Alaska – They Called It The Worst Trail This Side of Hell

TODAY you leave Skagway for the summit, and the headwaters of the Yukon just beyond the divide, in a modern observation coach of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. The train draws slowly through the more-than-half-deserted town, up Broadway now flower-reclaimed to its old natural beauty by the ambitious women living there. In place of thousands of a quarter century ago, there are now only a few hundred souls. But thirty-five women have converted one of the famous, fabulously-equipped, old ex-saloons into a charming woman’s club, as fine as any in a fair-sized town Anywhere in U. S. A. On the ground floor they house a well-stocked library, and upstairs are club-rooms. The whole is a community center for the common use and pleasure of the people; and so, you see, the friendly cooperative spirit of the old-time ” Union Church” has not departed from the ” honor of Skagway.”

Through these amazing women’s efforts, unsightly, vacant, and dilapidated shacks remaining from the stampede days, and now long time unused, have been torn down; and on the razed sites in the early summer mornings you see great digging going on, and work of spade and trowel. No spectres these of men a-seek for gold, but women turning earth to create beauty! Soon the abandoned spot is massed in blossoms, and the raw wound covered with an unbelievable growth of flowers. The people wave to the slow-drawing train in friendly salute—they come to doorways and shade hand to eye—and call a message of good luck to you, in memory of those other days when starting for The Pass and ” the big dizzy mountains that screen it ” was full of dangerous death-defying meaning.

But we are seated in deep wicker armchairs, on cushions of green plush, within an airy well-electriclighted and plate-glass-enclosed observation car; and from our outside seats will only glance out and look down from quiet perusal of a magazine, and now and then recall that where these marvelous hundred and eleven miles of railroad now zigzag up through the snaggy mountains, looping themselves to Alpine toe-holds and spidery bridges, to snake and wind up to the impending summit, once thousands of human pack-mules struggled up the grade, on aching backs and scarified shoulders bearing their burdens over the heart-breaking trail, and horses died by thousands in this canyon still unforgetably named ” Dead Horse.” Men said no railroad could be built here, by any means whatever. But it was built, although surveyors had to be dropped down from cliffs on ropes to run the preliminary line, and its construction cost not only many millions cash but many lives as well. Men worked all summer, day and night, to build this railroad. The first train brought out $2,000,000 worth of gold.

The green-white water glints far down below, as you look out and down from a car-side that over-hangs the precipice. Dizzy, you turn to face the blankness of the mountain wall in preference. The deep death-like valley there below is too sheer, too awful, and too full of fierce hot memories. I don’t like roads with only one side to them! The Indians always said there was a curse on all who passed here. For years they kept all from this way, if you could call it so, to the Interior. Thlingits told that every time a white man crossed those jagged peaks —too steeply pitched for snow to catch and lie there—the warm breath of Chinook would melt the snow and bring swift white death hurtling down on him. On the Chilkoot, in ’98, when pack-laden white men in thousands were climbing that thirty-five hundred feet of steep trail, Chinook winds brought an avalanche that crushed out more than seventy and wounded many more. Chilkats and their half-brother Chilkoots passing below look up and pause to pray, in terror of that sleepless Destiny inhabiting the peaks: ” O Skagua, Home of North Wind, have mercy upon us!”

Only mad men would essay those trails, yet the psychology of a stampede is the psychology of mad men, full of irreconcilable incongruities, of frenzies and obsessions and mad energies. The finding of any new or unguessed gold deposit is a ” strike,” and the congregation of great numbers to one place is called a ” rush.” A new strike usually attracts only the prospectors or miners of the neighborhood or near-by camps, to whom the news is told, and in whose names the finders stake out claims. But when the news of a strike, for some reason, excites the imagination or passions of outsiders, of tenderfeet, of ” cheechakos ” (as they say in Alaska, green-horns, people unused to the North and its ways) then we have a ” stampede.” It was this tenderfoot, untrained, inexperienced element which made for tragedy and hardship on the Chilkoot and White Pass, and on beyond in the white waters of the roaring canyon. To old-timers, to experienced miners, this Klondike strike was just another gold rush, and they had been on hundreds and knew all the ropes and ways. The unprepared in body, mind and out-fit, who joined by thousands in the rush, were those who made a wild stampede of it, who suffered and were often broken by it. A stampede is a frenzy and a stampede is a laboratory of mob psychology. Many of our Fairbanks neighbors and good friends were men who once had taken this long trail, and later came to Fairbanks; and so our winter evenings there were full of the dramatic, tragic, foolish tales of it—the wastes, the unpreparedness, the cruelties, the absurdities.

Don’t you remember Charmian London’s rare description of how her famous husband, twenty-one and full of the passion for adventure, crossed the ChiIkoot, ” the worst trail this side of hell ” ? He set out from the beach at Dyea—” a shouting bedlam of gold-rushers amid an apparent inextricable dump of ten thousand tons of luggage ” and took the up trail to Happy Camp, Sheep Creek, the terrible sheer ” Scales,” the treacherous swamp beyond sardonically called ” Pleasant Valley.” London had brought along ” fur-lined coats, fur caps, heavy high boots, thick mittens, and red flannel shirts and drawers of the warmest quality—so warm that Jack had to shed his outer garments when packing Chilkoot Pass and blossom against the snow a scarlet admiration to Indians and Squaws!” And so jack London out-skinned the noble redskin on his own home grounds. This was but one of many thousand classic absurdities upon the ” lunatic trail.”

In the sense in which Alaskans, and, as far as I know, mining people in general use the word, Charles Chaplin’s great film of ” The Gold Rush,” following the tragi-comic misadventures of a misfit hero, would have been a fraction more truly named if it had been called ” The Stampede.” But to most people the word ” stampede ” connotes cattle, though it refers of course to any sudden, confused, impulsive mob movement. A stampede is a movement of people who don’t know what they are about—and this certainly applies to that master creation of Chaplin’s genius. The run of the plot is negligible and it is heightened, of course, by screaming grotesqueries. When the film was shown in Fairbanks, our local paper advertised it thus: “Sourdoughs . . You’ll Learn About Mining From Him. And How!” But, as Gilbert Seldes so perfectly has said, ” for the major scenes and for the minor detail I am positively fanatical. . . No-where have I witnessed such a moving presentation of loneliness. The fugitive, the wanderer, the lonely man—he is Chaplin’s hero, and close to tragedy.” In this incomparable character study—for as such it most appeals to us who know the misfits of the North, physically unequipped, unborn to victory—Chaplin is all the quintessence of that wistful futile search and foolish labor which drew so thin a line between the comic and the tragic masks. I will confess I went night after night to see this film, seeking some possible flaw in its perfection and finding none. And I was constantly amazed that even a creative genius of the mime’s art, such as the later Chaplin, could have caught so subtly all that dear futility, so alien to the usual brute tales of the North. The film is a deep insight into the hearts of those who don’t fit in.

If you would feel vicariously the thin edge of reality upon which those mad men danced, then feast your eye upon ” The Gold Rush,” where in the filmy shadow-show this master clown will surely touch your heart to understanding of the inefficient, the insufficient, flotsam of fate and chance who formed a large part, an insoluble part, of the great stampede days, and who, by the cruel sifting processes of the North, were rocked and washed and finally spilled over the rough edge of her great pan —as miners sift their placer gold and ruthlessly discard the black and garnet sands, with all the lesser values, by the inexorable test of gravity.

To those prepared or unprepared such a mass movement is a great sifting process. ” Multitudes, multitudes, in the Valley of Decision.” At every turn were choices, and by every choice men stood or fell, and all their future carried the deep mark of that decision. The moment a gold seeker landed at Skagway he was faced with immediate need of choice. Should he go up the Chilkoot towering above Dyea, a strip of almost perpendicular icy lad-der up which precarious climbers went—of times by night lest any ray of sun touch off those trigger-fingered snows—on hands and knees, laying hold of stunted juniper and spruce roots, where a misstep would hurl them down the mountain side? Or should he take the slightly longer climb, beginning four miles nearer, not quite so sheer and steep at first, up to White Pass?

“It’s hard to tell which one was worse,” the sourdoughs say to-day. ” Both were so bad, and I went both ways, often. The last pack into Lindeman was only three miles, which I back-tripped four times in one day, carrying better than a hundred-pound pack. Not much? Well, try it then—above the ankles of your shoepacs in mud, along that chain of lakes, or in the tundra, or on sharp broken shale! And mind you, no one was allowed to enter Y. T. without full 700 pounds of grub. The Northwest Mounted Police at the foot of Lake Marsh turned you back unless you brought at least that much with you. For they knew from what happened the year before that, if they didn’t, famine was before the in-experienced misfits who didn’t savvy living off the country.”

Later came a hundred other choices, necessary, swiftly made, or all was lost. In the Box Canyon—should one portage outfits round it, at cost of days and days of agonizing toil, playing safe and sure for life and limb but perhaps being caught beyond in the impending freeze-up; or shoot the rapids in a few death-defying seconds, and, in a fragile boat whipped from raw logs, dare fate and death, and all, on one cast of the loaded dice? Two minutes or two days? Decisions—from which men never afterwards escaped, and which have marked our breed of men who won at last beyond the ranges, with a brand of rare individualism and self-confidence unparalleled, to my knowledge.

You climb White Pass today without need of decisi0ns, on slipping rails that eat up greedy miles—eight miles of circling road to get ahead one mile! Below-are constant signs of the old trail, foot-worn, now overgrown. There are the stone-piles into which are set the now bent willow sticks which mark the graves of those who broke and fainted here. And in some places stone piles and willow sticks crowd very close together.