Research, Research

Soapy Smith's gang waiting to fleece the unsuspecting cheechako with the shell game.

I’ve been doing some reading. I got my hands on a fat, old book called Klondike! The Last Great Gold Rush 1896-1899, penned by Canadian historian Pierre Berton. It’s clear from the book that Berton has an almost fanatical fascination with the gold rush, perhaps because he grew up in Dawson City and worked in the Klondike mines as a youth. Berton found his own nuggets among the old-timers he met, and the book is bursting with entertaining incidents, accidents and characters from what was probably the shortests yet most lucrative gold rush in the history of the world!

I’m usually not one to wallow through 472 pages of dense non-fiction, but the book is more like sitting by the fire listening to grandpa spin some yarns of the good ol’ days. Soapy Smith, the self-proclaimed boss of Skagway, fleecing the naive argonauts with  shell game; the dollar-a-dance girls in Dawson City and their broken hearted suitors; the sourdoughs and cheechakos arguing over a few inches of adjoining claims; the Mounties (the way Berton reveres them you would think they were the demi-gods of the Klondike) camped out on top of Chilkoot Pass collecting customs fees for every ton of supplies each prospector had to haul into Canada. It’s amazing what people hauled over that pass! – crates of fresh eggs (maybe not so fresh by the time they reached Dawson, but they sold for a dollar an egg), pianos and bicycles, an entire steamboat dissasembled and packed over the pass to be reassembled on Lake Lindeman.

There were avalanches and fires, riverboats frozen mid-stream as winter pounced on unlucky travelers, starvation and scurvy. What is it about gold that causes men and women to voluntarily suffer so much? Over 100,000 people set out for the Klondike and only a handful found enough gold to be considered rich (and most of those lost it all soon after).  I don’t expect to find any gold on the far side of Chilkoot Pass but I will be adding my footsteps to the well trodden-path hoping to find some of the more undefined treasures of the Klondike. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a good book, pick up something by Berton.

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