Editor’s Note: Laura Bien’s local history column this week relates a familiar tale of a gold rush expedition that did not actually lay claim to any gold – but it’s through some elegant prose from an Ypsilanti teacher-turned-prospector’s diary.
A single personal belonging of onetime Ypsilanti teacher Frederick Boyd survives today: a diary preserved in Alaska. With Frederick, the tiny book crossed mountain passes, frozen snowfields, and part of the Pacific ocean. The book details Frederick’s struggle as a miner in the turn-of-the-century Klondike gold rush.
Frederick had likely read the stories in his hometown paper warning against Yukon hardships – stories that also detailed the luck of a fortunate few. Frederick had a secure job, a wife, and an infant daughter.
On the morning of March 6, 1898, the 33-year-old teacher stepped from the Ypsi depot platform onto an eastbound Michigan Central train. As it began to pull out, he saw his 27-year-old wife Celia on the platform holding their daughter Daphne. Frederick was leaving behind his classroom, his friends, his and Celia’s home, and his hometown.
The previous July, breathless stories about the “gold ship” from Alaska that had docked on the West Coast had blared from papers nationwide. The ship’s passengers were Klondike miners loaded with gold. “The ‘Portland,’ with 68 passengers and $750,000 in gold [over $19,000,000 today]… is an advance agent of prosperity,” read one glowing story in the July 29, 1897 Ypsilantian. That summer, ads for Chicago-based Klondike travel agents appeared in the Ypsilantian, which also ran a series of in-depth illustrated articles about the fabulous frozen gold-fields.
“Here I find myself at last in the midst of the greatest and most wonderful mining camp the world has ever seen,” wrote Charles Metcalf in an article published in the August 5, 1897 Ypsilantian. “Gold is so [plentiful] that it has to be carried about in cotton bags … I have seen the result of one day’s washing [of ore] on a claim in Eldorado, and the figure was $18,000 [$470,000 today] for twelve hours’ work for four men … The excitement is now so great that no one will sell [their land claims] at any price, so there is no chance for newcomers in this immediate vicinity.” Frederick likely read Metcalf’s story in the Ypsilantian. He ignored the warning.
“[F]lour, sugar, and spices, the absolute necessities, have advanced 50 per cent,” wrote Louis Stokes in a letter published in the August 19, 1897 Ypsilantian. “The luxuries – tea, coffee, eggs, and butter – are bringing fancy prices, so that a man now needs ten times the sum required a year ago for traveling through the settlements of Alaska.” Frederick apparently thought the savings from his modest teachers’ salary would suffice.
Frederick’s was a risky venture, considering a Klondike expedition’s huge expense and uncertain profit. The cross-continental train ticket alone from Chicago cost around $200 at bare minimum – over $5,000 today. Once in Seattle or thereabouts, the would-be prospector, while paying for meals and a hotel, also needed to assemble an “outfit” of all the equipment and food required to survive in the North. Estimates for the cost of an outfit began at $140 [$3,600 today].
One of the many published lists of outfit necessities included 150 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds each of beans and sugar, 40 pounds of oatmeal, 30 cans of condensed milk, 25 pounds each of apricots, butter, and evaporated potatoes, 25 canvas sacks, 16 pounds of nails, 15 pounds of coffee, 10 pounds each of tea and salt, 8 sacks of flour, 6 towels, 3 pounds of candle wick, a whip saw, rubber sheet, tape measure, axe handle, oakum and pitch (for boat-building), a gallon of vinegar, and 2 spoons (one tea, one table). Also: “1 Gold Pan.”
The lengthy list was good advice. Part of the journey included a crossing into Canada, and the Canadian Mounted Police didn’t allow anyone across who wasn’t hauling one year’s worth of food.
By 11 a.m., Frederick was in Detroit. He changed to a Canadian Pacific train, entering a special sleeping car for which he and 30 other gold-seekers had pooled their money. Off they went across the continent. “We soon became acquainted with our traveling companions,” wrote Frederick in one of five travelogue letters later published in the Ypsilantian. “The car proved to be a pleasant, portable home, and we enjoyed the ride to the coast.” It would prove to be a one-way trip.
Frederick arrived in Seattle on March 10 and set about buying an outfit. He had two partners with him. A. G. McMichael was a Detroit photographer, “a fastidious bachelor of middle age, sedate demeanor, and good habits,” wrote Frederick in the second of his letters to the Ypsilantian. “He has locked the darkroom door, thrown his retouching brush and the key in the well, disjointed the camera tripod, and struck for brawn and bedrock.” The other companion was Tecumseh bank cashier George Knapp, “of adipose physique, even temper, and pacific spirits,” wrote Frederick. “[H]e is a nimrod [hunter] of the first water, the author – and often the finisher – of our desultory supply of fresh meat.”
Frederick and his companions stayed in Seattle for a few days completing their outfit, examining the seething crowds of prospective Klondikers, and consulting the free Alaska information bureau in town. On March 25, they boarded the steamship Alliance for Alaska.
“As our ship ploughed the deep,” Frederick later wrote, “whales spouted on port and starboard; porpoises sported at our bow; seals peeped from the wave crest; ducks took flight at the ship’s approach; sea gulls in myriads blanketed the surface; or deer gazed from the forest-skirted shore.”
On March 30, Frederick’s party landed and marched three miles to Dyea, the starting point for one of the two popular routes to the goldfields. Frederick and his party chose the Chilkoot Pass route, which was shorter but more physically demanding. The party traveled to Sheep Camp on foot in the rain and bought bunk space in a small “tent hotel.”
The next day Frederick learned of their narrow escape from disaster, A mile up the trail, two avalanches of wet snow had buried an unknown number of people. “Within twenty minutes,” wrote Frederick, “several hundred brave men regardless of the danger of more slides were on their way to the rescue. Before storm and darkness compelled them to stop, active shovels had uncovered twenty victims of the slide, nearly all alive.” The men delayed their trip north and dug for another day, uncovering 52 additional bodies. Frederick wrote, “[I]t was thought many more bodies would be disclosed by the spring thaw.”
Ahead lay the Chilkoot Pass. Much of the passage lay at a 35 degree slope, with the final leg at 45 degrees – too steep for pack animals. A thin line of backpackers struggled up the mountain. “After viewing this scene for some time,” wrote Frederick, “my first thought was, ‘Where before in the world were ever so many fools?’ Then recalling I was numbered with them, my thoughts became more charitable.”
Frederick made three trips up the slope hauling 50 pounds of supplies each time before giving up and paying some of his dwindling money to have the rest taken over by porter.
On April 19 the men reached the boomtown of Bennett. It may be that Frederick stopped in at the “Arctic Restaurant and Hotel” for a decent meal. If so, he may have glimpsed its owner, German immigrant Frederick Trump. Trump had bought the hotel with the proceeds from his tent restaurant on the Dead Horse Trail, the alternate route to the goldfields. The dish du jour, every jour, was (according to one biographer) stewed flesh of the horses that died and froze on the trail. Trump made his fortune in the Klondike, which was passed down in part to his famous grandson and modern-day real estate tycoon Donald.
At Bennett, the next obstacle Frederick faced was the task of building a boat for the 800-mile trip down the Yukon River. Frederick and the bank cashier took turns sawing logs propped up on giant sawhorses. “[O]ne man stands on the ground and the other on the log. The one on the ground gets the dust, and the one on the log, the backache. By changing backache for sawdust about every two hours, we thrived well for eight days.”
Many other miners were building boats as well, and getting used to the privations of camp life. “The Klondiker has many and varied experiences. Among the most interesting and vital is that of cooking his own food,” wrote Frederick. “[T]he experience of one young fellow could have been duplicated in many a tent home. Evidently he had attempted to bake a loaf of bread. The result was an object soft and doughy on top, hard and charred on the bottom, and about as thick as a pancake. He hung it to a stake outside his tent and labeled it, ‘A cook wanted.’ None applied.”
Among crowds of other miners in their own homemade crafts, the trio set off in their 23-foot boat. On June 20, the party finally reached Dawson, a boomtown near the goldfields with some 25,000 miners. Here they received dispiriting news. Every scrap of land for up to 100 miles around had long since been staked and claimed.
Frederick and his party set off down Forty Mile River in hopes of finding unclaimed land. They didn’t.
The party finally drifted into little Fourth of July Creek. Frederick and his companions passed scores of claims. Miles further, they arrived at a remote scrap of land nobody wanted.
Frederick staked his claim and began scraping at the dirt. The party had only their remaining trail rations to live on. Swarms of mosquitos plagued them throughout each day and at night in their chilly tents.
Frederick never returned to Ypsilanti.
But he did retreat to Seattle a few months after his expedition, settling there with Celia. For awhile he served as a school principal, and eventually secured a job as a federal clerk in the Seattle naval yard. He and Celia had four more children. Eventually Frederick retired and went to live with one daughter in Long Beach, California.
In those quieter years, it’s likely his grandchildren heard the tales of his long-ago, ill-fated, yet unforgettable exploit in the Klondike.
Two folks correctly pegged last column’s Mystery Object as a sewing machine: cmadler and Judy Ahronheijm.
This week we’re confronted with an Ypsilanti Historical Museum object that predates Frederick’s trip by the better part of a century.
Made of a section of log, the object has a smooth chamber scooped into the top. What might it be? Take your best guess and good luck!
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