Authors: Will Hobbs
for my brothers,
Greg, Ed, and Joe
Klondike or Bust
Down the Yukon
The Golden City
When the story broke on the streets of New York, it took off like a wildfire on a windy day.
“Gold!” Jason shouted at the top of his lungs. “Read all about it! Gold discovered in Alaska!”
The sturdy fifteen-year-old newsboy waving the paper in front of Grand Central Depot had arrived in New York only five days before, after nearly a year spent working his way across the continent.
“Gold ship arrives in Seattle!” Jason yelled. “EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it! Prospectors from Alaska. Two tons of gold!”
GOLD IN ALASKA
, spanned the width of the entire page, the letters were so enormous.
People were running toward him like iron filings to a magnet. He was selling the
New York Herald
hand over fist. His sack was emptying so fast, it was going to be only a matter of minutes before he was sold out.
“Prospectors from Alaska arrive in Seattle! Two tons of gold!”
Jason wanted to shout, Seattle is where I'm from! but instead he repeated the cry “Gold ship arrives in Seattle,” all the while burning with curiosity. Beyond the fact that the ship had arrived this very dayâthis momentous seventeenth of July, 1897âhe knew nothing except what was in the headlines. He hadn't even had a chance to read the story yet.
It was unbelievable, all this pushing and shoving. A woman was giving a man a purse-beating over his head for knocking her aside. “Skip the change!” a man in a dark suit cried amid the crush, pressing a silver dollar into Jason's hand for the five-cent newspaper. “Just give me the paper!”
When there was only one left, Jason took off running with it like a dog with a prize bone. In the nearest alley, he threw himself down and began to devour the story.
At six o'clock this morning a steamship sailed into Seattle harbor from Alaska with two tons of gold aboard. Five thousand people streamed from the streets of Seattle onto Schwabacher's Dock to meet the gold ship, the
Five thousand people at Schwabacher's Dock! He knew Schwabacher's like the back of his hand. Mrs. Beal's rooming house was only six blocks away! Were his brothers, Abraham and Ethan, among the five thousand? Maybe, but probably not. At that hour they would have been on their way to work at the sawmill. Would they have risked being fired for arriving late? He didn't think so. His older brothers were such cautious sorts. Hurriedly, Jason read on:
“Show us your gold!” shouted the crowd as the steamer nosed into the dock
The prospectors thronging the bow obliged by holding up their riches in canvas and buckskin sacks, in jars, in a five-gallon milk can, all manner of satchels and suitcases. One of the sixty-eight, Frank Phiscator, yelled, “We've got millions!”
Jason closed his eyes. He could picture this just as surely as if he were there. He'd only been gone for ten months. Suddenly he could even smell the salt water and hear the screaming of the gulls above the crowd. Imagine, he told himself,
millions in gold
. His eyes raced back to the newsprint:
Another of the grizzled prospectors bellowed, “The Klondike is the richest goldfield in the world!”
“Hurrah for the Klondike!” the crowd cheered. “Ho for the Klondike!”
. Jason paused to savor the word. “Klondike,” he said aloud. The name had a magical ring to it, a spellbinding power. The word itself was heavy and solid and dazzling, like a bar of shiny gold.
One of the newly rich disembarking the ship was a young man from Michigan who'd left a small farm two years before with almost nothing to his name. As he wrestled a suitcase weighing over two hundred pounds down the gangplank, the handle broke, to a roar from the crowd
It almost hurt reading this, it was so stupendous. Two hundred pounds of gold!
That man had left home with almost nothing to his name, Jason thought, just like I did. That could have been
if only I'd heard about Alaska ten months ago, when I first took offâ¦. It could have been Jason Hawthorn dragging a fortune in gold off that ship.
Jason could imagine himself disembarking, spotting his brothers in the crowd, seeing the astonishment in their eyesâ¦their sandy-haired little brother returning home, a conquering hero!
“Dreams of grandeur,” he whispered self-mockingly, and found the spot where he'd left off:
A nation unrecovered from the panic of '93 and four years of depression now casts its hopeful eyes upon Alaska. Today's events, in a lightning stroke, point north from Seattle toward that vast and ultimate frontier whose riches have only begun to be plumbed. It may well be that a gold rush to dwarf the great California rush of '49 may already be under way as these lines are penned, as untold numbers of argonauts, like modern Jasons, make ready to pursue their Golden Fleeces. Klondike or Bust!
The rush is only beginning, he realized. It could
A grin was spreading across his face. A modern Jason he already was, and in fact his father had named him after the treasure-seeking hero from Greek mythology.
In a split second all his plans were turning about like a racing sloop. His sails were filling with a wind
blowing from an entirely different direction.
Then he hesitated, remembering the vow he'd made to himself to live on his own hook for a year before returning home. But ten months was nearly a year, he reasoned, and he knew from his brothers' letters and telegrams that they were already impressed by his stamina and resourcefulness, as well as by the marvelous mountains and prairies and cities that he had seen.
Just think how it would strike Abraham and Ethan if he returned from the road only long enough to pack up and light out for the Klondike!
“It's the roving bee,” his father always used to say, “that gathers the honey.”
Jason broke into a wide smile remembering his father, who had dreamed of breaking the bonds of “wage slavery” and becoming his own boss. His father had never realized the dream himself, but he had passed the vision on to his sons. Though they'd deny it, Jason thought, his older brothers had already given up, resigned themselves to a lifetime of wage labor. Jason himself had vowed he never would.
He couldn't afford to spend another minute as a mouthpiece of history while others were rushing to
history. Time was of the essence. With a fortune in gold, he could fulfill his father's dream in one bold stroke.
He collected his packsack from the rooming house where he'd been staying and set out for Seattle. It didn't matter that he couldn't afford a ticketâhe'd hobo his way back. This gold rush had his name written all over it. He'd head home to Seattle, then somehowâ¦north to Alaska!
Who could have imagined, who could have hoped there'd be another gold rush? Unthinkable, that there was an overlooked last frontier where a fortune could be made overnight simply by pounding a claim stake in the ground.
Yet suddenly, like a comet, it was upon them, and tens of thousands found themselves ripe for adventure. The Wild West was going to have one great last act after all.
The entire continent, in a matter of hours, came down with Klondike fever, or “Klondicitis,” as it was soon dubbed. Within a day, people were heading west from small towns and big cities all across the United States and Canada. Most were coming by railroad; some were even setting out on bicycles.
At first there was a great deal of confusion about the exact location of the Klondike goldfields. A newspaper
in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that the Klondike was not far north of Chicago. But the telegraph wires were soon humming the true destination: Dawson City, a boomtown of three thousand souls that lay fourteen hundred miles up the Yukon, the great river of the North. The name Klondike came from the small, clear-running Klondike River, which joined the Yukon at Dawson City. To the surprise of millions, the goldfields were not in Alaska at all, but in Canada.
Everywhere, families were deciding who would be the ones to goâmostly their young menâand were making it possible by pooling their resources. Great-aunts and great-uncles who'd hoarded gold pieces under the floorboards during the hard years were suddenly offering their life savings without hesitation. Why not, when the gold in the creekbeds was “thick as cheese in a sandwich,” as described by the Klondike's celebrated American discoverer, George Washington Carmack? Some people were even grubstaking strangers who'd placed ads in the classifieds.
Only two days after the arrival of the much-heralded gold ship, the first steamer left Seattle filled with stampeders headed for Skagway, Alaska, a settlement of only two buildings at the edge of an immense wilderness few could imagine. Once in Skagway, the Klondikers would begin carrying all their supplies over the mountains to the goldfields. The little steamer, named the
, set sail from Seattle crammed with 900 sheep, 65 cattle, 30 horses, 350 tons of supplies, and 110 passengers, the first droplets of the human tidal wave that was to come.
Jason Hawthorn was desperate to get in on it. After four days of riding the rails he'd reached Minot, North Dakota, where he found himself in extremely cramped
quarters. Jason was sharing a boxcar with hundreds of bags of flour headed for the Klondike trade in Seattle and two men who looked like blown-in-the-glass hobos. The younger man, who sported a Buffalo Bill goatee, was swilling whiskey from the bottle and reciting, endlessly, the popular jingle about a purple cow. The old one, a grizzled fellow who was on his way to the Klondike but looked as if he'd just come back, was hacking at his overgrown beard with a long, sharp knife and tossing the severed clumps of gray out the open door of the boxcar.
Jason had a Minnesota newspaper to read, which took his mind off the drunk and the purple cow and his own growling stomach. He hadn't eaten since St. Paul.
The paper was full of news from Seattle, beehive central for the staging of the rush. Seattle's mayor, Jason read, had been in San Francisco when the gold ship had arrived with its millionaire prospectors. The mayor immediately wired home his resignation and started buying and chartering steamships and selling tickets to the north. In only a few days, twelve of Seattle's policemen had resigned. Clerks were walking off their jobs; barbers were dropping their straight razors, leaving men half-shaved. Doctors deserted their patients; the streetcars hadn't run since the gold ship had docked. Seattle's newspaper, the
, had declared, “Prosperity is here! So far as Seattle is concerned, the depression is at an end.”
In California, mines were shutting down because their workers were rushing off to the Klondike to make their own fortunes. Fruit pickers were walking away from their ladders.
The young whiskey-swiller next to Jason, in an
inebriated fit of inspiration, started to sing the cow jingle while waving his arms like a conductor:
“I never saw a purple cow
I never HOPE to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow
I'd rather see than BE one
With this, the fellow suddenly threw up on Jason's leg.
Jason cursed softly, cleaned his trousers as best he could with his bandanna, then tossed the bandanna out the side door. He accepted the effusive apologies of the drunk but moved closer to the old man and fresh air, though it crowded both of them.
“I believe we just met the purple cow himself,” the old man said wryly. “And I agree, I'd rather see than
“Excuse me, but I overheard you telling this fellow that you're bound for the Klondike?”
“Wouldn't miss the last dance for the world,” the old-timer said with a smile punctuated by missing teeth. “I'da been about your age when I first left home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Tramped all the way to California.”
“You were there in '49?”
“Nearly fifty years agoâ¦and a few rushes in betweenâ¦in Colorado, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Cariboo of British Columbiaâ¦yessir. I have
“Seen the elephant? Iâ¦I don't understand.”
“Never heard that expression before, have you? It was what everybody was sayingâevery man, woman,
and childâon their way to the California rush back in '49. Yessir, we was all âgoing to see the elephant.'”
“But what does it mean?”
The old-timer grinned, eager to spin his tale. “It's from an old storyâ¦. There was this farmer, you see, who had heard about elephants but never seen one. All his life he'd hoped to get the chance. Well, finally one summer he heard that a circus, complete with an elephant, was visitin' a nearby town. That farmer heaped his wagon high with milk and eggs and vegetables of every kind to sell at the market there, and headed off with high hopes.
“On the way, he met the circus parade, led by none other than the elephant. The farmer was delighted, but his horses were terrified. They started to buck, and wildly. The wagon pitched over and all his valuable produce hit the groundâa complete loss. When the man got back home, he told his wife and friends what had happened. They tried to comfort him about losing his produce, but, to their surprise, the man cried out, âOh, no! Don't be sorry! I don't give a hangâfor I have
seen the elephant!
The old-timer's weather-beaten face was creased with laughter as he finished his story. Jason wasn't sure he knew what to make of this tale, so instead of saying so, he announced proudly, “I'm heading for the Klondike, same as you.”
“Well, then, you're going to see the elephant.”