It’s a long way from the Roman sewers of York, England to Skagway, Alaska.
But archaeologist Karl Gurcke can tell you a lot about both. If you’ve got a minute or two, Gurcke can take you back 100 years. Or even 2,000.
Gurcke, a historian at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park who got his start exploring the Roman sewers of York, has a lot of stories to tell, stories of the Gold Rush, of ghost towns like Dyea, of the characters who came to get rich, and how they affected the entire State of Alaska.
First, the Roman sewers: “It was the most unusual thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Gurcke said. “I was working for the York Archaeological Trust, excavating Roman sewers. They were huge stone sewers. We would go down 30 or 40 feet into the ground and follow the sewers for a ways. Every once in awhile you’d see a hole in the side channels, and it would be a toilet.”
But it wasn’t the Roman toilets of York that held his interest. It was the history and beauty of Alaska. That and a summer job offer excavating artifacts in Dyea.
“I was back at the University of Idaho debating what to do next,” said Gurcke, who got his B.A. at San Diego State University and his M.A. at the University of Idaho. “It was get a PhD, or work for the government or some company.” Through the University, Gurcke got in touch with archeologists who were working on a project in Dyea, a town just north of Skagway that no longer exists but was part of the Gold Rush.
“Our job was to map out archeological features there and find the stuff that remained from the Klondike Gold Rush and I said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’ I thought it would be a nice summer vacation,” he said, adding that the Dyea site has since “been claimed by the forest.”
That was in 1984. Gurcke has been in Alaska ever since.
Listen to him talk about the Gold Rush, and you know you’re talking to an expert. It’s a story he tells with great enthusiasm.
“In 1893 there was a big financial depression,” he said. “A lot of people were out of work and many people were starving, so financially the situation was bad. Before then a lot of people began exploring Alaska because they thought, ‘there must be gold up there.’”
“Prior to the Klondike Gold Rush there was the California Gold Rush, the Nevada silver rush and in 1880 the rush for gold in the Juneau area,” he said. “There was a sort of culture of gold ‘boomers.’ They would flock to an area and be on the look-out. There were a lot of prospectors going into the interior of Alaska, into the Yukon, on the search for gold, so there was definitely interest up here.”
Finally, gold was discovered in Rabbit Creek (later named Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Yukon River, when a man named Skookum Jim, also known as Keish, a Tagish First Nation man, found it while hunting and fishing with his brother-in-law George Carmack, a Contra Costa, California native, and George’s wife, Kate Carmack, Jim’s sister, who was also known as Shaaw Tlaa.
“They discovered a gold nugget in the river,” Gurcke said. “It looked like a cheese in a sandwich. They explored some more and decided to stake a claim and do some prospecting there. That was in August of 1896.”
Having found gold, they made their way to Fortymile to make a record of their claim. But George Carmack, who was known to have only a passing acquaintance with the truth, went into a local saloon and began bragging about his discovery. The skepticism soon passed, and the Gold Rush was on.
“It started a stampede to the Dawson area,” he said, referring to a town on the Klondike Trail about 550 miles from Skagway. “At the time Dawson City wasn’t there, but the word went out and all the people who had been hunting and fishing and prospecting in the area began staking claims. First Nation people would say it was their territory, but the Europeans, the Canadians, the Russians and the Americans just staked their claims.”
As part of his Gold Rush research, Gurcke helped excavate underneath Skagway’s old Mascot Saloon, which operated until 1916, a site that netted nearly 20,000 artifacts from the Gold Rush period. He said poker chips, dice, suspender clips that attached to hosiery, a few broken bottles of beer and whiskey, U.S. and Canadian coins and tokens were among the items found in the project.
Gurcke has also gone through more than 15,000 photos of historic Skagway, “and sometimes I come across something I’ve never seen.” He is working to produce a photo essay of every one of the 50 or so historic buildings in Skagway’s business district, placing the photos in chronological order to show how the buildings have changed over time.
Gurcke said it’s important to continue the search for historic artifacts in the area “because soon it will all disappear, washed out by the river. He used to hike the Chilkoot Trail in his search for history, but he said it’s too hard on him these days. He misses it.
“What I loved was the sense of discovery, finding things that people hadn’t found before,” he said. One time on the trail he discovered the remnant of a phone line running from tree-to-tree for 33 miles from Dyea to Bennett, the entire length of the Chilkoot Trail.
“One of the things we do in archeology is record the history that hasn’t been told,” he said. “There are diaries, photos, etcetera, a lot of things that haven’t been recorded. Just around the bend there’s always something that you’ve never heard about.”
It’s that sense of discovery that makes Gurcke love his job.
“It’s always interesting,” he said. “With survey work, it’s ‘what’s behind the next tree?’ With excavations it’s, ‘what’s in this next shovel of earth?’ The Klondike Gold Rush was such an interesting event. There were people from South America, England, Canada, all around the United States. I’m still wondering where all the hidden treasures are.”
But Gurcke also loves present-day Skagway.
“It’s a nice community,” he said. “You go to the Post Office and just about everybody knows your name, and generally people are pretty friendly. They know me and I know them. It’s got a good school, a good library, a good museum.”
“I have a good job here and I really enjoy the people who come to the park. I enjoy what I’m doing.”
Part of what Gurcke does is talk to relatives of gold rush stampeders. He estimates that 20 to 30 people come to him during the summer with questions about their relatives. Most of the stampeders went through Dyea, although many also landed in Skagway. Some visitors, even have relatives buried in the Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway or the Slide Cemetery in Dyea.
“Some of those relatives come to us with photos and letters and diaries, and many of them are generous enough to donate these materials or allow us to scan copies,” he said. “This helps us build the knowledge base so we can help others.”
“In attics and closets and basements could be a lot of valuable information.”