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The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899


The most photographed event in America during the 19th century.

More than 10,000 images reside in public archives and private collections, depicting every aspect of what popular historian Pierre Berton has called "one of the strangest mass movements in history." For this book, Berton selected 200 photographs, some iconic, some touchingly personal, and most previously unpublished.

The Klondike Quest brings to life the panoramic drama of the ...

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The most photographed event in America during the 19th century.

More than 10,000 images reside in public archives and private collections, depicting every aspect of what popular historian Pierre Berton has called "one of the strangest mass movements in history." For this book, Berton selected 200 photographs, some iconic, some touchingly personal, and most previously unpublished.

The Klondike Quest brings to life the panoramic drama of the great stampede for gold as seen by the ordinary gold-seeker. The photographs are beautifully reproduced and informatively and colorfully captioned. "One million people, it is said, laid plans to go to the Klondike. One hundred thousand actually set off. And so the Klondike saga is a chronicle of humanity in the mass.... For the next eighteen months, the Yukon interior plateau became a human anthill."

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Editorial Reviews

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal - Linda Turk
Awe inspiring... [Berton] manages to convey the lust for gold that followed the first news of a gold strike in the summer of 1897... Many of the photos, though, are unfamiliar, and some truly are worth the thousand words it would take to describe them.
CM Magazine
It is interesting to watch how the expression change as you progress through the book, from optimistic in the beginning, to almost hopeless by the end... a broad appeal to readers... The pictures alone will offer hours of viewing.
Canadian Materials Reviews - Ignacio Schwartz
As a true story of real men looking for a phantom, it's a tale that can't be beat. Boston Mills Press has included here more than 200 photographs, some of them breathtaking, some funny, some wistful some horrifying...and some downright sad.
Canadian Materials Reviews - Jack Brown
The gold fever, the shimmering sands, the trail of dead horses, the golden stairs, the armada, the shuffling throng, the creeks, and the city of gold all come alive with brilliant clarity.... This is a truly great photographic essay... It is a must for every Canadian library.
Canadian Materials - Ronald I. Hore
While the photographs form the heart of the book, the text does not take second place.... Even in the relatively short amount of text allowed for, the author provides us with personal human details rather than simple sweeping generalities... The Klondike Quest should have a broad appeal to readers of all ages who like information provided about a brief but dramatic period in our history, or to those who simply enjoy the many photographs. The pictures alone will offer hours of viewing.
The story of the stampede is told well but shown even better.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781550464535
  • Publisher: Boston Mills Press
  • Publication date: 7/2/2005
  • Edition description: 100th Anniversary Edition
  • Edition number: 100
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 697,642
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Pierre Berton was born in the Yukon in 1920 and worked in the Klondike mining camps as a teenager before forging a career as a journalist and cultural commentator. He wrote 50 books, including many of historical non-fiction, and won over 30 literary awards and many honorary degrees. Appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1986, Berton died in 2004 at the age of 84.

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Table of Contents

  1. Gold Fever
  2. The Shimmering Sands
  3. The Trail of Dead Horses
  4. Up the Golden Staris
  5. The Armada
  6. The Shuffling Throng
  7. The Creeks
  8. City of Gold
  9. All That Glitters...

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First Chapter

Gold Fever

Something was in the wind that July morning in 1897; the loungers waiting on the San Francisco wharf felt it. But what was it? Was there substance to those tantalizing whispers drifting out of the North? Was there treasure aboard the stubby little steamer, stained and rusty, puffing slowly toward the dockside? The Excelsior was nine days out of a distant port on the Bering Sea called St. Michael, near the mouth of a river know as the Yukon. Somewhere along that obscure waterway, so the rumours hinted, something electrifying had happened.

As the ship drew closer, a murmur rose from the crowd. A long line of men in miners' hats was clustered at the deck railing; and now, as individual features began to emerge from the blur, it was seen that these were men aged beyond their years, gaunt and unshaven, their faces leathered by the sun but with eyes that glittered feverishly — picture-book prospectors, in fact. The buzz increased as it was noticed that their tattered clothing was still stained with the mud and clay of some far-off northern valley.

An outlandish scene followed. Down the gangplank they staggered, wrestling with luggage that seemed extraordinarily heavy — old leather grips bursting at the hinges, packing cases about to break apart, bulging valises, blanket rolls barely secured by straps and so heavy that it required two men to hoist each one to the dock.

It dawned on the spellbound onlookers that this was not common baggage: that these suitcases, canvas sacks, old cartons and boxes were stuffed not with socks and shirts but with gold. And these men, who had been paupers a few months before — some driven nearly to suicide by despair — were now rich beyond their wildest fantasies.

In that moment of comprehension, the Klondike stampede began, not quietly or gradually, but instantaneously and with explosive force. Before the Excelsior could turn north again, her agents had been forced to refuse tickets to ten times her passenger list. For gold was a magic word in that dark and dreadful decade, which history has mislabeled the Gay Nineties. In those drab years, when depression destroyed hope and men and women literally died in the gutters of starvation, gold was the rarest of prizes, to be hoarded in socks and sugar bowls by those who had lost faith in paper. Now, it appeared, there was a favoured land somewhere beyond the subarctic mists where the treasure lay thickly on the ground waiting to be shovelled into club bags. And anybody could dig it out — a one-time YMCA worker, and ex-laundryman, a former muralist! For such were among the fortunate ones traipsing off to Selby's Smelting Works with their golden burden, a chattering mob at their heels.

By the time a second treasure ship docked at Seattle, two days later, a kind of mass lunacy had seized the continent. Five thousand people jammed Schwabacher's Dock to greet the Portland at 6 a.m., July 19; by 9:30, every road leading to the wharfside was crammed with men and animals, carts and drays. It was as if everyone had been waiting for an excuse to break free. Somewhere just beyond the horizon's rim — few knew exactly where — lay wealth, adventure, and, perhaps more important, release from the dreariness of the decade. In the first twenty-four hours, two thousand New Yorkers tried to buy tickets to the Klondike. In the first week, hundreds quit their jobs; within a month tens of thousands had followed suit. Streetcar operators deserted their trains, policemen their beats, pastors their charges. Clerks walked out of offices, salesmen jumped counters, reporters quit their desks. The mayor of Seattle, attending a convention in San Francisco, did not bother to return home but wired in his resignation and joined the herd.

The world caught the disease. Maoris,
Kanakas, Scots, and Serbs were infected. People wore buttons proudly proclaiming, "Yes, I'm going this spring"; it was the thing to do. Men in Klondike outfits were treated free in the saloons. Any druggist's clerk, brought up on Ned Buntline dime novels, could walk into a photographer's studio, don the obligatory furs or mackinaw and high boots, and feel that he too was a seasoned prospector heading for high adventure in a magic land.

One million people, it is said, laid plans to go to the Klondike. One hundred thousand actually set off. And so the Klondike saga is a chronicle of humanity in the mass — of thousands squeezed onto wharfs, jamming street corners, choking roadways; of men, women, horses, and dogs crushed together below decks on overloaded steamers; of beaches crowded with prospectors and pack animals, of dense lines of gold seekers struggling up mountain slopes; of rivers and lakes alive with water craft; of gutted valleys buzzing like hives and ramshackle villages bursting into cities. For the next eighteen months, the Yukon interior plateau became a human anthill.

San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Victoria teemed with men, every hotel filled to suffocation, the restaurants overtaxed, the lodging-houses roaring. Near the dock areas, a river of humanity moved sluggishly between ten-foot stacks of supplies. Hundreds clogged the roadways dressed in the approved garb (garish mackinaws, wide-brimmed hats, iron-cleated top-boots), buying beasts of burden: dogs, goats, sheep, oxen, burros, mules, ponies, even reindeer and elk — anything on four legs — at outrageous prices. And as they waited for the ships to take them north, as the steerers from the outfitting houses moved among them and the smooth-talking three-card monte men took their savings, they babbled incessantly about gold, caressing the word with tactile adjectives as if the metal were an end in itself and not a means to a better life. The press caught the sensuous sound and reproduced it with such phrases as "rich, yellow gold," "hard, solid gold," "shining gold." It was up there, somewhere, glittering among the mosses.

Blinded by the prospect of gold, the tenderfeet had only the vaguest idea of what lay ahead. Yet almost every man who fought for passage on the leaky boats bound for Skagway and Dyea was convinced that he would return with a fortune. Some even took gunny sacks to hold the nuggets they expected to scoop from the gravels of Bonanza and Eldorado creeks.

In the Yukon, autumn was already in the air, the birches on the hillsides yellowing, the buckbrush on the treeless peaks turning purple, the shallow ponds bearing a thin skin of morning ice. The stampeders had themselves photographed proudly swathed in furs and so must have had some inkling of the conditions facing them: of the numbing cold on the beaches, the winds howling through the passes, the ghostly fog of the northern winter. But fantasy possessed them: it was as if the gold by its very nature — by its glitter, by its shine — could warm them. Experienced voices sounding notes of caution were drowned out by the thunder of the stampede.

The Nineties was the decade of the swindler and the confidence man, and it might be said that every white- and blue-collar worker who joined in the scramble that winter was conning himself. He had to believe he would find what he was seeking, otherwise in conscience he could not go — could not desert his job, his family, his home, for a will-o'-the-wisp beyond the frozen mountains. But not to go was unthinkable. So, in that era of insecurity, when mortgages were foreclosed on a whim, when robber barons prospered and most others grew more wretched, when the workhouse, the sweatshop, and the pauper's grave were realities and not figures of speech, each man who set off on the golden trail was forced to believe not only in the future but also in himself. Thus, in an odd way, the Klondike quest wiped out the crisis of confidence that has stultified a continent. "Hurrah for the Klondike!" the crowds on the dock carolled, as each overladen ship limped out of harbour. It was a kind of war cry, a mass paean of hope that somehow, in some magical way, things were going to be better.

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