Through the Yukon Gold Diggings: A Narrative of Personal Travel

Through the Yukon Gold Diggings: A Narrative of Personal Travel

Josiah Edward Spurr
Josiah Edward Spurr

Author: Spurr, Josiah Edward, 1870-1950
Alaska — Description and travel
Klondike River Valley (Yukon) — Gold discoveries
Yukon River Valley (Yukon and Alaska) — Gold discoveries
Through the Yukon Gold Diggings: A Narrative of Personal Travel

We of the Flannel Shirt and the Unblacked Boot.

Yukon Gold Diggings
A Narrative of Personal Travel

Geologist, United States Geological Survey


Copyright, 1900


As a geologist of the United States Geological Survey, I had the good fortune to be placed in charge of the first expedition sent by that department into the interior of Alaska. The gold diggings of the Yukon region were not then known to the world in general, yet to those interested in mining their renown had come in a vague way, and the special problem with which I was charged was their investigation. The results of my studies were embodied in a report entitled: “Geology of the Yukon Gold District,” published by the Government.
It was during my travels through the mining regions that the Klondike discovery, which subsequently turned so many heads throughout all of the civilized nations, was made. General conditions of mining, travelling and prospecting are much the same to-day as they were at that time, except in the limited districts into which the flood of miners has poured. My travels in Alaska have been extensive since the journey of which this work is a record, and I have noted the same scenes that are herein described, in many other parts of the vast untravelled Territory. It will take two or three decades or more, to make alterations in this region and change the condition throughout.
In recording, therefore, the scenes and hardships encountered in this northern country, I describe the experiences of one who to-day knocks about the Yukon region, the Copper River region, the Cook Inlet region, the Koyukuk, or the Nome District. My aim has been throughout, to set down what I saw and encountered as fully and simply as possible, and I have endeavored to keep myself from sacrificing accuracy to picturesqueness. That my duties led me to see more than would the ordinary traveller, I trust the following pages will bear witness.
Let the reader, therefore, when he finds tedious or unpleasant passages, remember that they record tedious or unpleasant incidents that one who travels this vast region cannot escape, as will be found should any of those who peruse these pages go through the Yukon Gold Diggings.


I. The Trip to Dyea 9
II. Over the Chilkoot Pass 35
III. The Lakes and the Yukon to Forty Mile       65
IV. The Forty Mile Diggings 109
V. The American Creek Diggings 156
VI. The Birch Creek Diggings 161
VII. The Mynook Creek Diggings 207
VIII. The Lower Yukon 229
IX. St. Michael’s and San Francisco 264


“We of the Flannel Shirt and the Unblacked Boot”       Frontispiece
An Alaskan Genealogical Tree 12
Bacon, Lord of Alaska 21
Lynn Canal 31
Alaskan Women and Children 40
Alaskan Indians and House 63
Shooting the White Horse Rapids 93
Talking it Over 98
Alaska Humpback Salmon, Male and Female 107
Washing Gravel in Sluice-Boxes 131
“Tracking” a Boat Upstream 137
A “Cache” 140
Native Dogs 153
On the Tramp Again 165
Hog’em Junction Road-House 171
On Hog’em Gulch 177
Custom House at Circle City 190
The Break-up of the Ice on the Yukon 213
A Yukon Canoe 230
Indian Fish-traps 231
In a Tent Beneath Spruce Trees 239
Three-hatch Skin Boat, or Bidarka 261
Eskimo Houses at St. Michael’s 265
A Native Doorway 266
The Captured Whale 271

The author wishes to express his indebtedness to Messrs. A. H. Brooks, F. C. Schrader, A. Beverly Smith, and the United States Geological Survey, for the use of photographs.

Through The Yukon Gold Diggings.
Before the Klondike Discovery.


It was in 1896, before the Klondike boom. We were seated at the table of an excursion steamer, which plied from Seattle northward among the thousand wonderful mountain islands of the Inland Passage. It was a journey replete with brilliant spectacles, through many picturesque fjords from whose unfathomable depths the bare steep cliffs rise to dizzy heights, while over them tumble in disorderly loveliness cataracts pure as snow, leaping from cliff to cliff in very wildness, like embodiments of the untamed spirits of nature.
We had just passed Queen Charlotte Sound, where the swells from the open sea roll in during rough weather, and many passengers were appearing at the table with the pale face and defiant look which mark the unfortunate who has newly committed the crime of seasickness. It only enhanced the former stiffness, which we of the flannel shirt and the unblacked boot had striven in vain to break—for these were people who were gathered from the corners of the earth, and each individual, or each tiny group, seemed to have some invisible negative attraction for all the rest, like the little molecules which, scientists imagine, repel their neighbors to the very verge of explosion. They were all sight-seers of experience, come, some to do Alaska, some to rest from mysterious labors, some—but who shall fathom at a glance an apparently dull lot of apparent snobs? At any rate, one would have thought the everlasting hills would have shrunk back and the stolid glaciers blushed with vexation at the patronizing way with which they were treated in general. It was depressing—even European tourists’ wordy enthusiasm over a mud puddle or a dunghill would have been preferable.

There are along this route all the benefits of a sea trip—the air, the rest—with none of its disadvantages. So steep are the shores that the steamer may often lie alongside of them when she stops and run her gang-plank out on the rocks. These stops show the traveller the little human life there is in this vast and desolate country. There are villages of the native tribes, with dwellings built in imitation of the common American fashion, in front of which rise great totem poles, carved and painted, representing grinning and grotesque animal-like, or human-like, or dragon-like figures, one piled on top of the other up to the very top of the column. A sort of ancestral tree, these are said to be,—only to be understood with a knowledge of the sign symbolism of these people—telling of their tribe and lineage, of their great-grandfather the bear, and their great-grandmother the wolf or such strange things.

An Alaskan Genealogical Tree.

The people themselves, with their heavy faces and their imitation of the European dress—for the tourist and the prospector have brought prosperity and the thin veneer of civilization to these southernmost tribes of Alaska—with their flaming neckerchief or head-kerchief of red and yellow silk that the silk-worm had no part in making, but only the cunning Yankee weaver, paddle out in boats dug from the great evergreen trees that cover the hills so thickly, and bring articles made of sealskin, or skilfully woven baskets made out of the fibres of spruce roots, to sell to the passengers. Or the steamer may stop at a little hamlet of white pioneers, where there is fishing for halibut, with perhaps some mining for gold on a small scale; then the practical men of the party, who have hitherto been bored, can inquire whether the industry pays, and contemplate in their suddenly awakened fancies the possibilities of a halibut syndicate, or another Treadwell gold mine. So the artist gets his colors and forms, the business man sees wonderful possibilities in this shockingly unrailroaded wilderness, the tired may rest body and mind in the perfect peace and freedom from the human element, old ladies may sleep and young ones may flirt meantimes.
All this would seem to prove that the passengers were neither professional nor business men, nor young nor old ladies—part of which appeared to me manifestly, and the rest probably untrue; or else that they were all enthusiastic and interested in the dumb British-American way, which sets down as vulgar any betrayal of one’s self to one’s neighbors.
Some one at the table wearily and warily inquired when we should get to the Muir glacier, on which point we of the flannel-shirted brotherhood were informed; and incidentally we remarked that we intended to leave the festivities before that time, in Juneau.
“Oh my!” said the sad-faced, middle-aged lady with circles about her eyes. “Stay in Juneau! How dreadful! Are you going as missionaries, or,” here she wrestled for an idea, “or are you simply going.”
“We are going to the Yukon,” we answered, “from Juneau. You may have heard of the gold fields of the Yukon country.” And strange and sweet to say, at this later day, no one had heard of the gold fields—that was before they had become the rage and the fashion.
But the whole table warmed with interest—they were as lively busybodies as other people and we were the first solution to the problems which they had been putting to themselves concerning each other since the beginning of the trip. There was a fire of small questions.
“How interesting!” said an elderly young lady, who sat opposite. “I suppose you will have all kinds of experiences, just roughing it; and will you take your food with you on—er—wagons—or will you depend on the farmhouses along the way? Only,” she added hastily, detecting a certain gleam in the eye of her vis-a-vis, “I didn’t think there were many farmhouses.”
“They will ride horses, Jane,” said the bluff old gentleman who was evidently her father, so authoritatively that I dared not dispute him—”everybody does in that country.” Then, as some glanced out at the precipitous mountain-side and dense timber, he added, “Of course, not here. In the interior it is flat, like our plains, and one rides on little horses,—I think they call them kayaks—I have read it,” he said, looking at me fiercely. Then, as we were silent, he continued, more condescendingly, “I have roughed it myself, when I was young. We used to go hunting every fall in Pennsylvania, when I was a boy, and once two of us went off together and were gone a week, just riding over the roughest country roads and into the mountains on horseback. If our coffee had not run out we would have stayed longer.”
“But isn’t it dreadfully cold up there?” said the sweet brown-eyed girl, with a look in her eyes that wakened in our hearts the first momentary rebellion against our exile. “And the wild animals! You will suffer so.”
“I used to know an explorer,” said the business man with the green necktie, who had been dragged to the shrine of Nature by his wife. He had brought along an entire copy of the New York Screamer, and buried himself all day long in its parti-colored mysteries. “He told me many things that might be useful to you, if I could remember them. About spearing whales—for food, you know—you will have to do a lot of that. I wish I could have you meet him sometime; he could tell you much more than I can. Somebody said there was gold up there. Was it you? Well don’t get frozen up and drift across the Pole, like Nansen, just to get where the gold is. But I suppose the nuggets——”
“Let’s go on deck, Jane,” said the old gentleman;—then to us, politely but firmly, “I have been much interested in your account, and shall be glad to hear more later.” We had not said anything yet.
We disembarked at Juneau. We had watched the shore for nearly the whole trip without perceiving a rift in the mountains through which it looked feasible to pass, and at Juneau the outlook or uplook was no better. Those who have been to Juneau (and they are now many) know how slight and almost insecure is its foothold; how it is situated on an irregular hilly area which looks like a great landslide from the mountains towering above, whose sides are so sheer that the wagon road which winds up the gulch into Silver Bow basin is for some distance in the nature of a bridge, resting on wooden supports and hugging close to the steep rock wall. The excursionists tarried a little here, buying furs at extortionate prices from the natives, fancy baskets, and little ornaments which are said to be made in Connecticut.
In the hotel the proprietor arrived at our business in the shortest possible time, by the method of direct questioning. He was from Colorado, I judged—all the men I have known that look like him come from Colorado. There was also a heavily bearded man dressed in ill-fitting store-clothes, and with a necktie which had the strangest air of being ill at ease, who was lounging near by, smoking and spitting on the floor contemplatively.
“Here, Pete,” said the proprietor, “I want you to meet these gentlemen.” He pronounced the last word with such a peculiar intonation that one felt sure he used it as synonymous with “tenderfeet” or “paperlegs” or other terms by which Alaskans designate greenhorns.
I had rather had him call me “this feller.” “He says he’s goin’ over the Pass, an’ maybe you can help each other.” Pete smiled genially and crushed my hand, looking me full in the eye the while, doubtless to see how I stood the ordeal. “Pete’s an old timer,” continued the hotel-man, “one of the Yukon pioneers. Been over that Pass—how many times, Pete, three times, ain’t it?”
“Dis makes dirt time,” answered Pete, with a most unique dialect, which nevertheless was Scandinavian. “Virst time, me an’ Frank Densmore, Whisky Bill an’ de odder boys. Dat was summer som we washed on Stewart River, on’y us—fetched out britty peek sack dat year—eh?” He had a curious way of retaining the Scandinavian relative pronoun som in his English, instead of who or that.
“You bet, Pete,” answered the other, “you painted the town; done your duty by us.”
“Ja,” said Pete, “blewed it in; mostly in ‘Frisco. Was king dat winter till dust was all been spent. Saw tings dat was goot; saw udder tings was too bad, efen for Alaskan miner. One time enough. I tink dese cities kind of bad fer people. So I get out. Sez I,—’I jes’ got time to get to Lake Bennett by time ice breaks,’ so I light out.” He smiled happily as he said this, as a man might talk of going home, then continued, “Den secon’ dime I get a glaim Forty Mile, Miller Greek,—dat’s really Sixty Mile, but feller gits dere f’m Forty Mile. Had a pardner, but he went down to Birch Greek, den I work my glaim alone.”
He put his hand down in his trousers pocket and brought up a large flat angular piece of gold, two inches long; it had particles of quartz scattered through, and was in places rusty with iron, but was mostly smooth and showed the wearing it must have had in his pocket. He shoved the yellow lump into my hand. “Dat nugget was de biggest in my glaim dat I found; anoder feller he washed over tailin’s f’m my glaim efter, an’ he got bigger nuggets, he says, but I tinks he’s dam liar. Anyhow, I get little sack an’ I went down ‘Frisco, an’ I blewed it in again. Now I go back once more.”
We talked awhile and finally agreed to make the trip to Forty Mile together, since we were all bound to this place, and Pete, unlike most miners and prospectors, had no “pardner.” We were soon engaged in making the rounds of the shops, laying in our supplies—beans, bacon, dried fruit, flour, sugar, cheese, and, most precious of all, a bucket of strawberry jam. We made up our minds to revel in jam just as long as we were able, even if we ended up on plain flour three times a day. For a drink we took tea, which is almost universally used in Alaska, instead of coffee, since a certain weight of it will last as long as many times the same weight of coffee: moreover, there is some quality in this beverage which makes it particularly adapted to the vigorous climate and conditions of this northern country. Men who have never used tea acquire a fondness for it in Alaska, and will drink vast quantities, especially in the winter. The Russians, themselves the greatest tea-drinkers of all European nations, long ago introduced “Tschai” to the Alaskan natives; and throughout the country they will beg for it from every white man they meet, or will travel hundreds of miles and barter their furs to obtain it.

Bacon, Lord of Alaska.

Concerning the amount of supplies it is necessary to take on a trip like ours, it may be remarked that three pounds of solid food to each man per day, is liberal. As to the proportion, no constant estimate can be made, men’s appetites varying with the nature of the articles in the rations and their temporary tastes. On this occasion Pete picked out the supplies, laying in what he judged to be enough of each article: but it appeared afterwards that a man may be an experienced pioneer, and yet never have solved the problem of reasonably accurate rations, for some articles were soon exhausted on our trip, while others lasted throughout the summer, after which we were obliged to bequeath the remainder to the natives. Camp kettles, and frying-pans, of course, were in the outfit, as well as axes, boat-building tools, whip-saw, draw-shave, chisels, hammers, nails, screws, oakum and pitch. It was our plan to build a boat on the lakes which are the source of the Yukon, felling the spruce trees, and then with a whip-saw slicing off boards, which when put together would carry us down the river to the gold diggings.
For our personal use we had a single small tent, A-shaped, but with half of one of the large slanting sides cut out, so that it could be elevated like a curtai

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