Seattle Sparked the Yukon Gold Rush

 

 

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SS Excelsior leaves for the Yukon, 1897 Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

After the 1893 world-wide depression brought commerce to a halt, Seattle took off in 1897 when the steamer Portland struggled into port, her decks filled with prospectors guarding their sacks of gold. Soon headlines and flyers proclaimed the news around the globe that Yukon gold was there for the taking along the Klondike River.  The mad dash to claim the nuggets really  lasted not much more than a year.

The headlong rush to the Yukon came shortly after a depression where many who had found work again felt trapped in office, factory, or low-paying retail jobs. Eager hordes grabbed the chance to set off for the real frontier, the  vast Canadian wilderness that offered the bold an opportunity to earn their fortunes.

My father, Hans Pederson, a risk taking Danish immigrant, joined the exodus. “He was among the first to answer the call of the North when the manhood of the world stampeded toward the arctic and the sparkle of gold,” notes his obituary. He and a partner soon crammed themselves aboard a ship and joined the throng of prospectors who washed up on Alaskan shores like flotsam on the tides.

He didn’t stay long enough to make his fortune. He returned to Seattle, became a builder, and grew along with the city until the next depression in 1929 ended contracting along with everything else.

Seattle’s “Boys in the Boat”

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Unemployed men queued outside a Depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone — National Archives and records Administration, College Park, MD

 

The Boys in the Boat, a runaway 2014 bestseller by Daniel James Brown, features the iconic University of Washington crew that bested Hitler’s shell to win the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The story has been said to capture the spirit of an era.

The book describes the Depression years in Washington. Joe Rantz, one of the college “boys,” brings the story to life. After a grueling, rainy, afternoon workout in the shell, one memorable scene describes Joe’s dinner with his girl friend. The only meal they could afford: a soup made by mixing the table ketchup with water.

A frequently quoted  early passage follows:

“On the streets below the (Smith) Tower, men in fraying suit coats, worn-out shoes, and battered fedoras wheeled carts toward the street corners where they would spend the day selling apples, and oranges and packages of gum for a few pennies apiece. Around the corner on the steep incline of Yesler Way, Seattle’s old original Skid Road, more men stood in long lines, heads bent, regarding the wet sidewalk and talking softly among themselves as they waited for the soup kitchens to open.”

Set in 1930s Depression Washington this book captured my spirit too, although it took me seventy years to learn why.

My father, Hans Pederson, one of Seattle’s major early 20th century contractors, died a month after my 1933 birth. My mother, decades-younger,  misled me about their life together. Learning why she did this required research that helped me both understand the Depression, and unravelled the harm done to a family  by a lifetime of lies and secrets.

My quest has resulted in an upcoming memoir, The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks, the Search for My Father.

Can you always understand the ways that people who came before you influenced your life?

The Dust Bowl

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, two aptly named phrases, describe the 1930s disaster that blew away up to 75% of the midwestern topsoil in the U.S.

The opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 brought waves of homesteading immigrants to the great plains of the U.S. and Canada. Knowing nothing of the ecology of the plains flatlands, farmers plowed deeply to eradicate the thick native grasses that helped retain moisture and held the soil in place against the wind.

They grazed cattle. They planted wheat. A wet period early in the 20th century encouraged more landholding, more overgrazing, more plowing and planting of wheat.

Then the drought arrived with the 1929 worldwide depression. The drought dried the topsoil of Oklahoma and parts of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and the Canadian plains and pulverized it into dust.

The black blizzards of dust stripped and eroded the topsoil and blew it in massive clouds sometimes as far as the east coast.

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Dust Bowl, Dallas South Dakota, 1936 courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Families forced to abandon their farms headed to the west coast to find work. Many from Oklahoma, known as Okies, settled in California. The pathos of their journey has been memorialized in John Steinbeck’s gripping novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Some moved as far north as Oregon and Washington.

These states, contending with their own misery had nothing to offer the despairing migrants. My father Hans Pederson, a builder of Seattle landmarks, also suffered bankruptcy after building the King County Courthouse in 1929. In spite of his reputation, the banks wouldn’t lend him any money. They had none to lend.

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