Dispatches from the Past

An exhibition at the Postal Museum commemorates the centennial of the Klondike/Alaska gold rush

The Postal Museum
The Postal Museum Wikimedia Commons

Every object tells a story. Even the most ordinary objects possess the ability to evoke powerful images, memories and emotions. Sometimes it is the ordinary nature of these objects that actually makes them so extraordinary. Such is the case with an old leather shoe at the National Postal Museum. At first glance it does not look like much. It is a timeworn remnant of once-fashionable footwear, the tattered, sole survivor of a pair owned by a woman in the 1890s. Perhaps discarded then without a thought, the shoe is not dismissed so lightly now. Instead, this lowly shoe, on loan to the museum from the National Park Service, is part of a new exhibition commemorating the centennial of the Klondike/Alaska gold rush. "As Precious as Gold," which opens October 7 and continues through September 30, 2000, explores the events of a century ago when more than 100,000 would-be millionaires set out for a faraway place known as the Klondike.

Few of those stricken with "gold fever" realized the enormity of their pursuit. Indeed, the stampeders' bravado often turned to despair when they came face-to-face with the forbidding Coast Mountains bordering Canada and Alaska, and the realization that the goldfields still lay more than 500 miles beyond.

Some of the early gold rushers, ill-prepared for their dangerous odyssey, died of starvation. In response, Canadian authorities required prospectors crossing into Canada to bring one ton of supplies with them. This was estimated to be one year's worth of survival rations, including a tent, stove and cooking utensils, blankets, medical supplies, warm clothing and plenty of food.

The most famous trail into the goldfields was over the Chilkoot Pass. A particularly infamous portion of the trail — known as the Golden Stairs — appeared so forbidding that many simply turned back. To reach the Chilkoot Pass summit required climbing 1,500 stairs chopped out of the ice. It was necessary to repeat the trip as many as 40 times, as prospectors carried their ton of provisions on their backs in 50-pound packs. The slow, rhythmic "chorus line" of climbers up the icy staircase became known as the Chilkoot lockstep.

The discarded leather shoe, found along the Chilkoot Pass, symbolizes the determination of the stampeders in general, but it also causes us to reflect on its nameless owner and the possible fate of countless others like her. Perhaps the owner turned back before taking all her supplies to the summit. Perhaps she successfully scaled the summit and later went on to settle in Fairbanks or Nome, becoming an Alaskan. All we do know for certain is that she braved the unknown, risking everything in one of the grandest adventures of the 19th century.

Other artifacts in this exhibition — including letters, an Alaska mail dogsled and a postal inspector's retirement locket — speak to us about the efforts of the postal system to bind a nation that was moving into the territories faster than the mails could keep up with it. Few mail routes served the ever-growing and ever-moving population that swarmed into the Alaska Territory. In 1898, the postal service appointed John Clum as the postal inspector for the territory. Prior to his appointment, it typically took three frustrating years to find and appoint a postmaster in Alaska. By the time the candidate's official appointment arrived, wrote Clum, "the new postmaster would have been eaten up by bears, died of old age or scurvy, or have left the country."

Clum traveled more than 8,000 miles establishing dozens of post offices and mail routes, and appointing postmasters. The diamond-studded gold-and-enamel locket Clum received when he retired from the postal service in 1906 is included in the exhibition.

The objects in the exhibition are vivid reminders of the dreams, ambitions, accomplishments and failures of those who participated in the gold rush. They also tell us about the essential lifeline provided them by mail, America's first information superhighway. The mail was their link to families and friends left behind. This sentiment was repeated frequently in the letters from the goldfields, including one written by Henry Wilkins to his wife, Wilhelmina, in West Albany, New York, January 8, 1899: "I must tell you that your letter . . . seemed to me as though I had got a fortune — it was so welcome." Such letters, and that long-abandoned shoe, are priceless testaments to our past.

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