“GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” cried a headline in the late edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 17, 1898. The newspaper scooped the rest of the city’s press when it sent a reporter aboard a tug to meet the SS Portland before it reached Elliot Bay. ‘A TON OF GOLD’ screamed a headline in the San Francisco Examiner after the steamship Excelsior docked a day or so later in that city.
Those headlines caused a worldwide sensation and generated a stampede to the Yukon.
Almost a month earlier, the two ships had departed St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon. On board were passengers who had arrived from Dawson on the river steamers Weare and Alice. Among them were Clarence J. and Ethel Berry, carrying more than $200,000 in gold stowed in heavy boxes with a combined weight of half a ton. Another $10,000 worth was tucked away in leather pokes brought along for spending money.
As newlyweds in 1895, the couple went to the Yukon via Dyea, climbing the Chilkoot Pass and trudging over lakes, rivers and forests to reach their No. 5 Eldorado claim. It had been staked by Berry soon after he heard George Carmack bragging about his find on Rabbit Creek in August of 1896. An impoverished California fruit farmer, Berry had gone north in1893 to prospect and was working as a bartender in Fortymile, a Canadian camp near the Alaska border where gold was being mined. Within two years he had gathered enough gold to return to California and marry his 21-year-old sweetheart, Ethel Dane. She worked alongside him in the diggings as they became among the wealthiest of the Klondikers. She once boasted that while waiting for her husband to come in for dinner one day, she plucked $30,000 worth of nuggets from the mound of gravel that was awaiting sluicing.
Berry and his family later moved to Fairbanks where they mined successfully before returning to California. They invested in petroleum, buying land and developing wells. Their first well, the Ethel D, reportedly is still producing under the current owners of Berry Petroleum Company.
The Yukon River is North America’s longest at 1,980 miles. Its headwaters are in Canada and it meanders north and west until it empties into the Bering Sea at St. Michael. St. Michael was a port and trading post under Russian rule and continues today as the terminus of Yukon freighters. The river is relatively shallow, with sandbars and shoals, and in winter is impassable due to low water and ice.
When the “Three Lucky Swedes,” Jafet Lindeberg, Erik Lindblom and John Brynteson, discovered great quantities of gold on Anvil Creek on the Seward Peninsula in 1898, a second stampede occurred there. The City of Nome sprang up nearby and was incorporated in 1901. Its beaches were found to be gold-bearing and produced nearly as much gold as the streams. The beaches are still mined today by recreational prospectors under permits issued by the City of Nome and dredges operate offshore.
Among those who mined or otherwise profited from the Gold Rush, many remained in Alaska.
“Wise Mike” Stepovich stowed away on a steamer headed for Skagway and mined in the Klondike district until moving to the Fairbanks area where he owned claims. His son, also named Michael, was Alaska’s territorial governor until 1959 when the State of Alaska became the 49th star on the American flag.
Andrew Nerland was a paint and wallpaper dealer and contractor. He and a partner left their Seattle business and journeyed to Skagway, then opened a store in Dawson. Nerland was to make several trips back and forth during their first season to resupply their stock of paint and wallpaper. Residents of the rustic camps that sprang up became good customers, seeking to liven the log and plank interiors of their cabins. Nerland moved from Dawson to Fairbanks and set up shop there. His descendants continue to operate retail stores today.
One noteworthy female Klondike personality never married, but raised her sister’s five orphaned children. Nellie Cashman, a devout Catholic, earned the title of “Saint” not only because of that but for several other unselfish acts.
Ellen O’Kissane was born in 1845 in Middleton, County Cork, Ireland, into a family that fell on hard times during the potato famine. She and her sister Fanny were taken by their mother to Boston and from there to Washington, D.C. Their last name was anglicized to Cashman. It was in the nation’s capital that Nellie, as she preferred to be known, found a job as an elevator operator. She met General Ulysses S. Grant who advised her to go west where more opportunities awaited.
Nellie and Fanny settled in Tombstone, Arizona, where a silver mining boom was underway. Nellie opened a restaurant on Tough Nut Street, where Nellie Cashman’s Restaurant today celebrates her long- ago presence. It was there that she felt called to provide meals for down-and-out miners, earning the title of “the miners’ saint.” Seeing a need for a place to hold church services, she is reported to have convinced Wyatt Earp to open his saloon on Sundays so mass could be celebrated. It was there that she supported the Law and Order Society under Mayor and Tombstone Epitaph Publisher John Clum. She would reunite with both men years later in Alaska.
After opening restaurants in several Arizona camps, Nellie followed a stampede to the Cassiar district in British Columbia. It was there she defied the Canadian Army and took a pack train to aid miners stranded by a blizzard. Instead of the expected 25, she found three times that number of sick and starving people. She fed and nursed them, stopping the spread of scurvy, then led them to safety. She thenceforth was celebrated as the “Saint of Cassiar.”
After operating restaurants and boarding houses in Dawson and at nearby creeks, she joined those who headed to the new discoveries at Fairbanks. There she opened a grocery store and gained praise when she raised money for a hospital. Three years later she left for the Koyukuk area, obtaining a claim on Nolan Creek. She mined there successfully. Having become an accomplished dog musher, she was widely recognized in 1922 when she mushed from Nulato to Anchorage at the age of 77 and again from Nulato to Nenana a year later. In failing health, she moved to Victoria, B.C., where she was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital—the very institution she had helped raise money to build so many years earlier. She died there on Jan. 4, 1925.
Although not involved with the Gold Rush, Eagle River businessman and benefactor Glenn Briggs was associated with the Reindeer Project on the Seward Peninsula in the 1930s. He was hired as superintendent, covering a wide area of the Peninsula to check on care of herds of the animals.
The project was started by the government in 1896 at the suggestion of Dr. Sheldon Jackson, U.S. agent for education. Reindeer were brought from Norway, along with Laplander herders who taught Alaska Natives to care for them. The idea was to provide a domestic meat source to supplement the diet of the residents. Natives worked with the herds and after an apprenticeship were loaned reindeer of their own to breed and increase the herd. They then became owners of their own herds.
Briggs married a California girl named Mary Lou Campbell, the daughter of the Kotzebue trading post manager. His journal notes his joyous visits and the excuses he invented to go by dogsled to Kotzebue as frequently as possible. When World War II broke out, Briggs came to Ft. Richardson and tried to enlist but was turned down because of his age. He bought a homestead in Eagle River and established a hog farm, selling pork to the military and civilian stores.
Briggs developed subdivisions and built the Eagle River Shopping Center and the Parkgate Building. He and Mary Lou contributed to many civic projects, established a scholarship fund and left their estate to three local organizations, including the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation which continues the scholarships and issues grants to deserving non-profits.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.