Story Time with Aunt Phil: The Chilkoot Trail
On July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland tied up to the Schwabacher Wharf in Seattle with 68 miners and the first load of gold from the Klondike on board. This event set off a rush to Alaska, with an estimated 100,000 stampeders heading north to find their fortunes.
The majority of those gold seekers chose to climb the now-famous Chilkoot Trail in Southeast Alaska to reach Canada and the rich Klondike fields. And most had no idea of how difficult that trip would be, nor how long it would take to reach Dawson City, the epicenter for the region.
Canadians demanded each gold seeker have a year’s supply of provisions, so stampeders had to drag about 2,000 pounds of supplies with them. Most outfits consisted of 1,200 pounds of food and 800 pounds of clothes and equipment.
Their northern journey started at Skagway, where steamers from the West Coast landed. They then had to carry their supplies several miles to Dyea, which was the beginning of the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail that traditionally had been a Tlingit trade route.
Men, women and children had to reach the 3,739-foot summit of the Chilkoot Pass Trail by climbing what became known as the “Golden Staircase,” 1,200 steps carved into the steepest part of the trail, before reaching the Canadian border. Many had to climb that staircase 30 to 40 times to get all their provisions to the top.
After they passed inspection by the North West Mounted Police, stampeders trekked on to Lake Bennett or Lake Lindemann. By the time they reached the water’s edge, the gold seekers had relayed their ton of supplies about 2,500 miles with all the trips they had to make. They then had to build boats to carry them and their supplies another 500 miles along the Yukon River.
And they had to hope that they built their watercraft sturdy enough to traverse through canyons, winding waters and treacherous rapids on their way to Dawson City. Many did not make it.
It could take many months for the stampeders to finally reach Dawson. And those that did found the cost of living high and most of the good land claimed, so many sold the supplies they had spent months dragging to get the money to go back home.
Only about 30,000 of the estimated 100,000 stampeders who started out for the Klondike made it to the gold fields. Around 4,000 actually found gold. Even less kept their fortunes.