I knew that my Great Uncle William S. Martin had spent four years in the Yukon. He appears on the 1901 Canada Census, captured as he was returning to the states on the Yukoner sternwheel steamer. But what else happened during those four years in Alaska and British Columbia?
Before I could write William’s story, I had a lot of learning to do. The Salt Lake newspapers kept track of William and the other local characters who had gone to the gold rush—those articles gave me data points to track William’s whereabouts. But many questions also arose. Why would William take such an unusual route to the Klondike, one that was looked on with disdain by his acquaintances? Why did he rush to the area only to wait eight months before heading to the gold fields? Those did not seem to make sense as the actions of the experienced, wily miner that William was. To answer these questions, I studied more about the Yukon, spoke with some experienced mining men, and carefully reread the information and the timeline given by the newspaper articles.
Gradually, I understood. Much of the gold coming out of the Yukon was from placer mines, found in and around the river beds. William was a hard rock miner—he planned to bypass the placer mines that were by then worked over and all claimed up. Instead, William went searching for the lodes—gold still embedded in rock—in the mountains upstream from Dawson City.
William took a relatively ignored passage to the Yukon that traveled along the Stikine River. He camped along Telegraph Creek upriver from Dawson City and began to prospect. He did find gold! An Eastern Mining Company placed an option on the property, However, whether doubts about the claim or concerns about the expense involved in getting the gold out, for some unknown reason the deal fell through. William moved on to other locations.
William’s methodology was sound, but he was doomed to fail; that region has a particularly bizarre geologic make-up. Seismic activity had made the lodes impossible to access. No rich lode was found then, only gold from the rivers.
William’s story was not the traditional Gold Rush tale—I would have missed so much had I not made the effort to synthesize sources and compile the details to get the true story.
In the summer of 1896, three men discovered considerable quantities of gold at Rabbit Creek (renamed Bonanza Creek), near Dawson in the Yukon Territory of Alaska. Over the next 11 months, they and other area residents would stake claims along the rivers—there seemed to be gold everywhere for the taking. Since the area was so remote, news of the gold discovery stayed mostly local. That changed on July 17, 1897, when the steamship Portland pulled into the Seattle harbor, reportedly carrying “more than a ton of gold.” There was, in fact, more than two tons.
Within a month, William S. Martin had joined the more than 100,000 miners who rushed to the Yukon hoping to find their own treasures. At this time, William was nearly broke. He had seen his fortune dwindle as he pursued one extravagant scheme after another, from bankrolling chancy mining ventures—that did not pay out—to purchasing and developing a new railroad route—one that was never built. Although William was 53 years old, he eagerly rose to this new challenge in the ice-wrapped wilderness.
The first task would be to acquire supplies. The Canadian government required miners to have a year’s supply of food before they were allow to proceed into the harsh regions. They also charged a tariff of 15 cents per pound on some miners’ supplies. The cost to kit up was about $300 for two miners, and included over 2000 pounds of equipment and food, including 800 lbs. of flour, 400 lbs. of bacon, 300 lbs. of beans, a tent, blankets, rubber blankets, snowshoes, heavy woolen underwear, and snow glasses. Indians were hired and/or horses, dog sleds, and boats were used to transport the equipment along the trail and through the lakes and rivers.
By September 1897, William had collected his supplies, booked passage on a steamboat, and was in Juneau, Alaska, waiting for the trail to open so he could head north to the goldfields.
There were several ways to get to the Klondike. The least difficult—the so-called rich man’s route—was to take a steamship up to the mouth of the Yukon River, then sail southeast and upstream 2,000 miles to Dawson City. The poor man’s route was to sail to Skagway or Dyea, hike over the mountains, and then make a boat to sail 500 miles downstream on the Yukon River.
Of the 100,000 who set out, only about 30,000 miners made it to Dawson City, which nonetheless swelled the town’s population, making it the largest city north of San Francisco. There were many perils on the journey, not all of them to do with weather (-20 degrees F in winter) or terrain. At Skagway, con man Jefferson “Soapy” Smith had taken over the town, assembling a crew of 300 men to help him fleece the Klondikers. He even built a fake telegraph office and collected money to send fake telegraphs. If you escaped their clutches, the journey over the White Pass Trail from Skagway was treacherous. The Chilkoot Trail from Dyea was even worse—it was steeper and in time was renamed the Dead Horse Trail, for reasons that are easy to guess. Many miners ended up eating the dead horses when they discovered midway that they were ill prepared for the difficult journey. The trail gained a reputation for driving men insane. (Perhaps due to their diet?)
William chose to take none of the above routes. Instead he followed the Stikine River from Fort Wrangler to Telegraph Creek, from there trekking 120 miles over the mountains to Lake Teslin. There he would have built boats and travelled via Lake Teslin and the Yukon River to Dawson City.
William likely set out from Fort Wrangle in April or May of 1898, arriving in Dawson City about September 28, 1898, more than a year after leaving Salt Lake City. But the trip took a heavy toll. By time he reached Dawson, he had lost 75 pounds and was very ill. While traveling on a frozen river, the ice broke; he was thrust into the icy waters and carried downstream for a few hundred yards. Coming up to the surface, he hit his head on great chunks of ice, and sustained serious injuries.
“His Scotch nerve and iron will saved him,” reported Joe Finch, a Salt Lake City miner who had been with William at Dawson City. Nonetheless, the head injury would plague William to the end of his days.
After four years of nearly fruitless toil, William S. Martin returned to Salt Lake City in September 1901. He was sick, broke, and disillusioned about the time spent in the frozen wastes of the Yukon. William attempted to return to his former lively occupations, but health would not allow. The tailor fitted him with new clothes and the cobbler with new shoes. But the shoes chafed his feet, leading to blood poisoning. William lived at his former home, the Hotel Cullen, but relied heavily on morphine to tolerate the pain from his head injury. On February 19, 1902, William was found unconscious in his room. He had succumbed to a stroke only six months after his return from the Yukon.