Dawson and Klondike, Y. T.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE outline broadens, since from White Pass forward we are dealing with true continental spaces, though every little town we come to seems even smaller than the last. The railroad line twists down through the untamed land where air is keen with tang of northern forests, round-about castellated Lake Bennett, on to Carcross, which is known to Tahkheesh Indians as " the place where the caribou cross the River," and so to the grand canyon of the Yukon, through that chasm where the river runs deep under towering basalt rock-walls but eighty feet apart. Here the daredevils of old days rode the sharp razor-back of tortured waters, crying their prayers or cursing as they disappeared forever in that boiling chute of foam.
When this was passed—and if—they shot next into wild unbroken White Horse Rapids, quite as menacing in threat of speed and whirlpool, where the poured torrent gathers. Men named it well, for those white-tossed manes of water stallions still plunge their wild way through. Those who played safe here, built a tramway round, with primitive rails of poles—which served until the blessed miles of railroad, as to-day, solved problems for us all and drop us safely now at the rail-head terminus of White Horse, summer-caught in violets and wild roses blooming near " Sam McGee's " old cabin. Here travellers set out upon the Upper Yukon's self, in little stern-wheeled steamer Casca, which must, at that, run upstream for a quarter mile to find a place that's wide enough to turn, before we start down on our two-day voyage to Dawson.
The Yukon is in childhood here, and has not come yet to behave as old wise rivers do, but tossed and broke its men and boats as peevish children break their toys in play. Beyond, it has the charm of clean, impetuous, but constricted youth. Later it learns to flow in quiet maturity and bear with poise its greater burdens. All the way to Dawson this river of the North which gave to seeking thousands the great thrill of their lives and brought sharp death to many, will be growing, winning its tribute of new waters first through Lake Lebarge, and Teslin down at Hootalinqua. Five Finger and Rink Rapids are terrifying even now, but safe to river-wise captains. Lone cabins upon high cut-banks are tossed a sack of mail without a tie-up, as the current snatches us along. We see a mother grouse send her brood scampering into the poplar chaparral, while she re-mains to watch us, clucking anxiously. The shores are massed in flame of fireweed, are arrow-tipped in spruce, are elder-banked, or sheer in cliffs of tan, of ochre, of vermilion. Minto gives a glimpse of the big roadhouse built of logs, for winter horse-stage passengers from Dawson up to White Horse. Big Salmon River joins us from the east, the Pelly, Stewart, and then at last the Klondike, and we know we are at Dawson. We have climbed to 64°, a much higher latitude than Leningrad, or Helsingforsother world-famous northern capitals.
There are two Dawsons: the plank sidewalks and the empty run-down stores we see to-day; and those man-crowded, hectic, wall-to-wall packed Dawson streets that are an unforgetable memory in minds of men who walked them in the gold-fever-racked days of '98. You cannot know the one without the other, and to us who are Alaskans Dawson is even more. Although not in Alaska proper, but just across the border, Dawson City contains the background and the reason for both Nome and Fairbanks, for Dawson comes before the other camps of the North, in every meaning of the phrase. This was the hard school where our early sourdoughs learned their first-grade lessons in the wisdom of the High North, passed her severe examination, and. graduated to be termed her Pioneers.
Today her enemies call Dawson "an old man's home for decayed politicians and remittance men." Those who wear a pessimistic monocle can cite a basis for such finding in any generation-old frontier town, any British colonial city. But if you see only this aspect here, then you have not seen the reality of Dawson.
The town of Dawson lies on widely sloping ground at the edge of a valley, and stretches along the river bank for two and a half miles. Like Juneau, The Dome rises back and above it, with high hills opposite. The great mushroom town of other days, when Dawson housed its nearly thirty thousand people and boats were tied ten deep along its water-front, has settled down to orderly and uneventful middle age after its flaming youth. Here are schools and churches, a hospital, a library, pleasant residences, all the resources of a modern town, in spite of the fact that it is " built upon a frozen peat bog." The streets are wide, the vistas always open to the river, which is the town's great highway. Even though many buildings are deserted, Dawson keeps something of a big-town manner still. The comfy houses have flowers in every window box, hanging baskets of growing vines droop from the small porches, hothouses and vegetable gardens seem to be attached to each cottage. No people could appear more cheerful than the smiling cottagers; and yet, walking the streets of Dawson after eleven, though it is daylight still, I find them haunted streets.
In this cabin, at the foot of this big slide back of St. Mary's, a lad of twenty-one once spent a winter. Here he saw such sights and lived such nights, his mind forever after kept the impress. American red-blooded literature is rich by many treasures because Jack London walked the streets of Dawson with his pal " Swiftwater Bill," and formed here that strange, shuddering, unbreakable, Quixotic attachment for The North of Paradox which another lad, also a Dawson ghost, truly called " The Spell of the Yukon." The hot youth of these now quiet streets is unforgetable, because these two youths once had lived here.
Robert Service was a British boy who had been to Glasgow University, and came out to Canada when he was only twenty. He was clerk in a Dawson bank—and in the early days of Dawson a bank was an old trunk set in a tent! " Very quiet, very shy," my Fairbanks friends describe him; and I know a score of men who lived for years in Daw son, saw him almost daily, and knew, as well as any one could ever know, this most retiring man. The editor of our Fairbanks paper, who once published here in Dawson, claimed to be the first person Robert Service asked to consider his poems for publication; and I have often heard " W. F." speak of the thrilling real sense of a " find" he felt, greater than that of any gold strike, when reading those first poems of an unusual genius. The finest tribute we of the North can pay to Robert Service is to state this true and solemn fact: it really takes a desperate effort is indeed almost impossible—to speak or write any-thing about the real heart and the spirit of The North and not to quote him. He has said incomparably well so many things the rest of us have thought and felt and know, but find so hard to phrase.
This quiet retiring bank clerk in the great rush, not of it watched the whole pageant of the great stampede unfold, observed and heard, and in the silence of his little cabin at the end of one of Dawson's streets, where the steepening grade decides to quit in favor of the hillside, Service caught and wrote down the intimate spirit of the thing. No one of those actually in the stampede ever did this, for London dealt in concrete phases, not in over-tones. But as an outsider, listener at an observation post, young Service saw most of the game. From his counter in the banking house he watched with an unusually understanding eye all that hectic life as it slipped past—its bitter and its cruel, its humor, its generosity, its chilled enthusiasms, its breaking and its making of men.
At nights, up in this little one-room cabin, he put his thoughts to paper, and wove a spell of Klondike which cannot ever die. Here came to birth the soiled and pretty lady " known as Lou," the crazy grimness of a Sam McGee. The rustic cabin is empty to-day but for these ghosts. Moose antlers overhang the door, wild roses crowd the little yard. The unstripped poles which rail that small porch of a mighty view, are peeling off and weather-beaten; the steps of log by which you may approach and enter, have not for many years felt any master's footfall.
What he observed and heard, from this secluded cabin on the hill, was quite another Dawson from the one we see today. The Royal Alexandria, where we house, was once a famous dance hall, where (so my old friends tell me) " box rushers swarmed, men got plum crazy, and tilted pokes of dust out on the bar. Nuggets were rained on favorite girls, women sold their favor for their own actual weight in gold, men smeared themselves all over the place, and got so drunk they drank from the spittoons! Yet there was little theft and little murder, thanks to the Northwest Mounted Police, who had a well-deserved rep for handling the mob, and got an order out of chaos, somehow. At the border they kept a list of everybody setting out for Dawson, and we all had to register again as soon as we got in there. Any man who got himself convicted for a crack of any law was introduced to `Corbett and Fitzsimmons.' That was the city wood-pile of a thousand fat logs and a brace of heavy cross-cut saws! Those slick gun-toters of Skagway and Dyea took one good look at that big wood-pile, and didn't like the picture! Cracking law here meant just ten hours a day on the business end of that saw, with an iron ball and chain stuck to your foot. And there would be a ` mountie' standing by, neat and nonchalant in his big stetson, scarlet coat, tight breeches and high shiny boots, with a crack and a snap to that voice of his that made a man jump worse than a six-shooter! You know that it gets cold in Dawson of a winter—colder than Fairbanks, I'd say, though it's not so far north.
The old winds sometimes howl around The Dome, and Dawson's so shut by hills, she gets less winter light than we do. Well, when she's dropped to fifty minus, and a fellow is put to the wood-pile, you saw for dear life, pretty vigorous! In thirteen years Dawson had only twelve murders, as I remember; and every blessed one of those twelve murderers got convicted and bumped off to the good Queen's taste —except one fellow, who fooled the majesty of law by dying before they'd time to settle with him!
" Those were the good old days—when we paid a double eagle just for a place in line at Post Office. And why not? Your time was precious when there were millions just underneath the grass roots. In one night a man I knew spent $750 for cigars and $3,000 for drinks, blowing it in. She was a high, wide, handsome town, old Dawson—plenty of booze and gambling. But orderly, mind you,-no rough stuff, like Dyea and Skagway. The ` mounties' saw to that."
Out on the creeks beyond Dawson, whence the gold came, to-day a great ditch brings down a terrific force of water, which is eating up the very last grain of what once seemed inexhaustible treasure. And even though my husband is a mining engineer, I must say that this type of mining by dredge and hydraulic certainly spoils the look of a country! You drive out on a good auto road up the Klondike River, now almost blocked with tailings, to Bonanza Creek, where the black-nosed hungry nozzles are tearing down the hills and leaving desolation. It is hard to realize that so short a time has elapsed since George Washington Carmack, out fishing with his Indian squaw, panned the first high-grade gravel on Bonanza Creek.
Some say it was on the 17th of August, 1896, that Kate Carmack herself, washing in the creek eight or ten miles from the present Dawson, noticed yellow pebbles in the water and carried them to show her husband and her brothers—Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. Alas, poor Kate, her life was one of sordid tragedy! The Indian woman as a millionaire's wife was unhappy. Carmack left her to shift for herself, and she returned to her own people in Carcross where, after years of poverty, she died. Some say it was Carmack himself, out hunting with his Indian brother-in-law,—or, in another version, " fishing for salmon beside the old birch tree,"—who first saw tell-tale coarse colors on Bonanza. Others claim that Robert Henderson preceded him in the discovery, had sluiced and taken out about $750 in gold here, earlier in the summer of '96, but that Carmack was the first to stake. At any rate, a " quiet rush " began at once among the knowing ones already mining in the neighborhood; for McQuesten, " the father of the Yukon," had come into this country back in '73, by the Mackenzie and the Porcupine, and he had built a trading post at Fort Reliance, six and a half miles below the present site of Dawson; while the Hudson Bay had established fur outposts in the section long before that. So there was a group of about two hundred well-established pioneering white men already on the ground, to take advantage of Carmack's strike. David Mackay, Daniel McGillivray, and Harry Waugh were among the first to start actual mining, and each of these men made a fortune. Ladue staked out a townsite at the mouth of the Klondike (the Ton-dac river of the Indians) and in partnership with Walter Harper, another old-timer, induced Ogilvie, the Dominion surveyor, to lay out streets and lots. This he did, naming the town " Dawson " in honor of his superior, the Director of the Canadian Geological Survey.
Information of the strike did not reach the Outside, however, until mail from this section came through in January, and by then all the best ground had, of course, been staked. But in the spring some fifteen hundred persons set out from the States, a few going the long boat route by St. Michael and up the Yukon, and the remainder over the passes. So far the news had caused only a flurry of interest, for gold rushes were " old stuff " on the Pacific Coast, and had been since '49. But on July 14, 1897, the Alaska Commercial Company's steamer Excelsior swung in through Golden Gate like a Spanish galleon of old, and landed at the foot of Market Street a vagabondish crew who staggered ashore bearing three quarters of a million dollars' worth of pure gold. In Seattle, on the 18th, docked the North American Transportation and Trading Company's ship, The Portland, bringing an even larger cargo of gold and confirming news of the strike. The greatest gold stampede in history was on.
The Bryan campaign of '96 had bruited the word " gold." The Midwest sweltered in a phenomenal heat wave, that summer of '97, and the " ice-bound North " of tradition sounded very alluring. Times were hard, and placer mining is an occupation in which any poor man may engage, for it requires little capital and yields (theoretically!) great returns. This new strike appealed to the imagination of men; it seemed to be an open door of hope for the unfortunate. But those unfortunates who came to Dawson with the stampede, at the end of '97 or in the spring of '98, found that they were too late to take up ground, and they must either take a lay " on a claim or work for wages. The Klondike was not a large region but a very small one, only thirty miles square; and oft this, only small portiooft the creek beds were available for mining. There was room for 2,500 claims, at most, and all of these had been taken up in the "quiet rush," before the great stampede ever began. This was another of the real tragedies of '98, for it was a fact entirely overlooked by the crowds that soon swarmed into the country.
Wherever the procession halted, to make transfer or a portage," men tell, "ter sprang up a town. The summer season in Alaska, though intense, of course is short, and closes in on winter with amazing quickness. Soon the rains descended, making quagmires of the trails, drenching everything and everybody, and the oncoming snows put a stop to everything. The hardier ones pushed on undaunted the goal. But these belonged to the great minority. Their fellows, inexperienced and soft, beat a hasty retreat to Skagway. The original miners worked their claims for a few years, and then, having skimmed off the cream, as it were, they sold out to the Yukon Gold Company, a Guggenheim corporation." So the years have passed since Carmack's sensational discovery brought a human tidal wave rolling into this Canadian territory, to lap its spray and roll on over into adjacent Alaskan territory, and make the name of Klondike a house-hold word in all the world.
The weak and the indothe sons of Mary, the sons of rest tarried only a little while. Martha's sons of toil remained, attracted by the strange spell of the North. The climax of gold production came in 1900, when in one year $22,000,000 was taken from this little district; while in all, $200,000,000 has been mined, to date. By 1910 the richest gravels were worked out, and most of the population had left—many stepping over just next door into Alaska. For the result of the discovery of the Klondike was the subsequent development of mining at Nome, Fairbanks, the Iditarod, Ruby, the Koyokuk and many other gold fields—all in Uncle Sam's Alaska. Only an imaginary, near, and man-made boundary line divides Alaska here from " Y. T." ; and the two territories are alike in history, opportunity and geography. There's nothing Service says of the Yukon that can't be said also of Alaska, except the Northwest Mounted Police—so picturesque and useful—whom, alas, we Americans do not have. Almost all the later Alaskan gold discoveries were made by prospectors who got their early schooling on the creeks back of Dawson—those creeks with golden-sounding names such as Bonanza, Eldorado, Gold Hill, King Solomon, Gold Run, Monte Cristo, Ready Bullion—and plain flat names, too, such as Irish, French, Sourdough, and Cheechako.
Here, with the terrible callousness to life natural where so much had been risked and where there was so much to gain, " Swedes were cheaper than mine timbers." Gold stood around in old cans on the shelf, next to the sugar, or in old rubber boots stuck into a corner. " There was no time to wash," one old man recollects. Another—" We cooked our food on the same shovels we dug with. It's an easy way. We liked it." One woman friend of mine in Fair-banks told me that she made more money baking bread for miners, on Hunker Creek, than her husband ever took out of his claim there!
For the greatest enemy these creek miners knew, in those early years, was not the cold of Dawson winters, nor the mad frenzy of the gold rush, nor yet man's greed or hate or jealousy, but scurvy. And scurvy is entirely a matter of diet. It's not the climate of the North which makes for scurvy, as so many people falsely think. Stefansson, exploring for many years upon the Arctic ice, never had scurvy, for he understood its cause; but sailors in the far South Seas, whole armies in the Tropics, have died of scurvy if they had unbalanced diets lacking the foods containing that mysterious and elusive new-found something the scientists call " vitamine C." Death from scurvy can happen in any place where you don't eat either fresh vegetables or fresh meats. There are plenty of the former in the Tropics, and plenty of the latter in the farthest Arctic regions. So ignorance is the only excuse today for any sufferer from this disease, once so dreaded by all who went down to the sea in ships.
I know a Fairbanks man who spent a winter on one of the Dawson creeks, in a cabin with one partner. My friend was a Yorkshireman, " sot in his ways," and he'd a notion that " a white man should take a bath and three meals every day, eat plenty 0f meat that's rather underdone, vegetables if you can get them—and fruit, even if you have to filch it!" His partner did not hold to such " finnicky " ways, and so, though bunking and rooming in the same tiny cabin, for all that long winter they kept separate grub piles and did their separate cooking. My friend kept solemnly to his fixed English schedule, at the cost of extra time off for hunting, fabulous sums for dried apricots and prunes, and the jeers of his companion when, in frigid temperatures, he stripped and bathed.
The other ate one ravenously hearty meal of " beans and sow-belly " per diem, never touched fresh meat or fruit, and never bathed. Toward spring he developed gums that were swollen and purple, his teeth came loose, and he grew gloomy and depressed. His joints were an agony of pain from hemorrhages and changes of the bone marrow. " You could press your finger in his arm, or the calf of his leg," George says, " and the dent stayed there, like putty. It was horrible!" Before the summer came, the partner died, whereas my friend is still a husky chap and tells to-day with glee how, with true Yorkshire stubbornness, he rationed out his lonely prunes and half-raw caribou steaks, and, although jeered at, saved himself from a like tragedy.
The greatest feat of that great Captain Cook—who, in his long eighteenth-century sailing trips, touched and named so many points on our own Alaskan Coast—was not, I think, his far discoveries, nor yet his brave death in the South Seas, but rather the fact that he was the very first to make a conquest of scurvy by feeding liberal rations of " sweet wort " and sauerkraut to his men. Today any intelligent person knows the anti-scorbutic supplements to diet, but back in '98 men with red bleeding gums and loosened teeth they spat like cherry stones, crowded the Dawson river bank as the first scows of freight arrived that spring, and paid " two bits " a piece for lemons, apples, oranges, potatoes, or onions!
The lucky ones who thus checked the scurvy in time, before it had gone too far in its inroads, showed improvement in two or three days and were cured in a month. The others lie within the slopes of those same gold-washed Klondike hills they came so hopefully to conquer.