Mountain Passes: Chilkoot Pass

A long line struggles up a jagged ice-covered pass — men, women, horses, oxen, dogs, carts, and sleds. The year is 1898 and the people are called stampeders because that’s what they’re doing — stampeding into Canada’s Yukon Territory to join the Klondike Gold Rush. (The Klondike, spread out alongside the Klondike River, is a section of the Yukon.) 

After a prospector discovered gold along the Klondike in 1896, thousands of others determined to try their luck at prospecting. From California they sailed to the town of Skagway, Alaska, on the Pacific Ocean. From there they hauled their worldly goods — food, clothes, pots, pans, bedding, picks, axes, and shovels — 32 miles along the Chilkoot Trail. From sea level the trail climbed 3,500 feet through jagged, ice-covered Chilkoot Pass into British Columbia and then the Yukon Territory. The trail and pass are named after the Chilkoot Indians, who used it for hundreds of years.

Hauling provisions along the Chilkoot Trail was no easy feat for a Klondike gold rusher. In fact, it took weeks to carry one person’s goods through the pass. A stampeder could haul maybe 50 or 60 pounds in a backpack. He carried this five miles, then tucked it away alongside the trail and walked back five miles to carry more of his goods. Over and over and over. It was estimated that a stampeder walked eighty miles to move his goods one single mile along the Chilkoot Trail. And then — he faced Chilkoot Pass itself.

Mountain Range: Coast Mountains
Elevation: 3,500 feet (1070 meters)
Location: On the border line between British Columbia and Alaska. Chilkoot Pass and the Chilkoot Trail are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

There was no good time of year to climb Chilkooot Pass. Slick ice covered the rocks in spring, fall, and winter. A slippery mixture of mud and ice coated every surface in summer. The higher the stampeders climbed, the more dangerous the pass became: sleds and wagons slipped away and smashed to pieces. Worse, dogs, oxen, horses, and people slid off the trail and fell to their deaths. No wonder the Chilkoot Trail was called “The Meanest 32 Miles in the World.”

And still another hardship awaited at the very top of the the formidable pass, for there stood the North West Mounted Police, who collected duty on the incoming goods. Not only did the police collect duty on the goods, they also made certain that each stampeder had one ton (2,000 pounds!) of goods. The one ton of food and equipment was considered necessary for one person to survive one year in the Klondike.

During the summer of 1898 an upper-class Chicago woman named Martha Munger Purdy decided to go to the Yukon with her husband, Will Purdy. At the last minute Will opted to go to Hawaii instead. Martha, however, headed north with her brother George. Trekking the Chilkoot Trail, Martha (pregnant with her third child) wore the clothes of a well-dressed lady of her time: a corset, many petticoats, long ruffled bloomer pants, and a heavy floor-length corduroy skirt. Grasping at rocks and tree roots when she fell, she half-walked and half-pulled herself up the pass. In January 1899, in a log cabin in Dawson City, she gave birth to her third son, Lyman.

Martha decided to live in the Yukon, prospect for gold, and raise a family. In 1904 she married Canadian politician George Black, and in 1935, when he was too ill to run for office, she ran in his place, becoming the second woman ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons.

Of her gold-rush experience she wrote: “I had actually walked over the Chilkoot Pass! I would never do it again . . . . Not for all the gold in the Klondike. And yet, knowing now what it meant, would I miss it? No, never! Not even for all the gold in the world!”

For those who entered them, mountain passes were doorways into a new world, sometimes better than the old, sometimes worse — but always an adventure.

Chilkoot Pass

Blue water behind,
brown mud below,
white snow ahead —

these riches unfold.

Stampeders are blind
to all colors
but gold.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Mosquito Pass.   

8 thoughts on “Mountain Passes: Chilkoot Pass

  1. I played a computer game “Yukon Trail” in the 90s. It was modeled off of Oregon Trail, but in this case, the object was to travel the Yukon Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush, and the game was interspersed with all these historical facts. This post took me back!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was truly enlightening and fun, Barbara. I never gave much credit to Prospector Yukon Cornelius (of Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer fame.) I’ll be thinking of your blog now, when I watch it each season :).


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