Alaska Life

Whatever happened to the ‘ton of gold’ ship that kickstarted the Klondike Gold Rush?

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

A cheering throng of thousands met the SS Portland as it pulled up to Seattle’s Schwabacher Dock on July 17, 1897. The spectators chanted, over and over, to see the gold. The perhaps slightly bewildered but good-humored miners on board the steamer waved in return. Today, a plaque at the Seattle Waterfront Park notes the location of the festivities.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an extra edition that day with the details. The newspaper declared, “This morning the steamship Portland, from St. Michaels for Seattle, passed up Sound with more than a ton of solid gold on board.” Of the 68 passengers, “hardly a man has less than $7,000 and one or two have more than $100,000 in yellow nuggets.”

While the fevered coverage did its part to sell newspapers, the Post-Intelligencer undersold the cargo. Once weighed, there were two tons of the precious metal. Still, the Portland was thereafter known as the “ton of gold” ship. And the quicksilver genius of that simple phrase helped sell a nation on the idea that gold fever might indeed be a rational, practical path to a fortune.

The gold in question came from the Klondike region of the Yukon in northwestern Canada, and the famous Klondike Gold Rush followed in the wake of the Portland’s celebrity. But what happened to the ship that started it all?

The Portland had an unsavory history before the gold rush. The 1,420 ton, 192-foot steamer first launched out of Bath, Maine, as the SS Haytian Republic in 1885. “Haytian” is an archaic spelling of “Haitian,” as in the demonym for the nation of Haiti. For the next three years, it primarily ran goods between the United States and the Caribbean. Yet, not all the goods carried by the steamer were, strictly speaking, legal. By late 1888, it was carrying soldiers, guns and ammunition for the rebel Haitian General, and future president, Florvil Hyppolite.

On October 22, 1888, the Haitian man-o-war Dessalines seized the American-flagged Haytian Republic after it entered a closed port with a cargo of armed troops. This confrontation ignited a minor diplomatic incident. As negotiations between the countries failed to progress, the Americans dispatched warships to more strenuously project their perspective. And in late December, the Haitian government relinquished the steamer. The American ships celebrated the transfer with a 21-gun salute.

In 1890, the ship was sold and sailed around Cape Horn with the seemingly legitimate intent to service Alaska canneries. However, the steamer proved too large for those duties and laid dormant for almost two years, then began hauling freight and passengers along the West Coast, including regular stops at San Francisco, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and Vancouver.

The Haytian Republic soon earned a notorious reputation — again — in the Pacific Northwest. By the time American customs officials seized the vessel in May 1893, it had already been detained repeatedly for smuggling in at least two states and British Columbia. The ship was a cog in a multinational opium ring. The ringleaders revealed their operations to those in the know with coded manifest descriptions carried by newspapers. “Tons” translated to pounds, and “coal” meant opium. So, for example, when the Haytian Republic was announced as delivering 1,200 tons of coal to Portland in August 1892, it may have instead delivered 1,200 pounds of opium.

For most Americans, its most scandalous cargo was not narcotics but Chinese laborers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigration and was followed by a series of localized ethnic cleansings across America, including the 1886 expulsion of Chinese nationals from Juneau.

Following the May 1893 seizure, authorities released the boat on bond back to ownership. It was seized again that summer in the Columbia River with 172 Chinese laborers aboard. After a series of back of forth allegations, U.S. Marshals ordered a sale. The new owners wisely took the opportunity to rechristen the steamer as the SS Portland, and by 1897, it was one of roughly two dozen ships working the Alaska coast.

That would have been the end of the Portland’s notoriety if not for the Aug. 16, 1896, discovery of gold on a Klondike River tributary. It wasn’t the only ship carrying the happy news south. The SS Excelsior reached San Francisco with a load of successful prospectors and gold two days before the Portland landed at Seattle. Yet the Portland received greater credit for furthering the gold fever that would sweep the nation.

News of the Portland and its cargo arrived in Seattle well in advance of the ship itself. A Post-Intelligencer reporter, eager for the scoop, sailed out and met the Portland. He had time to board, interview the captain and some of the miners, transfer back to a tug, and return to Seattle two hours before the steamer arrived.

At the Seattle dock, one of the passengers tried to lift his leather sack of gold off the deck. The handle snapped in his hand. Another prospector, Joseph Cazla, with $30,000 worth of gold on him, claimed he had spent more than that on drinks in Dawson City. Clarence Berry, who returned with more than $100,000 in gold nuggets, told the Post-Intelligencer, “grit, perseverance and luck will probably reward a hard worker (in the Klondike) with a comfortable income for life.”

None of the fortunate prospectors aboard the Portland that June day attempted to hide their newfound wealth. If anything, they bragged all the more about untapped riches left behind.

This attitude reflected the nature of the Klondike mining community at the time. Economist Douglas Allen found that information, even the location of profitable strikes, was freely shared. For that small, isolated population, a wide-ranging system of cooperation was mutually beneficial and simple to maintain. That system, of course, collapsed under the weight of thousands of greenhorn prospectors.

As the news of the Portland spread, the nation was inspired. Mining equipment, suddenly advertised on the front pages of local newspapers, quickly sold out in Seattle. Workers abandoned shops. Within a day, the news had reached the East Coast, and thousands of New Yorkers reportedly tried to buy tickets to Seattle. Within 10 days of the Portland’s arrival, more than a thousand individuals dreaming of gold had departed from Seattle, bound for the Klondike.

Seattle, conveniently located, became the Lower 48 launching point for the rush. Destinations in Alaska, the gateway into the Klondike, exploded into dangerous boomtowns. At the head of the White Pass Trail into Canada, Skagway essentially ballooned from a family homestead into a bustling town of roughly 10,000 transient residents. Nearby Dyea, with its Chilkoot Pass access, similarly expanded into prominence. In Canada, Dawson City went from 500 residents to around 30,000.

In all, perhaps as many as 100,000 prospectors participated in the Klondike Gold Rush. The average member of the stampede traveled around 2,500 miles.

Only about half of those 100,000 prospectors reached the goldfields. The trek was expensive, arduous, and dangerous. In addition to the difficulties of terrain and climate, criminals preyed on the naïve and unprotected. Worst of all, those who reached the Klondike soon learned that the profitable sites had already been claimed. There was little new money to be made except by selling goods and services to the new arrivals. By 1898, there was a corresponding mass outmigration of frequently broke former prospectors.

Some of the Klondike fortune seekers tried their luck at other strikes. A.C. Craig (1862-1928) was typical of this lot. He left a comfortable life in Chicago for the Yukon, which he abandoned in turn for Nome. The chase for gold then took him to Chisana before he washed up in Anchorage and became a member of its first city council.

Most of the prospectors returned to the Lower 48. Skagway and Dawson City rapidly declined, and Dyea ceased to exist altogether.

The Portland continued to service Southeast Alaska after the waning of the Klondike Gold Rush. On Nov. 12, 1910, it was bringing supplies to Katalla, Alaska’s first oil field, when it struck an uncharted rock. The captain drove the ship onto the sand, beaching preferable to sinking. The 83 total crew and passengers, plus the ship cats, were recovered unharmed. As the ship was a total loss, the crew stripped it as best they could and abandoned the wreck. The owners received $41,500, roughly $1.2 million in 2021 dollars, from the insurance company. Thirteen years after its most celebrated delivery, the Portland was still famous enough that newspapers around the country reported its demise.

By 1916, the battered hulk of the Portland was a prime target for scavengers. With the onset of war in Europe, metal prices had more than doubled, even in areas far removed from the conflict, like Alaska. Junkers stripped bolts, fasteners, and anything else made of brass or copper. Officially, the scavengers were supposed to obtain permission from the ship owners. In reality, abandoned ships like the Portland were considered fair game for whoever was willing to make the effort.

Time and sand eventually covered the Portland until upheaval from the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake pushed it back to the surface. It was rediscovered in 2004. The history, Seattle memorial, and the dissipating ruins at Katalla are all that’s left of a ship with a storied past and its lasting influence on the region.

Key sources:

Allen, Douglas W. “Information Sharing During the Klondike Gold Rush.” Journal of Economic History 67, no. 4 (2007): 944-967.

“For Past Offenses.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30, 1893, 2.

“Hayti Forced to Yield.” New York Times, December 24, 1888, 1.

“Hulk of Gold Ship Portland is Dismantled.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 14, 1916, 9.

“Latest News from the Klondike.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Klondike Edition, July 17, 1897, 1.

“A Month’s Shipping.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 1, 1892, 5.

Porsild, Charlene. Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.