David Whitley heads to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Pioneer Square and discovers how Seattle cashed in on ambitious men searching their fortune.
To the uninitiated, Seattle was founded on some terrifying combination of Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing and Kurt Cobain T-shirts. Well, this isn’t entirely untrue, but there’s a surprise ingredient that turned the city from being a tiny logging and fur trade backwater into a genuine metropolis.
That ingredient – somewhat unexpected given that hardly any of it has ever been found nearby – is gold.
In the 1890s, Seattle was going through something of a turbulent time. The city had burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1889, businesses were at a standstill and there was widespread unemployment. But it had a couple of major things in its favour. In 1887, it had become the west coast terminus for the Great Western Railway, while the deep water of the Puget Sound made it an ideal harbour for big ships. Many of said ships were coming down from Alaska laden with furs.
In August 1896, this reputation of being the hub for getting to Alaska would prove to be vital. At Bonanza Creek, a branch of the remote Klondike River in’s Yukon Territory, prospectors hit upon the largest concentration of gold ever found.
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It was to spark a gold rush, but news only really broke on July 17th the next year, when the SS Portland arrived in Seattle carrying an enormous cargo of gold. This is why you’ll find one branch of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in the city’s Pioneer Square area (the other half is in Skagway, Alaska).
It’s an odd national park – well, it’s inside for a start. But the displays do go some way to proving the old adage that there’s more money to be made in selling shovels than there is in digging for gold. Seattle’s chamber of commerce was remarkably quick out of the blocks. It placed ads in newspapers around the country, marketing Seattle as the gateway to Yukon goldfields. The overland route had proved too tough, so prospectors really needed to sail to Alaska and make their way to the Klondike from there.
A campaign was also launched for an assay office – where gold can be converted into cash – to be brought to Seattle. It took over $1m in gold in its first day of opening. And while many of the city’s young men were ditching their jobs to try their luck in the far north, others were smarter and plumped for kitting these gallant adventurers out.
The impact was astonishing. Business soared (we’re talking 15,000% increases here) and then the Canadians generously helped out by imposing rules that said anyone heading to the Klondike must have a year’s worth of supplies. Seattle was more than happy to sell anything that would keep the Canadian police at bay.
The displays come up with some eye-opening stats. Approximately 100,000 set off for the Klondike, and of them only 40,000 reached it. Just half of them ever got to prospect of work on a claim, while a paltry 300 made more than $15,000 in gold.
With odds like that, no wonder the smart ones stuck to flogging boots.
For more things to do in the city, check out the Grumpy Traveller free city guide to Seattle.