After California, the Fraser River, and the Cariboo came the Klondike. In the winter of 1896-1897, when news leaked out that gold had been discovered in the tributaries of the Yukon River, a stampede was ignited that would draw thousands of men, women, and children from all over the continent on a frenzied, desperate quest for the yellow mother lode. Almost instantaneously, this mass movement of people, animals, and supplies to the arctic Eldorado led to the creation of towns and institutions in a boreal desert. Furthermore, it compelled the American and Canadian governments to define the borders between Alaska and the Yukon, and so heralded the building of a nation. In Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899
, revised since its first publication in 1958, popular historian Pierre Berton tackles this momentous, topsy-turvy episode in Canadian and American history with a gusto that does his subject credit.
Berton introduces his readers to a cast of some pretty colourful characters, from all walks of life and of all dispositions. Among them are George Carmack and his Indian relatives, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, who first discovered gold in the Klondike. Father William Judge was a Jesuit missionary whose tireless efforts on behalf of those afflicted with typhoid, malaria, dysentery, and scurvy earned him the moniker of "The Saint of Dawson." "Soapy" Smith, the autocrat of Skagway, set up an extensive network of spies and confidence men throughout the north that prefigured the secret police systems established by the great dictators of the 20th century. "Swiftwater Bill" Gates was an abstainer who bathed in champagne, a bigamist who seduced his own teenage step-niece, and a lucky prospector who lost his fortunes even more quickly than he made them. Another prospector, "Big Alex" McDonald, the "King of the Klondike," acquired dozens of mining properties in his lust for land, but for him, gold was always just "trash." Silent Sam Bonnifield, the legendary gambler, opened the Bank Saloon. Belinda Mulroney, a coal-miner's daughter from Pennsylvania, made her fortune by her peerless and fearless entrepreneurial zest, and became the first woman mining manager in the North--and a countess to boot. And, of course, there's Sam Steele, the legendary superintendent of the Mounted Police, the "Lion of the Yukon," whose tight rein on the passes is credited with saving countless lives. But apart from the named dozens are the horrific yet inspiring stories of thousands of men and women who braved indescribable odds in their race to strike it rich, crossing glaciers, trudging through poisonous swamplands, climbing mountains, canoeing swirling rapids, succumbing to snow blindness, bitter cold, and starvation, falling into the snares of swindlers and the cheats, and facing their own greed and naïveté. The toll in human--and animal--life and limb was unprecedented in gold rush history.
This is great history told with unrestrained relish. Berton has written a valuable, comprehensive history of the last great gold rush, and added another important chapter to his series on nation-building, which includes The National Dream and The Last Spike. In addition to talking about the characters who made the Klondike and in turn were made or broken by it, he maps the perilous alternate routes: overland from Edmonton through the Peace River, the Ashcroft and Stikine Trails, the White and Chilkoot Passes, the "Rich Man's Route" along the Yukon River, and the "All-American Routes" over Alaska's Valdez and Malaspina Glaciers. He discusses the conflicts that arose between the Americans and Canadians, the distinct codes of ethics that prevailed on either side of the border, and how they influenced the atmosphere in the gold-rush cities. Berton sifts fact from fiction and mythmaking. He notes, for example, that Robert Service, the Yukon poet laureate, was never in the Klondike during the gold rush, as he was hobo-ing around Mexico at the time; he only came to the Yukon after it was all over. As an aid to the reader, Berton provides maps of the routes and discoveries, legends of the major characters, a chronology of significant events, and a comprehensive bibliography for those interested in studying the topic further. But even more than simply good history, Klondike is riveting storytelling. Berton's muscular prose is sure to keep the reader turning pages. --Diana Kuprel