In the year 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon along a stream called Rabbit Creek. It was renamed Bonanza Creek because it made a few men very rich indeed.
For the next couple years, 100,000 people tried to reach the goldfields from all over the world. Dawson City, from which the gold could be reached, grew from a sleepy town of 500 to over 30,000 in just two years. However, the gold didn’t last long, and by the summer of 1898, the rush was over.
Of those who set out to find their fortune, only 30,000 to 40,000 reached Dawson City. Of those, only 4000 actually struck gold, and of those, only a few hundred became rich.
There were several ways of reaching the places where gold was being found. Some took longer than others and many were exceptionally difficult due to the rugged terrain and the cold. The Chilkoot Pass was used by many. Its main ascent, the last 1000 feet, was called “The Scales”. At some point, steps were cut into the ice, creating a 1500 step staircase. This was nicknamed “The Golden Stairs”.
Today gold is still being mined from the earth at the rate of 2700 tonnes per year. However the days of finding nuggets within easy reach are over. Instead, over 80% of the gold mined today is extracted using cyanidation which is extremely environmentally unfriendly. A recent study has shown that cyanide could be replaced with a starch with the same effect and much less toxicity.
Gold is used mostly for jewellery, but also in electronics as it is an excellent conductor and doesn’t react easily to substances like air and water. It is also used in medical and dental procedures.
Here is a poem that captures what is was like to be a gold-digger in the Yukon:
The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service, read by Johnny Cash and illustrated by Ted Harrison:
If you are able to, read Crazy for Gold from the Canadian Flyer series.
Activity: A sourdough starter is a substance that is used to leaven bread in the absence of yeast or baking powder and it has become a nickname for gold prospectors. Many of them would carry a package of sourdough starter, of which a small amount when mixed with flour and water could be made into great bread.
If you want to know more, this is an interesting website: A History of the Klondike