Tag Archives: gold

The S.S. Portland


S.S. Portland

On 17 July 1897, word spread like wildfire through the streets of Seattle over the cargo in the hold of the S.S. Portland. The S.S. Excelsior had already docked in San Francisco, bringing news from the Yukon.

“A ton of gold!” The arrival of the S.S. Portland was about to cause a mad rush to the Klondike.

68 miners and over a ton of gold had boarded the Portland in St Michael, Alaska. Fresh from the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the gold was packed in anything the miners could find: coffee cans, socks, sacks, and boxes. Anything that could get the gold dust to Seattle. The estimates were off: The Portland carried two tons of gold in her hold that day.

At the time, the country was in a recession. Over 5000 people were waiting for the Portland at the dock, when she arrived. The streets were so crowded, the streetcars had to stop running. Reporters, longshoremen and others immediately quit their jobs and booked passage to Alaska. The mayor of Seattle was in San Francisco at the time; he wired his resignation via telegraph, and hopped on the first steamer heading north towards the Klondike. Seattle merchants sold out of mining gear and equipment within hours of the Portland’s arrival.

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Plaque dedicated to the S.S. Portland, Photo credit: CtoC

Today, there is a historical marker near the place where the S.S. Portland docked. The plaque is located between Piers 57 and 59, along the sidewalk that runs beside the road, Alaskan Way. The plaque is mounted on an anchor, and looks down on the boardwalk that runs along the water.

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The S.S. Portland served between 1885 and 1910. The above picture shows the Portland in the Bering Sea in 1901. Seamen are out cutting the ice in front of the ship.


The wreck of the Portland near the Katalla River, Alaska 1910

The Portland spent much of its life going from the west coast of the United States to the Alaska Territory. In 1910, the ship was caught on a shoal in rough seas. The waves pounded the old vessel, smashing her to pieces. The S.S. Portland remains at the mouth of the Katalla River. The ship was the subject of an episode of the PBS show History Detectives in 2004: Series 2, episode 9.

Historic photos come courtesy of the Alaska State Library Archives


Dyea, Alaska

Flashback Episode:

Back in 2004, I drove down to Skagway to hike the historic Chilkoot Trail. A buddy of mine was suppose to join me, but the day before we were to hit the road, he backed out due to romantic issues of some sort. I was somewhat disgusted, but I loaded my backpack into the truck anyway, and drove to Skagway. It’s a 700 mile trip from Fairbanks, and I still had the 1974 Bronco at the time. I’m sure this was its last long trip. The Bronco was a great truck, but by ’04 the Interior Winters had taken its toll: The original doors had disintegrated by then, and I was running with a set of canvas doors by this point.

2004 was a record year for wildfires in Alaska. Over 6.6 million acres had burned that summer, and the woods were tinder dry. I don’t think Fairbanks had more than a handful of clear days that summer, as we were surrounded by fires.

The Chilkoot Trail starts near the old Ghost Town of Dyea, which sat less than 10 miles from Skagway. Dyea had a very shallow port, so the wharfs stretched well out into the inlet. Some of the pilings are still visible today, protruding up from the water.

Dyea, AK 1898
Dyea during its gold rush peak.

There is very little left of the gold rush town today. A few old store fronts are propped up, the lumber from an old warehouse is well on its way to returning to the Earth, and one can still see the outlines of the town layout among the trees.

Dyea Store Front today
Dyea store front today. Great specials in the back.

Prior to hiking the Chilkoot, I spent a couple of days exploring the area. One of the more fascinating things was the Slide Cemetery. On 3 April 1898, five snow slides took place between Sheep Camp and The Scales on the trail. At least 65 stampeders died in the avalanches, although many believe the number was closer to 100.
The Slide Cemetery, with the same date, “April 3 1898” etched into all of the grave markers, is an eerie place. Many of the markers have no name, only an “Unknown” and the date. I remember one that said something like: “He Was From Minnesota, April 3 1898”. I was taking photos of the cemetery with an old Kodak Autographic camera, that was loaded with 120 B&W. Even the camera came a good 20-25 years after the disaster, but I felt it was somehow appropriate. After going through a roll, and loading up a second, I was looking down into the viewfinder, when a massive gust of wind swept through the stand of trees, and a large branch creaked from above and then fell to the ground. I jumped out of the way, and the branch landed right where I had been standing.
I decided to take the hint and left the cemetery.

Slide Cemetery
The Slide Cemetery

View from Stonehouse
The photo below shows the view from the Stone House in 1898 – the approximate location of the Palm Sunday Avalanche is at the lowest part of the valley.