Experience Alaska's gold-rush past
Alaska’s story is a boom-and-bust tale, and one of its most famous chapters is that of the gold-rush era, which began in the late 1800s and lasted through the 1920s. The gold seekers who flocked to Alaska during this time helped establish many of the state’s communities, in some cases virtually overnight. The spirit of adventure, exploration, and risk in pursuit of riches that was common among prospectors has been passed down to generations of Alaskans. Visitors to Alaska today cite gold-rush history as one of their top interests, and with the quantity and quality of historical attractions available in the state, it’s a snap to add gold-rush-oriented tours and experiences to any itinerary. Today’s visitors to Alaska can learn about Alaska’s gold rush history at museums and by learning to pan for gold in a variety of communities statewide.
The hopeful prospectors who began flocking to Alaska in the 1880s started in the Inside Passage region and washed over the state in waves from Skagway to Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon, across the border to Fairbanks, Nome and many points beyond over the next four decades. Very few realized their dreams of becoming rich. By the time news of the biggest strike in the region, in the Klondike gold fields, reached Seattle, most of the richest claims were already staked. The Klondike Gold Rush drew more than 100,000 people to the territory; of those, about 40,000 made it all the way to Dawson City and the nearby gold fields. An even tinier percentage – just a few hundred of the 40,000 – actually struck it rich. In rush after rush, many were just weeks or months too late to realize their dreams, but they came nonetheless. These rushes and the people they attracted forever changed the state.
Without question, the best and most in-depth exploration of the gold rush era is found in Skagway. The tiny, colorful port community at the northern end of the Inside Passage is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and features period buildings, wooden boardwalks and access to the Chilkoot Trail, over which miners were each required to haul a thousand pounds of food and supplies into Canada. Guided hikes on the trail are available, as are walking tours of the town’s historic buildings and artifacts. Visitors can even take a scenic and historical ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, completed in 1900 as an alternative to the grueling and dangerous Chilkoot Trail route to the Klondike. The National Park Service maintains several facilities in Skagway including a visitor center, the Mascot Saloon museum and the Moore House and Cabin, all of which reveal what life was like in the raucous boomtown at the turn of the 20th century. No visit to Skagway would be complete without a visit to the grave of the city’s most infamous resident, Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Smith was an old-west con man and gangster who astutely identified Skagway as a great place to separate naïve and hopeful men from their money, and relocated his criminal enterprise from Colorado to Alaska in 1896. His cons included a fake telegraph office with poles and wires that didn’t connect to the outside world and a whole team of con men who would befriend newly arrived miners and steer them to various corrupt businesses that would quickly strip them of their money. Smith died in a shootout in July of 1898 on the dock in Skagway and is buried in the local cemetery, not far from the man who confronted him in the fateful shootout, Frank Reid. Many historical tours of Skagway include a visit to Smith’s grave.
Other Inside Passage communities boasting interesting gold-rush history include Ketchikan and Juneau. In Ketchikan, the gold-rush era red-light district known as Creek Street was built on pilings over Ketchikan Creek. It has been painstakingly preserved and now houses art galleries and other shops as well as Dolly’s House Museum, which tells the story of the gold rush from the perspective of “working” women who found their own way to earn a fortune in the gold rush. In Juneau, tours are available to Last Chance Basin and the former Alaska-Juneau Mine, where you can pan for gold and explore the mineshafts where men toiled 363 days per year. Juneau’s neighboring Douglas Island, which is connected to Juneau by a bridge spanning Gastineau Channel, was home to the largest hard-rock gold mine in the world at its peak production in the early 1900s. Although the Sitka spruce, mosses and plants of the surrounding temperate rainforest have grown over much of what remains of the Treadwell Mine, an interpretive trail along the beach and through the forest points out crumbling artifacts hidden amongst the trees.
After the strike was played out in the Klondike, those who didn’t give up and go home headed west to Nome and later Fairbanks. Unlike in the Klondike, gold nuggets were discovered in Nome simply littering the beach where the Bering Sea washes up against the Seward Peninsula. The first discovery was made in 1899, and soon the area’s population swelled to 20,000. Visitors today can enjoy tours to historic gold dredges, pan for gold or learn more about the city’s history at the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum. Miners are still working claims around Nome, particularly on smaller family-owned operations. A Discovery Channel show called “Bering Sea Gold,” which premiered in 2012, tells the story of a handful of small-time miners operating in the region, which has once again stoked interest in Nome by those hoping to get rich.
In 1902, an Italian immigrant named Felix Pedro struck gold near Fairbanks and inspired a new rush to the state’s Interior, including many who’d missed out in both the Klondike and Nome. Fairbanks is now known as the “Golden Heart City,” both for its gold-rush history and the fact that gold mining is still an important part of the economy. The state’s largest gold mine, Fort Knox, is located in the area. Visitors can check out historic gold dredges and pan for gold on a variety of commercial tours or explore the history and artifacts independently at Pioneer Park or the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
Mining booms – for gold and other minerals – touched dozens of Alaska communities. Many saw smaller gold-related booms, while the copper vein at Kennecott transformed the Copper River region later in the 1900s. Mining is still a big part of Alaska’s economy and culture today, with large commercial operations and small, family-owned independent mines operating throughout the state. To connect with tour operators that showcase Alaska’s mining history, click here.