Tag Archives: klondike

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


Klondike Gold Rush Museum

Seattle, Washington

After checking into the Panama, I went out exploring downtown Seattle. First stop was a brewery and lunch. The second stop was the Gold Rush Museum. I have been to the Klondike Museum in Skagway, but this was the first time I have been to its Seattle counterpart.

The museum is located in the historic Cadillac Hotel building. The museum is not large, but they do a great job telling the story of the Klondike.

When word of the Klondike strike reached the outside world, men and women from all over, flocked to the port cities of San Francisco and Seattle. The effort just to get to Alaska was huge, let alone to get to the backcountry of the Klondike.

The museum offers you six people who joined the gold rush, to follow their journey from start to finish. One young man made his way across the country from Michigan when he heard of the strike. Buying passage to Alaska, he was offered either first class accommodations or second. First class slept with the horses, second class slept with the mules. He chose to sleep with the mules.

An estimated 100,000 individuals made their way to the Klondike in search of gold. 40,000 actually made it to the Klondike. Of those, only half (20,000) worked claims or prospected for gold. Roughly 300 Klondikers made more than $15,000 in gold, which would be around $330,000 in today’s dollars. Of that number, only 50 individuals kept their wealth for any length of time.


Klondike Packing List

The RCMP required that all stampeders entering Canada have a ton of provisions. That’s a lot of gear to haul on your back. That’s a lot of bacon!


The Golden Staircase on the Chilkoot Trail

Two young men who were visiting the museum at the same time, overheard that I was from Alaska. They hit me with quite a few questions, but it was obvious that they had one thing on their mind: The Chilkoot Trail.

As I’ve written on here before, I have hiked The Chilkoot, which runs roughly from Dyea, Alaska to Lake Bennett, British Columbia. I highly recommended that they get up to Skagway and hike the trail. Hopefully, they will do so, it’s a wonderful hike.


The Palm Sunday Avalanche

3 April 1898:
The Chilkoot Trail, Alaska Territory


Front page of the Dyea Press, 4 April 1898

The conditions were perfect: Late season snow, followed by days of unusually warm temperatures, which were followed by another snowstorm. Experienced packers refused to head up the trail, due to the conditions, but many stampeders didn’t listen and carried their own supplies up the trail towards Canada.

The avalanches started on 2 April. A small camp of 20 men was buried, but all were dug out alive. The snow really started to fall on Sunday, the third, which happened to be Palm Sunday. Mini avalanches rumbled from the mountain pass, so The Scales on the Chilkoot Trail were abandoned for the day. Roughly 150 men headed down the mountain pass towards Sheep Camp.

Then the main avalanche hit.


Stampeders looking for fellow buried miners after avalanche. Courtesy of Yukon Archives

The avalanche swept down from above The Scales and headed towards Sheep Camp. When it came to a halt, it covered an area of 10 acres under 30-50 feet of snow. Stampeders raced up from Sheep Camp digging frantically for survivors. At least 65 men were killed by the avalanche, but that number is an estimate, considering the mad rush that was taking place on the Chilkoot to get to the Klondike gold fields.

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The Slide Cemetery
Dyea, Alaska


The Slide Cemetery in Dyea, Alaska – Camera: Kodak Folding Cartridge; Film: Kodak Verichrome 120

I hiked the Chilkoot Trail several years ago, and have written about that trek on here before. When I did that hike, one of the cameras I carried was an old Kodak No.2 Folding Cartridge. I thought it would be cool to carry a camera that was at least close to the era of the Klondike Stampede, even though this particular Kodak was manufactured around 20 years, or so, after the famed gold rush.

There is very little left of the town of Dyea from its heyday. A few store fronts are propped up in the woods, and the old dock piers are still visible going out into the bay. Dyea is also the location of the Slide Cemetery. All of the bodies that were found under the Palm Sunday Avalanche are buried here. I ventured out there with my cameras before I started on the hike. It’s an eerie place, which is only compounded by seeing the same date etched onto every grave marker: April 3, 1898. The air hung heavy, and the only sound that broke the silence was the click of my camera’s shutter.


E.T. Hutton Camera: Kodak Folding Cartridge; Film Kodak Verichrome 120

I was out there for quite some time, but I had the cemetery to myself; not one other person came by. The cemetery is not layed out in neat rows; the grave markers are haphazardly scattered about, which makes complete sense considering its origins. Today, the forest is reclaiming much of the cemetery.

I had taken several pictures from different angles, when a strong breeze blew in; I could follow the gust as it moved its way through the trees towards the cemetery. It blew overhead, and I looked up in time to see large broken limb fall from the trees above. I easily jumped out of the way, and the shaggy treetop landed right where I was standing. I thought for a moment, then said out loud: “I can take a hint. Just one more picture, and I will leave you in peace.”

I took the silence for an answer, clicked my final photograph, then left Dyea. Looking back at the print, I think the old Kodak did a great job of capturing the eerie feel of the cemetery that day.


A Kodak No.2 Folding Cartridge Camera