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Klondike

The beginnings
When the Edmonton Bulletinmentioned that gold had been discovered in the Yukon,1 Edmonton’s economy was on the verge of changing forever.

It is true that in 1889, a Board of Trade was created, “the first west of Winnipeg”2in the hope of attracting pionners to Edmonton. But the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush was to become Edmonton’s best publicity. “Despite the short time span, it was of great importance to a young frontier community as it changed it from a fur trade centre to a service centre aspiring to meet the needs of an expanding geographic area.”3

Starting in the summer of 1897, the Klondike attracted many potential immigrants by making the headlines almost every week in many Canadian and American newspapers. Many “adventurers” wanted to try their luck and some travelled through Edmonton.   

The “All-Canadian Route” through Edmonton
Edmonton, considered by many to be the town “close to the North Pole”,4 would use its geographic location to its advantage: if Edmonton was located in the north, the shortest route to the Klondike would have to go through Edmonton! Edmonton’s citizens would take up this corny old tune and add a “nationalistic touch”: Edmonton’s route would become the “All-Canadian Route”:

The imagination of Canada’s politicians had been caught by the term “all-Canadian” — which the astute citizens of Edmonton had expeditiously christened their route — and were now wholeheartedly endorsing it as safe, short, and easy.  The Klondike travellers believed them.5

In fact, there were two ways to get to the Klondike via Edmonton: the “overland” route and the “water” route. But neither was gold prospectors’ preferred route. Indeed, most prospectors going to the Klondike took the Pacific Route, leaving Vancouver, Seattle, or Victoria; they would end up in Dyea or Skagway and they would cross the White Pass or the Chilkoot Pass, eventually arriving in Dawson City.  They could also arrive directly in Dawson City, travelling on the Yukon  River when the ice melted on the river (a couple of months a year).

The Edmonton Route, although the most direct to get to the Klondike (1,500 miles compared to 2,500 miles), was the most dangerous and the one that took the longest time to complete. Indeed, Edmonton’s overland backdoor route (...) was terrible every step of the way.  No trail existed; no timber had been cleared; no bogs had been marked; no dead ends had been mapped.  Each group of travellers had to axe its own trail.  And each time the path came unexpectedly upon a ravine, or a bog, or a patch of impenetrable timber, men and horses had to go back and start again.  One single mile of progress could mean 14 straight hours of axing and climbing and crawling.  Under such conditions, even a hundred miles was an eternity, particularly considering the weight of provisions that each man had to carry with him.  Unlike the other trails, the overland backdoor route had no stopping places anywhere along its length where provisions could be purchased.  Moreover, nowhere along its length were there adequate grazing places for livestock.  As a result, everything necessary to sustain life for both men and animals had to be carried along.6

Many requests were sent to Ottawa about the creation and the recognition of this “All‑Canadian Route” which had to be marked in order to be more efficient because it did not in fact exist:  

They called public meetings in Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, and St-Albert, and from these meetings sent an official request to the government in Ottawa asking that the existence of this backdoor route be publicly acknowledged and that its exact location be officially mapped and charted.  The request received immediate action.  (...) The government in Ottawa respond(ed) by commissioning Inspector Moodie of the NWMP to set out immediately to scout the area and to report on the exact route that should be followed.7

Francophones at the Klondike
In July 1897, two separate groups of gold prospectors headed by francophones left Edmonton for the Klondike. Baptiste Pilon’s group chose the “All-Canadian Route” while Louis Couture’s group left five days later and took the Skagway Route, via Vancouver. Couture’s group arrived on September 29, two months after the start of its expedition.  Pilon’s group arrived on July 25, 1898, almost one year after its departure.8

Despite an aggressive publicity campaign in both of Edmonton’s newspapers as well as in many Canadian and American newspapers — a campaign that boasted the “All‑Canadian Route”, approximately 1,500 prospectors would leave from Edmonton,9 from an estimated total of 100,000 gold prospectors.10 And of that number, only 725 would end up in the Klondike via the “All-Canadian Route”.11

Letters from miners
In order to attact Klondikers in Edmonton, L’Ouest Canadien newspaper published letters from miners gone to the Klondike.  The letters outlined either the miners’pleasure at having chosen the “All-Canadian Route” through Edmonton or the advantages of their having equipped themselves in Edmonton where they found all they needed to travel to the Klondike.

The article “Lettre de P. J. Curran”,12 former police chief of the RCMP who had left for the Klondike, was a translation of a letter published in the Edmonton Bulletin dated  February 13, 1898; in this letter, Mr. Curran answered the question: “Should one equip himself to go to the Klondike before coming to Edmonton?” His answer is unequivocal: “No [it is a] false rumour (...) quality and quantity can be found in Edmonton.”

Another letter, titled “Il est satisfait (he is pleased)”13 is a “letter from a miner gone to the Klondyke.”  As its title indicates, he was “pleased to have taken the Edmonton Route and with the purchases he made in Edmonton”.

Edmonton’s business and the Klondike
Many new businesses were created because of the Gold Rush; they were opened in 1898 and many individuals offered their services: rowboat and boat building, selling and repair of harnesses, general stores, clothing stores, hardware stores, repair shops — everything to equip the  “Klondykers”.  G.H.L. Bossange’s Francophone bookstore even publicized a Klondike song:

Bossange’s Bookstore not only offered Klondyke literature for sale but also advertised a new popular song, “The Spirit of the Klondyke” and urged potential customers, “Hear it.  Buy it.  Sing it.  For it brightens all the journey to that far distant land14

If the prospector decided to take the Edmonton Route, he had to bring with him an “outfit” which is to say all the necessary equipment for the Klondike: food, clothes, gun and ammunition, tools, and medicine. This had to last at least one year if not two. The total weight for one man was between  1,500 and 2,000 pounds.15 Therefore, it was recommended to have many people in one party in order to divide the weight. The total cost for one man’s outfit was approximately $300.  Businesses specializing in the sale of outfits could make lots of money!

To help prospectors leaving for the Klondike, Larue & Picard published, in February 1898, a guide for miners and gold prospectors which, according to the editor of L’Ouest Canadien newspaper, was “well written (...) well presented (...) with a map”.16

McDougall & Secord General store sold a road map which pointed prospectors leaving Edmonton toward the Klondike. The store also published a pamphlet describing what to bring as well as the weight and the cost of each item.17

The real wealth
L’Ouest Canadien newspaper soon found itself in a dilemma and it got out of it in a shrewd way. Indeed, the immigrants the newspaper had attracted in Edmonton were slipping through its fingers and were now leaving for the Klondike. Moreover, many well-established francophones were leaving for the Klondike and many francophone villages around Edmonton were being depopulated. The newspaper found an interesting solution: all those people the newspaper had encouraged to come were now encouraged to stay in the region to become farmers, “the real wealth being the soil.”18

This strategy more or less worked but it was mentioned every time a pioneer decided to stay behind: in the February 10, 1898 edition of L’Ouest Canadien, the editor wrote about the “arrival of new Klondykers who don’t need to go to the Yukon to get rich.”19

Later, the name Mastaï Bertrand was even mentioned, “a Klondyker who decided to stay in Edmonton”20 and who worked for the Edmonton Saddlery Co. as a repairer of saddles and harnesses.   On some occasions, the newspaper did not shy away from describing the dangers associated with the Klondike:  in the article “Correspondance”,21 it cautioned: “be careful before leaving for the Klondike (because there are) many dangers and few rewards.”

Positive consequences
The article “Our public offices”22 considered that “it was because of the Klondike and the increasing numbers of immigrants that many new public offices like the post office and the customs office were built.”

The article “Augmentation”23 compared the import and export of 1898 against 1897 and identified three main causes:  “England’s market, the Klondike, and the arrival of new pioneers”.

Decline
By July 1898, whereas many prospectors had come back from the Klondike (sometimes before having reached their destination), horror stories about the “All-Canadian Route” started to surface, and fewer and fewer advanturers wanted to take the Edmonton Route. Even businesses removed the word “Klondike” from their summer publicity.24

Gold fever had gone through Edmonton and many store owners — francophone and anglophone alike — had profited from it. Edmonton had grown in population and importance.

1 Hesketh, Bob and Frances Swyripa, Edmonton, the life of a city, p. 59.
2 Ibid. p. 58.
3 Ibidem.
4 L’Ouest Canadien 24.02.98:3.
5 Joan Weir, Back door to the Klondike, p. 13-14.
6 Ibidem.
7 Ibid. p. 46.
8 MacGregor, Klondike Rush through Edmonton, p. 24.
9 MacGregor, Edmonton:  a history, p. 125.
10 Pierre Berton, Klondike, cited by Joan Weir, Back door to the Klondike, p. 11.
11 MacGregor, Klondike Rush Through Edmonton, p. 2.
12 L’Ouest Canadien 17.02.98:1.
13 L’Ouest Canadien 24.02.98:1.
14 Hesketh, Bob and Frances Swyripa, Op. Cit. p. 64.
15 Ibidem.
16 L’Ouest Canadien 10.02.98:3.
17 MacGregor, Edmonton Trader, p. 223-224.
18 L’Ouest Canadien 17.03.98:4.
19 L’Ouest Canadien 10.02.98:3.
20 L’Ouest Canadien 21.04.98:3.
21 L’Ouest Canadien 07.04.98:1.
22 L’Ouest Canadien 05.05.98:2.
23 L’Ouest Canadien 24.03.98:2.
24 MacGregor, Edmonton a history, p. 125.

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