Jack London's Klondike
1897 - 1898
By: Jack L. McSherry, III
John Griffith London, better known as Jack London, was born in San Francisco in 1876, where he attended grade school, followed by a series of odd jobs. Being young, healthy, hearing of the great gold-strikes in the Klondike, and longing for wealth and adventure, he made up his mind to try his hand at prospecting.

In 1897, with the financial backing by his sister and brother-in-law, he boarded a steamer and headed north  through the Inside Passage of Alaska. His destination was the area of Skagway and Dyea. There he and his partners, Merritt Sloper, and two men identified as Thompson and Goodmen, would carry  their 5000 pounds of supplies along the Chilkoot Trail. Heading  out of Dyea, and over the dreaded Chilkoot Pass, better known as the Golden Staircase.

The Chilkoot trail is 33 miles from the trail head at Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, British Columbia. From the trail head to Lake Linderman, London’s route, was to be 26 miles. But this route still took him over the  Chilkoot Pass, which  was known to have a snow cover to a depth of 70 to 100 feet in the winter, with slopes of between 45 and 60 degrees.

Chilkoot Pass, 1898

Jack London arrived in Alaska during the fall of 1897, and made his way over the pass. Then descending the mountain, to Deep Lake, then on  to Lake Linderman. London boasted of crossing back and forth, from Deep Lake to Lake Linderman , a distance of three miles, four times a day, each time packing in 150 pounds of supplies.

Lake Linderman was the first site where a boat could be built, to sail through the system of lakes, to the Yukon River, then on to Dawson City.  Many stampeders decided to pack their supplies on to Lake Bennett and avoid the rough water of  One Mile Rapids. Jack London decided to try to shoot the rapids and save the time of packing the supplies to the next location. He named his boat the Yukon Belle.

Stampeders building a boat at Lake Linderman, 1897

Although he and his partners had more then a few close calls, they were successful in shooting both One Mile Rapids and the very dangerous Whitehorse Rapids, beyond Lake Bennett.  From there they sailed on to Dawson City, as did many other stampeders, arriving in great numbers to the surprise of the people of Dawson City.

As most miners found out, the good claims were all taken by the time the story of the gold-strike had reached the “outside”. However, Jack London and his partners did file a claim on the Stewart River. There they moved into and existing cabin. It was late fall and the winter closed in upon them. To Jack London’s luck, their claim and cabin was located near a commonly used crossroads. Many miners and adventure seekers would visit London as they passed by. They would tell him stories and the latest news from the far reaches of the gold-fields. Jack London was to take these stories in whole or in part and put them to pen in his greatest writings. Most people believe that his writings are all fiction. Some are, some are not, and many characters are based on real people.  In some cases, Jack London actually used their real names.

Over the winter, while living on preserved food, Jack London began to suffer from scurvy.  This illness is caused by a lack of vitamin C in the body. Fresh meat and other foods contain enough vitamin C  for the body, but over time, and exposed to air, this substance degrades in the  food. The result of scurvy is a weakness in muscle tissue and joints, with a peculiar blackening and swelling of the skin. It can be fatal. The first symptom of this illness is for the gums of the mouth to turn black and the teeth to fall out. This is what happened to Jack London.

With the spring “break-up” of the ice he was heading home. He decided not to go back the way he had come, but to travel down the Yukon River, across the length of Alaska and to the coast at St,. Michael’s, then south back to San Francisco.

Jack London and two others began to sail down the Yukon in an open boat that was large enough to sleep, cook and row. They had decided that their trip would be a pleasure trip and they would float at the speed of the current, taking time to hunt, play cards and stop where the wished.

The three men passed the deserted mining town of Forty Mile, stopped at the first town in United States Territory, Circle City, then crossed the Arctic Circle and also stopped at Fort Yukon.  The group continued through the Interior of Alaska to  Minook (Rampart City), and the Native towns of Nuklukyeto, Nulato and Anivik. Finally skirting the coast, at the mouth of the YukonRiver, to the town of St. Michael’s. The trip from Dawson to St.. Michael’s was completed in 21 days.

A store at Circle City, Alaska, 1897

The trip south to San Francisco was not to be easy. First Jack London passed coal on a steamer from the Bering Sea to British Columbia, then he traveled in steerage to San Francisco.

Arriving home he found that his father had died, and that he was the sole support for his remaining family. The United States was in an economic depression and he was an unskilled worker, recovering from scurvy. Jack London, took odd jobs when he could find them ,such as lawn work. He had pawned almost everything he owned and was in a desperate condition. Then Jack London got his first writing job, a newspaper story about his trip down the Yukon.

Jack London had found his calling, and went on to become one of America’s greatest writers. He wrote many articles and stories, both large  and small, yet his greatest works were always about the far north, such as: White Fang, and The Call Of The Wild.

Jack London Died in 1916.

sources: Funk& Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnall’s Corporation, 1987,vol16,195
                London Jack, Edited by Kasdin Steven J. The Collected Jack London, The Prospector,
                Through the Rapids On The Way To Klondike,  From Dawson To The Sea, New York: Barns&noble Books,1991,330-343
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