How a nation desperate for wealth fell prey to ‘gold fever’

Brian Castner deftly recounts the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush in vivid detail, pointing out that many would-be prospectors came totally unprepared.

Penguin Random House
"Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike" by Brian Castner, Doubleday, 288 pp.

In July 1896, a trapper and occasional prospector in Alaska discovered in a tributary of the Klondike River “so much gold layered between the slabs of bedrock, he thought they looked like cheese sandwiches.” He staked claims for himself and a few family members, made the three-day trek to the settlement of Fortymile to file the legal paperwork – and set off the largest gold rush in United States history. 

“Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike” is journalist Brian Castner’s exhilarating account of the story of the three-year Klondike Gold Rush. In dramatic detail, he tells the story of the 100,000 or so would-be prospectors who attempted the arduous journey through southeast Alaska to the Yukon Territory in northwestern Canada in search of riches. 

In the late 1890s, the country was ripe for “Klondicitis,” as the gold fever was known. The demise of the Gilded Age, with its gross materialism and blatant political corruption, led to the Panic of 1893, the worst depression the nation had ever endured. Thousands of businesses, including 600 banks and 150 railroads, went bankrupt. Desperate unemployed workers headed West, as Americans had often done, but found no new opportunities there, as the Panic had not spared the economies of California and Washington. The discovery of gold in Alaska seemed to be the answer to all of the nation’s problems. 

Most of the Klondikers set out north with a lust for wealth and an abundance of hubris, but no knowledge or experience in mining or wilderness survival. Most were hopelessly unprepared for what was in store. Getting to the gold required transporting as much as 1,000 pounds of gear and provisions by one of two main routes, both of them treacherous. Of those who participated in the stampede, Castner estimates, 75 percent “were shipwrecked, shot, suffocated, frozen, starved, drowned, or demoralized to the point they gave up and went home.” Few made it to the gold and far fewer struck it rich. So much for the wisdom of crowds. 

Castner tells the story largely through the experiences of some of the survivors, among whom Jack London, the “twenty-one-year-old nobody tramp from Oakland, California'' is today the best known. Accompanied by his brother-in-law, who financed the trip, London headed north, opting to carry his 800-pound outfit (which included copies of “Paradise Lost” and Dante’s “Inferno”) through the  Chilkoot Trail, with its arduous terrain and narrow mountain passes, at a pace of a mile per day. That is, until the constant rain and steep grade reduced his pace to a half-mile a day in what London described as a “man-killing race against winter.” Like thousands of others, he arrived at the gold fields to find all the good claims taken and no gold to be had. London was luckier than most. Not only did he survive the journey, but he left with a trove of stories that he turned into successful novels. 

Others were not so lucky. Arthur Arnold Dietz, a gymnastics director at a YMCA in New York City, set out with 18 men, but no mining experience whatsoever, determined to get rich. Dietz decided not to go by one of the two usual routes to the gold strike, but across the broad slope of the Malaspina Glacier, the largest piedmont glacier in the world. Dietz never reached the gold and only four of the 19 in his crew survived the ghastly two-year ordeal, during which they were reduced to burning their sleds for warmth and eating their dogs. 

In their quest for riches, many prospectors in “Stampede” suffered indescribable privations, torments, and even death, which the author does, in fact, describe, and in detail more gruesome than many readers will care for. 

Some people did very well at the Klondike. Clarence and Ethel Berry, a farm couple from the central valley of California, were among the first to venture north, setting out in 1896 with nothing and cashing out the next year with $130,000 in gold, a huge sum in the late 19th century. People like Belinda Mulrooney, a saloon and hotel keeper in Dawson City, one of several boom towns, and John J. Healy, a businessman and trader who dealt in food and equipment, made fortunes “mining the miners.”

Castner is a skillful writer, as he demonstrated ably in “Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage,” his 2018 history-cum-travel memoir of a 1,200 mile canoe trip he took up the Deh Cho River to the Arctic Ocean, retracing a similar trip taken by Alexander Mackenzie in 1789. Rich in history, colorful frontier characters, vivid details, and narrative drive,  “Stampede” depicts people in the throes of gold fever and the extreme, frequently calamitous, lengths to which they went in search of wealth.

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