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Transportation and The Industrial Nature of The Klondike Gold Rush in 1896-1899

The Klondike gold rush was an excellent example of a reciprocal relationship between human connections to nature and industrial culture. Though humans had to travel far to reach the Klondike, they could not be separated from the industrial context that they sprung from. And though their industrial network reformed the natural environment, nature continued to have a close relationship with humans in the Klondike region.

“If on the Yukon gold is king, transportation is certainly a handmaiden and is queen.”

The Klondike Gold Rush is a clear illustration of the reciprocal relationship between humans, nature and the city. Gold, which is a material from nature, attracted a mass migration to the Yukon not only for it’s economic appeal but because humans sought to escape the city and paradoxically in doing so, created urban development. However, nature also determined where humans would develop in the Klondike and had both positive and negative impacts on humans. In order to find gold, humans had to endure a variety of challenges from nature whether they were from the landscape itself or the climate.

Humans in turn responded to the challenges of nature by imposing their own human systems on top of natural systems – second nature over first nature. This was achieved through various ways in the gold rush, such as in mining itself, but most importantly by the construction of the railroad in the Yukon. This transformed the landscape of the Chilkoot and White Pass trails, and changed human relations with nature by separating people from their environment. In their attempt to live a pre-industrial life in the natural environment of the Klondike, gold seekers brought the city with them. I argue that the Klondike Gold Rush was less of a rush for gold than it was a rush for the final frontier of the Northwest. After all, most of the provinces and states of North America had started developing cities, while the Yukon and Alaska were still considered remote wildernesses. Gold seekers desires to speed up movement and improve transportation lead to the rapid development of the Yukon into an urban, industrial space.

Ascending the summit of Chilkoot Pass. Yukon, 1898.

Cultural Ideas About The Gold Rush

Gold’s value in the 1890’s could be equated with oil today. Gold played a crucial role for governments because a nation’s currency depended on its gold holdings, and expanding economics relied on increasing gold supplies. In the second half of the nineteenth century gold supplies were diminishing, similar to oil supplies today, which caused banks to fail. This caused a significant strain on the world’s economies. Economic instability in North America in the early 1890s made the quest for gold even more appealing. In 1896, gold was worth $20 per ounce, which is the equivalent of $1,000 today. Gold’s high value meant that a prospector who found a large amount of it could be wealthy for his whole life. Clearly gold had economic value, but it was also given cultural value.

Gold wasn’t simply the standard because of its high monetary value. Gold was given intrinsic worth by culture because of its stable value – gold production was a “natural seesaw” of supply and demand. When enough gold was produced to increase the supply, miners would go back to other jobs. Gold production also had a given, permanent amount of human labor, making it easy to maintain as the standard for the economy. Furthermore, because gold was inherently linked to prosperous cities, it represented the progress of civilization.

Kathryn Morse highlights that while gold seems to have a natural appeal, it exists in the context of cultural relationships that reflect the historical context in which they occur. The massive gold rush that took place in Alaska-Yukon of the late 1890s was a collective one. Though stories about it appear to be about individuals seeking treasure, the rush towards the Klondike was a reflection of common desires for wealth and liberation. The other lure of the gold fields was the prospect of living on the frontier and to escape the modern world. The Yukon was considered the final frontier of North America and “a journey into savage or primitive nature; an escape from modern civilization.”

Prospector viewing the sunset at the mouth of Bear Creek, Yukon Territory, ca. 1898. Hegg, Eric A., 1867-1948.

However, gold seekers’ desires to live a more primitive life away from modern civilization are more an illustration of the disagreeable conditions of industrial cities than they are of humanity’s desire to live a pre-industrial life. Furthermore, the gold “frontier” was never really separate from the city and the gold seekers were on their way to urbanizing the very “wilderness” they were escaping to. What was thought of as a remote corner of the West was actually on its way to becoming a highly urban outpost. Kathryn Morse described the Klondike as an urban economy:

“Its supply lines stretched halfway across the continent from Dawson City, up and down the Yukon River or across the Chilkoot Pass, to the entrepôt city of Seattle, which experienced an explosion of growth as miners arrived to prepare for their journey. Virtually everything that made the Klondike possible – food, clothing, shelter, tools, horses, mining supplies – passed through that city or some other. And quite apart from these supply lines, without a metropolitan economy to provide a market for the district’s gold production the rush would never have occurred in the first place.”

In order to mine gold a vast industrial network was required. Gold seekers required large amounts of supplies to get to the Klondike and to live there once they arrived. Naturally, the food that miners ate was industrially processed, mass produced and shipped from far away farms and cities. Clothing and other supplies were also industrially produced or imported from distant places – this is part of what made the Klondike gold rush an urban one, because the supplies used were not local. This also inherently connected the Klondike gold rush and the miners to nature, but to distant natures through the supplies they used which were made of natural materials.The Klondike was unmistakably part of an industrial economy as well as part of the natural environment.

However it is important to note that many miners of the gold rush did experience some intimacy with nature that may have resembled a pre-industrial time because they subsisted by means of their own labor such as hunting, fishing, transporting themselves and mining for gold. Miners also utilized nonhuman nature such as horses and sled dogs. However these miners were still consumers of industrial products and the railroads. Miners, instead of having a direct experience with nature, experienced a connection to nature through elaborate urban means. In this way gold miners simultaneously existed in an industrial and natural realm.

Transportation in the Klondike

The lonesome and remote territory of Yukon permeated the imaginations of North Americans with visions of scintillating gold and wealth. Gold seekers were on a collective quest for gold in the hopes that it would bring them prosperity in a period of economic instability. More importantly though gold seekers attempted to escape from the city, while inevitably bringing the city with them. The Klondike Gold Rush was a mass migration of people into the Northwest that started in 1896 and ended in 1899. It caused Yukon’s population to soar abruptly, leading to the creation of various boom-towns, including the city of Dawson. For potential prospectors, there was no question about why they were abandoning their metropolitan homes for the Klondike, but there was the question of how they were going to get there. The gold fields were virtually an inaccessible place. “Transportation, by whatever means, was the key to the wealth in the gold fields.” (Friesen, p. 97)

The goldfields lay at the bed of the Yukon and at the start of the gold rush there were approximately three paths to get there – a tedious trek around the Canadian Rockies, a drawn-out trip by sea to St. Michael’s in Alaska and up the Yukon River by steamers, or following the Pacific coast northward by steamer and landing at ports Skagway or Dyea. From Skagway or Dyea gold seekers had to cross White Pass or Chilkoot Pass, both which could initially only be done by foot. The Chilkoot and White Pass played essential roles in transportation in the Yukon, and they laid the groundwork for transportation infrastructure development in southwestern Yukon.

On Chilkoot and White Pass, there was a constant surge of people, their supplies and horses climbing up the steep trails. The White Pass or Skagway Trail quickly earned the infamous nickname of Dead Horse Trail, due to thousands of horses who had fallen from the cliffs. Many of the horses became eyeless due to ravens and crows that had filled themselves on the dead animals. For those who sought escape from the modern world in the rough landscape, the sight of eyeless corpses was a harsh awakening to the reality of life in the Yukon. Edward S. Curtis, in Century Magazine, described the Chilkoot crossing in 1897 as “not only as a struggle with nature, but as an outright battle”.

Miners who ascended the Chilkoot and other passes fought against nature. This illustrates not only cultural ideas about nature in the Yukon, but that nature had agency because it was a force to struggle with. Nature’s agency was also demonstrated by a natural disaster that took place on the Chilkoot Pass Route. On April 4th, in 1897, a huge snowslide on the Chilkoot Railway caused more than 50 people to die. Clearly, nature in the Yukon was a force to be reckoned with. However the White Pass and Chilkoot Pass would soon lose their problematic reputation to approaching changes. Due to the problems that the challenging trails posed, there was a demand for better transportation.

“The beginning of the winter of 1897-98 brought a period of gold rush history to an end. Although the numbers of men landing at the head of Lynn Canal would not decrease, their mad disorganized swarming was gone for there were those who wished to alter the chaotic situation for commercial reasons. The very size of the crowds generated a demand for more sophisticated transport systems. Promoters and entrepreneurs were already hard at work to eliminate the backs of men and horses as the sole means of transporting goods from sea level to the headwaters of the Yukon River. Cable tramways were planned for the White Pass.”

The Canadian government reacted to the chaos of the trails in order to protect its sovereignty over the Yukon. As the federal government gained more control over the gold mining towns, mechanized transport was brought into the region in the form of cable tramways. Because using horses and wagons was difficult on the Chilkoot and White Pass, the tramway offered an easier, mechanized form of transport. In 1897 Yukon-Alaskan veteran Archie Burns developed the first mechanization of transportation over the trail. It consisted of a wooden windlass powered by a single horse walking in a circle, and a rope that supplies could be attached to. In Dec. 1897 a gasoline engine replaced the horse.

Nevertheless, the Chilkoot Railroad and Transportation Company operated the most successful cable tramway. This tramway consisted of two loops instead of one, which went across the mountains from Dyea, Taiya Canyon at Canyon City and over to Sheep Camp and Crater Lake. The tramway route was eventually named The Chilkoot Pass Route. However, even the cable tramway proved insufficient in comparison to the industrial railway.

Chilkoot Pass Alaska: aerial tramway on White Pass & Yukon Railroad Postcard, 1910.

In 1899, the creation of the Chilkoot Pass Railway by the Chilkoot Pass Railway Company dismantled the tramways. “A railroad was placed at the base of the Scales, and a tunnel was driven through the mountain for $250 000.”

The desire to mechanize transport and eliminate the labor of horses and men illustrates humanity’s wish to control nature. If the terrain of Chilkoot and White Pass were too trying for human and nonhuman efforts, then humans would have to build their own way across the mountain, even if that meant tunneling through it. Because nature’s terrain proved to be problematic for gold seekers and developers in the Yukon, they built their own human systems in the form of a railroad over the natural landscape. Moreover, the chaotic rush of people and their heavy freight encouraged the development of a “more sophisticated transportation network”.

What was once a challenging journey to the goldfields became a comfortable, relatively swift ride on a railway car. Urban technologies such as the railway liberated gold seekers from labor, at least for a period of the journey. In the trains, people weren’t subjected to weather, the seasons or the darkness of night. Instead of being producers of labor in their journey towards gold, miners became passengers, or consumers of transportation. The Chilkoot and White Pass, which had previously been an embodiment of physical labor that was required to transport one’s self and supplies, became a place for people to socialize and observe the natural world from within the trains.
Historian Stephen Kern points out that for travelers, distance had always acted as a barrier to movement.

For most of North Americans by the 1890’s, distance was no longer of importance compared to the speed of transportation. If you had money, you could buy a ticket on a boat or train, and the more money spent, generally the faster you could travel across distances. According to Morse, money could be equated with time. This blending of space, time and money was also the case for miners during the Klondike gold rush. Gold seekers did not worry about the remoteness of the gold fields, but instead cared about the cost and time it would take to get there. For rich and poor gold seekers alike, they sought to speed up transportation over the routes to Dawson. They “combined labor and nature to make it far easier to get to the goldfields. They cut roads, built tramways and railroads, and even calmed river rapids”. Through their transformation of the natural world into an urbanized landscape for their transportation needs, gold miners “shrank” nature’s obstacles to make traveling easier and more comfortable. Railroads and steamers transformed the journey to the gold fields.

It was a story of conquest – miners struggled against nature through intense physical labor, and then brought civilization to the Yukon valley through the technology of railroads and ships. However, human conquest over the Klondike wasn’t as simple as the story makes it seem. Though the transportation network of tramways, railroads and steamers seemed easy to use, there were gaps in the human system, “places where miners remained producers as well as consumers”.

One example of a “gap” in human systems was the impact of the seasons and weather on transportation in the Yukon. In the winter, the rivers froze solid and became an excellent method of transportation. Malamutes, Newfoundlands, and golden retrievers were all used as sled dogs during the gold rush. Dogs played an important part in mining towns. Sled dogs were valued for their ability to “haul up to 600 lbs on a trail and run 25 miles in six hours”. Most gold miners utilized dogs as a “transportation work force” to transport food, equipment, mail, wood and even gold. Dogs were incredibly useful because they were powerful and obedient to humans (though not always the case).

Dogsled team with five men arriving in Skagway, Alaska from Dawson, December 28, 1898. Hegg, Eric A., 1867-1948.

Sled dogs could also transport people and materials across difficult landscapes in the winter, where tramways, steamers or railways could not.
However, sled dogs were not the perfect method of transportation and they weren’t without their difficulties. They would lose their efficiency once spring arrived and snow started to melt, because travelling across melted snow was difficult. Sled dogs could also be problematic because they stole plenty of food and sometimes destroyed supplies by chewing through them. Sled dogs were also dependent on people, and required their own share of food and other supplies for sleds. This could take a toll on miners who were short for food or other necessities. However the benefit of having sled dogs to haul goods and transport miners across land in winter outweighed the costs. Dogs provided something that even industrial transport could not – convenience of travel in winter and companionship.

Sled dogs in the Yukon could be placed on the same level as horses utilized in other urban spaces, because they were used for work, transportation and ultimately economic gain. Dogs, although nonhuman nature like horses, could be considered technology because their job was to replace human labor in the Yukon. Dogs were also irreplaceable, just as horses were in the city. Dogs could provide labor and transportation in the harsh winters of the Yukon that other technologies couldn’t. I argue that the use of sled dogs both intimately connected miners with nonhuman nature, and transformed nonhuman nature into second nature, or a technology to work for humans.

Another “gap” in human systems in the Klondike gold rush was the act of gold mining. In the act of mining, humans were intimately connected to the natural environment through their physical labor. Mining proved to be very difficult and had many risks associated with it such as falling down shafts, breaking limbs, exposure to cold which caused frostbite, as well as the risk of asphyxiation by smoke or methane gas in mining tunnels. Miners also suffered from various illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, scurvy and malnutrition. The risks associated with mining are an illustration of nature’s agency in the gold rush. Although mining transformed the natural environment of the Klondike, nature was still a powerful force that humans could never fully escape from.

The use of sled dogs to mush across land, the gathering of wood, digging in the earth for gold, and being subject to harsh seasons in their living spaces, were just some of the ways gold miners were intimately connected to nature in a way that industrial transportation couldn’t change. Ultimately though, the urbanization of transportation in the Yukon dissociated humans from nature. This separation was considered progress, but some mourned the intimacy with nature that gold seekers initially experienced. They were nostalgic about the “character building” that the journey to the goldfields gave them without industrial transportation.

It is proposed that urban development of the region would have been impossible if it were not for the mechanization of transportation through steamers and railroads. The value of the Yukon region is affected by the cost of transportation – meaning that the cheapening of transportation is extremely important in the Yukon because of how lengthy and difficult the terrain is. For example, the Yukon River has over 2000 miles of navigable routes, which can increase the value of goods produced by up to 3 times. By cheapening the cost of transportation through modern methods it opens up vast areas of gold fields, which are otherwise inaccessible or difficult to get to because of the high costs.

“The development of transportation has rendered it possible for the country to maintain at present in comparative comfort a population of 13,000 to 20,000 people in the Yukon Territory…The improvement and cheapening of the service means the building of more and more cities, and with the advent of the comforts of civilization will coerce a constantly increasing population.”

Modern transportation allowed people to bring in more machinery, such as boilers and engines, and steam to the Yukon. This machinery was used to replace the expensive method of mining gold with fire. Transportation companies provided relief from the conditions of the gold mines and the railroad allowed all season transportation, which opened up the gold fields even more. It is clear that industrial transportation that was built for the purpose of gold seekers has laid the groundwork for urbanization to occur in the Yukon Territory.

“Alaska Joy Ride” – National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Shoemaker Papers, KLGO 38172.

Four Types of Urban Environmental History

Rosen and Tarr reason that there are four types of urban environmental history; the effect of cities transformation on nature, how environmental factors shaped where people chose to live, how people respond to the environment and its challenges, and the creation of the built environment. The history of the Yukon region lends itself to all four types of urban environmental history.

To develop the mining towns that popped up during the Alaska-Yukon gold rush humans had to transform nature in order to create an urban space. The gold rush transformed the Yukon region into an urban, industrial landscape through the use of railways, steamships and the mass import of goods from other industrial cities.

The natural landscape where gold and water was plentiful, and where Indigenous peoples of the Yukon region lived helped determine where urban development took place. The Chilkoot and White Pass trails were not randomly chosen as the route to the goldfields. They were chosen because they had long existing patterns of human usage, because of their location as well as their appeal. Though the Chilkoot and White Pass were extremely difficult, they had a certain magical charm. Gold miners and adventurers alike sought out the connection to nature the trails provided. The urban cities which gold seekers had escaped from also determined where development took place. The irony of the mass migration to the last frontier of the Northwest was that in escaping the city, people inevitably brought the city to the wilderness. Gold seekers could never fully be removed from the industrial networks that they were a part of.

Nature also had agency in the Yukon and people had to adapt to environmental agents such as weather, problematic terrain, seasons and the natural ebb and flow of supplies. This could be seen in human’s use of horses, sled dogs, the railway and steamers.

Humans also created a built environment in the Yukon region that separated humans and nature. Because the natural landscape of the Yukon was considered problematic due to its severe terrain, humans had to impose their own systems over the natural world. One way this was done was through the construction of the railway over the Chilkoot and White Pass trails, which involved destruction of mountainous areas in order to create tunnels for the railroad. The railroad separated humanity from nature because it removed a large portion of the intimacy gold miners had with the environment initially. Strangely enough it was after the railroad was built and urban development took place in the Yukon that people began to lose interest in the gold rush they had escaped to. The initial desire to connect to nature was lost with the creation of the built environment.

Gold seekers rushed to the Yukon to seek a more primitive life that could only be found in a remote landscape, however in their attempts to do so they brought industrial ideas, materials, food, and mechanized transport with them. When they found that nature was too harsh in the Chilkoot and White Pass trails, they built their own human system over them in the form of the cable tramway and railway. Despite the fact that the railway separated humans and nature, gold seekers could never fully be removed from their intimate connection to the natural environment through the labor they provided during the gold rush. Simultaneously, gold seekers were never separate from the city, because they brought it with them.

This intimate connection to nature and the industrial world illustrates how the Klondike gold rush was an excellent example of a reciprocal relationship between human connections to nature and industrial culture. Though humans had to travel far to reach the Klondike, they could not be separated from the industrial context that they sprung from. And though their industrial network reformed the natural environment, nature continued to have a close relationship with humans in the Klondike region.

Sources Cited

Allen, A.S. “Dawson, Yukon Territory, the Golden City in the Land of the Midnight Sun.” American Journal of Industry, 1901.

Berton, Pierre. The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.

Fortin, Claude. “Mapping the boundaries of imagined nationhood: news images published in daily newspapers at the outbreak of the Klondike gold rush (summer 1897).” PhD diss., Carleton University Ottawa, 2011.

Friesen J, Richard. The Chilkoot Pass and The Great Gold Rush of 1898. Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1981.

Garland, Hamlin. Ho, for the Klondike! [S.l. : S.n., 18–?], 1860.

Gray, Charlotte. Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint :, 2010.

Henley, G.F. Guide to the Yukon-Klondike Mines : Full Information of Outfits, Climate, Dawson City, with Notes on Alluvial and Metalliferous Prospecting. Victoria: Pub., 1897.

Kingston, Pierce J. “River of Gold: The Impact of The Klondike Gold Rush on The Pacific Northwest.” The Magazine of Northwest History 11, no. 2 (1997): 24-31.

Morse, Kathryn Taylor. The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Rosen, Christine Meisner., Tarr, Joel. The Importance of an Urban Perspective in Environmental History. (Journal of Urban History, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1994), 301-307.

Shaw, Flora L. Klondike. Place of Publication Not Identified: [publisher Not Identified], 1899.

Stuart, Richard. “Dawson and Tourism.” The Northern Review 35 (2012): 14-37. Accessed February 19, 2015.

Unknown Author. Yukon Territory. Library and Archives Canada. December 14, 2001. Accessed February 18, 2015.

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