Monday Minstrel: Greed for Gold–Pack Horses Paid the Price.

As the ship drew closer, a murmur arose from the crowd. A long line of men in miners’ hats was clustered at the deck railing; and now, as individual features began to emerge from the blur, it was seen that these were men aged beyond their years, gaunt and unshaven, their faces leathered by the sun but with eyes that glittered feverishly, picture-book prospectors, in fact. An outlandish scene followed. Down the gangplank they staggered, wrestling with luggage that seemed extraordinarily heavy-old leather grips bursting at the hinges, packing cases about to break apart, bulging valises, blanket rolls barely secured by straps and so heavy that it required two men to hoist each one to the dock. 

It dawned on the spellbound onlookers that this was not common baggage: that these suitcases, canvas sacks, old cartons and boxes were not stuffed with socks and shirts but with gold. In that moment of comprehension, the Klondike stampede began, not quietly or gradually , but instantaneously and with explosive force.”

This is the scene described in Pierre Burton’s book “The Klondike Quest. A photographic essay 1897-1899.” Tens of thousands set off to make their fortunes. On reaching Skagway it became clear what kind of a journey lay ahead of them.

The trail that led out of Skagway toward the White Pass was deceptive. It looked so easy at the outset-a pleasant wagon road winding between tall pines, an easy jaunt on horseback to the rainbow’s end. Then came Devil’s Hill, and the horror began. The road was no longer a road , only a narrow path, scarcely two feet wide, that  twisted and corkscrewed for forty five miles through an appalling series of mountain barriers, each more dismaying than the last. Here were rivulets of liquid mud, coursing down the mountainside. Here were sinkholes that could swallow a horse, pack and all; and razor sharp rocks that tore at the feet; and vast fields of boulders, ten feet high, through which the pack animals groped and stumbled.”

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The plight of the pack animals, mostly horses and a few oxen was pitiable indeed. The conditions were deplorable and it was as one stampeder described it ” an accursed trail.” Writer Jack London described what happened to the men on the trail:” Their hearts turned to stone-those which did not break- and they became beasts, the  men on the  Dead Horse Trail.” And the pack horses?

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Some  died of starvation, some of fever from untreated wounds, some of exhaustion, some drowned in mud holes. some fell from the trail cliff edge and to the waters below, some were beaten to death. I have been to the Yukon and there I heard that it is believed that some horses  committed suicide by throwing themselves off the cliff.

When winter set in the conditions changed but did not get any easier.

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“With thousands of feet hammering the snow into white granite and with more snow falling daily, the trail assumed a shape of its own, rising inch by inch, hard as concrete, …….there was not level place to stop and rest and those unlucky ones who slipped off the trail might wait for half  day before finding a gap in the line into which they could squeeze. Gasping as they dragged their sledges, groaning under the weight of their packs, cursing  their dogs and pack animals, they staggered forward, their muffled voices rising in concert through the thin air to mingle into an all-encompassing moan, which, like some spectral organ note, penetrated the  mists below and rose in a low wail to the topmost peaks of the White Pass. “

It is said that as many as three thousand horses died on this “accursed trail.”  I have chosen  to spare you the ghastly descriptions recorded in Pierre Burton’s book of their deaths and I am also not going to show the photos of the pitiable ends these poor horses came to.

So why am I writing this post?  I am writing it to pay tribute to these working horses. They bore the packs, they tried their best, weary and exhausted, they went on as long as they could.  Only a very few were shot out of compassion.  Men had indeed turned to beasts and the beasts of burden paid the price.

*All photos and excerpts are taken from Pierre Burton’s book ‘The Klondike Quest’.*

 

 

19 Comments Add yours

  1. Miss A says:

    This is so sad…hard working horses. What would man kind have been without them? I don’t like to read these stories but I m still intrigued by the fact of how dependent we have been on our dear horses. I wish all stories were good but that just ain’t how life works. Neither for animals or humans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      It is sad. I did not want to include the more grisly details but I did want the horses to have a remembrance of some sort. Thanks so much for your heartfelt comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And it must be mentioned how said this was, and how beautiful it was for you to pay tribute.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thiswas an incredibly detailed and interesting piece – despite never reading anything on this topic before, I was enthralled!! So glad I stumbled across your blog x
    Abby – http://www.seafoaming.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      Thank you. I’m glad you found the piece interesting.

      Like

  4. Irene says:

    The cruelty is unbelievable. Sadness!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      It is very sad. Thank you for this sympathetic comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For all it’s worth, looking into the “Good Old Days” makes us appreciate all the Good that has come out of more modern times. The suffering of animals was a “necessity” back then, and to survive these men had to simply turn their eyes completely away from it. I’m glad we’ve evolved in our thinking now. Although animals still suffer on all levels in the hands of man, it is on a different level in civilized areas. The horse is an amazing creature, that to this day, I’m surprises how many people are completely removed from it, and know mostly about cats and dogs…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      I think that in this gold rush the conditions drove the majority of the men to a level of insanity really. I agree that things are now better in the Western world where horses are not used so often for work. In the developing world I am a big supported of The Brooke as they help medically and assist owners with education for their working equines. Thanks Elinor for your thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. (HorseLover4Ever) Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for this tribute to all those horses and pack animals, Anne!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      I’m glad you appreciated it. Thanks for commenting.

      Like

  7. cigarman501 says:

    Our greed for gold ruined the lives of many of God’s children.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Humane Society in Denver was called the Dumb Friends League. It applies here as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      Yes it does. Sadder still is the fact that no one helped the animals in the Klondike rush. Men who were exhausted, depressed, frustrated and despairing took out their anger and frustration on the animals, horses mostly but also some dogs and oxen. The photos I did not show are horrendous. The rush for gold and fortune. Thanks for your comment and btw there was a scandal at the Toronto Humane Society a few years back. It had to close for awhile till new people could be brought in.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just have no comprehension of how people can be so mean and cruel!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. anne leueen says:

        I hear you! Me too!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. nathaswami says:

    The face of the man tell the story of the fate of the animals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. anne leueen says:

      Yes. It is a wonderful photo. Apparently the Klondike Goldfish was the most photographed gold rush in history. Photographers would develop the photos in tiny cabins along the trail or in the towns at the start. They struggled with the conditions as well but their photos have left us a record of this sad history. Thanks so much for your comment. I find that face tells such a story just as you do.

      Liked by 1 person

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