Yukon Celebrates Gold Rush Centenary
Madeleine Gould can often be seen on the streets of Dawson sporting a T-shirt that reads: "The Yukon: where men are men and women are pioneers." The T-shirt is an artifact from Gould's nine-year legal battle to join the all-male Yukon Order of Pioneers, a 102-year-old organization that, among other things, records and collects Yukon history. In March, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 7 to 2 against the 74-year-old great-grandmother, declaring that since it is a private group that does not provide direct services to the public, the Yukon Order of Pioneers is allowed to discriminate in its membership. Gould has taken the ruling - to which the high court's two female justices dissented - in stride. "When I heard that there were seven men and two women on there, I knew what the score was going to be," she says with typical forthrightness. "I wasn't the least bit surprised."
Feisty. Self-reliant. Stubbornly independent. People who know Madeleine Gould - who moved to Dawson from Toronto in 1946 to be with her husband, John, a Yukon-born gold miner - say she fits all those descriptions. And in this way, she embodies the spirit of the Yukon itself, which this week officially marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of gold on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. That event, near the present site of Dawson, on Aug. 16, 1896, set off what is often described as the greatest gold rush in human history. More than 100,000 people joined the stampede, most of them American men in their 20s, eager to strike it rich at a time when the continent was mired in a deep economic depression. But the gold seekers were drawn to the Yukon by more than the promise of untold wealth. In a world that was becoming increasingly industrialized and urbanized, the Yukon stood out as one of the last frontiers, a place where individuals could still make their mark. To a remarkable degree, that has not changed: 100 years later, the Yukon continues to serve as a land of fresh starts, where people are free to reinvent themselves.
This week, Yukoners, with the help of some visiting dignitaries, are celebrating the spirit of the territory, both past and present. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will travel to Dawson, a picturesque community of 2,000 near the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, which doubles in population every summer as seasonal workers move in to help handle the more than 60,000 tourists who visit each year to recapture a bit of gold rush magic. Chrétien is scheduled to preside over the reopening of the original Yukon commissioner's residence, built in 1912 and recently the subject of a $1.2-million restoration effort by the department of Canadian Heritage.
Yukon-born journalist and popular historian Pierre Berton, whose writings have done as much as anyone's to keep the legend of the Klondike alive, will also be in Dawson to oversee the re-opening of the one-storey wooden home that his father, Frank - who first came to the Yukon in search of gold in 1898 - bought in 1921 for $700 and that Berton recently reacquired at a price of $50,000 ("I think they saw me coming," he says, with a laugh). The house has been restored for a Yukon Arts Council writer-in-residence program, with Toronto novelist Russell Smith slated to become its first occupant this fall. At age 76, Berton, author of the landmark 1958 book Klondike and several other volumes on the gold rush, is still mining his birthplace for new material. He is currently at work on a book about young stampeders who went on to famous careers - people such as George Lewis (Tex) Rickard, a former Texas marshal who later became the manager of New York's Madison Square Garden and the greatest fight promoter of his day, and Alexander Pantages, a penniless Greek immigrant who went on to found a $15-million international theatre chain.
For such people, says Berton, the gold rush was a formative experience, like going to war. "A lot of them went for adventure, for escape," Berton told Maclean's, "anything to break the monotony of the so-called Gay '90s that were anything but gay. They took what little they had and moved north. And I think they found their true character there."
The pursuit of gold, a popular obsession across the continent in the 19th century, eventually brought would-be prospectors to the Yukon River valley, where some 250 eked out a living by the mid-1880s. But it wasn't until the summer of 1896 that George Carmack, a veteran prospector from California, and two Yukon Indian companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, hit the mother lode. Panning up and down Rabbit Creek on August 16, they found enticing traces of gold. Then, in a place where the bedrock lay exposed, they uncovered a nugget the size of a dime. Turning over loose pieces of rock, the men found more gold lying in the cracks, "thick between the flaky slabs, like cheese sandwiches," as Carmack, who renamed the site Bonanza Creek, later related.
After staking their claim the next day, the three men headed down the Yukon River and began to spread the good news. Soon, prospectors from all over Alaska and the Yukon converged on the area. On August 31, an even bigger find was made on Eldorado Creek, a tributary of the Bonanza that was only five miles long. The claims staked there, each one no more than 152 m in width, eventually produced more than $30 million worth of gold - an amount that would be worth more than $500 million today.
The larger world did not hear of the excitement in the Yukon until the steamship Excelsior pulled into San Francisco harbor on July 14, 1897, bearing more than $500,000 in Klondike gold. The news went over the wires, and by the time a second steamship from the Yukon docked at Seattle three days later, a crowd of 5,000 had gathered to greet the 68 miners who ambled down the gangplank carrying about a million dollars worth of gold in battered suitcases and rope-tied bags.
Of the 100,000 who set off for the gold rush, only about a third managed to reach their destination. There were several possible routes, some more treacherous than others. The most common one was to go by ship to the Alaskan settlements of Dyea or Skagway, then by foot over the White or Chilkoot passes to the headwaters of the Yukon River. The Chilkoot hike, though only a distance of 32 km, involved a climb of 1,065 m, some of it nearly at a 40-degree angle. In the spring of 1898, an avalanche killed more than 60 people on this trail. The White Pass, though not as steep, was 40 km longer and included the infamous Dead Horse Gulch, where stampeders drove their overloaded pack animals until they were either killed in falls, dropped dead of exhaustion or starved.
Most of the gold seekers waited out the winter of 1897-1898 at the headwaters of the Yukon River, then began the arduous 800 km boat trip to Dawson, a former Indian fishing camp that blossomed overnight into a bustling community of 30,000 - the biggest Canadian city west of Winnipeg. By the summer of 1898, Dawson boasted two banks, two newspapers and five churches. It also had 20 saloons, a dazzling array of dance halls and gambling houses and a flourishing prostitution trade.
Ironically, most stampeders reached the Yukon only to find that all the good claims had long ago been staked by locals. Still, many felt a keen satisfaction simply in completing the trek. Some settled in the area, and a lucky few even found their fortunes there. Many others, though, fled in favor of new gold finds in Alaska, and as quickly as it had begun, the Yukon gold rush was over. It was left to the likes of British-born Robert Service, who did not arrive in Dawson until many years after the rush, to immortalize the era in ballads like "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Thanks to him, generations of schoolchildren learned about "strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold."
The 100 years following the discovery of gold have not always been kind to the Yukon, which achieved territorial status in 1898. Its fortunes ebbed and flowed with the price of gold and with extraordinary events such as the construction of the Alaska Highway and the Canol oil pipeline during the Second World War. Today, the territory's population stands at 33,000 - less than during the gold rush - and barren ground caribou outnumber people by a 6:1 margin. The Yukon remains heavily dependent on its resource sector as well as the 300,000 tourists who flock there each year, drawn by the spectacular mountain wilderness.
Currently, though, the Yukon is experiencing an econom-ic resurgence. Two new gold mines are set to open this fall, creating about 160 new jobs. Once in operation, they will double the territory's annual gold production to 250,000 ounces - still a far cry from the one million ounces that were extracted in 1900. People rarely come to the Yukon to strike it rich anymore. But they continue to arrive in search of a new way of life. Among them is Amanda Leslie, a 26-year-old Victoria native who moved to Whitehorse in 1993 after spending three years dancing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Leslie is now the lead singer with the vaudeville show Frantic Follies, which entertains about 40,000 tourists each summer. In the off-season, she sings with a country-rock band, Wynona Sue and the Turnpikes. "Singers and dancers are a dime a dozen down south," says Leslie of her decision to head north. "As I got older, I realized that I was not looking for fame and fortune, but for steady work."
Such lifestyle choices are common among newcomers to the territory, says Yukon MP and former national NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin. "I have friends who have PhDs; one's a carpenter, the other works in construction," she says. "They really have a scaled-down, minimalist lifestyle. That's the kind of freedom that I see here." McLaughlin made her own leap of faith in 1979, a time when she was working in Toronto as an executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Divorced and the mother of two grown children, she sold most of her possessions and drove the 5,500 km to Whitehorse in a maroon half-ton pickup truck.
After working as a social policy consultant for the territorial government, she drifted into politics, scoring an upset victory in a 1987 federal byelection. Two years later, she became the first woman to lead a federal party in Canada. Like many others, McLaughlin, now 59, came to the Yukon seeking a bit of adventure, but anticipating a short stay. Seventeen years later, she says, "I feel a real spiritual affinity with the place." She also vows that the Yukon "will continue to be my home until they carry me out."
Not all Yukoners, of course, are from somewhere else. At age 77, John Gould, husband of the irrepressible Madeleine, still occasionally works the same claim area on Hunker Creek, 27 km southeast of Dawson, that his father, Robert, staked in 1903. And despite fickle gold prices and the often backbreaking work, Gould looks back on his life without a trace of regret. "When I was working with Dad," he recalls, "and anything seemed to be going wrong, Dad would say, 'to heck with it, let's go fishing.' And when we came back, things seemed to fall into place. It's out in the open air and it's healthy. It's just a great way of life."
For those with the deepest roots in the Yukon - the people of the First Nations - this week's centenary celebrations mark a different kind of turning point. The influx of non-natives into the territory that began with the gold rush changed their lives profoundly. New diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox as well as the widespread use of alcohol all took a deadly toll. Residential schools ripped children from their homes and robbed them of their language. But for all of that, Judy Gingell, who last year became the first native person to be appointed commissioner of the Yukon, takes a sanguine view of the anniversary. She notes that the First Nations, which signed a major land claim deal with Ottawa in 1993, are finally becoming equal partners in the territory. "I look at these celebrations as a chance to address our hurt and reflect on where we want to go from here," she says. "It's an opportunity to get on with our lives." If such a generous spirit prevails, the truly golden days for Canada's final frontier may still lie ahead.
Maclean's August 19, 1996