For there are strange things done in the midnight sun,
By the men who moil for gold…
—Robert Service (The Bard of the Yukon)
Located at 319 Second Avenue South, near Pioneer Square in lively Seattle is a ‘unit’ (i.e. an outreach point) of the US Park Service.
Limited signage always leaves me walking an extra block, but this unit is a must-visit in Seattle… I would go as far as to say; “a reason to visit Seattle.” This well done ‘National Park’ tells us part of the important boom-bust story that transformed the Americas into what the hemisphere is today.
From mines in Bolivia and Peru to slavery in the Mississippi Delta colonization of the Americas began as a desire to extract wealth. Today’s societies – from Chile to Alaska are as much unforeseen byproducts of aggressive resource extraction as any planned settlements.
Needless to say (yet somehow important to assert), there were many cultures already well established from the Arctic through to Tierra Del Fuego when Europeans arrived, but of course those people were never really invited into the new nation-building exercise. Their religious salvation was a potent justification for conquest, but in the most general terms, the aboriginal populations of the Americas were treated as either tools of – or barriers to – wealth extraction.
Early Europeans came across the pond for fish, forests & freedom. Mostly they wanted a quick to route to Asia. Then the Spanish found gold (and silver, mercury, etc….).
Gold is so fundamental to the identity of the so-called New World that in every real economic sense it gave birth to mighty San Fransisco and indeed Seattle – as well as Mexico! This is really important. Silver from Bolivia financed the Spanish empire and created Lima – developed the need to control Central America as a transport route.
The California Gold Rush of 1849 offered some hope of refuge to the millions starving during Ireland’s famine. It also offered work and hope to thousands of Chinese and Japanese. It offered hope to the disenfranchised in the cities of the east and south. The hope of gold was mostly lost, but the energy of the settlers resulted in a vibrant, multicultural city on a rather isolated coast of a nascent country marching toward civil war.
In 1858 Gold was found in British / HBC (Hudson Bay Company) territory to the north. This lead to the ‘opening’ of interior British Colombia and the sustainable establishment of Canada – from coast to coast. As this province wanted to remain British, it insisted upon a trans-continental railway which united Canada.
The HBC is in fact North America’s oldest corporation and while its riches were extracted from the hides of trapped animals, the essential model remains the same. I will not completely condemn the fur trade, but the brutality towards wildlife and the generational dependance that developed between the HBC and indigenous communities is alarming and proved entirely unsustainable. However the cultures, languages and communities related to the fur business are truly North American.
Furs are of course the story of Montreal and that city’s wealth.
By 1897 the western world was once again in economic turmoil with high unemployment and poverty. Most of the hemisphere was colonized, yet western communities looked to attract immigrants in order to grow fledgling economies. This is called boosterism.
Along a tributary of the Yukon River – the Klondike – in the far north of the recently independent Dominion of Canada several prospectors found GOLD!
After four centuries of hunting for wealth throughout the Americas & beyond, the desperate, the hopeful, the lost and the strong stampeded north. Even the mayor of Seattle simply abandoned his post and headed to Skagway! The journey was incredible and of the 100 000 who set out to the Yukon, 40 000 made it to Dawson City and less than 300 became truly wealthy from actually finding gold.
But Seattle – some 1800 miles south, branded itself as the gateway to the Klondike. Its population boomed. Seattle transformed from a depressed and distant port to a city of dreams. It has barely looked back.
As an incubator of business, Seattle has given the world Boeing Airlines, Microsoft, Starbucks and Grunge music. It remains the best city in the US to grow a business and has done so with higher minimum wages, social diversity and extremely high property prices. It also has truly terrible traffic. Terrible.
Yukon – up in the Canadian North – is wedged between Alaska, the Northwest Territories and British Colombia. The territory should really open a travel agency beside the Klondike center in Seattle as the two will forever be linked.
I love Yukon and have travelled there many times in my life and have guided many tours up there. I think both Seattle and Yukon enshrine the hope and the strength of the people who forged their communities.
In understanding Magical Yukon, Beautiful British Colombia, Uber-Successful Seattle and alluring San Francisco we have to return to desperation, poverty and greed from lands far away.
Here in the Americas we are building something new on the back of something almost purely exploitative. Many lessons are yet to be learned – the shocking homelessness apparent in Seattle today is testament to desperation.
The Pacific North West (Oregon & Washington States) is a beautiful region and quite rightly is building it own identity within a more open, globalized world. Cascadia – an economic and cultural region is fostering its own trans-national identity based on principals of sustainability and environmental stewardship. This is interesting.
I doubt that desperate gold-rushers who absconded to remote areas were particularly motivated by community building, but as a tip of the hat to anarchistic thinkers, it really is amazing what has emerged locally from what was a panicked search for wealth. Motivated by survival and dreams of riches, there is something uniquely egalitarian about gold-rush stories; success was not about social class, rather luck, hard work, tenacity and personal merit. Honesty also played in sustaining relationships and I feel those principles remain alive in former gold-rush regions. The gold rush also proved the strength of women. So very marginalized during the Victorian period, women again and again became successful leaders in the wild margins of society.
As a rule it is fair to argue European colonization resulted in the loss of prestige for women in society. My experiences in Inca Peru hopefully offers some insight.
One of Canada’s most (deservedly) noted authors – Pierre Berton was in fact born in Yukon, the son of prospectors! He captured the energy and hope of the north and should remain on everyone’s reading list.
Jack London (b. John Griffith), a San Francisco native also travelled to the Yukon. He found no gold, developed scurvy and returned home to become a celebrated author! Call of the Wild is an absolute must read. As is To Build a Fire.
I can go on and on about the writers and characters of the Klondike Rush, but really I know these same people are still mining today in Peru, Colombia and even our far north.
A miner’s life was terrible and as the story goes: “miners rarely became rich. It was those who mined the miners who really found wealth.” The story is really about community building.
To think that (at the time), little Seattle branded itself as the gateway to the Klondike is as much testament to marketing as to geography. Even today Seattle has its own vibe. For such a wealthy city, it remains a little rough, a little transient and certainly tattooed! San Fransisco has a similar vibe, but that city gets to be ultra-Liberal as most of the social problems are outsourced to more populous surrounding communities.
And then there is Vancouver. My beloved city where one can ski and sail in the same day. Vancouver has become a victim of its own success. from time to time it carries the moniker of ‘best city on Earth’ and therefore has become so expensive as to make home ownership virtually impossible.
Yet Vancouver along with sister Cascadian cities of Seattle, Portland and even Anchorage, Alaska are firmly on the ‘left coast.’ Sometimes image driven and pretentious, these cities do maintain progressive legislation, high rates of unionism and a vibrant urban mix.
It is also a seismically active zone. Crater Lake, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Baker are all active or potentially active. Architecture reflects the magnificent forests and mountain-to-sea lifestyle.
There is so much more to say about the North-West coast of North America – and a lifetime of adventure – but to me, it is important to take a step back and remember how the region was born. From the ashes of aggressive colonization to desperate mining I fully believe and gladly argue that not only has Cascadia become a cultural reality, but it has in many ways lead the modern world. I would not be here (in the Canadian Rockies) writing if it were not for the bright minds of the west coast who gave birth to the Internet and the modern economy.
And while there is much to expand upon, I hope you find a nugget of truth in what I have written.
As a final note, my friend and associate Helena Artmann just passed through Seattle, with her son, Ian. As she offers such a good, quick travelogue, I would rather direct you to that, rather than writing my own 🙂