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In ‘Klondike Stampede,’ the madness of the Gold Rush, told by one who lived it

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: April 14, 2018
  • Published April 14, 2018

The Klondike Stampede

Tappan Adney. Published 1900, 2018. Amazon Kindle Store. 99 cents. 

“The Klondike Stampede,” by Tappan Adney (originally published in 1900)

News of the massive wealth discovered near Canada's Klondike River had hardly reached America when Harper's Weekly dispatched journalist Tappan Adney to the gold fields to report on happenings there. Not quite 30, he traveled across the continent and up Alaska's Inside Passage, then joined the first wave of prospectors who swarmed over Chilkoot Pass and onward to Dawson City, where he spent the following year. But where his fellow Argonauts were looking for gold, Adney went digging for the story. What he brought back has wealth of its own.

"The Klondike Stampede," the book Adney wrote detailing his experiences in the North Country, was originally published in 1900. It's gone through numerous editions and reissues ever since, most recently surfacing this winter on the Amazon Kindle store for a mere 99 cents. For anyone drawn to pioneer-era Alaskan and northern history, it's a must.

Adney was a deeply intelligent and inquisitive man who entered college at the young age of 13. Drawn to both natural and human history, he was the ideal choice to chronicle a story of historic import playing out in an environment largely unknown to Americans of the time.

Sent west in late July 1897, a little over a month after the first Klondike gold reached San Francisco, Adney traveled to Victoria, British Columbia, where he acquired an outfit and boarded a vessel for Skagway. Arriving on the cusp of fall, he found men working rapidly, unloading their gear from the ships they sailed in on and preparing to head for the pass, hoping to get through before winter set in. Hundreds threaded about each other. Buildings were being hastily raised.

Fully a third of this book deals with Adney's journey to Dawson, with the story of his ascent over the mountains taking center stage. Enduring a near-constant downpour, he joined the throngs heading up the trail dragging all their goods. Unneeded items were discarded, despairing men gave up and turned around, and, as he noted with sadness, countless horses died.

Finally, he wrote, "The trail enters a cul-de-sac, climbing higher and higher. The valley seems to end; a precipitous wall of gray rock, reaching into the sky, seems to head off farther progress, seaming its jagged contour against the sky — a great barrier, uncompromising, forbidding — the Chilkoot Pass."

The work was far from done, however. Having lugged the lumber for a boat to Lake Lindeman on the Canadian side, Adney and his companions assembled their craft and hit the water on Oct. 5 with winter closing in. The men fought rapids, unpredictable weather and increasing ice floes, reaching Dawson on Halloween. "As one walked for the first time down the smoothly beaten street," he observed, "it was an animated scene, and one upon which the new-comer gazed with wonder."

The midsection of this book describes Dawson during the first winter of its existence. The newly erected town was unprepared for the influx of newcomers who spread out into the nearby woods, Adney among them, building cabins and digging in. Food was scarce and diseases such as typhoid raged. Still, crime was rare and the residents helped each other.

Adney offered an abundance of information about how claims were staked, wintertime mining operations, daily life in Dawson itself, and the cold, which he described thusly:

"Old-timers measure the temperature by the following system (obtained by comparison with the standard spirit thermometer): Mercury freezes at 40; coal-oil (kerosene) freezes at from 35 to 55 according to grade; 'painkiller' freezes at 72; 'St. Jacob's Oil' freezes at 75; best Hudson's May rum freezes at 80."

Elsewhere, Adney, whose illustrative writing skills never fall short in this book, offers this late winter scene:

"The sun, like a deep-red ball in a red glow, hung in the notch of Eldorado; the smoke settling down like a fog (for the evening fires were starting); men on the high dumps like spectres in the half-smoke, half-mist; faint outlines of scores of cabins; the creaking of windlasses — altogether a scene more suggestive of the infernal regions than any spot on earth. It was hard to believe that this was the spot towards which all the world was looking. Little more than a year ago this wilderness, now peopled by some thousands of white men, resounded only to the wolf's howl and the raven's hollow klonk."

As crazy as the 1897 rush was, it was nothing compared to what hit the town the following summer, when "buildings of every description sprang up like mushrooms in a night, from the black, reeking bog." Adney's account of Dawson and environs during that peak summer of 1898 is richly detailed. There was neither rhyme nor reason to who struck it rich and who went bust. One claim could yield tens of thousands of dollars in a few weeks (a quarter million today), while the next spot over would offer up nothing. Wherever the miners went, however, they left their mark, as Adney wrote with some dismay:

"Dams of crib-work filled with stones, flumes, and sluice-boxes lay across our path; heaps of 'tailings' glistened in the sunlight beside yawning holes with windlasses tumbled in; cabins were deserted the whole creek, wherever work had been done, was ripped and gutted. Nothing but flood and fire is so ruthless as the miner."

The Kindle edition of this book suffers from poor editing, and Adney's accompanying photographs have been left out, although all of them are easily accessed online. It is friendlier to the eyes than other electronic versions, however, which are PDF files of the original book. Print copies can also be had fairly easily. Whatever the version, it's essential reading. He was a formidable wordsmith.

Adney left Dawson in the fall of 1898, unaware that the madness was already subsiding, but knowing he had witnessed history. "It is a series of individual experiences," he wrote, "each unique, and there are as many stories as there were men on the trail."

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