In 1896, an American prospector, George Carmack, and his native wife discovered gold in the Yukon. The news spread like wildfire. Gold diggers soon flocked in from all over the world, giving rise to a boom town, Dawson City. Overnight, the Klondike River region becomes a global Eldorado.
This influx leads the mounted police to impose conditions of access to the territory. Prospectors must have a ton of goods and 1000 pounds of provisions, which is enough to theoretically survive for a year.
Those interested arrive in the summer in Alaska by boat.
They then have to navigate dangerous snowy trails to cross the mountains and reach the Yukon. The journey often takes months.
Upon arrival in Dawson, it is already winter in this region where, for seven months, temperatures rarely exceed -22°C. All this without counting the darkness, illness and isolation.
Cut off from the world and enclosed, prospectors sometimes suffer from cabin fever, a mixture of claustrophobia and paranoia that can make you slip seriously.
Living in the Yukon is also very expensive. Almost everything you eat there is imported from elsewhere. What costs 10 cents elsewhere in Canada costs Dawson a dollar, not to mention runaway inflation.
To find the precious metal, you have to dig in the frozen ground, extract the stone, the earth, and hoist everything up a well.
Those who dig suffer less from the cold, but they can be buried by a collapse at any time.
Panning for gold is like gambling in a casino. For those who find it, the dream comes true, and they live in opulence. For the majority, however, it is a daily struggle to survive. Of the 100,000 people who left to search for gold, 30,000 arrived in the Yukon and 2,000 found gold.
About 200 will find a significant amount of gold, but only about 50 will leave with their loot without having lost it in the game.
Amounts equivalent to tens of millions of dollars today are lost and won regularly in poker in Dawson City.
Women participate in the gold rush by deciding, for example, to follow their husbands. Others work as cooks, servants, teachers, nurses, dancers or prostitutes.
Some businesswomen made their fortunes, like Irish-American Belinda Mulroney, the richest woman in the Yukon.
Although gold prospecting still exists in the Yukon today, the gold rush ended in 1899. It left us with an important cultural heritage.
We are thinking here of Jack London. This American tries his luck as a prospector in the Klondike, but scurvy forces him to give up everything. Back in his city of San Francisco, his misadventures provided him with literary inspiration for his novel Le fils du loup, which would be very successful.
Prospector Lorenzo Létourneau wrote his memoirs, Le journal d’un prospecteur d’or au Klondike. In this book, he recounts his adventures and those of hundreds of other French Canadians he met in the Yukon. It is probably thanks to Létourneau that this epic is found in some of our folk songs.
The Klondike Gold Rush was an incredible human adventure. It continues to fascinate us today.