Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pierre Berton's "Klondike" (Cadillac)

It's hard to empathize with the epic crucible-pilgrimage experience of a late 19th Century Klondike stampeder.  Even a fine historical account like Berton's can only give us a report back of its scope, and hint at the mental map of the time.

The 3 year life cycle of the gold rush to the Yukon was as short as it was intense.  A colossal wave of human and commercial traffic descended on what was essentially raw, remote wilderness, establishing an ad hoc metropolis named Dawson City, and leaving in its wake just a tiny hint of its former scale a short few years later. 

I'll quote once, and at length, from the close of Berton's book.  It's worth it, I think, to consider the real scale of what a rush to Dawson entailed for the average stampeder: 

"One forgets sometimes, on seeing the bearded faces in the old photographs... that the great majority of those who took part in the stampede were young men in their mid-twenties.  It is this youth that helps explain the impetuosity of the gold rush.  The argonauts were still young enough to want to search for something even though they did not exactly know what it was they were searching for.  They were still young enough to be gullible, young enough to be foolhardy, young enough to be optimistic, young enough to be carefree.  They were young enough to see a mountain and climb it, though they had never climbed a mountain before; to see a glacier and cross it without a second thought; to build a boat and attempt a rapid, though they had never wielded an axe or a paddle in their lives.  The Klondike was their Everest; they sought to reach it because it was there."

Many turned back immediately upon reaching Dawson, seemingly only 'touching base'.  The personal accounts of many reveal that there was a tacit acceptance of 'no gold at the end of the rainbow' well before they made the final approach to the Klondike.  It was about the journey, not the destination.  The pressure to turn back at the very brink of success was compounded exponentially when the initial crush of stampeders outpaced adequate provisions in Dawson, meaning many had to turn back simply for fear of starvation over an unforgiving Yukon winter.

The Journey - The Chilkoot Pass (right) was a necessary gauntlet to run for many, ferrying their 1000+ lb kits up the pass over multiple trips up and down this busy, frozen and staircase-steep bottleneck.  It's amazing that a for-profit winch system was up after the first season.
A once-in-history episode like this attracts some fascinating personalities, of course.   While the myth perhaps exceeds the man when it comes to Sam Steele of the RCMP, he set the enduring archetype of the Canadian Mountie largely through the Herculean task of policing this episode in all its dimensions - from the journey to the destination.  The mounties actually maintained an armed outpost at the top of the Chilkoot Pass (!) to enforce a duty on the American stampeders' kits/goods.  (For those of my American cousins who find this unfair, Berton notes that Canadians were not even allowed to mine in the U.S.A. and leave with any of their spoils.)  The anecdotes shared from this isolated and storm-blown outpost are among the best of the history, and the line they drew in the mountains helped to establish our modern borders.

In stark contrast, consider 'Soapy Smith', con-man/populist extraordinaire, who had an army in place along the route to fleece or outright rob stampeders.  His complex cons wrecked the dreams of many immediately upon landing in Skagway, Alaska.  He left them broke and stranded, without even the means (or reserve of will) to carry on to the Klondike.  Soapy managed to keep any direct complicity clouded, and was at one point celebrated with a parade as a great man of Dawson.  Soapy was shot dead in the street shortly thereafter.  Boom and bust.

The Destination - Dawson (left), a tent city for the most part.  (Right) Mining the frigid ground often meant burning fires over the soil to loosen it enough to dig.  On the richest strikes, a single shovelful of dirt could contain $100+ in raw nuggets.
In counterpoint, the portrait of excess and free flowing raw gold are incredible, of course. In Dawson, they actually panned the sawdust of the saloon/bar floors at the end of each night, collecting tens of dollars worth of gold dust at a time!  The finest amenities were available from the outside world at stratospheric prices.  Even simple goods like eggs and flour fetched incredibly inflated prices. The giants of Dawson often tipped  dancing girls with their largest nuggets, turned by some into belts of raw gold.  'The Lucky Swede' apparently kept a bowl of large nuggets on a table so visitors could help themselves.  He was more interested in real estate.  The gold bored him.  He died broke.  Boom and bust.

Simply put, Pierre Berton's 'Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899' is a solid account of this history by Canada's most beloved and celebrated historian.  He collects the threads of a wonderfully diverse range of first hand reports, characters and anecdotes to create a really compelling, animated narrative.  Berton is an author I was made to read (in patches at least) as an apathetic high school student.  It's certainly a lot easier to appreciate and dive into this artful effort coming up on my 40th year. 

Cadillac all the way. (And many thanks to my father for the loan of this.)

Two Canadian Icons - Samuel Benfield Steele of the RCMP (left), and Pierre Berton, with simply *magnificent* sideburns (right).

(Once again, I've been too occupied to update the blog.  This book was finished a few weeks ago.  More to come sooner next time, I hope...)

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