a golden phantom, it's a tale that can't be beat.


Pierre Berton was born in the Yukon in 1920 and worked in the Klondike mining camps as a teenager before forging a career as a journalist and cultural commentator. He wrote 50 books, including many historical non-fiction titles, and won over 30 literary awards and many honorary degrees. Appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1986, Berton died in 2004 at the age of 84.

First Chapter:

Gold Fever

Something was in the wind that July morning in 1897; the loungers waiting on the San Francisco wharf felt it. But what was it? Was there substance to those tantalizing whispers drifting out of the North? Was there treasure aboard the stubby little steamer, stained and rusty, puffing slowly toward the dockside? The Excelsior was nine days out of a distant port on the Bering Sea called St. Michael, near the mouth of a river know as the Yukon. Somewhere along that obscure waterway, so the rumours hinted, something electrifying had happened.

As the ship drew closer, a murmur rose from the crowd. A long line of men in miners' hats was clustered at the deck railing; and now, as individual features began to emerge from the blur, it was seen that these were men aged beyond their years, gaunt and unshaven, their faces leathered by the sun but with eyes that glittered feverishly -- picture-book prospectors, in fact. The buzz increased as it was noticed that their tattered clothing was still stained with the mud and clay of some far-off northern valley.

An outlandish scene followed. Down the gangplank they staggered, wrestling with luggage that seemed extraordinarily heavy -- old leather grips bursting at the hinges, packing cases about to break apart, bulging valises, blanket rolls barely secured by straps and so heavy that it required two men to hoist each one to the dock.

It dawned on the spellbound onlookers that this was not common baggage: that these suitcases, canvas sacks, old cartons and boxes were stuffed not with socks and shirts but with gold. And these men, who had been paupers a few months before -- some driven nearly to suicide by despair -- were now rich beyond their wildest fantasies.

In that moment of comprehension, the Klondike stampede began, not quietly or gradually, but instantaneously and with explosive force. Before the Excelsior could turn north again, her agents had been forced to refuse tickets to ten times her passenger list. For gold was a magic word in that dark and dreadful decade, which history has mislabeled the Gay Nineties. In those drab years, when depression destroyed hope and men and women literally died in the gutters of starvation, gold was the rarest of prizes, to be hoarded in socks and sugar bowls by those who had lost faith in paper. Now, it appeared, there was a favoured land somewhere beyond the subarctic mists where the treasure lay thickly on the ground waiting to be shovelled into club bags. And anybody could dig it out -- a one-time YMCA worker, and ex-laundryman, a former muralist! For such were among the fortunate ones traipsing off to Selby's Smelting Works with their golden burden, a chattering mob at their heels.

By the time a second treasure ship docked at Seattle, two days later, a kind of mass lunacy had seized the continent. Five thousand people jammed Schwabacher's Dock to greet the Portland at 6 a.m., July 19; by 9:30, every road leading to the wharfside was crammed with men and animals, carts and drays. It was as if everyone had been waiting for an excuse to break free. Somewhere just beyond the horizon's rim -- few knew exactly where -- lay wealth, adventure, and, perhaps more important, release from the dreariness of the decade. In the first twenty-four hours, two thousand New Yorkers tried to buy tickets to the Klondike. In the first week, hundreds quit their jobs; within a month tens of thousands had followed suit. Streetcar operators deserted their trains, policemen their beats, pastors their charges. Clerks walked out of offices, salesmen jumped counters, reporters quit their desks. The mayor of Seattle, attending a convention in San Francisco, did not bother to return home but wired in his resignation and joined the herd.

The world caught the disease. Maoris, Kanakas, Scots, and Serbs were infected. People wore buttons proudly proclaiming, "Yes, I'm going this spring"; it was the thing to do. Men in Klondike outfits were treated free in the saloons. Any druggist's clerk, brought up on Ned Buntline dime novels, could walk into a photographer's studio, don the obligatory furs or mackinaw and high boots, and feel that he too was a seasoned prospector heading for high adventure in a magic land.

One million people, it is said, laid plans to go to the Klondike. One hundred thousand actually set off. And so the Klondike saga is a chronicle of humanity in the mass -- of thousands squeezed onto wharfs, jamming street corners, choking roadways; of men, women, horses, and dogs crushed together below decks on overloaded steamers; of beaches crowded with prospectors and pack animals, of dense lines of gold seekers struggling up mountain slopes; of rivers and lakes alive with water craft; of gutted valleys buzzing like hives and ramshackle villages bursting into cities. For the next eighteen months, the Yukon interior plateau became a human anthill.

San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Victoria teemed with men, every hotel filled to suffocation, the restaurants overtaxed, the lodging-houses roaring. Near the dock areas, a river of humanity moved sluggishly between ten-foot stacks of supplies. Hundreds clogged the roadways dressed in the approved garb (garish mackinaws, wide-brimmed hats, iron-cleated top-boots), buying beasts of burden: dogs, goats, sheep, oxen, burros, mules, ponies, even reindeer and elk -- anything on four legs -- at outrageous prices. And as they waited for the ships to take them north, as the steerers from the outfitting houses moved among them and the smooth-talking three-card monte men took their savings, they babbled incessantly about gold, caressing the word with tactile adjectives as if the metal were an end in itself and not a means to a better life. The press caught the sensuous sound and reproduced it with such phrases as "rich, yellow gold," "hard, solid gold," "shining gold." It was up there, somewhere, glittering among the mosses.

Blinded by the prospect of gold, the tenderfeet had only the vaguest idea of what lay ahead. Yet almost every man who fought for passage on the leaky boats bound for Skagway and Dyea was convinced that he would return with a fortune. Some even took gunny sacks to hold the nuggets they expected to scoop from the gravels of Bonanza and Eldorado creeks.

In the Yukon, autumn was already in the air, the birches on the hillsides yellowing, the buckbrush on the treeless peaks turning purple, the shallow ponds bearing a thin skin of morning ice. The stampeders had themselves photographed proudly swathed in furs and so must have had some inkling of the conditions facing them: of the numbing cold on the beaches, the winds howling through the passes, the ghostly fog of the northern winter. But fantasy possessed them: it was as if the gold by its very nature -- by its glitter, by its shine -- could warm them. Experienced voices sounding notes of caution were drowned out by the thunder of the stampede.

The Nineties was the decade of the swindler and the confidence man, and it might be said that every white- and blue-collar worker who joined in the scramble that winter was conning himself. He had to believe he would find what he was seeking, otherwise in conscience he could not go -- could not desert his job, his family, his home, for a will-o'-the-wisp beyond the frozen mountains. But not to go was unthinkable. So, in that era of insecurity, when mortgages were foreclosed on a whim, when robber barons prospered and most others grew more wretched, when the workhouse, the sweatshop, and the pauper's grave were realities and not figures of speech, each man who set off on the golden trail was forced to believe not only in the future but also in himself. Thus, in an odd way, the Klondike quest wiped out the crisis of confidence that has stultified a continent. "Hurrah for the Klondike!" the crowds on the dock carolled, as each overladen ship limped out of harbour. It was a kind of war cry, a mass paean of hope that somehow, in some magical way, things were going to be better.

Success at the rainbow's end became an article of faith. No scheme was too harebrained, no project too lunatic to shatter the confidence of the true believers. A diver who announced that he would trudge beneath the foaming waters picking up nuggets was taken seriously. So was a man who proposed to suck gold from the creeks using compressed air, and another who claimed to have trained gophers to dig for treasure, and a group of clairvoyants who planned to find the elusive pay-streak by gazing into crystal balls. Scores set off for the promised land on bicycles or on ingenious adaptations of them -- on "ice bicycles" or "bicycle skates" -- for this was the high point of the velocipede craze. Others planned to soar across the mountains by balloon or chug up the icy passes on motor sledges or snow trains with gigantic sprocket wheels. No device was too bizarre to attract the gullible.

The idea of gold begot gold. Once it had been so scarce that a gold dollar was worth twice as much as a paper dollar, but now the coins came out from beneath the floor boards as the gold seekers spent their hoards on anything bearing the magical name "Klondike" -- on Klondike glasses, Klondike medicine chests, even Klondike soup; on anything designed to lighten the burden on the long trail north: coffee lozenges, evaporated eggs, desiccated onions, beef blocks, peanut meal, saccharine and pemmican; and on less practical devices: mechanical gold pans, nugget-in-the-slot machines, patented gold rockers, collapsible beds, knockdown boats, portable cabins, scurvy cures, even x-ray machines designed to detect the presence of the golden treasure hidden in the dross.

Like those thrill seekers who gaped at the astonishing illusions of the stage magicians, the stampeders were caught up in the willing suspension of disbelief. There were those who set off for the mystic land of gold as blithely as they might depart for London, Paris, or Bombay. They took caged canaries, parrots, upright pianos, portable bowling alleys, lawn tennis sets, magic lanterns. The marvel is that some of this bric-à-brac actually reached the city of gold. Some of it is there to this day.

Their optimism was unparalleled, and that is strange because theirs was not an optimistic age. But it was an age of yearning, and the Klondike had taken on a mythic aura. It was more than a goldfield, more than a piece of geography: it was Beulahland, the panacea to all the fears and torments of the era, an answer for the lonely, and inspiration to the God-fearing, a bulwark against the frailties of the flesh. For if the creek beds were said to be paved with gold, were not also the streets of the New Jerusalem?

Thus, no one was much surprised when the Beecher Memorial Church of Brooklyn announced that it would build a second Brooklyn in the clear air of the Yukon, free of drinkers, gamblers, and non-Christians, at the foot of "a mountain which is said to be the fountainhead of the gold-field"; or when a leading sociologist developed a scheme to transport four thousand spinsters from the sweatshops of New England to the free and open spaces of the Klondike; or when a Pittsburgh promoter launched a matrimonial agency to secure jobs in the promised land for one hundred "poor but respectable women"; or when the Bowery Mission of New York dispatched an expedition north headed by a reformed gambler, charged with converting his fellow stampeders as well as digging for gold.

So strong was their faith in the magic of the Klondike that five hundred widows seeking rich husbands chartered a steamer and set off from New York round the Horn for the goldfields, and in spite of shipwreck and Patagonian cannibals managed to limp into Seattle before their funds were dissipated and their dreams shattered.

Few knew exactly where the Klondike was, and, perhaps because they feared the truth, a surprising number did not bother to find out. A man who planned a regular balloon route to the Klondike -- the round trip, he said, would occupy a fortnight -- was besieged with offers from hundreds who had obviously never consulted a map. And there were other schemes, equally nutty: a reindeer service modelled on the pony express; a bicycle path to the goldfields to service a chain of trading posts; even a postal system using carrier pigeons.

This blindness to geography was a symptom of the fever that gripped the continent. One Canadian syndicate actually received a government charter to build a railway across seven hundred miles of unmapped tundra from Hudson Bay to Great Slave Lake and on to Dawson, a journey that an enthusiastic Toronto newspaper reported would take a mere seven days. There was something about the Klondike disease that caused normally rational businessmen to abandon all reason and indulge in pipedreams. But then these fantasies were abetted by those who saw profit in madness and gold in gold fever: outfitters, eager to turn a dollar; Chamber of Commerce boosters, booming their communities; promoters organizing syndicates for cash on the barrelhead. For every man in the crowd scrambling northward seeking a gold mine, there was at least one shill on the lookout for a mark.

In the coastal cities the crowds on the docks were so desperate for berths on any vessel going north that scores refused to give up their places in the queue to eat or sleep. Thousands fought for tickets or robbed those who had tickets or bribed their way aboard the floating coffins struggling along the ravelled coast of British Columbia and past the fiords and glaciers of the Alaska panhandle. On these patched-up craft, once condemned to the boneyard, now resurrected to fill the demand, conditions were such that by comparison penal servitude must have seemed almost jolly. Some passengers were packed in ten to a cabin, on bunks of rough lumber; others lived in suffocating holds or on the deck even in the driving rain. They slept in their clothes, waited seven hours for an execrable meal, suffered storms, explosions, starvation, shipwreck, mutiny, and mayhem. Dogs died in their crates, men were swept overboard in storms, horses kicked each other into insensibility, and yet the stampeders suffered it all -- suffered the stench of manure and vomit, the continual yapping and howling of pack dogs, the dreadful claustrophobia below decks, the choking clouds of coal dust, the groaning and creaking of the leaky hulls, and, above all, the sweat of their fellow men, packed tightly like so may herring for days, even weeks, on end. They suffered it because, at the end of the ghastly sea journey, the beaches of Skagway and Dyea beckoned. And beyond the beaches lay the mountain trails. And beyond the lakes lay the great river. And at the river's end lay Mecca.

  1. Gold Fever
  2. The Shimmering Sands
  3. The Trail of Dead Horses
  4. Up the Golden Staris
  5. The Armada
  6. The Shuffling Throng
  7. The Creeks
  8. City of Gold
  9. All That Glitters...

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