Monday, September 25, 2017

Gold Fever: Elmirans in the Klondike Gold Rush

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The California Gold Rush of 1849 gets more attention, but I personally find the Klondike Gold Rush a few decades later much more interesting. In August 1896, prospectors found gold in the Klondike River region of the Yukon Territory. As news spread of the find, “gold fever” also spread across the nation. Adventurers and fortune-seekers packed up their belongings to try their luck in the freezing north. Local folks would not be left out of the race for riches.
Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, August 27, 1897
The Alaska Mining and Prospect Company was formed in Elmira, New York in 1897 and incorporated on December 24, 1987 in Colorado. The company’s mission was to fund an expedition of 10 men to the Klondike to locate and mine gold. Prominent Elmira men John M. Diven and Dix W. Smith were among the company’s directors. Andrew Sherwood, a geologist from Mansfield, PA, was hired to lead a party of prospectors and miners. The Alaska Mining and Prospecting Co. organized with capital of $200,000 and did swift business selling stocks. 

John M. Diven
On August 6, 1897, the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press reported, “The gold fever seems to be raging harder and many Elmirans are investing their hard-earned cash in the uncertainties of the gold fields. They flock to the offices of the directors of the scheme [the Alaska Mining and Prospecting Co.] like so many ducks after water. Even the women have the fever and yesterday one new woman from Elmira Heights entered the office of one of the directors and said she wanted to buy some stock…Two Elmira Heights young women, one a stenographer and one a school teacher, are said to be anxious to try their luck in the gold fields, hoping to get remunerative employment there.” 

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, January 4, 1898
The Alaska Mining and Prospect Company’s expedition team left in May 1898 and reached the Klondike via the Teslin Trail. The route was the cheapest and safest. The journey lasted about 6 weeks. They wintered in Wrangell, Alaska.
Like many of the miners in the Klondike, they found little gold. They did find some coal, however. In 1902, Dix Smith reported that the company had 12,000 acres of coal land, but he seemed to “be of the opinion that the stockholders will realize very little, if anything on their investment.” There is a collection of materials about the short-lived company at the University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections.

David Lewis of Elmira worked for the Alaska Mining and Prospect Company in Dawson, Alaska. He reported finding some gold, but admitted that conditions were difficult and that it was frequently -30 degrees Fahrenheit. He supposedly grew a beard that came down to almost his waist. 

Employees of the Alaska Mining and Prospect Company were not the only local people to go in search of riches. In February 1898, friends Charles Bertram and Albert G. Miller headed for the Klondike. In March, Bertram wrote his brother a letter from Seattle, Washington. Seattle was mobbed by wannabe prospectors from around the country who were waiting to board the boats that would get them closer to the frozen gold fields. Bertram reported on the chaos and major price gouging by local stores. Miller had married Margaret Weaver just before leaving and the two of them headed to Seattle, where she planned to stay while he went on. 
Bertram's brother John was also apparently interested in the Klondike. He offered this promotion for his bowling alley in 1897. His brother hadn't even left yet. I'm assuming the prizes were just cash, not actual gold.
Two more Elmirans, Joseph Grady, a mail carrier, and George Backer, a grocer, also left in early 1898. In May, Grady wrote a letter home saying he had reached the Chilkoot Pass, a particularly difficult and deadly stretch of the path. He arrived at the time of an avalanche. He reported that descending the pass the most difficult part of the journey. That declaration might have been a little premature. By August 30, Grady had enough of the Klondike, quit, and headed home. He arrived back in Elmira by mid-October.

Of course, you didn’t even have to leave Elmira or start a prospecting company to make money off of people’s gold fever. Stores, businesses, and hotels all adopted the Klondike name in their advertising. 

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, November 22, 1897
A natural promotional opportunity for Gold Dust soap in the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, August 2, 1897.
Probably my favorite local Klondike story is that of Reverend Frederick L. Benedict, the pastor of the Franklin St. church, who went north in early 1898. His primary mission was to help the miners who were driven to sin by the 24-hour nights and lack of civilization. Benedict wanted to build a simple log cabin to hold services, which he would call "Miner's Rendezvous." 

Benedict explained his mission as follows: "My prime object in going is to establish some innocent place of amusement on religious principles, where the Alaskan miner may while away on a long winter night instead of going to the saloon or gambling hall, of which there are an astonishing number already. But understand me, I am no fool! I am not going to kick any nuggets that I run across, out of my way and say ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’”

Benedict was correct that gambling, drinking, fighting, and prostitution were common pastimes for miners in the Klondike Gold Rush. There are no reports, however, to determine how many miners the reverend was able to convert. Benedict left Alaska around 1903 and headed to Oklahoma to work in a Sunday School. Still, he made it longer in the frozen fields than many others with the gold fever.

1 comment:

  1. Always love the history of our past citizens. The stories are so interesting.