Willoughby: Migrate for minerals, return with storied treasure | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Migrate for minerals, return with storied treasure

Gold prospectors pass through Sheep Camp in 1898, bound for the Klondike.
Library of Congress |

Remember Jack London’s short story “To Build A Fire”? According to the tale, when the temperature slips below minus 50, a man’s spit crackles and freezes before it hits the ground. That unforgettable tidbit hints at other hardships prospectors endured during the Yukon gold rush.

Like thousands of others who worked their way to the Klondike region of northwest Canada, London found little gold. But he returned with a treasure trove of stories. Adventurers from Aspen fared no better. Broke at best, they spun their precious yarns for years after their return.

Klondike fever, as the gold rush captivation was called, hit Aspen in 1897. For over three years, every daily edition of The Aspen Times published news from Seattle, Alaska and the Klondike. Subscribers consumed stories of prospectors’ travails and the men who brought home gold. They couldn’t seem to read enough stories about Aspenites who prepared to go on their own journey or those who recently returned to Seattle.

A party of eight raised money and headed north from Aspen at different times. Frank Pearce — a former alderman — V. Walker, Andy Anderson and George Penze left in August. They aimed to make it to the gold site before winter. Reports of other miners, who already suffered bad weather, warned to wait until spring.

One commentator wrote, “Unless people have simply gone crazy and are determined on suicide by freezing or starvation, or both, they will defer their exodus until there is some chance of reaching their destination.”

Getting there was a drawn-out process. First, you rode by train to San Francisco or Seattle, where you waited for a spot on a boat to Juneau, Alaska. There, you waited for a smaller boat to take you to the trailheads. Eventually you carried your supplies over the Chilkoot Pass, a 26-mile, 3,500-foot climb over ice and boulders. Many gave up. Survivors faced 600 more miles to gold, if they found it.

A few picked up nuggets by the pound. Most found mere flakes, an insufficient sum to pay the price of resupply. Toward the end of the season, potatoes — in present dollars — cost $26 a pound.

A verse in the Times said:

“That fellow called Mike

Has got back from the Klondike

Way up in the top of Alaska

When he looked for the gold

He found he’d been sold

And to riches he hadn’t the pass key.”

The “Mikes” from Aspen were not novices. Rather, they were all veterans of previous mineral rushes. Amos Bourquin, partial owner of several Aspen mines, including the Midnight, sold shares to 30 sponsors at $2,500 each in current dollars to fund local prospectors. They did not depart until 1898.

Notable Aspenites B. Clark Wheeler, John Holbrook and John Atkinson approached the undertaking with caution. For each it was the third major mineral rush, dating from the 1860s.

Wheeler, editor of The Aspen Times, traveled to Juneau and tried to buy claims from prospectors. He concluded he was too late and returned to Aspen.

Holbrook and Atkinson, partners in the Little Annie Mine and a freighting business, took mules. They figured they could make money with the beasts even if they did not find gold. Atkinson gave up his seat as Pitkin Country commissioner and intended to go all-out in his quest. He located a claim, worked it to a point where it would be profitable, and sold it for a small profit.

Three years later, Atkinson returned with a golden story he liked to tell young dreamers. While he sailed between Juneau and Seattle during a horrible storm, he had believed death was near. For him, a landlubber, difficulties at sea far exceeded the discomforts of mountain trekking as a gold rush marker. Despite, or because of, his suffering, the trip seemed to have paid off in pleasure on the storyteller’s face.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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