There is a new rush to the Klondike these days as inflated prices make it worth-while once more for miners to dig for gold by the mountain creeks of the Yukon Territory.
There are Yukoners who liken the modern excitement to the great Klondike gold rush of 1897 and 1898. But they have not read their history very well. Statistics can be marshalled to prove that the amount of land claimed or the value of the gold mined is greater now than it was then. But there is little now of the almost insane frenzy that drove tens of thousands of men north at the turn of the century.
The modern Klondike gold rush is in the hands of a few hundred miners who depend on bulldozers instead of pans and shovels, and there is a businesslike steadiness to it all.
Yet, it is hard not to think of the old rush when meeting the miners of the new. The traces of the past are still strong and romantic.
Hermann Liedtke, a 42-year-old German-born Canadian with a bushy beard and kindly, almost merry eyes, drank rum and Cokes one night in the Sluice Box Lounge of the El Dorado Hotel. "I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week," he said, "and I come here once a week to phone my wife in Whitehorse and tie one on."
He started mining for gold in the Klondike in 1971, the same year that the United States released gold from its fixed price of $35 an ounce and allowed it to float on the market.
"In those days," he said, "I can tell you exactly how many miners we had. In all of the Klondike, there were 40 and I knew every one. Now, I hesitate to say, because there are so many I do not know. But I would say now there are 300." Liedtke was obviously only counting the independent operators, not the workers mining for bigger organizations.
"We had bad times," he went on. "But we toughed it out. Now, this year, I'm not ashamed to tell you that I have made a quarter of million dollars. How big is a quarter of a million dollars in gold?" He put two cigarette packs on top of each other. "Not even as much as that."
"Tell them," he said with a pleased smile, "that you met one of the authentic ones." Then he added philosophically and mischievously, "working out here toughens you up and makes you wicked."
At the coffee shop of the Lucky Inn one morning, Jerry Duguay, a full-faced, part-indian trapper and miner, pointed to several young people at other tables. "You see those young kids," he said. "They've all come up here because they've heard they can make their fortunes. You know how many are going to make any money?" He paused. "Out of 100," he said deliberately, "none."
Duguay had a miner's tale of woe. He had intended to file his claim at the mining recorder's office in the post office that morning, but he had no money. He said his $6,000 worth of travelers' checks, which he had bought after selling gold, were missing, and it would take a few weeks to replace them.
"Did you see that guy next to me on the plane?" he said. "He and I got drunk together. I'll bet he took the checks because he wants to tell me that he'll loan me what I need if I give him a share of my claim." The story, is it were about bags of gold dust instead of travelers' checks, could have come out of 1898.
For most of this century, few miners bothered with the gold that was left from the 1980s rush. In all of 1971, miners staked only 84 new claims in the Klondike, bringing the total number of claims to 940. But in the last year alone, miners staked 2,164 new claims, a figure that may be topped this year. There are now almost, 7,000 claims in the hands of miners. The total land claimed is a bit more than all the land that was staked in 1899 under 18,000 claims.
The activity has strained the cramped offices of the federal government's mining recorder in Dawson City. "There's always so much pressure," said David Jennings, the 33-year-old recorder, "and you're always far behind."
In 1900, the best year on record, miners took out $22 million worth of gold from the Klondike claims. Gold was worth less than $20 an ounce then. In 1980, with gold priced more than 30 times higher, the Klondike miners should beat the record. But no one is sure by how much. A great deal of secretiveness covers the dealings over gold in Dawson City.
The miners are working on fabled fields, for the Klondike rush was the last and most feverish of the stampedes for gold in the 19th century. Prospectors had been looking for gold by the creeks of the Klondike River for 20 years before George Washington Carmack, a Californian, and his two Indian friends came upon large deposits by Rabbit Creek, a few miles from what is now Dawson City, on Aug. 17, 1896. The miners soon gave the creek a new, more fitting name -- Bonanza Creek -- and Aug. 17 later became celebrated as Discovery Day, the annual territorial holiday of the Yukon.
The news of the find quickly spread to other prospectors in the Yukon and Alaska, but the real rush did not begin until two streamships brought miners and their gold to San Francisco and Seattle 11 months later.
A disease known as "Klondicitis" swept the continent, and men and women began to head north in quest of their fortunes. By Sept. 1, 9,000 had left the port of Seattle alone. Pierre Berton, the Canadian author who has written the best history of the rush, estimates that 100,000 people throughout the world actually started out for the Klondike. Many were ignorant of conditions there. Some carried gunny sakcs, sure they would become rich by simply picking nuggets off the ground.
By 1899, Dawson City, which did not even exist before the rush, had a population of 30,000, the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg. But its glory did not last long. The severe cold, the isolation of the Yukon, the gradual exhaustion of the gold that was easiest to find, and the news of gold elsewhere drove the gold rushers from the Klondike. By 1910, the rush was over. The population of Dawson City soon dropped below 1,000. In 1953, it even lost its status as capital of the territory.
Now, Dawson City is a town of 850 with streets that, on a rainy day, ooze with mud and look just the way they do in the old photographs from the days of the gold rush. Rickety boardwalks rarely help a pedestrian avoid the mud. All in all, the town, with many buildings left from the grand days, looks like a Hollywood Western set.
In the spring and summer, the population is swelled by miners, their employes, tourists and the temporary workers hired to serve the miners and tourists. Mayor Peter Jenkins estimated the population of Dawson City and the creeks around it at a minimum of 3,500 this August, a figure that, he said, did not please him.
"The miners," he said, "put a tremendous burden on town services. Dawson City has only 89 taxpayers. "The sidewalks are being worn down by people who don't pay for them," he said.
But Jenkins acknowledged that, at least in the short run, the miners bring a good deal of money to town. "The orders are doubled for bread, hotel rooms, truck rentals, boots, you name it," he said. "It's a seller's market."
Surprisingly, the latest rush for gold does not seem to have brought much crime with it.
Sgt. George Wool of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Whitehorse said that fraud, not robbery, is the main police problem in the revival of gold mining.
"Some of these prospectors," said Wool, "are good miners -- they're salt of the earth people -- but they have no business sophistication. Years ago, these people used to deal with a handshake and a word, and that was it. Now a sharp-talking lawyer from down south can con them into signing a bad contract.
"I guess," he went on, "it's all part of the Gold Rush of '80."