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Aired May 12, 1997

Gold Fever

Film Description

In July 1897, reporters from around the world gathered at Seattle's port as a steamship carrying passengers from Canada's frozen wasteland arrived. Word was out that many aboard had struck it rich and were carrying home sacks — even crates — of gold. Dubbing them "kings of the Klondike," stories about the prospectors made headlines around the world, setting off an epidemic of gold fever that would bring more than 100,000 people through some of the most grueling physical labor and extreme weather conditions in an effort to "get rich quick."

Gold Fever tells the personal stories of a handful of city dwellers who, in January 1898, traveled to the Klondike determined to strike gold. Producer Susan Steinberg details the inexperienced prospectors' arduous trek to gold country, and their deadly encounter with a fierce avalanche on April 3, 1898.

Gold Fever interweaves historic photos of prospectors, personal correspondence with families and friends, stories told by their descendants, and interviews with experts on the history of the Klondike gold rush. Steinberg overlays these pieces with original music and the results of an exhaustive search through dozens of photographic archives, including holdings in Canada, Alaska, Seattle, Denver, and New York, to bring these individual stories to life.

By New Year's Day 1898, gold fever was in full bloom. Thousands of people were pouring into Seattle, readying themselves for the six-month journey into the arctic wilderness to claim their share of what they believed would be that land's overflowing wealth. Naive and untrained, some of the earliest arrivals expected to be able to purchase food and supplies along the trail.

"These people were essentially the modern equivalent of somebody who takes a bus to L.L. Bean and comes out fully equipped and heads off into the woods without any clue of what they were doing," historian Terrance Cole tells THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

In their letters and diaries, the prospectors describe the conditions under which they made their journey. "I shall never forget that first night," wrote Luella Day, a physician from Chicago and one of the few women to embark on the trek alone. "It was 28 degrees below zero. After sleeping on a board floor in a log cabin with only my fox robe wrapped around me, we arose with the sun and made preparations for...the journey which everyone dreaded."

Their progress was slow as each prospector made repeated trips over the rugged trail through the bitter cold. "Imagine pulling a sled loaded with three to six hundred pounds over a stretch of ice up a steep grade, strewn with boulders and logs, then crossing over a river bed on a couple of trees laid side by side and you get a picture of our labors," Fred Dewey wrote his friends at home of the two long weeks it took him to haul his gear to the base of the Chilkoot pass. "My feet are sore, my heels are blistered, my legs sore and lame, my hands, neck, shoulders, sore and chafed from rope. But boys, don't think I'm discouraged...there is a golden glimmer in the distance."

Facing 60-mile-an-hour winds in 65-degree-below-zero weather, the prospectors had to ascend the Chilkoot -- 1,000 feet straight up. With a steady stream of stampeders lining the path each day, it took forty trips to get a ton of supplies up the mountain.

Those who survived the mountain than faced a treacherous passage by boat to the town of Dawson. When they finally arrived, "the air was electric. It was an amazing party," says Lael Morgan of the University of Alaska. "Whether you were broke or whether you were rich, it just was the place to be at that moment in time."

Dawson was bustling with reporters, photographers, entrepreneurs, miners, and con men. In one week's time, the town's population exploded from just 500 to 12,000, and by the end of the summer of 1898 there were 30,000 people jamming the streets, enticed by dreams of easy wealth.

"The lure for gold mining was 'something for nothing,'" says Cole. "Of course, in fact the exact opposite was true. This was the hardest work in the whole world -- especially the idea that you might not find anything."

Undeterred by stories of miners giving up and returning home with nothing, the hardiest prospectors worked through 40 or 50 feet of frozen ground to sink a shaft with no guarantee of finding an ounce of gold. As the weeks and months bore on, one stampeder after another despaired and made the journey home with empty pockets. Of the 100,000 stampeders who made it to Dawson, only a handful struck it rich. But, at the beginning of 1900, just when it seemed that the boom was over, gold fever struck Dawson once again. Gold had been discovered up in Nome, Alaska, rekindling the hopes of those hanging on to the dream.