Early on July 19, 1897 the SS Portland docked at Seattle with a boatload of wealthy men. 68 men with $700,000 in gold to spend; that is over 19.5 million dollars today. The gold find in the Klondike was fantastic! On Bonanza Creek, the nuggets of gold were just sitting there, waiting to be harvested! The news would draw over 100,000 people to try to make the trip, while only about 30,000 would make it to the promised land around Dawson.
The overarching story of the Klondike is expertly told at the Klondike National Historical Park in Seattle. Here you will find local color to that story.
After the SS Portland docked in Seattle, men and women went mad to get to the gold fields.
In Kent, it was no different. Less than a week after news broke, men of Kent were on the move.
The fellas were headed for the Klondike area, around what is now Dawson, Yukon Territory.
There were three options to get to the gold. The rich man’s way was to travel by boat the whole way. The Yukon River connects to the Bering Sea. The trip was easier but it took a long time and was very expensive.
The second option, which most took was to catch a ship from Seattle to either Skagway or Dyea, then complete the trip overland from there.
From Skagway or Dyea, the prospectors would have to carry their goods up and over the mountains on either the White Pass or Chilkoot Pass. Both were daunting in their own way. White Pass because it was steep, sometimes narrow, and longer. Chilkoot, which included the famous “Golden Steps,” was shorter but much steeper. In both cases, the trails ended at lakes, at which the gold prospectors became boat builders. The boats were used to float men and supplies down a series of rivers, which included rapids, to Dawson.
The third way was the hardest and involved the all land route over the Canadian border. There is no evidence that Kent people took that option.
One thing to mention here is that the Klondike Gold Rush wasn’t a place for the penniless. The first gold find had actually occurred in the fall of 1896 and there had been extreme food shortages for the few people who had happened to be in the area. To ensure the safety of all involved, in 1897, the Canadian government insisted that all people entering the Yukon bring enough food for one year. That equates to over 2000 pounds of goods and food stuffs per miner. All told, it would cost between $15,000 and $25,000 dollars in 2014 currency just to get into the gold fields!
At least for Kent’s history, it begs the question did the gold field make men successful or were the men already successful and went to the gold fields?
Some men came home wealthier than when they left Kent. William H. Davies and Joseph Mylorie were old miners in 1897.
William was a veteran of the California gold rush, the silver fields in Nevada. He knew Samuel Clements, who was the news paper editor at the time. Joseph joined him for the Australia gold rush in 1895. When they went to the Klondike, William was in his early 60s and Joseph was in his late 50s. Davies’ daughter, Ruth Owens reported that they brought home 6,000 ounces of gold.
Enough for Joseph to finish that addition he had wanted. The men deeded their successful gold claims to their sons for the 1898 season. The boys worked the claims with moderate success for a year before selling them off for $1,000. The stories goes the new owners worked harder and made the claims some of the most profitable in the Dawson area.
M. M. Morrill had been a cattle trader and merchant store owner in Kent for years before the Gold Rush. He used put his life experience to work and made several trips to Alaska with cattle and other foodstuffs to sell.
He did pretty well. In 1901, he founded the M. M. Morrill Bank of Kent and built the Morrill Bank building in 1906.
He served in the State Legislature and was elected to Kent city council and to the mayor’s post. That bank still stands today as the Alleluia Catholic store.
C. E. Guiberson was a farmer and merchant in town who hadn’t been terribly lucky.
The Guiberson Bros store burned down in 1890, then the Kent Mercantile failed due to the panic of 1893. However, he was well respected throughout town. He was on the first city council, a post master, and on the school board. His luck changed with several trips to the Klondike.
He returned for good in 1905 and build the Guiberson building, a fine brick structure that still in use on 1st Avenue.
T. N. Berlin left the successful Berlin Bros Company for the Yukon.
Initially, he went as part of a cattle driving team, but stayed to work in the gold fields. After he returned, he ended up opening a general goods store in Auburn while leaving A. N. Berlin to mind the store in Kent. The first wood store burned in the 1910s, but the rebuilt stone building still stands today.
These are not the only people who left. Many well respected families in the valley sent men to the Yukon; The Crow, Smith, Sanstrom, Arney, and Alvord families all had representatives. Many editions of the White River Journal between 1897 and 1900 named someone headed north or people returning to Kent.
Not all returned though. J. C. Merrifield went to Dawson in 1897. He had been on the first Kent city council in 1890 and even got one vote for mayor. Mr. Merrifield was involved with real estate and had a sawmill in Christopher. He was one of the many casualties of the Klondike and passed in Dawson in 1898.
The Klondike had an important impact on Kent. The physical change is still easy to see. The business district became brick in 1906 with Guiberson and Morrill leading the way. The civic leadership in town had to be influenced by their experiences in the Yukon. Morrill and Guiberson both were active in local government after their return, as did many of the council members.
Looking further ahead, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition will bring added attention to the area. Seattle obviously benefited and so did Kent. In particular, the Sanders Estate was built starting in 1908 and contains stain glass windows from the exhibition.
The University of Washington’s Overview of the Klondike
The UW Digital Archives has all kinds of great photos
History Link: Klondike Gold Rush
History Link: Gold in the Pacific Northwest
The Klondike Quest has more great photos and is available through the King County Library
Letters and Reports from from Kent people published in the the White River Journal