Klondike Gold Rush anniversary is complicated, but worth commemorating

Jul 13, 2022, 11:05 AM | Updated: 1:24 pm

This weekend will mark 125 years since the arrival of the steamship PORTLAND with its cargo of gold on the Seattle waterfront – which signaled the start of the Klondike Gold Rush. That event shaped the city like nothing else before or since, but celebrations of the gold rush anniversary have changed too.

You can’t overstate what a big deal the Klondike Gold Rush was in Seattle’s explosive growth, by all possible indicators, from 1897 and through the next decade or so that followed.

One such measure is just population. In 1900, Seattle had 81,000 people, by 1910, it had 237,000 people – nearly tripling in size – so the crazy growth we’ve had here lately doesn’t even come close.

And Seattle didn’t strike it rich by mining for gold. Seattle made a fortune by mining the miners – selling them the clothes, tools, food, and steamship tickets they needed to get “North . . . to Alaska” and over into Canada where the gold was discovered. Of the 100,000 or so who sought gold in the Klondike, a full 70,000 came through Seattle on the way there.

The Gold Rush anniversary used to be celebrated around here a lot, and it was a much bigger deal in the past – probably inevitable given the march of time and fading memories. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon around this year’s tepid civic commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, KIRO Newsradio’s efforts notwithstanding.

But the Gold Rush had a tail that was long and wide. It inspired the 1909 world’s fair – the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (or “AYPE”) – held on the University of Washington campus, as well as the annual “Golden Potlatch” summer carnival that was first held in 1911 (and which was a bit like a proto Seafair). Many local businesses trace their roots to the Gold Rush era, and some were even founded by “argonauts” – such as Nordstrom and Bartell Drugs.

It should come as no surprise that the 25th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush was a huge deal in July 1922 – with plenty of surviving “Sourdoughs” (a nickname for Klondike gold-seekers) taking part in reenactments on the waterfront, and a big fireworks show on Lake Union. By the time of the 50th anniversary in 1947, however, the festivities were first delayed for a year and then canceled when organizers couldn’t raise any money.

The trend of diminishing interest was bucked somewhat for the 100th anniversary in 1997.

It was back in the mid-1990s when former Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce executive Michael Luis – who is himself the grandson of Alaska miners – began working with people in Seattle and Alaska to organize and raise money for a centennial celebration called “Ton of Gold Weekend” 25 years ago.

Standing earlier this week in the shadow of the Seattle Great Wheel – which is roughly the spot where the gold-filled PORTLAND docked in 1897 – Luis described the celebration held there at Miner’s Landing a quarter-century ago.

“They had a small cruise ship that looked like an old-time steamer, and they had a group of people on that with a ton of gold and a bunch of Royal Canadian Mounted Police in really nice uniforms,” Luis said. “And they came down and they landed here with a ton of gold. And Bob Watt, president of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, put on a derby and a fancy suit and greeted them.”

“And it was a lot of fun,” Luis continued, describing the three-day celebration. The centennial also featured a months-long display of historic photos in the tunnel connecting Rainier Square and One Union Square.

In that derby and fancy suit on the pier, Bob Watt was impersonating Erastus Brainerd, the PR mastermind who worked for the Seattle Chamber in the 1890s and who – with a series of crafty moves, such as distributing pre-written letters home for aspiring miners to sign and then mail to their hometown newspapers around the United States, extolling the virtues of Seattle – put the city on the map as the jumping off point for the Klondike.

In 2022, it’s probably also no surprise that the 125th anniversary is a decidedly low or even no-key affair, with no big events taking place on the waterfront or anywhere else. That’s partly because of the pandemic, of course, and partly because 125 years isn’t exactly a major milestone. But, it’s also clear that what the Seattle area celebrates as a community and what those celebrations look like is changing.

Post George Floyd, progressive ideas about what constitutes history nowadays, along with broader and more inclusive interpretations of what had been simple storylines, are changing how communities look back and commemorate their history. It may also be true that local governments and places like museums and historical societies may now be reluctant to even try to organize “celebrations” of anniversaries whose modern interpretation may include elements that are deemed traumatic to segments of the population.

The National Park Service operates Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in the old Cadillac Hotel in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. It was Charles Beall, the superintendent there, who first contacted KIRO Newsradio a few months ago about covering the 125th anniversary.

The Seattle historical park – which also has a public facility in Skagway – is more like a museum than a park. It’s a popular spot for cruise ship passengers, school groups, and others who find themselves in Pioneer Square with an interest in history and some time to spare. Beall says they are beginning a years-long process of updating and expanding the scope of their exhibits, which occupy two floors and which are now about 20 years old.

When the park was first created in 1976, the goal was to tell the Gold Rush story – the basic and simple tale of hearty men seeking treasure, says Beall. But the times and the stories have changed and are becoming more complex.

But so are the visitors’ appetites.

“What we find 50 some odd years later is that the people are interested in more than that simplified story,” Beall told KIRO Newsradio. “If we want to be relevant, if we want to be engaging, if we want to see repeat visitors, if you want to see people finding histories that relate more to them, we need to do a little bit more work and uncover some of those histories that are right under our feet, or, in many cases, within the walls of our building.”

One example Charles Beall points out is the Japanese-American man who managed the Cadillac Hotel in the 1930s and who was incarcerated along with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II.

“There’s a lot of other examples of exclusion or rapid change that benefited one group of people over another, be it Native Americans or Chinese-Americans,” Beall said. “And if we can use something like the Klondike Gold Rush as a way of learning about local Seattle history, we can make it more interesting, more engaging, more current, which I think is the imperative of organizations such as the National Park Service.”

Those complex stories are absolutely critical to share, but it can be tough in a museum setting to illuminate topics that need time and attention to unpack, and that could easily populate the curriculum of a graduate level college history class.

For example, that booming post-Gold Rush population wasn’t only a positive thing, as an archival newspaper story seems to indicate.

In an article published in April 1911 in advance of the first Golden Potlatch festival, Seattle architect Charles H. Bebb was quoted describing his vision for the inaugural edition of the public celebration of all things Seattle.

“It seems to be that the island created by the filling in of the tide flats between the east and west waterways would be a good location for the first pageant illustrating the arrival of the pioneers,” Beeb told The Seattle Sunday Times for their edition of April 9, 1911. “From this point there is a magnificent view of the entire city. A large number of Indian Tribes surrounding Puget Sound could be gathered and an Indian encampment made. These tribes are, as we all know, fast dying out, and a gathering of this kind and its local coloring would be of intense interest and a historical event impossible to repeat in many years to come.”

What stands out 111 years later is not the ambitious pageant or the Harbor Island setting for an “Indian encampment,” but Bebb’s seeming off-hand comment that Indigenous people are rapidly disappearing (“fast dying out”) and that everyone knows it – with the tripling non-Indigenous population likely one of the largest factors creating what was a false impression.

Bebb’s words, understandably, rub Duwamish Tribe member and Chief Seattle descendant Ken Workman the wrong way.

“The initial statement: ‘These tribes are, as we all know, fast dying out’ is inaccurate,” Workman wrote in an email earlier this week. “Modern Indians have learned to survive, we’ve learned and adapted and in doing so still retain our uniqueness as indigenous people. The Duwamish continue in that struggle even today.”

“We are not dead,” Workman wrote.

But how do the Indigenous stories of the Gold Rush find their way into Klondike Gold Rush National Park or even to Museum of History and Industry, where the ship’s wheel and clock for the PORTLAND – which ran aground and sank in Alaska in 1910 – have been on display for decades?

There are no monuments specifically commemorating the Klondike Gold Rush anywhere in Seattle. There are related historic sites, such as the old Assay Office on at 613 9thAve on First Hill, home for many years to the German Heritage Society of Seattle. The building exterior, and a plaque (which does NOT describe its critical role converting raw gold to cash and thus ensuring Seattle cashed in on profligate “Sourdoughs”) are at least worth a walk-by. The same is true of the statue of William Seward adjacent to the Volunteer Park Conservatory; had Seward not carried the water for the US purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Klondike Gold Rush may not have benefited Americans – and Seattle – as much as it ultimately did.

At least one more monument to the aftermath of the Klondike Gold Rush remains on display – for now, at least: a plaque commemorating the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition on the UW campus.

As Danny Westneat wrote in The Seattle Times earlier this year, the Associated Students of UW Student Senate voted 60-0-1 (according to the UW Daily,) in favor of a resolution calling on the UW to remove the plaque, and to create a new monument acknowledging the “inhumane treatment of Igorote people of the Philippines and the Indigenous peoples of Alaska, Labrador, and Siberia by the organizers of the Exposition”

Back on the pier with Michael Luis, he said the “Ton of Gold” celebration in 1997 was definitely based on that more “traditional” version of the story – about miners, who were mostly white, coming back to Seattle with a ton of gold.

“That’s a very simple story, you can celebrate that,” Luis said. “When you start getting complex and you start getting the nuances of who did what to whom to get to that, that’s a really hard story to tell.”

“It’s less celebratory, and it just doesn’t lend itself to that kind of a celebration,” Luis said.

Luis – who has served as board president of the Eastside Heritage Center and who did a stint as executive director of the Center for Wooden Boats – appreciates the spectrum of how local history is preserved and shared by different groups, and he gets the difference between commemorating and celebrating.

“It’s very hard to pull those things off,” Luis said, referencing the big civic celebrations that used to mark big anniversaries. “Some of the stuff we did [in 1997] – you know, the can-can girls – probably not going to get can-can girls out anymore.”

The waterfront this time of year is at its very best, with even scorching afternoon temperatures offset by the cool breezes coming off Elliott Bay. Crowds of visitors – though, anecdotally, maybe not yet to 2019 pre-pandemic levels – were thronging the sidewalks and piers, and ponying up for lemonade, hot dogs, souvenirs and rides on the Great Wheel.

Does it matter that perhaps only a sliver have any idea of the history underfoot, where the arrival of the PORTLAND changed Seattle forever, in so many simple and complex ways? Maybe not, as long as the dollars are flowing and Seattle is, once again, mining the now flip-flop and shorts-clad “miners.”

Michael Luis thinks it is important to tell the complex stories, especially to local residents, because well-told stories can have a positive effect on more than just tourism. He points to an academic study he recently read about the long-range effects on communities that have experienced gold rushes.

“Places that have had gold rushes, decades later, are entrepreneurial places because cultures are very persistent and Seattle’s culture was established by this group of complete lunatics who went to the Klondike, came back, had nowhere else to go because there was a great national recession at that point.”

“So people had nowhere to go home to after,” Luis continued. “They had this crazy adventure where most of them came back with nothing but the clothes on their back, having spent the grubstake that the family provided them. And then they settled in Seattle.”

That adventurous spirit, says Luis, has fueled wave after wave of entrepreneurialism in Seattle – even though the Klondike Gold Rush passed out of living memory decades ago. Luis says the Seattle area has some kind of “gold rush”-level economic and social boom every 20 or 30 years or so – whether Boeing during World War II and then again in the Jet Age, or Microsoft in the 1980s or Amazon at the turn of the last century. He says we’re due for another one sometime in the next 10 years, and that history – in all its simple, complex, challenging and celebratory ways – is a key ingredient.

“If you can talk about crazy guys who had this massive adventure and came back and started a shoe store in Seattle that became Nordstrom,” Luis said, “I mean, that’s an engaging story.”


Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park is open Wednesday through Sunday, with exhibits and ranger-led walking tours. Admission is free.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here

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Klondike Gold Rush anniversary is complicated, but worth commemorating