Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Trail of Dead Horses - The Notorius White Pass in Alaska

As one continues up the Klondike Highway to the Canadian section of the White Pass, high above the sea level town and fjord sea port of Skagway, far below, We pass the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range, encounter falls from glaciers where the water is safe to drink, witness a bridge along a fault line where the small earthquakes rumble constantly, and just basically get a breath-taking view of the incredible sights presented to the visitor from every angle and perspective. The original travelers were probably not so intent on the views as they trundled along the original White Pass trail on the slopes opposite the two lane road completed not all that long ago. Before the railroad and the wagon road, it was a precarious trail along precipitous slopes.

Horses were brought in by unscrupulous hustlers from the south bought for a pittance at the end of their working years and run, as the saying goes, into the ground until they collapsed on the White Pass trail, also called "The Trail of Dead Horses", as described by Jack London in his accounts, as he was also one of those in the area during the gold rush days. The animals that collapsed on the trail were stripped of their loads and shoved over the side to die a prolonged death on or closer to the valley floor at the bottom. There they often died in the more merciful jaws of predators.

Some of the men, who for various reasons, collapsed on the trail met the same fate at the hands of crazed gold stampeders, obsessed with gold fever, who, if delayed long enough, simply shoved them out of the way and off the edge so that they could continue their trek to the gold fields.

A lot of the men came to Skagway with wives and children and when they found how tough the trail was, abandoned them to fend for themselves in the town. In all fairness, not all the men were crazed enough by the gold to forget the dependents, but often met their death either on the trail or in the gold fields. During the winter, the "Tormented Valley", so named by the bonsai-like twisted dwarfed pines that struggle in the nutrient-deprived upland table-lands, is covered by an enormous depth of snow whipped around by violent winds. At first the men simply ran out of food and many starved to death, whereas others also met with bizarre fates, if not the elements then death by the practice by some of cannibalism.

A bad situation was made worse by the primitive media of the day, which took any story they could and eagerly telegraphed it back to the home newspapers, oblivious of the lies contained, or not even caring, or, simply with the knowledge of the impossibility of ever being able to verify anything. So that amplified the gold rush until it reached outrageous proportions.   The greatest victims of the gold rush were, as is often the case even to this day, those that believed everything they read in the papers.

Finally, Skagway attracted the genius thieves, drawn in by the scent of money, the principle of which was Soapy Smith, so named because one of his scams was to randomly put coins in bars of soap he was selling, a primitive version of the modern day lottery, in a manner of speaking, only to stop the practice as soon as word got out and everyone was buying his soap. He later managed to get himself elected sheriff of Skagway, and soon word got out about his other practice of robbing the miners outright.  That caused the gold rush to be diverted to the next fjord sea port of Dyea, where the miners risked the more difficult Chilkoot trail rather than risk being robbed by Smith, his gang and by others in Skagway.

Today Skagway is suffering a second gold rush, but this time it's a gold rush of jewelry shops, which the town council and others, here better left unnamed, have allowed to set up in such inordinate numbers instead of fixing a cap on how many would be feasible that there are arguably more now than the tourist trade can accommodate, causing a crisis of diminishing returns.  Also, among other things, this allows the renters of the already limited housing available to the semi-annual work-force to inflate rentals to the highest rates the market will bear.

So Alaska still has her secrets, which is why I've given it the nick name: "I'll-ask-ya".  And what of the gold fields in Canada that so long ago brought forth the gold of the stampede?  Well, these days, more gold is obtained from those fields and other places around there than during the gold rush days.

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