The Klondike Trail – Chapter One

Skagway was a Boomtown. Originally a small plot of land scouted by a steamboat captain almost a decade ago, he claimed this land, and even built a small dock for any boats that may happen through. On the backside of the town loomed the tall glacier filled peaks of the Alaskan Panhandle. These coastal mountains served as an unforgiving gateway into the harsh north wilds that was Canada. Five hundred miles north of Skagway a chance discovery had caused the boom that filled this tiny beach with life.

A bright yellow rock that filled men with an unquenchable desire. Just its name was enough to spark a fire within them. Like wildfire that quickly swept through Alaska, Canada, and the American states; the news of this discovery spread through even the furthest corners of the world.

Any and all who sought fortune rushed north into the strange wilderness that they called the Klondike, looking for that glittering rock that could make men crazy; gold.

Overnight Skagway went from a scant town of dozens to a swell of thousands; now a destination of any would be prospector gripped with the terrible disease of gold fever. That lust for the precious metal was like a splinter in their mind, they only felt relief as the inched closer to that elusive goal – the rich goldfields of the north.

James McQueen did not feel the lust for fortune that gripped these north bound men. While the gold brought him here it was for a different reason. His father was a successful playwright from Illinois, and James was raised in a nurturing home; filled with education, and of course no shortage of books. Paul – James’ father – always knew his son would take to writing as he did, it was perhaps why he pushed the young boy so much to take up the craft. James did not mind. His father was right, he took to writing as a fish to water, as the saying goes. Even kept a journal from the young age of eight. His defame a daily ritual. The chronicling of events interested him greatly and while his father’s talent was in crafting the entertaining works of fiction that delighted the crowds of their home state, not to mention the fine folks of Michigan, Wisconsin and even Minnesota; James turned his talent to journalism.

The Elizabeth was a capable steamboat and a comfortable ride all things considered, for it was terribly cramped. James did his best to fine pleasantries as he could. More often than not it was easy, despite his sheltered upbringing, the scent of sea air on the soft breeze would always invigorate him with that vague notion of adventure. However a rogue wave would sometimes give a decent churn and buck against the underside of the vessel, enough to remind him that he was traveling further away from civilization as he understood it and closer to a great unknown. These two sensation would mix in his chest with a flutter. It occurred to him that the further from Seattle, the more these wild waves would seemed to be. He took this down in his journal of course, having already started his observations.

He watched swarms of men talking jovially about the fortunes they would soon amass. He did not participate in this rough speech; the laughing, gambling and drinking of these men bordered on vulgarity to some. It was not that he didn’t approve, perhaps he was just too nervous to join in. Unaware that they were just as naïve as the young McQueen when it came to what they would find in Skagway.

Many even dressed in a nicer fashion than James, but it was if, now with the shadow of Seattle at their backs they almost sought to return to a more manner-less state.

But watching them, interesting talk came in bits and pieces. Some made proclamations of rumors, or which piece of news had sent each man, where the riches knew no limit.

“The nuggets are just lying around for the taking! I was smart enough to bring extra sacks so I don’t lose any!” One man exclaimed.

“They say Carmack got tired of buying houses and started buying city blocks, and his claim isn’t even the best one there!” From another.

James doubted these claims, he knew nothing of the Klondike, or gold, or anything of that sort; but he knew of the sensationalism of a local paper, something he never approved of. The truth, he felt painted a far more compelling picture. He diligently wrote down the boasts of the nearby men that he overheard. Looking up only for a sparse moment here and there to survey the horizon. His stare would linger as he caught more of the rough wilderness that he would soon set foot upon.

They were scheduled to land that afternoon, and James eagerly looked forward to it.  He imagined the sights and sounds of the town and how it must swell as if a large, writhing animal. He took care to note the time and then strategically worked his way forward throughout the morning. Finally sitting himself casually near the front of the Elizabeth so he could disembark before anyone else.

His premeditation was well planned; and he was also fortunate to have no need for the large amounts of supplies that others needed. Only a week or so provisions, clothing, writing supplies, toiletries, and other similar essentials. Everyone else needed far more.

It had recently come down that anyone crossing into Canada needed a near ludicrous amount of supplies to survive in the Klondike, and that the mounted police were strictly enforcing this rule. Since James’ plan was to report on the Alaskan side of the border as the men and women would pass through either the White Pass or further on to the more popular route of Chilkoot via the nearby sister boomtown of Dyea, he did not require the ton of supplies. He would re-provision as needed and stay in one of the many inns that had sprung up. So outside of his rather large backpack, he carried only two manageable duffles.

Excitement built for the young man with every mile they passed. When afternoon had finally come, almost an eternity to James, he nearly jumped out of his seat when the steam whistle sounded to signify the arrival to their destination. There, a small dot getting ever closer was Skagway. The other passengers crowded together on the already cramped deck as the steamboat workers staged the boxes, bags, sacks, horses, carts, sleds and other cargo that the sea of travelers had brought with them. James simply hoisted his large packs onto his shoulders, and slung it around him securely, carrying the rest.

As they got closer, Skagway didn’t quite meet James’ expectations. ‘Town’ would have been a generous description from his perspective. Tents crowded the beach leaving precarious pathways deeper into the settlement. Far back were a cramped assortment of buildings.  Yet there was only a single dock.

How could the throngs of people build all this and ship so much with a single loading dock? The thought struck James, as he observed and took in the details.

Additional images made their way to his memory for future chronicling. The tell tale smoke trails from wood stoves of crudely build homes, cabins, and trading posts streaked black trails in the otherwise drab grey cloudy sky. Soon the sounds of Skagway were upon his ears. It started as a quiet mutter, barely audible over the steam boat engine and the splashing of the ocean waves, but with every minute the sound grew to a roaring cacophony of hustle and bustle. A symphony of dogs barking, cat calls, bids for packers and shippers, boxes shuffling back and forth. James’ ears even picked the clapping sound of a pistol being fired. It was the sound of a dangerous life, of the gateway into the frontier; and it caused him to stiffen in his stance – holding his pack just a little tighter. The last to hit McQueen’s senses was the smell; an odor that matched the ever exceedingly rough sounds of Skagway. It was the  smell of sweat, fear, spoiled food and wet dog. It struck him and churned with the salty sea air. Never before had his senses been assaulted so. His sense of fear and excitement gave him seemingly equal parts paralysis and energy.

This made the last hundred feet before they reached the dock stretch out as an eternity before him.

The gangplank soon clapped down on the dock and James quickly descended down it. Once he was about halfway down he heard the distinct sound of splashing.He turned and re-caught the balance he almost lost.

The workers of the Elizabeth were unceremoniously dropping the carefully packed goods straight onto the watery beach below. It was a thing to behold, right over the sides it all went. This created a sort of panicked mass evacuation of the vessel.

Men, like their goods, threw themselves into the water. They scrambled out; attempting to round up the stock and supplies before the tide took it all back out to open water. James quickly ran down the rest of the walkway as a wave came down the narrow wooden bridge behind him. He barely got out of the way. Those who had not jumped now stampeded down the plank – only to wade in after their goods. He watched in awe amid the shouting, and cursing.

Boat captains attempted as many trips as they could and as quickly as possible. Already their were sold out tickets for the next voyages up, and back and up again. Tickets were for the first ship back, so it was almost a race for your next load up.

This meant they didn’t bother to have crew negotiate the single plank for supplies. The town was built too quickly to accommodate more docks being built so the solution for those transporting the throngs of masses was simple, but unexpected for many. Since the ships were in constant motion; never stopping in either in Skagway, Dyea, or Seattle for longer than necessary they just dumped it all as fast as possible.

Once everything had been unloaded by the crew of the Elizabeth they already had begun turning the ship for its return trip back to Seattle. James glanced back up to the deck of the ship and saw a few men who’s boxes were dropped from the edge, but hadn’t had the chance to disembarked themselves.

They nervously paced, trying to quickly work out the best course of action. Two of the men jumped. Splashing into the cold Alaskan water with little grace. They surfaced in a violent, desperate swim for land, hacking and coughing the saltwater from their lungs. The third man had by now walked around to the back of the Elizabeth and looked with longing at the shore. James felt for the man – a trip so wasted it may have easily cost him everything. His adventure had ended before it started.

The men that had jumped or otherwise disembarked the large steamboat now struggled against the icy cold tide waters on Skagway’s muddy shore. Even in the warm Alaskan summer the water was frigid enough for the men from down south that their plight was magnified as the wrestled what they could salvage.

Glaciers once covered this entire stretch of land, and as they receded over centuries, they left in their wake fine silt which made much of this shore. Amid the cursing and strife, those whose tenacity paid off lay caked in this silt, catching their breath before carrying their mostly intact boxes further up the beach and to the packers that awaited them.

The packers of Skagway by now were well versed in their craft. They stood in teams, awaiting new shipments; but they never fought among themselves. Instead staying just up shore enough to not get involved in the chaos of the men struggling in the mud. Once someone had pulled enough of their supplies up safely the packers would descend, offering to help for a nominal fee. Desperate men would eagerly agree, and once enough money had changed hands the packers expertly went to work. Skillfully picking what could be salvaged and handing it to the next packer in the team who worked in an assembly line. A man who paid well and didn’t haggle would find most of, if not all his provisions hauled up to a dry part of the shore. Those that insisted on bargaining prices or otherwise went alone, learned that the salt water found its way into their supplies given enough time. The exception were the canned goods, but they often sunk or floated away into the sea.

James took all this in and hurriedly wrote down what he saw in his journal. Not only fascinated by the skill and speed in which the packers moved but by how many were toiling away. Soon the chaos was relatively managed, and the soaking men trudged up the hill. James made note of the faster packers among them and the system in which they used. It was fascinating to see them work.

After jotting down two quick illustrations of their procedures he became very aware of himself. His awkward position on the dock kept him in the way of the workers. So he put his journal away for safe keeping and committed himself to study the rest for later.

So he stepped off the dock – his first steps in the great North.

The ground was wet, and muddy. Many paths were laid out via planks of wood. Walking along them kept you mostly safe from getting caked in the dirt. It also prevented stepping in great pools of scum filled water. People, dogs, horses, sleds and supplies clogged the roads, the smell was almost overwhelming for the young man; the chattering, yelling and occasional bangs and clanks ever present. But soon his assaulted senses began to attune to these surroundings. There was a delightful shanty riding on the air somewhere far off. The pleasant fiddle cast the whole place in an almost whimsy of hope, despite the rough exterior.

Dreams were being sought out here, James reminded himself. Everything seemed to crackle with movement and vivacity, as if brought to life by those very dreams. He was reminded of the stories of similar boomtowns during the Rush of ’49, or the rough ‘n tough Wyoming frontier from decades ago. This was the new Wild West.

Soon he found himself in front of a large pitched roof with the words ‘Acme and Johnson: General Merchants, Carriers and Packers’, and then to one side an advertisement for both a hotel and restaurant available. James stepped inside and saw a swell of movement about. Men quickly packed goods into smaller packages as orders were frantically shouted and more money exchanged. The sheer amount of transactions and staggering cost of every day foodstuffs was almost dizzying for James; back home for a little over a dollar you could buy a bushel of potatoes, here that same bushel was twenty five dollars. Eggs sold individually they were so expensive, ninety cents each. James thankfully saw most meals in the restaurant were still relatively cost effective by comparison. It was the supplies that were expensive, anyone passing through had to pay premium prices to be properly supplied up here.

For the unfortunate souls ill prepared for the journey, or worse yet, saw their carefully selected and packed cargo wash out with the tide upon arrival, this place and other suppliers like it were their only recourse.

James eased passed them, pressed against the wall and scooted as best he could, apologizing as he went, he eventually reached the doorway to the side building which housed the restaurant and rooms.

The space inside was cramped still, but more from size than occupancy, straight ahead were makeshift tables for food, and a counter which served to check in visitors to the right of the entrance. The man behind the desk was thin, eagle-nosed, with a bushy brow, and an unkept beard with a waxed ended mustache, as if the curl offset the rest of his gruffness. But his expression was anything but gruff, instead friendly and inviting. This helped to put James at ease, as he was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of it all.

“Ho there friend!” The man smiled, “New in town by the look o’ ya.”

James offered a smile back, “I suppose it’s plain to see”

“Bah, don’t worry ‘bout it.” The clerk waved dismissively, “Everyone was new here once, sides ol’ Morrey.”

“Oh, sorry I don’t follow.” James confessed.

“Nah, just a joke. Wut can I do ya fer?” James noted this peculiar slang.

“Uh, room?” James asked, “And a warm meal would be nice.”

Clerk looked over his counter to see James’ bags.

“Bags ‘er extra,”

“Not a problem,” James gave the man the amount indicated and the man’s eyebrow raised at the sight of the full wallet.

“Offer a word of advice? Fer a Cheechako?”

James had never heard the word before, he tried to repeat it as a question. Chee-cha-ko?

“Greenhorns, rookies!” The man exclaimed laughing at James’ pronunciation. “Judgin’ by the packs, ya ain’t plannin’ on headed North, and if ya are, then by gum ya gonna need to buy yer supplies!”

“Oh no, I’m not a prospector.” James offered, “No, I’m not going to the Klondike, I’m a journalist, here to interview the men and women chasing their dreams. What I report here will captivate audiences from Sacramento to New York! Stories of Northern Adventure, told by those coming back with fortunes and others going to claim theirs!” He spoke eagerly.

“Well then!” The man clapped his hands twice, and then “I suppose we all find our way to make it up here! So, that word of advice. Unwind! They got a saloons, they got a games, and they got a girlies! Just down the way, them’s pretty, the dancing girls, and card games easy ta win! Perfect to double or triple that wallet ‘o yers! It gets expensive ‘round ‘er, can never have too much cash on hand.”

He had a point. James packed enough to fund a few months worth of living expenses but admittedly it was more expensive than he anticipated. And with how busy it was – now that he was here – it occurred to him many may not need his letter drafting or notary skills for some time. He would need more money if he did not want to return home soon.

James thanked the man, signed his name in the crisp registry and took his bags to the last room in the hall. After a few minutes to properly settle his things, he put up his bags and made his way back from the cramped quarters. At the long planked table he had his meal.

It was served in a tin plate with minimal utensils. Molasses baked beans, roast beaver with potatoes and carrots. On the side, equally thick slices of both sourdough and cornbread, with warm beer. The food was good; although beaver was new to him. It was surprisingly tender and flavorful if not a tad gamey. After his belly was full and hunger abated, James pondered what he should do next.

He briefly considered staying in his room to write in his journal since already in his short time, there were notes that he wished to commit to written form. However the sights and sounds of the town called to James’. He wished to experience more.

So he got up from his table before thanking the clerk and made for the doorway, taking his journal with him. He set aside some money for the gambling hall, within his leather bound book. Determined not to engage with the intention of winning, but more for the ability to later tell of the experience. He then slipped his journal into his large overcoat.

No sooner had he drawn his wallet than a large rush of people came in through the doorway. James stumbled against the great wave, causing him to stumble back from the exit back into the restaurant area. He attempted to regain his balance, but before he could a man came directly at him from seemingly nowhere. Just as quickly as he had appeared the man snatched James’ wallet out of his hands before he could put it away.

The clerk came from around the counter, having seen the crime exclaimed, “Thief! Not in my establishment! Ho! After ‘em boys!”

The whole room upheaved at that moment. Such a cacophony of sounds and movement as everyone scrambled for their own belongings in the scuffle. They cared little for the fact a crime was committed – outside of keeping themselves from being a victim as well. As the abrupt chaos churned many rushed the door. James observed his assailant slip out with them. He gave chase.

The mob remained unquieted for some time, and on more than one occasion he was knocked prone or shoved backward in a way that make James’ journey to the exit a trial in its self.

Eventually he reached the doorway and once released into the streets frantically looked for the criminal. The streets had not quieted and if possible was busier than before. He scoured the populace and caught the thief looking over their shoulder before fleeing, disappearing into the masses.

James pursued, by now the distance would have been impossible to close – but he persisted. Driven on by his own stubbornness and inability to let the act go unresolved.

 Many would take a look at the young man from Illinois and easily dismiss him as a reserved and therefore dainty fellow. But his outward meekness hid a surprising amount of athleticism; he ran through the shifting crowds, at a pace many trail-hardened men would struggle to keep. He was fast – like the wind. When he jumped over a fully packed cart that rested waist high, he caught the eye or two of an onlooker. Although he stumbled upon landing, he regained quickly and was only slowed momentarily.

Minute after horribly long minute passed, eventually James resigned himself to his loss, the wallet was gone. Out of breath, energy and willpower he leaned against a few barrels stacked against a log shack. Breathing came in large gulps as his mind tried to think clearly and determine what to do now.

His muscles ached as the adrenaline began to ebb away, and James knew his best course of action was to go to his room and get some sleep. After a restful night he could take inventory and try to contact the authorities.

The trudge back was long, and against the current of crowds made it seem all the more exhausting. By the time James returned to Acme and Johnson dusk was making itself known. Once more he negotiated to the side area of the building, passing the general store and re-entering the dining hall. The commotion from earlier had subsided and now was relevantly quiet. This gave James a clear path to his room. But as he made his way a man from behind the desk stopped him. This was a different clerk than before. His manner of speaking was far more firm and understandable than the first worker, his face shrewd and hard.

“Can I help you sir?” The clerk said with discernible accusation.

James became defensive, himself a victim of a crime perpetrated in this very building.

“I beg your pardon?” James asked.

“Those rooms are for paying customers who have made reservations.”

“I assure you I have paid sir!” James exclaimed, bewildered at such an accusation.

“I have not seen you before,” The clerk explained, “What’s your name?”

“McQueen, James McQueen.”

The clerk went back behind his counter and pulled out the registry, one that seemed slightly darker and more well worn than before. He opened it and read through the most recent logs. Afterwards he placed the registry on the counter for James to inspect. The last name entered was Burton, not McQueen. In fact there was no McQueen on the page, nor the past three. James was astounded to not see his signature.

“No,” he protested, flipping through with increasing earnest, “But your clerk sir, he had me sign. I paid for the last room in the hall!”

The clerk now showed visible annoyance, “I am the only clerk here today, I do not recognize you and you have not signed in our registry. What would you have me do?”

James stuttered taken aback – how could this be happening?

“Then, at least let me fetch my things.”

“And allow you to steal from the paying customer on the end row? I think not! There’s confidence men around every corner, and I will not be taken a fool.” The clerk responded loudly. A few heads turned at the prospect of another thief about.

James was speechless.

“I assure you those are my belongings there! I can give detailed descriptions!” James protested not caring who heard. He  would not stand for this.

The clerk’s patience was reached in regards to the scene that had unfolded between the two of them. He drew his pistol in warning and James quickly relented; having no recourse or defense, and therefore could do nothing should this escalate to violence. He left and offered no more resistance.

Outside the weight of recent events felt crushing on James’ shoulders as the most acute feeling of loss filled him. No belongings, no money, nothing save for the clothes on his back; he had lost everything.

The coming sunset had begun to paint its details on the underside of the grey clouds overhead. Pinks, reds and orange bloomed and flowered into wonderful purples. A most beautiful warning promising the arrival of a chilly night. James knew that shelter would be needed. So he set off through the streets hoping to find enough employment to earn a night somewhere with a roof.

Most places were full up. James’ definition of the word grossly underestimated the practice. For here, ‘full up’ did not mean that each room was occupied by a single tenant. These rooms were booked double, triple or even more. With some entire families crowded within a thin planked room with their own packs to serve as bedding.

Some recommended that James could make due with a tent on the ever growing outskirts of town. Rain did not seem likely, but then again the older folks warned; ‘weather here changed as it pleased, with little regard to rhyme or reason’.

“Sounds like what happen’s to most Cheechakos ‘round here.” An older man sighed sympathetically as he stroked his bushy beard, “Got no rooms or work today, better luck tomorrow. Just stay clear of Sudsy’s crew and you can save up for a ticket back home I’d wager. Fer now camp out on the beach. Ocean sounds is good fer drifting ya ta sleep. Ya seem like a nice lad, and green as a first year willow no doubt! I’ll borrow ya a tent. That’s a days work forwarded to ye.”

“Sudsy?” James asked, catching the name after thanking the man for the opportunity.

“Oh that’d be Sudsy Malone, he’s in charge around here.”

“The mayor?“

At James’ inquiry the man burst into abrupt laughter. “Heavens no! He’s a bunko man wut come up from Outside. Well there’s no law here, save for mob rule or a miners meetin’. But sure enough they run scams aplently, and he pays well to keep folks in line.”

He patted James’ back as you would to someone in his situation, it was a kind gesture, then he offered friendly council, “You’ve gone bust son, nothin wrong wit it. Many here have, an many more never made it this far. Find a warm corner tonight, then make for home. Cheechako’s aren’t suited for the cold.”

James thanked him and left, resolving in the need to now find a space to set up. He made his journey towards the beach, trying his best to remember the path he had taken before. It took several minutes as a few of the streets were laid out in such a strange way they some to loop back on themselves. Or maybe it was just how similar the buildings looked. Being built so quickly did not leave much for style or imagination.

It made navigating difficult and James had to right himself several times before starting to recognize where he was. Once these bearings were found, James happened to catch a face in the crowd.

It was the clerk from before, the overly-friendly one – the imposter. Given the time James had to brood on the events that brought him here, he had already surmised that the imposter was most likely working with that man who stole his wallet. James straightened and called out at him before running in the man’s direction.

The Imposter’s reaction was panicked; an outstretched arm his chosen means of defense. His hand was open as in truce showing no threat as James descended upon him. Once within earshot James finally heard his shout, ‘Y-you got a’ gun?’

 “What?” James was caught off guard, anger paused momentarily, and his movement halted with the question.

“Why would-” he began.

There was a loud clap, and something whizzed by James. Instinctively he ducked after the sound and soon realized the clerk he was advancing on had a revolver. The first shot had gone wide, causing the mud behind to burp on impact. James caught the look in the man’s face, full of means and menace. There was a clear intention to kill. The man leveled the firearm at the young McQueen who felt his heart sink.

To be continued–