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The discovery of placer gold in the Klondike a century ago set off one of the world’s greatest gold rushes and forever changed the history of the Yukon Territory and Canada. Though controversy still exists as to who made the discovery, it is agreed that four men sparked the stampede: George Carmack, the son of an American forty-niner; his Tagish Indian partners, Skookum Jim Mason and Dawson Charlie; and prospector Robert Henderson of Nova Scotia.
In the summer of 1896, Carmack and his native partners were at a fish camp at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. None could imagine that events to follow would transform their tranquil wilderness into a booming city of 30,000 in just two years.
During a visit to the camp, Henderson told Carmack of some promising “colours” he had found while panning in Gold Bottom Creek. Carmack asked if he could stake claims nearby, as was the custom. Henderson replied that Carmack was welcome, but that his Indian friends were not.
A week or so later, Carmack and his partners checked out Henderson’s showing, which didn’t impress them. During the brief visit, Henderson further offended Mason and Charlie by refusing to sell them tobacco. His prejudices would ultimately cost him a fortune.
Carmack and his partners returned to their camp via Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in which they previously had found some colours. It was there, on August 16, 1896, that they made their startling discovery - one of them found a gold nugget the size of a dime. While Carmack always maintained that he saw it first, both Mason and Charlie agreed that it was Mason’s discovery.
After years of prospecting with mixed results, this was the richest find any of them had ever seen, with raw gold laying thick between the rocks. The next morning Carmack and Charlie set out to register the claims, while Mason guarded the discovery, Rabbit Creek became Bonanza Creek. Other prospectors soon heard the news, but not Henderson - he continued to work his meager claim just over the hill. By the time he found out, all of Bonanza Creek had been staked. Also staked was a small branch named Eldorado, which proved to be even richer. Convinced that the discovery had been triggered by his suggestion, a bitter Henderson claimed Carmack had broken a promise to keep him informed of any find in the area.
After the news reached Alaska, and later the world, thousands of men and a few hardy women packed up and set out for the growing town that was to become Dawson City, named after George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. The great Klondike gold rush was on.
At the height of the rush, 22,000 people climbed the arduous Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Yukon goldfields. Faded photographs showing a thin black line of climbers on the snow-clad mountain are among the most poignant and memorable images of Canadian history.
The Klondike rush opened up the North, as well as Canadians’ eyes to its possibilities. An active placer mining industry continues in the Yukon today and some of its miners are the descendants of the men and women who joined the Klondike rush a century ago.