1922 Yukon Nuggets
Seattle was not destined to be the major jumping-off place for miners heading to the Klondike gold fields. San Francisco, or even Vancouver, should have been, or could have been. Prior to 1897, San Francisco dominated maritime trade with Alaska and was home to many businesses with experience outfitting prospectors dating back to the California Gold Rush. In Canada, Vancouver was closer than Seattle, and the all-Canadian choice presented fewer disputes with customs officials.
Seattle, meanwhile, was a backwater with a reputation for forest products and not much else.
Yet, Seattle won the Klondike supply sweepstakes because of Erastus Brainerd. When he arrived in Seattle in 1890, Brainerd worked as a newspaper editor for the Seattle Press.
In 1897, with the arrival of SS Portland, bringing the legendary "Ton of Gold", the Seattle Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to draw the anticipated gold rush trade. Tens of thousands of prospectors needing supplies presented a golden opportunity for the city which would become the jumping off point.
Brainerd was appointed chairman and quickly kicked off the public relations war by placing ads in newspapers across the United States, proclaiming Seattle to be the "Gateway to the Yukon", even though it wasn't. He then convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to print a special edition focusing on this bogus claim.
The newspaper printed more than 200,000 copies and mailed them to postmasters across the US for distribution at local post offices. Twenty thousand were sent to newspaper editors and business organizations in the United States and Europe. Ten thousand were mailed to mayors, town councils and librarians.
Next came a promotional pamphlet. Authorities in Europe were so impressed with the circular they reprinted and distributed it for free. And Brainerd kept the publicity machine running by writing letters to every governor and mayor in the U.S., requesting information on "how many men to expect in Seattle" for the gold rush. Included in the letters were maps and guides to the gold fields - through Seattle, of course.
San Francisco also staged a PR campaign, but in December 1897, a writer for a national magazine called their effort a "sluggish" affair that paled beside the spirit displayed by Seattle.
Vancouver and Victoria also promoted their advantages, but warned prospective miners about the dangers of the adventure, and the chance of finding no gold. Seattle also acknowledged the risks, but wisely urged travellers to guard against them by purchasing plenty of supplies - in Seattle!
By 1898, Brainerd had spent ten thousand dollars and had successfully branded Seattle throughout the world as the Gateway to the Yukon. Of the estimated 100,000 prospectors who headed to the Klondike, about 70,000 travelled through Seattle. Cash registers rang throughout the booming city.
Prospectors also needed to carry their supplies and many used dog sleds. Seattle became the canine capital of North America. The Seattle-Yukon Dog Company made a small fortune.
Shipping also flourished. In the decade between 1880 and 1890, shipyards in Seattle had built eight ships a year. In 1898 alone, Seattle turned out 57 steamships, 17 steam barges and 13 tug boats, and became the maritime centre for Alaska.
Mathematics alone shows the impact of Brainerd's PR work. Each man, by Canadian law, had to pack a ton of gear. At an estimated $1,000 a ton, Klondike goods and services brought seventy million dollars into Seattle business coffers.
Today, Seattle residents look on Alaska as their own and this perception is in part a legacy of the Klondike Gold Rush, which linked Seattle and the Far North in the public mind, thanks to Erastus Brainerd who, when he died in 1922, became known as "The Man who made Seattle".
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.