Day 121: Gold Rush Blush

Laetitia decided to start her Alaskan tour in Skagway, on the inside passage. Skagway is famous for its role in the 1898 Klondike gold rush. The Klondike Gold Rush was triggered by prospectors in Alaska finding sizeable quantities of gold there in 1897. Because Alaska is remote and ice-bound most of the winter, no one in the lower 48 states heard about it until the ice melted and two ships were able to transport the successful prospectors and their gold to Seattle and San Francisco. This triggered the “stampede” of 1898, when about 100,000 gold seekers sold everything they had to purchase gear and passage to prospect in Canada’s northwest. These prospectors were known as “stampeders.”

There were a variety of ways to get to Dawson, the center of the prospecting activity, but none of them were good. A common approach was to cross the mountain on the Chilkoot Pass out of Dyea or the White Pass out of Skagway. The White Pass was supposedly suitable for horses, but about 3,000 horses died climbing the pass in a place appropriately called “Dead Horse Gulch.” The Chilkoot pass is shorter than the White Pass, but has a 45-degree summit to be climbed at the end. Steps cut in the ice to aid the climb were alternatively called “the golden stairs” or “the icy steps to Hell.”

At the top, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police met the prospectors. The prospectors would not be let into Canada unless they had one ton of supplies—enough that they could last the winter without starving. Once in Canada, the prospectors had to fell trees, saw logs, and build boats that they could launch in one of the lakes feeding the Yukon River so they could float down to Dawson in the spring. The irony is that almost all of the potential gold claims had already been staked by the time the gold rush prospectors arrived. Today Skagway is a thriving tourist town that makes much of its colorful past. The White Pass can now be crossed by excursion train.

One member of Laetitia’s group, Priscilla, had joined this particular tour because she was writing a historical novel about the Klondike gold rush. Curiously, her heroine was a woman like herself, who had come to Skagway seeking her fortune by writing a novel. Since Laetitia was a limericist, Priscilla viewed her—mistakenly—as someone with literary talent. So far Priscilla had only written the first two lines of her novel, and she presented them to Laetitia for comment:

“Seattle Sue, pondering whether the novel or novella form was best for her opus about Klondike life, watched from a Skagway saloon as two men she had known—biblically, if not from prayer meetings—faced off in mortal combat over her affections. When the derringer of Stubby Stover won out over the shotgun of Mule-Ear Mike, she mused, ‘Is length really all that important?’“

Laetitia demurred, saying they had to rush off to board the Yukon and White Pass excursion train. There was a short interval at the summit before the train departed to return to Skagway. During the interval, June, one of Laetitia’s group, had been hit on by a man named Bob, but she had declined. After the train ride, they had dinner in Skagway and Laetitia presented the limerick of the day.

‘Twas the goal of young Bob on White Pass
To take June for a roll in the grass
But she feared they’d be seen
Or ‘twould stain her clothes green
Though mostly she thought it lacked class.