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How the Klondike Gold Rush Built Seattle

Jul 7th, 2021

Did you know that a gold rush in the Yukon nearly tripled Seattle’s population? 

Here’s everything you need to know about the Klondike Gold Rush and the people who hoped to strike gold!

How the Klondike Gold Rush built Seattle

Early Seattle

Seattle wasn’t always the commercial hub it is today. In fact, up until the mid-19th century, the city was largely an outpost tucked away between the Puget Sound and the Cascade mountains, inhabited only by the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes of the area. 

The first non-native settlers in the region were settlers from Illinois collectively known as the Denny Party. They arrived in what is now West Seattle on November 13, 1851, where they soon established a small town.

The coniferous forests and easy access to a safe waterway made Seattle grow slowly as a lumber town, shipping lumber to ports like Portland and San Francisco. Of course, the log-laden town suffered a heavy loss during the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, but the reconstruction and new infrastructure made the town all the more appealing to traders and businessmen frequenting the town. 

The rebuild grew Seattle’s population by 33% by 1890, thanks to a full face-lift, which attracted residents from around the country and around the world. When the Union Pacific and the Great Northern railroads finally completed construction across the Cascade Range in the late 1890s, Seattle became firmly established as a vital transportation and shipping hub.

The Gold Rush begins

Seattle’s proximity to Alaska meant it was one of the first ports on the continental U.S. to receive and send shipments to the North.  

On July 15, 1897, word got out that the S.S.  Portland was arriving from Alaska in two days’ time with a reported full ton of Yukon gold in the hold. This ignited a gold fever in Seattle, which soon spread to Portland, San Francisco and beyond. 

By this time, though, the Klondike Gold Rush had been going on for nearly a year up in the isolated Yukon Territory of Canada. Three miners discovered the first traces of gold in a tributary of the Klondike River on August 16, 1896. Prospectors flooded the area looking for gold in the rivers, creeks and tributaries off the massive Yukon River, but the approaching winter made it difficult for anyone to leave the region until summer of 1897. The excitement was fairly isolated to the region and the people living nearby, but as soon as the first shipments left on the S.S. Portland, the news spread like wildfire. 

Prospectors from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and elsewhere made a mad dash for the gold. This was the first big gold rush in at least a few decades, and pictures of crates filled with solid gold circulating the nation’s newspapers were more than enough to spur people north. 

It’s estimated that around one-hundred thousand people packed up and left in search for gold during the Klondike Gold Rush, although only about 30,000 actually ended up making it to the Yukon.

There was only one way to reach the Klondike River, and that was by following the Yukon River from downstream, upstream or from one of its other tributaries. This presented major problems, though. 

To access the upstream route from the mouth of the river, travelers had to board a ship to St. Michael, Alaska, where they would then continue on along the river to the final destination. This route was, by far, the longest and most expensive, costing around $1,000 ($27,000 today!) and spanning nearly 4,700 miles. Of the 1,800 passengers who chose this route in 1897, only 8 successfully made it to the Yukon; the rest were either caught in the winter ice or had thrown their equipment away.

The downstream route starting at Lake Bennett was no less precarious. Travelers sailed to Juneau before completing the arduous trek over White Pass on foot. The cold in winter and the melting snow in summer made for a near-impossible route, and so many horses died and wagons were destroyed that the route was closed at the end of 1987. Alternative routes popped up through the pass, but the trip still took nearly three months to complete. Even then, it was another 500 miles down the river to reach the prospecting town of Dawson City.

The other option was to make the trek through Canada entirely on foot. 

Pit stop in Seattle

Seattle was a popular port of departure for prospectors looking for passage on one of the many Alaska-bound ships. People arrived on ships from further down the West Coast and on trains from further inland, all congregating in the center of Seattle to collect the clothing and equipment needed to continue the journey.

Pioneer Square was soon packed with hopeful gold prospectors rushing to get on the next ship to Alaska. It was here that many travelers learned that there was more to the Klondike Gold Rush than just hopping on a ship from Seattle. They learned of the arduous routes and the amount of gear they needed to survive the journey, and it was here that many had to make the call to either keep going or to drop out of the race. 

Those who wanted to press on waited weeks for space on the next steamship, tickets for which increased almost daily due to the high demand. These “stampeders,” as they became known, acquired their supplies from supply stores, stayed in local hotels, bought local produce and ate the local fish during their stay, causing a massive boom in business that local Seattleites greatly benefitted from. 

This business boom, which lasted well into the 1900s, was where some of our favorite big-brand stores got their beginnings. Eddie Bauer began selling his outdoor clothing and supplies in 1920. John Nordstrom opened his own retail clothing store in 1901 with the gold he found in the Klondike River. James Casey founded the American Messenger Company in 1907; it’s now known as UPS.

Although not everyone who arrived in Seattle actually boarded a ship to the Yukon, the city’s economy thrived under the high traffic and public exposure. To put it into perspective, Seattle’s population in 1880 was about 3,500, and in 1910 there were over 237,000. 

So, if you live in our luxury Seattle apartments, own an Eddie Bauer jacket, wear a pair of shoes from Nordstrom or have cooked with any of Washington’s produce, then you’re reaping the benefits of the Klondike Gold Rush in some form or another! How cool is that?


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/PIX1861

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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