Jack London and the Yukon Gold Rush

by Peter Lourie; illustrated by Wendell Minor

In a heavy drizzle, Jack London and his gold- mining partners sat in dugout canoes loaded with five tons of supplies as Sitka Tlingit paddlers drove their seventy- five- foot- long boats through heavy seas. Clouds tumbled like ghosts over the craggy peaks above them. Jack had traveled a long way— first by steamer from San Francisco, California, to Juneau, Alaska, and now by wooden canoe to the coastal village of Dyea (pronounced Die- EE), Alaska, one hundred miles north of Juneau.

Formerly a small Tlingit settlement, Dyea had become a raucous boomtown of wooden and canvas shanties with tenderfoot miners trying to get organized for a trek over the Coast Mountains to look for gold.

Jack London

It was chaos on the Dyea waterfront. (Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, shs2365)

Under the scowling gray sky, wide- beamed sailing dinghies and flat- bottomed craft ran men and cargo from steamers anchored a few miles offshore to the wide mudflats at Dyea. Horses, cattle, and dogs were sometimes pitched overboard to swim to shore, where masses of freight and baggage were dumped like garbage in chaotic heaps.

When the two canoes hit ground on August 7, 1897, Jack London and his partners, along with the Tlingit paddlers and their families, jumped into the icy water and pitched gear onto the flats.

With the seawater above his knees, Jack worked furiously. At five feet seven inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, Jack was fierce and muscular. He had to work fast because it was low tide, and soon the water would rise and sweep everything away.

So the curly- haired, gray- eyed lad muscled his cargo out of the boat and then more than a mile down the flats to higher ground.

In order to separate his and his partners’ thousands of pounds of gear from the supplies of all the other miners, Jack strained under the weight of axes, shovels, pans, cold weather clothes, stoves, and tents, along with one- hundred- pound sacks of rice, flour, sugar, bacon, and, of course, endless cans or crates of tinned beans.

Beans, bacon, and bread— the three Bs— were the staples of the Stampeder, food that he and his partners would live on for a year while they hunted for gold in the Klondike.

On the beach, wild- eyed men desperately grabbed their gear and began to sort through everything. It was a crazy open- air ware house. Everyone was in each other’s way, bumping and shoving and shouting. Jack heard loud curses against the sea wind. Dogs snarled and fought among their masters’ legs.

Jack London

The Excelsior leaves San Francisco for the Klondike. July 28, 1897. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections UW14504)

When he finished getting all his gear organized, Jack explored the makeshift settlement of fifteen hundred tents and crude wooden buildings crammed among the coastal scrub.

He passed jerrybuilt stores selling food and supplies at exorbitantly high prices. Jack saw saloons where miners gambled and drank until they couldn’t walk. He heard rowdy men shooting into the air just for the heck of it.

Here was the start of the long trek. Here Jack London and thousands of other would-be miners geared up for the trip to the Klondike gold fields, six hundred miles into the interior of the Yukon.

These inexperienced miners were called cheechakos, the term for newcomers who were ignorant of the terrain, the weather, the animals, the culture, and the necessary survival skills for the harsh Arctic winter ahead. Many would quit along the way, but Jack was sure he’d succeed.

One problem, though, was that he had to take care of his aged brother- in- law, James Shepard, a Civil War veteran. He had promised his sister, Eliza, that he’d help her sixty- year- old husband with his outfit, too— a second entire supply of food and gear.

Jack LondonJack London was sure he’d be the only one on the trail hauling two outfits over the mountains practically by himself. As hard as that might seem, Jack thrilled at the challenge.

After hearing news of the Yukon gold strikes, Eliza had insisted that her husband, who was keen to join the Stampede, accompany Jack London to the Klondike. In fact, it was something Jack couldn’t refuse because the couple was funding Jack’s trip. Eliza had mortgaged their house in order to buy Jack and her husband over a ton of food and gear.

In Dyea, someone just back from the mountains looked at old Shepard, then turned to Jack and said, “You ain’t gonna make it, son. It’s already August. You and the rest of ’em can’t get over those mountains and down the river to Dawson before the river freezes in October. You just ain’t gonna make it.”

Jack London felt a panic like a punch to the gut. To come all this way from California and then possibly not even stake a claim on a creek!

Failure? Not me, thought Jack. Even with Shepard along, even if the others failed, Jack was sure he’d make it down to Dawson before freeze-up. He had proven himself many times in the face of danger. He was a winner.

At seventeen, Jack had shipped out on a sealing schooner for seven months. One night, a typhoon had whipped the Sea of Japan into a torment. Hardly any sail showed, just “bare poles,” as sailors call it, meaning Jack could only make out the masts. The schooner was ripping along, diving into wave after wave of white spume as the wind tried to drive the boat under.

Jack London’s sea mates saw that Jack had learned quickly how to handle the tiller of the big ship, so they went below to eat their breakfast and left him alone to skipper that three-masted schooner singlehandedly through the fierce storm.

He could barely keep the ship from rolling over. He was terrified, but when the gale was over and he was finally relieved of duty, he felt as if he could conquer any adversity.

That was when he was seventeen, and now at twenty- one, he was even more ruggedly capable— getting to the Klondike was not a problem for Jack. Or so he thought as he went back to his piles of boxes and crates and sacks to guard them against thieves on the Dyea waterfront.

Jack London

Peter Lourie; illustrated by Wendell Minor
Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

Jack London knew he was in a tight race against the Arctic winter. With all the gear he had to haul up over the Coast Mountains and down the Yukon River, it would take at least two months— the rest of August, all of September, and into October—to make the trek from Dyea to Dawson, known as the City of Gold, deep in the interior of Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Only the year before, a great vein of gold had been struck where the Klondike River feeds into the mighty Yukon. In August 1896, three buddies— Keish (Skookum Jim Mason), Káa Goox (Dawson “Tagish” Charlie), and George Carmack— were hunting moose in the hills when they discovered gold shining “like cheese in a sandwich” on little Rabbit Creek, a stream that feeds the larger Klondike River, which in turn feeds into the Yukon.

They quickly staked and registered their mining claims and began to extract masses of gold. Prospectors already living in the area rushed to stake other creeks nearby, but the remoteness of the region and the cruel winter conditions would prevent the bulk of the world’s Stampeders from reaching the area for many months.

Over the next few years, Rabbit Creek (immediately renamed Bonanza Creek) and nearby Eldorado Creek yielded some of the richest gold deposits ever.

In mid- July 1897, a year after the initial strike, two steamers from Alaska pulled into the ports of Seattle and San Francisco. Waterfront crowds watched as the newly rich prospectors carted their gold down the gangplanks, some with wheelbarrows. Here was confirmation of all the wild rumors of gold in the Klondike that had been circulating in newspapers for the previous six months.

Jack London

Skookum Jim Mason (Keish) poses with children at Bonanza Creek, ca. 1898. (National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Candy Waugaman Collection, KLGO Library, DP-110-9028)

Like tossing gasoline onto a smoldering fire, fresh news of the Klondike strike rang out across the world, and the Stampede north was on! Secretaries, bartenders, teachers, doctors, and laborers— everyone wanted to go find some gold.

As many as a hundred thousand people set out for the Arctic, some of them bankrolled by investors in towns like El Paso, Texas; New York; and the capital cities of Europe— Berlin, London, and Paris.

In an August 20, 1897, article titled “Missing Long Island Boys,” one newspaper reported that two thirteen- year- olds wanted to get their own gold and were planning to stop at the Central Park Zoo along the way “to see the animals.”

Like everyone else in the San Francisco Bay area, Jack read about the Yukon and the arrival of the steamship in the San Francisco Call on July 15, 1897. A mere ten days later, with their “outfit” of thousands of pounds of food, clothes, and mining gear, Jack and Shepard boarded an overloaded steamer heading north.

They and thousands of others were among the first Stampeders to the Yukon. The newspapers often referred to them as “Argonauts,” harkening back to the Greek heroes who accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.

Jack London also heard the disturbing news that veteran prospectors already living in the Yukon had claimed all the good areas along the creeks and rivers. People said it would be difficult to find a section of a creek to look for gold.

On board the overloaded steamer from San Francisco to Seattle and then aboard another rust- bucket steamer to Juneau, Alaska— where they glided along with glacier- packed peaks in the background and porpoises and killer whales alongside— Jack and Shepard formed an important partnership with three other Stampeders.

Jack London

George Carmack with pick
(Royal BC Museum and Archives,
Image B-08421)

Since his old brother- in- law was fairly useless, Jack thought it would be wise to connect with younger men with varying skills that would allow them to pool their talents and gear (they could take only one tent, for instance), making it more possible to achieve the goal of reaching the Klondike.

They partnered up with “Big Jim” Goodman, an experienced logger and miner in his forties with a close- cropped beard and mustache; bantam weight Merritt Sloper, shorter than Jack London, a little bit older, and a master carpenter and boat builder just back from adventures in South America; and red- whiskered Fred Thompson, like Goodman also in his forties, a tall and tidy man, who talked a lot and was a court reporter from Santa Rosa, California. Thompson said he would keep a diary of their journey to the Klondike. Big Jim had prospected in the western states of the USA and knew real gold when he saw it.

To reach the Klondike, they’d first hike the Chilkoot Trail, which was the main access route from the coast to the Yukon gold fields. The Chilkoot was a rugged thirty- three- mile trading route from Dyea through the Coast Mountains, up to Lake Lindeman and Lake Bennett in British Columbia, Canada. It was a major route for the Tlingit, Tagish, Hän, and other First Nations groups in the area. (In Canada, Native Americans are called First Nations people.)

After the Chilkoot, they’d have to build a boat (Merritt Sloper’s job); then navigate rapids, lakes, and rivers for more than 550 miles (Jack London would be skipper); then begin to mine the creeks (Jim Goodman’s expertise would come in handy). Fred Thompson “was the business man. When it comes to business and organization he’s boss.” It was a good mix of talented men and boded well for their success. The only problem was Shepard, who complained about aches and pains from the very start.

Back in Juneau, Jack had heard so many frightening stories about the trail ahead that it must have been difficult to know what to believe, except that every story seemed to warn of unbelievable troubles at the Chilkoot summit.

In order to avoid the overloaded and often delayed steamers in Juneau, Jack had hired paddlers with two seventy- five- foot- long Tlingit dugout canoes to take all their gear the one hundred miles to Dyea. The paddlers brought along their wives, babies— dogs even— and they traveled for two days, a trip Jack London later described as taking him “between mountains which formed a Yosemite Valley. . . . Glaciers and waterfalls on every side.”

Peter Lourie has written many award-winning nonfiction books for young readers. A true adventurer, he has traveled all over the world to research his subjects—from the cloud forest of Ecuador in search of Inca treasure, to Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya on the Ethiopian border, to Tierra del Fuego, and the jungles of Rondonia, Brazil. He is the author most recently of three books about the Arctic: The Polar Bear Scientists, Whaling Season, and Arctic Thaw. He lives in Vermont with his family.

Wendell Minor is the illustrator of many award-winning picture books for children, including Robert Burleigh’s Abraham Lincoln Comes Home, If You Spend a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond and Edward Hopper Paints His World, as well as the New York Times–bestselling Reaching for the Moon by Buzz Aldrin. He lives in Washington, Connecticut.

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