By Georgeanne Irvine
When I was a child, I vividly remember my mother telling me that my grandfather, Pete—a young immigrant from Norway who herded sheep in Montana—had blazed the trail of ’98 (as in 1898) and sought his fortune in the Alaska (Klondike) Gold Rush. She mentioned he rescued miners who were buried in the Chilkoot Pass avalanche; shot some extremely dangerous rapids in a supply boat not once, but twice; and survived a serious bout of typhoid fever. I thought it was cool to have such an adventurous grandfather but never took the time to learn anything more about that dramatic period in his life…until NOW!
Midsummer, I’m going on my first trip Alaska as an enrichment lecturer for Silversea Cruises, thanks to a recommendation from one of my Writing Women colleagues. One of our stops is Skagway, a gateway city to the Gold Rush. My specialty is animal stories based on the books I’ve authored. Until yesterday, all the topics for my four, one-hour presentations were wildlife-related tales, but now I’ve had a change of heart. My sister, who just returned from Alaska on Wednesday, reminded me that she found a very special Alaska story among a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts written by my Grandma Lillian: a five-page narrative about my grandfather’s experiences on the Trail of ’98! Not only that, but we also have a handful of photos of Pete on-site during the Gold Rush—what an incredible discovery! All of a sudden I’m excited to learn as much as possible about that moment in history.
So far, I’ve bookmarked dozens of articles and websites about the Gold Rush as well as searched and downloaded 15 historical public domain photos of the miners, rescuers at the scene of the Chilkoot Pass avalanche, mining towns, and more. In addition, I’ve ordered three Alaska Gold Rush books online—I doubt I’ll have time to read all of them before the trip, but I can at least skim the text and look at photos. Also, I’m having the family Gold Rush photos restored and scanned.
In reading Pete’s firsthand account, it was fascinating to corroborate his story with all the other information I read. I was mesmerized by Pete’s encounters with famous con artist and gangster Soapy Smith as well as details about what happened the morning an avalanche rained down on miners hiking up the Chilkoot Pass, pictured below. (Photo is Copyright Public Domain. Source is Library and Archives Canana/E.A. Hegg)
In Pete’s words:
It was a mild Easter morning when a man stuck his head in the flap of our tent and yelled, “Snow slide! Snow slide up yonder!” It had been snowing for several days and right then it was coming down in big rags. We were cooking our dinner but this brought us up with a start. This new snow on top of what we already had spelled danger. Being we were camped well above Sheep Camp, we were some of the very first to get there.
The trail was so packed with people it looked like a black ribbon snailing its way up. The slide made quite a gap in the human trail and we knew there must be quite a few hundred people buried under those tons and tons of white snow. We looked at each other wondering what to do when Soapy Smith stepped out. “Don’t stand there gaping, “ he shouted. “Begin to dig them out at once!” They didn’t all fall in line. “For Christ’s sake, begin to dig! It’s the only humane thing to do,” Soapy shouted. It did look pretty hopeless, I will admit. Soapy took a verbal vote and most of the men agreed with him, so most of us dug in.
I was assigned to the cable station, which became the life-saving station and morgue. I was shown how to treat the men who showed any life at all. I don’t recall how many we were able to bring back to life, but I do know there were 83 dead ones and of these, Soapy appointed himself administrator. We all knew that all these fellows had a nice wad of money, and what became of it nobody knew but Soapy.
I was absolutely thrilled to find lots of information about Soapy online, including a photo of him. Poor (or perhaps I should say rich!) Soapy met his own fate in Skagway three months later in a gunfight known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf.
Now, I’m enthusiastically waiting for my Alaska Gold Rush books to arrive. I’ve also looked online to see what children’s books already exist about it. I’m so inspired by Pete’s story that I just might write another one based on his recollections.
I can’t believe this fantastic story material has been sitting in my family archives for all these years. Although I could certainly beat myself up for taking so long to pay attention and "mine" this golden opportunity, I’m embracing it now. The sky is the limit—let the fun begin!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I continually refer to my grandfather as Pete, that is what we all called him. Although he lived to be 94 years old, he always thought he was too young to be called Grandpa!
San Diego native Georgeanne Irvine has devoted more than three decades of her career to raising awareness about animals and wildlife conservation. By day, she is associate director of development communications for the San Diego Zoo, where she has worked for 34 years. George is also the author of more than 20 children’s books, plus numerous magazine, newspaper, and Web articles. George’s most recent work is the coffee table book, The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise, which is a true story about 8 dolphins from an oceanarium that were washed out to sea during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and dramatically rescued a few weeks later.