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Starvation and Disease

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Stampeders climbing up the "Golden Stairs" on the Chilkoot Pass trail.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Stampeders faced dozens of dangers along the trails into the Klondike. An avalanche in the spring of 1898 killed 63 people along the Chilkoot Pass trail. The previous September, heavy storms and a flood washed away much of the tent town set up at Sheep Camp, also on the Chilkoot Pass trail.

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Skeletons of a few of over three thousand pack animals that died along the White Pass trail in the first years of the rush.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Certainly those who had survived the trails, the river, the White Horse Rapids, and made it all the way to the gold fields must have believed that they were now safe. Stampeders who spent the winter of 1897/1898 camped along the trails heard rumors from outgoing travelers of harsh conditions in Dawson, including talk of starvation.

In 1897, over 1,000 stampeders beat the bulk of the rush and reached Dawson before winter set in. Many of the new arrivals were inadequantely prepared and had not brought enough supplies with them to last through the spring. By September 30, 1897, when the last steamship of the season had unladed its cargo at Dawson, officials determined that unless some action was taken, there would not be food enough for everyone that winter.

Posted in Dawson, September 30, 1897
"The undersigned, officials of the Candian Government, having carefully looked over the present distressing situation in regard to the supply of food for the winter, find that the stock on hand is not sufficient to meet the wants of the people now in the district, and can see but one way out of the difficulty, and that is an immediate move down-river of all those who are now unsupplied to Fort Yukon, where there is a large stock of provisions. In a few days the river will be closed, and the move must be made now, if at all. It is absolutely hazardous to build hopes upon the arrival of other boats. It is almost beyond a possibility that any more food will come into this district. For those who have not laid in a winter's supply to remain here longer is to court death from starvation, or at least a certainty of sickness from scurvy and other troubles. Starvation now stares every one in the face who is hoping and waiting for outside relief. . . .

C. Constantine, Inspector Northwestern Mounted Police.

D.W.Davis, Collector of Customs

Thomas Fawcett, Gold Commissioner"

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Dawson City, Canada
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries

By the end of October, a couple of hundred people had heeded the warnings and left for Fort Yukon, Alaska. Many took advantage of an offer by the Canadian Government to "have all persons not provided with food for the winter carried free of charge to Fort Yukon on the steamer Bella."

What the Mounties did not know was that the conditions at Fort Yukon were not much better than at Dawson and in the end, it was fortunate that more people did not take advantage of the Mounties' offer. During the winter of 1897/1898, word of the possibility of starvation conditions at Dawson reached as far south as Skagway and Dyea.

It was Canadian reluctance to accept the ultimate responsibility of the tens of thousands poised to head over the border that led the Mounties to require that each stampeder carry in ton of supplies (enough to see each stampeder through at least one year in the Yukon).

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Carrier using reindeer to pull his mail sled.
Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Word that Americans were starving in Dawson set a truly wacky idea into motion. Determined not to allow Americans to starve to death, American officials decided to import a herd of reindeer from northern Europe to Alaska. The theory was that the herd would provide a sustained food source for the population. Unfortunately, transportating the reindeer herd to Alaska took more time than anticipated. It arrived there long after the starvation threat had disappeared. Some of the animals were used to carry the mail in subsequent years.

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All along the trail, stampeders lived in tents crowded together. These tents belonged to stampeders waiting out the winter along Lake Lindeman.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries

Dr. E.M. Riniger had run a small hospital near the Chilkoot Pass in 1898 before he moved, first to Dawson, and then later to Nome. During these years, he treated 177 cases of typhoid fever. He wrote up his experiences for a medical journal in 1906.

"During seven years of practice in Alaska, I cared for 177 cases of typhoid fever. . . . The great majority of these cases were typical; the general run of symptoms encountered were the same. A large percentage had nosebleed, right iliac tenderness and the usual course of fever; the rose spots were present in nearly every case, and in six of them so numerous as to produce the appearance of general rash."

"Northwest Medicine," September 1906

Typhoid fever was the most common disease to haunt miners. Its appearance in camp after camp was no accident. The miners built their cabins and tents far too close to each other, on soil that was frequently a flat, boggy tundra.

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The Dawson waterfront in the summer of 1898. Tents covered both banks of the Klondike River. With thousands rushing into the gold fields, little thought was given to hygiene or sewage disposal.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The frozen ground, covered with moss and mulch did not allow for surface water to drain off. When that was added to the long, hot northern summers, disease was inevitable. Typhoid fever ravaged many camps, but would have been far worse had not so many miners constantly boiled their drinking water. Some who had originally gone north to mine made money selling uncontaminated bottled water in some camps. The disease was survivable, and in fact fewer than four percent of Dr. Riniger's patients died of typhoid fever. Those who did were the ones who had waited too long for help, or disregarded medical advice.

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An exhausted stampeder naps alongside the trail.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries

Although better than tents, the miserable condition of most miners' cabins in the Klondike gold fields did not help their health. Such cabins were typically about 14' x 16', with only a little ventilation in the ceiling, if any at all, with anywhere from two to six men, their provisions, and sometimes their dogs crowded into the space.

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Stampeder tents lined the beaches of Nome through much of 1900.
Photo courtesy of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art

Eighty-seven people died in Nome in 1900. Most of those died from typhoid fever, pneumonia or tuberculosis. The sanitary conditions were not much better in Nome than in previous gold towns across Alaska and the Upper Yukon. The fledgling city government did make an attempt to control the spread of disease by fining those who did not use public latrines. The latrine tickets were sold for 10-cents each, or three for 25-cents.

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