For most stampeders, deciding to leave for the Klondike was easier than choosing a route. The media and public frenzy surrounding this gold discovery was unlike anything that had come before. The public was flooded with questionable reports, advice and maps, much of it from promoters, con-men and self-proclaimed experts scrounging for profits from the tens of thousands scrambling north.
Erastus Brainerd, a Seattle civic promoter, wanted stampeders to consider his city the best departure point for the gold fields. He mailed copies of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer—full of breathless stories of the gold discovery—to 70,000 postmasters for display in post offices. Brainerd's strategy was extraordinarily successful. From 1897 to 1899, Seattle merchants alone took in millions of dollars from departing stampeders, considerably more money than miners brought out of the Klondike in the same period.
The competition for stampeder dollars continued in Dyea and Skagway, Alaska, the towns at the trail heads for the two most popular routes over the mountains, the Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass. Both towns could be reached by ship and were less than 10 miles apart.
Of the two trails, the Chilkoot Pass out of Dyea was the most popular until the first portion of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad was finished in July 1899, linking Skagway and Lake Bennett. By then, however, the majority of the stampeders were already in the gold fields.
Because there were no docking facilities at Dyea, ships unloaded cargo onto the beach, where people scrambled to get all their goods to high ground before high tide. Men were available for hire to help cart crates and boxes off the beach. The going rate was $20/hour at low tide, but $50/hour when the tide was rising.
Long before the stampeders began crossing over the Chilkoot Pass, the area of Dyea was used as a seasonal fishing camp. By the spring of 1897, that began to change. As word of the strike spread, stampeders began to trickle into the area. By that winter, the trickle had turned into a flood as thousands of stampeders slogged through the muddy streets, eating and sleeping in quickly-built restaurants and hotels. By 1898, Dyea had outgrown the town plan created only a year before.
Dyea's harbor was not as deep as Skagway's, which meant that most of the ships landed their cargoes at Skagway. Stampeders (including many who had purchased tickets to Dyea) were often left to make their own way over to Dyea and the Chilkoot Pass trail. Although tens of thousands of people passed through Dyea on their way over the Chilkoot Pass trail, the town's population never exceeded 8,000.
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad meant the end of Dyea. The Chilkoot Pass trail may have been easier or better than the White Pass trail, but it could not compete with the railroad. The town faded away quickly. The post office closed down in 1902. By 1906, a man named E.A. Klatt was the town's only resident. He abandoned the town after tearing down and burning many of the buildings.
The area that was, for a few short years, a thriving community, has been reclaimed by nature. Little remains of the town today, except for the partial exterior of one building, bits and pieces of debris, and two rows of trees that were planted along main street and stand out amid the thick forest that covers most of the town.
On April 3, 1898, a series of avalanches struck along the Chilkoot Pass trail. The worst, which hit that morning, killed dozens of stampeders. Civic promoters in Dyea feared that their counterparts in Skagway would use the tragedy to tout the White Pass as the safer trail. They did.
Hotel Ballard, Dyea, March 31, 1898
"This morning I went over to Skaguay, five miles from here [by water], and was repaid by finding letters from you and Nathalie. . . . I had to walk about a mile and a half, as the tide was out; then two men rowed me over to land. . . . Fare each way was $1.00.
Your letters were the most expensive letters I ever received but they were worth every cent and more. Mail is very uncertain here and I was hoping that there would be more waiting for me.
Skaguay is much larger than Dyea and seems to be way ahead in improvements, but the mud is awful. Dyea is on a sandy flat and the streets are decent, but there it is muck and clay and the streets wind in and out around stumps. There are some sidewalks and cross walks, but the rest is mostly mud. The streets are lined with saloons and restaurants, mostly saloons, on both sides."
Alfred G. McMichael, from a letter home. "Klondike Letters: The Correspondence of a Gold Seeker in 1898," edited by Juliette C. Reinicker.
The first stampeders arrived in Skagway less than two weeks after the Portland had docked in Seattle. On July 29, 1897, when the mail steamer Queen landed these first anxious would-be millionaires on the beach, Skagway (then known as Skaguay; the spelling change was made later, possibly by the Post Office Department) was barely a collection of tents.
Dyea and Skagway's rivalry was brief, but heated. Even though the Chilkoot Pass (through Dyea) was the most popular trail, Skagway was always the larger town. In the first half of 1898, when Skagway was teeming with stampeders, it was the biggest town in Alaska.
At the height of the gold rush, a gang of con men operated in Skagway under the leadership of Soapy Smith. Just as the Skagway promoters used the avalanche to their advantage, Dyea civic promoters used stories about Soapy and his gang to encourage stampeders to bypass Skagway.
One of Soapy's best cons involved his "telegraph office." Recent arrivals were greeted by men who offered to send telegrams to their families for only $5. Most people did not look behind the "telegraph office" to notice that the wires ended a few yards out.
George A. Brackett, former mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota and engineer, was approached by a coalition of Skagway boosters to help build a wagon road from the city over the White Pass summit. Brackett had some experience in such matters, he had helped to build a portion of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Work on what would be known as "Brackett's Wagon Road" began on November 8, 1897. Although the group that convinced Brackett had promised to raise the funds needed to build the road, they did not do so, and Bracket paid the startup costs himself. By the end of the year, eight miles of road had been opened up, but by then, Brackett was broke. He tried to charge a toll ($1.00 per person; $1.00 per pack animal; 25 cents per dog or sheep), but the mass of stampeders merely overran the toll gates.
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad still stands as one of the most astonishing engineering triumphs of the gold rush. Skagway's boosters, determined to create an easier route over the pass, lobbied hard for investors, dreamers and engineers to help make their plans a reality. That a railroad was considered at all is an amazing thought. The mountain's sheer cliff walls and steep grades must have made such an undertaking seem impossible to most.
To overcome such obstacles, engineers planned a narrow-gauge line, with rails 3' apart, instead of the recently regulated 4' 8 1/2". This shrank the roadbed from 15' to 10'. Workers used picks, shovels and blasting powder to clear a path for the train. Occasionally, the rumors of gold took their toll, and workers would disappear, along with the company's tools.
Construction began on the railroad at the end of May, 1898, nearly the same day as the Yukon River ice had broken enough to allow the thousands of stampeders camped along the shores of Lake Lindeman and Lake Bennett to start downriver to the gold fields.
By February 18, 1899, the railroad reached the White Pass summit. By July 6 of the same year, it stretched all the way to Lake Bennett. In the summer of the next year, the railroad reached as far north as Carcross, meeting the trainline that was being built down from White Horse. The cost for this enormous venture was over $10 million.
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad is still running today, although ferrying tourists instead of gold seekers. The train runs on its original narrow-gauge track, rising from sea level at Skagway to 2,885' at the White Pass summit in only 21 miles.
Whichever route they had chosen, few stampeders believed it was the easy one. Those arriving from the White Pass trail told horror stories of crossing over rotting animal carcasses in their struggle over the mountain. Those who had carried 2,000 pounds up the "Golden Stairs" argued that nothing could have been worse then their trek.
By the time they were ready to set sail down the Yukon River, the stampeders could all agree on one thing. Everyone was getting rich but them.