Coolest School Trip Spotlight: Klondike National Historic Sites of Canada

The year is 1897, and word has just reached the major Pacific ports of Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco that gold has been found in the Yukon! What better way to make a fortune than to find it in the gravel beds of the Yukon's creeks, streams and rivers? This was the thinking of more than 50,000 people who set off to join the Yukon Gold Rush from all across the world, each of them motivated by dreams of making it rich by striking gold, gold and more gold.

Only about half of the people who originally set out for the Yukon actually made it there. As you can imagine, the journey to get to such a remote place was a challenging one, particularly for those who could not afford passage on a ship. These people were left to make their way by land and either found the journey too perilous to continue or took too long in getting there and arrived after the rush had more or less come to its end.

Most of the people joining the rush settled in Dawson City, which had previously been a trading post with a very small population. When the gold rush had reached its height between 1898 and 1899, the population of Dawson City was estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people, making it the largest community in Canada west of Winnipeg at that time. As with all of the great gold rushes in history, only a fraction of these people actually found gold and an even smaller number among them found enough to become rich.

Of those who succeeded in making a fortune in the Yukon, three men are particularly noteworthy – George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Taigish Charlie. In 1896, before the rush, Carmack had been tipped off by a prospector by the name of Robert Henderson that they might be able to find gold in the area and set off with high hopes of striking it rich. Lo and behold, good ol’ Bob was right! The first of the men to actually find gold was Skookum Jim – somewhat accidentally, no less – though when they went to stake their claims, it was George Carmack whose name was put on the registration documents.

Word of gold in the Yukon and Klondike rivers spread through the area like wildfire, and within days the creek where the original discovery was made had been staked from end to end. It wasn’t until the following spring, when the winter ice had broken up enough to allow the passage of ships, that the miners who had spent the autumn and winter panning for gold reached the major cities along the Pacific coast, bringing with them their newfound riches and spreading the news of the Klondike gold to the world at large.

The great number of people staking claims and the intensity with which they searched for gold led to a quick decline in the amount of gold that was easily extracted by hand. Just two years after Skookum Jim found gold in Bonanza Creek, the rush began to die out. More gold deposits had been found in Nome, Alaska and many miners who had yet to strike it rich decided to set off yet again with renewed hopes of finding the fortunes they had been seeking in the Yukon. Over the years, the population of Dawson City dwindled, as individual miners sold off their claims one by one to the large corporations who were moving in with their mechanical dredges to get to the gold that individuals just couldn’t extract by themselves.

The legacy of the Yukon gold rush is an important point in Canadian history. An estimated $500 million worth of gold was taken from the frozen ground during the rush, and as a testament to what some refer to as the last great gold rush of our time, there are now four national historic sites that each tell their own version of the story of the rush.

Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site sits on Bonanza Creek, below the original discovery claim which is itself a national historic site. This dredge is the largest of its kind in North America, standing eight stories tall and reaching nearly two-thirds the length of a football field. It was operated by the Canadian Klondike Mining Company for just over fifty years, ceasing operations in 1960, and gives an idea of how drastically the gold mining industry of the Yukon had changed from its humble beginnings of manual labour.  The S.S. Keno National Historic Site is a reminder of the steamer operations along the major rivers in the Yukon that brought in supplies from outside the region. Last but not least, the Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site will stir up echoes of a time where people carried their hopes and dreams with them across the continent, through the mountains and into the great white north.

Want to strike gold with your class video? Here are some suggestions to help get those creative juices flowing...

  • Experience what it was like for Skookum Jim, George Carmack and Taigish Charlie to be the first to find gold! How long had you been prospecting in the area? What thoughts were running through your head when you finally found gold? Where were the original claims staked?
  • Hop on board one of the dozens of steamships travelling the rivers of the Yukon to deliver supplies to Dawson City and to all of the mining camps along the shorelines. What supplies were being shipped? Where were these supplies coming from and what were they needed for?
  • Jackpot! You’re part of the group of lucky miners who were part of the rush before news about gold spread to the world at large. Where had you been before Jim, Carmack and Charlie reported finding gold? After spending the winter collecting a fortune from your claim, where did you go to cash in on your newfound wealth? Recreate what it would have been like to arrive in one of the major cities on the Pacific coast, bringing with you buckets of gold and stories of the fortunes to be made in the Yukon.