June/July 2009

Historical Metallurgy

The Canadian gold rush

By F. Habashi


Gold has a special place among metals. The oldest metal exploited by man, it plays an important role in world economics. It has caused wars and unprecedented mass migrations, and has been responsible for creating many large cities. As a highly prized metal, it has inspired myths, fascinated alchemists, enriched the vaults of banks, graced oriental bazaars and adorned the most imposing religious and ceremonial buildings. It is little wonder that prospectors and adventurers rush to the scene as soon as news or rumours of a gold discovery break out.

Since the first gold rush in California in 1848, others occured in Australia, New Zealand and other countries, which culminated in 1929 with the Great Depression. Gold discoveries resulted in the mass movement of gold miners in North America and South Africa, but not in other countries. In Imperial Russia, for example, local authorities, fearing chaos among the serf populace, prevented mass migration and social disturbance when gold was discovered in 1813. In Australia, the authorities did not want to let the largely convict population know about the presence of gold in New South Wales for fear of creating an uncontrolled gold rush. In South Africa, on the other hand, gold discovery resulted in the fierce Boer War between Dutch settlers and the British from 1899 to 1902. South Africa also had a diamond rush in 1869 near the Orange River.

Alcohol, isolation, and struggles over access to gold made for high rates of homicide and other forms of violence. While the promise of easy riches drew many migrants, the reality was often not what they had hoped for. Miners worked long hours in remote places, generally living in miserable accommodations and paying exorbitant prices for food, shelter, and clothing. Gold deposits accessible to manual digging were quickly exhausted. All that remained were buried veins that could be exploited only by capital-rich ventures employing hydraulic equipment and other expensive machinery. Few miners remained independent prospectors, with most becoming employees of large mining companies. Most of the gold rush fortunes were made by marketing supplies to the miners. For example, Levi Strauss became very wealthy supplying miners with the robust trousers that came to be known as jeans. The Californian newspaper magnates of the Hearst family made their fortune from reporting the news. For others, the gold rush was a disaster.

Gold rushes were responsible for the development of Alaska and the Canadian North, the creation of new cities and the founding of schools of mines in several regions where gold was found.

British Columbia

The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush occurred in 1858 after gold was discovered on the Thompson River in British Columbia at its confluence with the Nicoamen River. News of the discovery reached California when the governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island sent a shipment of ore to the mint in San Francisco for assaying. Within a month, 30,000 men descended upon Victoria, which until that time only had a population of about 500. By the fall, however, thousands who had failed to stake claims, or were unable to because of the summer’s high water on the river, returned to San Francisco. Tens of thousands of prospectors, mostly American, arrived in  British Columbia and disrupted the established balance between the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur traders and Aboriginal peoples. The influx of prospectors included large numbers of Chinese, Britons, English Canadians and Maritimers, French Canadians, Germans, and others.

During the fall of 1858, tensions increased between miners and the Nlaka'pamux First Nations people, leading to the Fraser Canyon War. By 1860, however, gold was depleted in the region and many of the miners had either returned to the United States or dispersed further into the British Columbia wilderness in search of unstaked riches. This diaspora led other gold rushes at Rock Creek, the Similkameen, Wild Horse Creek and the Big Bend of the Columbia River. In 1958, a Canadian commemorative stamp depicting a gold panner was issued to mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of British Columbia as a Crown Colony, which stemmed from the discovery of placer gold deposits in the Fraser River valley.

Northwest Territories

In 1984, Canada issued a stamp on the occasion of 50th anniversary of the founding of the City of Yellowknife when gold was discovered there in the Northwest Territories. The stamp shows the head frame of a gold mine, a characteristic feature of the city, rising out of a prospector’s pan. The word Yellowknife, however, does not derive from gold. In 1770, when the British fur trader Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) was exploring the Great Slave Lake area, he encountered a tribe of Indians who used copper-bladed knives. He called them the Copper Indians, although fur traders soon began to refer to them as Yellowknives.

When World War II broke out, a number of residents left to join the armed forces. Houses were shuttered and cafés closed. Nevertheless, the significance of an area rich in uranium was soon realized and settlement was slowly revived. In 1944, a new gold discovery revitalized the town and the population grew. In 1967, Yellowknife was proclaimed the capital of the Northwest Territories. The 1984 stamp was issued just prior to the annual Caribou Carnival, a festival featuring igloo-building contests, log-sawing races and Indian wrestling matches.


The toponym “Klondike” is a corruption of the Indian word for the Trondiuck River, which means abundant fish. On August 16, 1896, a party led by Skookum Jim Mason, a member of the Tagish First Nations, discovered rich placer gold deposits at Bonanza (Rabbit) Creek in the Yukon. News of the discovery spread to other mining camps in the Yukon River Valley and to the United States in July 1897. The first rush of prospectors set off the Klondike stampede. The Panic of 1893 was the first great depression, and it was the attendant unemployment in the United States that forced people to undertake such an adventure.

In 1898, the population of the Klondike reached 40,000. Most prospectors landed at Skagway or the adjacent town of Dyea, both located at the head of the Lynn Canal in Alaska. They then travelled the Chilkoot Trail and crossed the Chilkoot Pass, or hiked up to the White Pass into the Yukon to proceed to Lake Lindeman or Lake Bennett, the headwaters of the Yukon River. Here, some 40 to 56 kilometres from where they landed, prospectors built rafts and boats that would take them the final 800 kilometres to the gold fields near Dawson City, capital of the Klondike.

Stampeders had to carry a year’s supply of goods over the passes to be allowed to enter Canada. At the top of the passes, they encountered the post of Canada’s North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) that was put in place to avert shortages like those that had occurred in the previous winters in Dawson City. Charlie Chaplin’s poignant silent comedy, The Gold Rush (1925), set in the Klondike, tells the story of a lone prospector who, in the middle of the gold rush, searches the tundra for gold. Finding more than gold, he discovers love and adventure that forever change the lives of the people he meets.

The Klondike gold rush was commemorated in 1996 by Canadian stamps  and a $100 gold coin. The title of one of the stamps, Bonanza, refers to Rabbit Creek, a Klondike River tributary that became known as Bonanza Creek when placer gold was discovered there. The United States also issued a stamp commemorating the Klondike gold rush in 1998.

The Gold Rush was celebrated in Edmonton, Alberta, with Klondike Days, an annual summer fair. Despite its distance from Dawson City and the Klondike River, Edmonton became known as a “Gateway to the North” for gold prospectors. It was in the city that many would collect the necessary goods for trekking up north in search of wealth. In addition, the gold rush proved to be one of most famous eras in the history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Seattle, Washington

The museum is designed to connect the international dots that trail out from the gateway of Seattle, where so many of the get-rich dreams began. It retraces the prospectors’ path following the Inside Passage through Canadian waters to Skagway, Alaska, then over Chilkoot or White Pass to the upper reaches of the north-flowing Yukon River, and down to where the Klondike River joined it at Dawson City. Many of the adventurers got stuck in the winter ice. Others were turned back by the Canadian Mounties. Yet others lost their supplies to the rivers or the tricks of fellow prospectors. Of the 100,000 or so who headed north during the three-year Klondike rush, just 40,000 reached the Klondike River. Of those, only 20,000 worked a claim or prospected in hopes of making one. Of these, just 300 found their way out with any more than $15,000.

Suggested Readings

Habashi, F. (2009). Gold: History, metallurgy, culture. Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive Québec.

Habashi, F., Hendricker, D.G., & Gignac, C. (1999). Mining and metallurgy on postage stamps. Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive Québec.

Habashi, F. (2003). Schools of mines: The beginnings of mining and metallurgical education. Quebec City: Métallurgie Extractive Québec.

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