July 15, 1897 I’m sure started like any other summer day in Seattle. While good portions of the city had been rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1889, there was much expansion to accommodate all the new residents that were trying to make a living in the timber, shipping, and railway industries that were growing. Men were working, building new buildings, unloading ships and rail cars, and keeping shops to feed and clothe Seattle’s residents. Women were sewing, cooking, teaching, and raising their children. Children, well, since the schools (all two of them) were barely operating at that time, the kids were either working or running amok. (Ok, that last part isn’t verified, but it’s a safe assumption.)
Gold Rush Fever Begins
Then a simple telegraph changed everything forever. It said that the S.S. Portland was on its way from St. Michael Alaska with 68 prospectors and a ‘ton’ of gold that they had found up in that frozen, and largely unknown, area. While the gold rush had actually begun a little less than a year prior, it took a while for news to spread – and for the men who made it rich to come back with proof of their fortune. Two days later the ship appeared and caused quite the stir to say the least. The Seattle PI (yep, around even then) sent reporters out on a tugboat to interview the returning heroes before they could even dock, and over 5,000 people came out to see what that much gold actually looked like. They weren’t disappointed. As the men came down the gangplank, they hired people from the crowd to help them unload their fortunes. The men cheered and secretly plotted to get a piece of the action. Women swooned and made sure the miners were, uh, taken care of. The children, I’m sure they were still running amok.
Many Try, Few Succeed
Gold Rush fever had struck Seattle and started a period of prosperity and growth that lasted (despite a few ups and downs) well into the 21st Century. The smart businessmen and merchants knew that the hordes of eager prospectors would need supplies for the long and often treacherous, journey up north. Those hordes would be needing not only goods for their trip, but they needed a place to sleep, eat, and entertain themselves while they waited for the next party leaving. It would either be by ship, for those who could afford it (the all-water route up to the Yukon River delta and down to Dawson), or by foot to travel the difficult route up the Alaskan panhandle and over the mountains to the Yukon River and then on to Dawson. Sadly, most of them never made it. Many turned around, unable to handle the harsh conditions of the trip. Some died, not having enough food or clothing to make it to Dawson. Between 1897 and 1900 more than 100,000 people tried to reach the Klondike, but it’s estimated that only about 40,000 actually made it.
But some did make it and found their fortune. And if it wasn’t enough to consider themselves Vanderbilt or Carganie rich, they did take what they made, returned to Seattle, and set themselves up with businesses catering to the men coming back with money to spend. Or came back with nothing but found work in Seattle due to the city’s expansion. Fun Fact: John Nordstrom invested $13,000 of his Klondike find into a shoe store – that store would eventually become the Nordstrom chain that we know today. And there are a lot of stories like that, some men started businesses that are still around today, and some built and opened hotels like the Cadillac, built in 1889, that today houses the Seattle branch of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
The Past and the Present
In 1976, the National Parks Service created the Yukon Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway, Alaska to preserve the history of that important event. And in 1979 they decided to open a Seattle branch to showcase the part our city played in said event. They chose the ground floor of the then mostly abandoned hotel to display the artifacts, memorabilia, and photos they had collected. Most of the items have been donated by the families of prospectors, the largest coming from the grandchildren of John Hielscher. John spent 15 years in the Klondike, first as a prospector, but later as a hoist operation owner and finally as a shop owner. He saved almost everything, including letters home to family and friends, newspapers, and photos. In 2008 his grandchildren donated everything to the park.
Fast forward to today. The park offers visitors a glimpse into the lives of the prospectors – how they got to the Klondike, where they lived, and how they panned for gold. The two floors are set up as self-guided tours, which you can do before or after watching one (or all!) of the three films they offer about the Kings and Queens of the gold rush. The Kerr Room (named for Ranger Ruth Kerr) houses temporary special exhibits about specific times during the gold rush. The exhibit on display now through the end of the spring is called, “Stories in Every Stitch: Klondike Clothing and Tales They Tell” showcasing the clothing and stories about prospectors, seamstresses, and many others during that time.
Please visit the park’s website for their hours, location, and lots of other information about the park.
Start your day off right
Whether you’re finding our hidden gems, or just wandering the many sites of the city, make sure the team at Seattle Oasis Vacation Rentals has you booked in a beautiful downtown location. Our units offer comfortable couches and relaxing décor to help you unwind after a long day of exploring. We have the luxury apartment with personalized service that you deserve. Contact us to start planning your next trip!