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Alaska Bears
The Kl
ondike
There's GOLD in them thar Hills!

The Klondike Legend

Gold. In 1896, whisper the word and crowds gathered. Say it louder and they stampeded into the rugged wilderness of Alaska and Canada with the hope of striking it rich overnight. Visions of gold nuggets and suitcases filled with dollars drove them onward as they struggled up steep cliffs, across rapid rivers and through insect-infested swamps. Ahead lay the Klondike gold fields and the promise of a richer life.

The man perhaps most responsible for the famous gold rush was Californian George Washington Carmack, along with his Canadian Indian partners, Skookum Jim (Mason) and "Dawson" Charley. In August of 1896, the trio found streaks of gold in Bonanza Creek, Yukon Territory. Their mining venture eventually yielded $1 million in gold.

On their way to register the claim, Carmack told everyone he encountered about the gold. Many who believed him dropped everything and ran; others called him the biggest liar this side of the Tundra. Word spread like wildfire, and by the winter of 1897, stampeders from Seattle and other Pacific ports had flooded the Alaskan gateway city of Skagway, creating a wild frontier town.

The most traveled and dangerous route to the Klondike was up the steep Chilkoot Trail outside Skagway. At one point, the pass looked as if it were on a 35-degree angle; a man on his hands and knees appeared to be almost upright. The endless line of men carrying 100-pound packs inching up the slippery slope resembled a human garland draped across the mountainside.

Unprepared, the gold seekers suffered frostbite, hunger and sickness. But with these hardships unknown to those farther south, starry-eyed prospectors continued to arrive.

With them came a fast-talking con artist seasoned in the art of deception. Soapy Smith, along with his band of gangsters, invented hundreds of scams to prey on gold seekers. Clever enough to maintain a good-fellow image, Smith seemed to have free reign in lawless Skagway until the summer of 1898, when he and his cutthroats chose the wrong prospector to cheat out of his gold. J.D. Stewart, a wealthy miner returning from the Klondike, created such a hullabaloo over the trick played on him that a group of vigilantes pressured Soapy to return the stolen gold. Drunk, and angry at the crowd's demands, Soapy ended up in a dispute with town surveyor Frank Reid, one of the vigilante organizers. The argument led to a shoot-out, and both men died.

Today, the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Park and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park commemorate the extraordinary journey made by so many, and the entire region is getting ready to celebrate the gold rush's centennial.

Celebrations include a symbolic journey from Skagway to Seattle, re-creating the riotous arrival of Klondike miners carrying a "ton of gold" as cargo. Chocolate packaged to look like gold ingots will represent the real thing as the Spirit of '98 -- a vessel fashioned after the original SS Portland -- departs for Seattle with the symbolic cargo on July 15, 1997. Other festivities include the International Snowmobile Race, a two-person race-hike up the Chilkoot Trail, and a world gold-panning championship.


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