Guest Post 10: The Klondike and the Lost Baronet (Part One). The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print).
Perhaps some readers of this Blog are busy planning an adventure holiday for next year? Perhaps a trip up the Amazon, mountain-climbing on or near Everest, or a safari into the wilder parts of Africa? Go back to 1897 and there was only one place in the world to which those of a really adventurous nature wanted to travel – the Klondike:
We are all going to join the gold rush next spring – the fit among us, and especially the unfit; and most of us will be as badly fooled as was the average Californian Argonaut of 1849.
Thus began an article of advice to prospective travellers in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 7th November, 1897. Although few have heard of this newspaper that appeared every Sunday, it was the most popular Sunday paper of the time, selling around a million copies to an avid readership. Not only was it read in Britain, but it was then often sent to sons and brothers on Western cattle ranches or maybe sailing the China Seas, perhaps hunting in Africa or helping to administer the many countries around the world that were under British control. This was the late Victorian age when much of the world’s maps were coloured red and there was intense pride in the great British Empire. Copies of Lloyd’s would be read around camp fires and passed around other ex-patriots, even when copies were months old, as a reminder of the Old Country.
For several years at the end of the 19th century Lloyd’s regularly carried stories about the great Gold Rush and this issue carried two columns of advice for anyone thinking of seeking their fortune in the Klondike, including a long list of what would be needed, although adventurers were recommended not to buy supplies from any of the London stores keen to sell to the traveller, but to wait until they had reached Canada:
Pocket medicine case full of concentrated drugs and instruments of minor surgery.
“The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide.”
Three-cornered needles – surgeon’s, glover’s, sailmaker’s, sheath knife, flexible with wooden handle, patent buttons, wax end, wax, thread, &c, underclothes and toilet gear.
For salmon – a gaff head. For trout – common tackle. Western fish despise fancy flies.
For meat – a rifle, .46 calibre. Weapons are not carried on the Klondike. It is in Canada and the Mounted Police run that department.
Winter clothes get in Winnipeg.
Of course, it was at that time a very long and slow journey to the west of Canada, about 3,000 miles by ship from Britain to Montreal and then almost as far by train across Canada. The cost of that journey by ship and train was then about £25. A man would need to have been comfortably off to undertake the adventure. The outfit would have cost him £50 and you had to take provisions for a year – and buy them in the Yukon, not take them in with you. The total cost was estimated at the lowest figure to be £185. To put this into perspective, a house servant or similar work in Britain would be paid around £52 a year. Much as an ordinary man might like to try his luck, there was no way he could find that sort of money.
Snow goggles are necessary in Spring.
A fur coat should have an eight-inch collar, and not reach below the knee. The parka of the Esquimaux and the fur trowsers might be got in London and are both excellent. A fur cap and a large light fur robe for bedding will be useful. All very expensive. Fur boots are the best foot gear, but take also Canadian moccasins and shoepacks. Snowshoes should be narrow – Pacific Coast or Arctic. pattern…
For the rest the dealers in Victorian B[ritish] C[olumbia] are old miners of large experience, and their advice is worth taking.
This writer, and often other writers in the newspaper, were very pro-Canadian and often anti-American, as this article showed:
Beware of all advertisements emanating from any part of the United States. It is most important to remember that, although the Alaskan discoveries are said to be equally good, the great excitement relates to goldfields in Canada…The Canadian Pacific railway is the one duty-free route, and in every other respect the best to travel by…
Routes: – The sea passages to the Redoubt St. Michael and up the Yukon is open to objections. So far as I can learn from several gentlemen who have come that way from the Klondike only six cargoes reached Dawson City this year. The rest of the expeditions are stuck on mudbanks…
The story in U.S.A. was somewhat different. It had really started on 17th July 1896 when the steamer Portland arrived at Seattle, the nearest big city to the Canadian Pacific border. It seemed to have many passengers from the Klondike loaded with gold.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer splashed on the front page:
GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!
Sixty-eight rich men on the Steamer Portland.
Stacks of yellow metal.
The story soon spread to newspapers around the world. “A ton of gold from the Klondike” was always the gist of the story. Immediately the fare for a sea passage on the Portland to Alaska jumped from $200 to $1000. Every available ship of all sizes was pressed into service for the Alaska journey, but the trip was not the placid sea trip often promised and many a ship foundered:
…the wreckage was strewn up the coast like a trail, and flotsam and jetsam were floating all the way from Bering Sea. Even ships with veteran masters sank. They struck the rocks or ran aground, tangled in seaweed, or they were beached by the unfamiliar tides. But gold seekers were descending on the coast like locusts. They fought each other for space on any kind of vessel at all that was headed in the direction of Alaska. ¹
It seems that Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper was correct in its warnings about sea travel. Many Americans sold out their business to raise the cash to go. In San Francisco the newspaper columns of ‘peoples popular wants’ ran such advertisements as:
FOR SALE, $400 buys sewing machine store. Leaving city. Good chance for smart party.
FOR SALE, Good paying restaurant. Busy corner. I need cash.
FOR SALE, Will deed my ranch for a stake in Alaska. Make me an offer…
If a man had a friend or a relative from whom he could borrow, he asked for a stake quickly enough. The telegraph offices in Seattle were crowded twenty-four hours a day with people sending frenzied requests for money to get them to Alaska. The Western Union manager of that city told a reporter that his company was shocked at the number who were planning to leave their jobs. He said the messages were just about alike: ‘Send me $500. News not exaggerated’.²
Although there was considerable interest in Britain, the distance and prohibitive costs prevented most adventurers from joining the gold rush. Only a privileged few could raise the finance required. This did not stop Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper from devoting two more columns about a possible expedition on the following weekend (14th November), discussing the various possible routes the adventurer might take. The writer named his favoured route and suggested another way the adventurer might make a certain profit rather than join the hordes digging or panning for gold:
Very little do next year’s travellers care for the railroads of by-and-by. So soon as navigation opens on the Stickeen there will be a great traffic between Telegraph Creek and Teslin Lake, a rapid building of towns where enterprising people will make money. Horses will fetch fancy prices, and they can be bought for a trifle in Southern British Columbia. Go to Kamloops or Spence’s Bridge on the Canadian Pacific, buy horses in the Nicola Valley, load them with oats, and herd them up the Cariboo road to Quesnelle. There load them again with feed and push on north. By June the grass will be excellent, by the middle of May half sufficient. The Telegraph trail is passable to Kispyox on the Skeena, and at Hazelton, seven miles distant, you can buy provisions at an advance of only three and a half cents per pound over coast prices. Load up again and push on to Telegraph Creek and Teslin. The price of your horses there will pay for a trip down the Yukon.
In the Fraser Canyon, where I was prospecting for gold a week ago, miners from all the ends of the earth were moving northwards with pack horses, intending to earn their winter wages in the northern camps, and push on in the spring by Teslin Lake to the Yukon. From Canadian Pacific to Teslin Lake is only about 800 miles, and thence to Dawson City 600, a route without mountains or rapids, with very few big rivers to cross.
The author of this was so taken by his own idea that soon afterwards an advertisement by “Experienced Western Traveller” appeared in The Times offering to lead such an expedition to the Yukon.
He also wrote in the November 14th issue of Lloyd’s that at Telegraph Creek:… There you will find the trees budding, the flowers in blossom, and the grass passably good.
In part two you will read how far out this and his other ideas were. He was later to write that “It looked very good on paper.” In real life his expedition was to end in tragedy and recriminations.
(End of Part One. Part Two will follow shortly.)
¹ Kathryn Winslow The Big Pan-Out [Phoenix House 1952] 39
² Winslow The Big Pan-Out 46-48