1898 Yukon Nuggets
Getting There was not Half the Fun
Are we there yet? The Klondike gold seekers who left the west coast and sailed the inside passage to Alaska could be forgiven for uttering that famous childhood phase. The journey to the goldfields began with a scenic boat ride north and ended abruptly at the ramshackle, lawless port of Skagway, or Dyea. Seasick passengers were quickly dumped at the waterfront or - sometimes - in the water. Their troubles were just beginning.
Many boats left the west coast ports every day. They were a dingy lot– coal ships, schooners, barges, fishing boats — anything that could float. Passengers often stood elbow-to-elbow on decks that were crammed with crates of food, dog sleds, tents, pack animals, and hay. Famous photographer Eric Hegg sailed north on a coaltender called the Skagit Queen. It was no Queen and Hegg was happy and lucky to get off on the tidal flats at Dyea, his bulky camera gear intact.
Others arrived on board real passenger ships like the Islander. Unfortunately, it would hit a rock and sink with the loss of more than lives. Deep in the hull of the Islander, 600 horses were wedged together in long rows, so tight that they could not lie down or move away from the ship's engines. The horses bit and kicked in terror.
Goldseekers on other vessels had their own hardships to bear. In August 1898, more than 800 stampeders crushed their way aboard the Willamette, an old coal carrier bound for Dyea.
Only a few hours before the ship's departure, workmen had hastily moved tons of coal from the lower decks. In its place, carpenters built rough wooden bunks for the first-class travelers. No one had taken the time to sweep out the coal dust left behind. Every passenger, first class or not, was coated with the dirty, black dust.
To pass the time, stampeders sat on rancid hay bales in wet buckskin outfits and mining gear, discussing the upcoming journey. Passengers who had been strangers when the sea voyage began now decided to become partners and face the dangers ahead together. There were plenty of dangers ahead - if they survived the sea voyage to the Alaskan coast.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.