‘Stampede’ puts a new shine on familiar Klondike history

Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike

By Brian Castner, Doubleday, 274 pages, 2021. $28.95

The Klondike gold rush has been written about so extensively that any author setting out to write a new account of that brief but pivotal period in northern history faces the challenge of making it fresh and keeping even seasoned armchair historians turning the pages of an otherwise familiar tale. For academics, this would require a deep dive into the archives to uncover overlooked details that alter or enhance our understanding of it. Those writing for general audiences, on the other hand, are tasked with writing the story in a way that makes it compelling, while perhaps persuading readers to reconsider how the events unfolded and what they mean in the broader narrative of history.

Journalist Brian Castner has dug into the past in his previous books, mixing memoir with history. But in “Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike,” he makes his first stab at writing about historic events and nothing more. He’s chosen the second path by telling the story with beautiful language while finding an underlying narrative that ties together the people and events he explores. The book succeeds masterfully, and whether readers are wholly unfamiliar with the era he covers, or quite expert in it, “Stampede” will delight.

Rather than offer a straightforward chronological retelling, Castner has opted to follow the lives of more than a dozen people who rushed to Dawson City after word reached the United States in 1897 that gold had been found on a tributary of the Klondike River the previous year. Weaving back and forth in time to place storytelling rather than sequential action at the center of this book, Castner explores what brought each of these people north, how they fared while there and what happened to them afterward.

Some are widely known, including author Jack London, journalist Tappan Adney, and outlaw Jefferson “Soapy” Smith. Others, like miners George Carmack and Keish “Skookum Jim” Mason, who struck gold on what became known as Bonanza Creek, as well as merchant Joe Ladue, remain familiar names in the north. A few, like failed prospector Robert Henderson, North-West Mounted Police commander Samuel Steele, and Anna DeGraf, who came not for gold but in search of her vanished son, are not as prominent in other accounts of the era as they are here, but their stories are key to the author’s broader theme.

For Castner, the Klondike gold rush was not the stuff of romantic adventure and a proving ground for men, as depicted by London and widely popularized ever since. For him, it was human tragedy on an epic scale.

Setting his story amid the economic crises that buffeted the nation in the 1890s, Castner shows how those who came north were escaping a country awash in desperation and poverty. With America’s dollar then tied to the gold standard, the only means by which new wealth could be generated was by finding additional gold. The Klondike offered what entrepreneurial efforts and wage labor couldn’t: new money.

Castner covers the madness that swept over America as thousands suspended whatever other lives they might have been pursuing and joined the masses surging into Canada. The region was unprepared for them. That it wasn’t as large of a disaster as it easily could have been was something of a miracle — especially once stampeders began piling up.

During the winter of 1897-98, Dawson was cut off from the world by the grip of cold and snow. Gold dust flowed freely, but there wasn’t food to buy, and even the wealthy went hungry. Meanwhile, incoming stampeders flooded the trails and waterways from the West Coast to the Canadian border, waiting to surge forward as soon as ice broke on the waterways into the Klondike.

They weren’t peacefully storing up energy for summer. As Castner writes with narrative skills present throughout this book, “tens of thousands of men and women found themselves mired in a self-induced natural disaster that stretched from Seattle to Alaska and across the vast interior of Canada’s North-West Territories. The stampeders attacked the Klondike from nearly every direction, and in so doing suffered every sort of calamity imaginable. Shipwrecks, avalanches, pack ice, meningitis, frostbite, famine, murder.”

Castner follows his key players through this unfolding human drama. Most would return home empty-handed. London spent one long alcoholic winter in a cabin and couldn’t wait to leave come spring, although he mined his time in the Yukon for literary gold. Henderson, whose overt racism toward Native peoples would prompt Carmack to not tell him of the discovery in time to stake worthy ground, wandered the northlands in search of gold for years and never made his fortune. New York gymnastics instructor Arthur Arnold Dietz convinced a party of fellow travelers that the most efficient route to Dawson from the shoreline was over the Malaspina Glacier on the flanks of Mount Saint Elias. In what became something of a northern version of Odysseus, only he and three more survived.

Others fell short of glory as well. Soapy Smith, who had mastered the art of organized crime across the American West in previous decades, seized control of Skagway, was shot by a vigilante, and died a poor man. Belinda Mulrooney mined the miners with a hotel and dancehall, becoming extravagantly wealthy in short order, only to watch her fortune burn to the ground along with most of the rest of Dawson during a citywide fire. DeGraf would never find or learn the fate of her son, although she did become a surrogate mother to the town’s prostitutes and other marginalized residents, freely offering them love and assistance.

Castner tells these and other stories with compassion, exploring how personal shortcomings and the privations of the Yukon stymied those who sought salvation in the gold fields. His dramatic telling of this history is a deeply human story, one of perseverance in the face of repeated failures. “Stampede” is far from the most comprehensive history of the Klondike gold rush. But it’s one of the best.