The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 is inextricably linked to the history of Skagway.
Gold is as much a part of Skagway’s history as beer is to Milwaukee’s. Skagway’s nearness to the Yukon Trail, which leads to Dawson City, Canada where gold was found in 1898, makes it the gateway to Yukon gold territory.
The first big gold discovery following the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 was in Juneau, the city which is itself named for Joseph Juneau, a miner who made the strike in 1880. While the Juneau strike generated excitement and gold prospectors moved into that area, the biggest and best-known strike came in the Klondike near Dawson City. After that strike became known, more than 100,000 miners flocked to Skagway and Dyea on their way to Dawson City via the Yukon Trail.
Today, Fairbanks, Juneau and Nome are responsible for most of Alaska’s gold production. Gold prospecting is now discouraged, but Dawson and its environs remain rich in the stuff.
That’s where Ryan Martens is currently staking his claim.
Martens is a gold miner who lives in a camp roughly 120 kilometers south of Dawson, and he is spending his fifth summer looking for the next strike. He is following in the tradition of thousands who have come before him to find gold.
But Martens said mining for gold isn’t quite the way people picture it. Rather than using a pick and shovel, Martens and his colleagues use a Caterpillar backhoe to dig through the permafrost. They then wash the gravel to find gold. Gold is heavier than the surrounding soils and minerals, so sometimes the deeper the dig, the more likely you’ll find gold.
Having spent the past five summers in a miner’s camp, does Martens have dreams of striking it rich himself? “Not really,” he said.
“It’s really just kind of a mission,” he said. “You don’t get rich but for the most part you do well, you pay your bills and make some money. You have to keep working at it year after year, but it’s not very often that somebody will get a big strike.”
“We usually find really small pieces of gold, very fine pieces, mostly. I think the biggest nugget we’ve seen is about a half-ounce.”
The largest gold nugget ever found in Alaska was uncovered in 1998, 100 years after the Klondike Gold Rush. Known as the Centennial Nugget, it was found along Swift Creek near Ruby, Alaska, 230 miles west of Fairbanks, and weighs 294.1 troy ounces, or just over 20 lbs. In North America, only the Boot of Cortez, a gold piece that was discovered in Mexico, is larger at 389.5 troy ounces, or over 26 lbs.
But it’s not the big strike Martens likes. It’s the work and the workstyle.
“I like how relaxed it is in camp,” he said. “You don’t have much stress. You’re just working with your hands and having a nice, relaxed time and knowing everybody knows what they’re doing.”
“It’s all right. Sometimes it gets a little boring, but you get along with everybody and it’s nice sitting around the campfire or watching a movie or something like that. Sometimes we’ll go quadding (traversing the countryside on a four-wheel All Terrain Vehicle) and exploring a bit or we’ll play games in front of the campfire.”
As for the future, Martens is philosophical about continuing the miner’s life.
“It’s a fun experience and I can make some money, and it’s fun discovering gold, but then maybe later I’ll try something else,” he said.
Ironically, Martens doesn’t own any gold himself.
“I don’t really have any use for it,” he said. “I like mining for it. Some people use it for jewelry, but we just get it to the gold buyer and let him do what he wants with it.”
Here are a few local Alaskan businesses that sell good quality, authentic gold nuggets:
(1) Lynch & Kennedy - Skagway
(2) Back Alley Rock Shop - Skagway
(3) Mt. Juneau Trading Post - Juneau