Story Time with Aunt Phil: St. Michael
On June 25, 1897, the sleepy old Russian town of St. Michael awoke when the river steamer Alice arrived with 25 miners from Dawson carrying $500,000 among them in gold dust – about $13 million in today’s dollars.
Two days later, the Portus B. Weare carried in another group of successful men who staggered off the small steamer with pokes of gold estimated to be worth up to $175,000. More miners followed and soon news of gold found in the Klondike spread like wildfire.
St. Michael, founded by Russians to trade with the Yup’ik people in 1833, became the hub for those with visions of nuggets dancing before their eyes, both coming from and going to the rich fields in the Yukon. Dynamic headlines from newspapers in the Continental United States helped fuel what became known as the Klondike Gold Rush and as many as 10,000 people called St. Michael home during that time period.
The Yukon River, which flows through the region for 2,600 miles, became part of what was known as the all-water route. Stampeders took large steamships from Seattle to St. Michael and then transferred to small river steamers.
It didn't take long for the demand for ships to explode. Ships were pulled off other routes to fill the need, and ships that had been out of service were quickly renovated and placed in the water. Ships built for 140 passengers were outfitted with temporary quarters to carry as many as 500. Soon the Northern Commercial and other companies began assembling steamers, barges and tugs in St. Michael.
Advertised by the Alaska Commercial Company take about four weeks to complete, most travelers leaving St. Michael on riverboats found the claim to be an optimistic estimate. Not only did the price increase from $150 to about $2,000 at the height of the rush – close to $60,000 in modern money – storms and problems encountered navigating the Yukon River commonly turned the trip into a two-month-or-more ordeal.
In fact, many stampeders spent months reaching the Klondike during the winter of 1897 because their vessels became trapped in the frozen ice. Of the 1,800 stampeders who chose this route that winter, only 43 reached Dawson City, and of those, 35 had to turn back for lack of supplies, according to information found in the Milepost magazine.
Today, St. Michael is again a small village with about 400 residents.