How Gold Turned The Yukon Into The Wild West

Jun 19, 2011

More than a century ago, George Carmack stuck his arm into the frigid waters of Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Valley. What he came up with changed his life and many others: a gold nugget as big as his thumb.

After decades of searching, he was suddenly a rich man. And soon, the frozen, deserted Yukon was overrun. Hundreds of thousands of gold prospectors trekked to Alaska and Canada for the biggest gold strike in American history.

"The country was looking for a panacea, something that would change lives overnight, and they hurried to go," author Howard Blum tells Laura Sullivan of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered.

Blum's new book, The Floor Of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, follows three fascinating characters of the time: cowboy detective Charlie Siringo, gold prospector George Carmack and con artist Soapy Smith.

"At the same time by telling the story of these three lives and this drama, I'm also telling a story of the end of the old West and the beginnings of the Yukon Gold Rush."

Gold Fever

When word came that prospectors had struck gold in the Yukon, America was in the grips of a depression.

"So people quickly believed that they could change their lives by presto, heading off to the Yukon, dipping their gold pan into a Yukon stream, and picking off gold as if from the floor of heaven," Blum says.

But it wasn't that easy.

"First of all, the ships took you on a dangerous voyage, many of them sank along the way ... and once you go there, the ships didn't let you off at the gold fields, they left you off about a quarter of a mile from a beach and you had to figure out how you were going to get into the Yukon, which was in Canadian territory."

By the time voyagers arrived at the gold fields, most of the claims had already been staked, the author says.

Yet the possibility of finding gold pulled in people from all directions. Carmack was one of them. And once he found gold in a Yukon creek — a creek he named Bonanza — he never stopped prospecting, despite his riches.

"He died in his 60s while he was still looking for another gold mine, this time in Nevada," Blum says.

Getting Rich, And Losing It All

In the 1890s, the people flocking to northern cities to try their luck at gold prospecting made pretty easy targets for con men like Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith.

When a steamboat arrived in Skagway, one of Alaska's boomtowns, Smith and his gang would find ways to trick people who wanted to contact their families back home.

"So you have to go to the telegraph operator, you pay him $5, and he sends a cable saying you've arrived, the next day you get a response and that costs you another $5 and the 10 dollars go to Soapy. The problem is, there were no telegraph lines in Skagway for another 10 years." As Blum writes, Smith's operators used to write the responses themselves.

Eventually, Smith became the equivalent of a mafia kingpin: Everybody knew he was a bad guy, but no one could bring him down. Until, that is, the cowboy detective Charlie Siringo hit town.

Cowboy Detective

Siringo was a top-hand cowboy. He hung around with American outlaws Billy the Kid and Bat Masterson before he settled down.

"After he got married, he realized his cowboying days were over. ... He needed to find a more sedentary life."

Siringo tried to be a merchant. He even opened a store that sold ice cream and oysters in the middle of Kansas. None of his endeavors felt right, though, until he was offered a job at a detective agency in Chicago.

One of his assignments took him to Alaska, which is where he got wind of Soapy Smith's plan to rob George Carmack.

And so in the end, the three men have an Old West-style showdown — except the face-off takes place on a river in Canada's Yukon Territory.

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