Seattle Now & Then: Failed Gold Rush rescue, 1898

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: In Edward Curtis’s hand-tinted lantern slide, twenty-one would-be government rescuers line the rails of the Lucile at Schwabacher’s Wharf in 1898, ready to bring food and supplies to starving miners in the frozen north. Reports of privation did not deter an estimated 100,000 Argonauts (70,000 of whom passed through Seattle) from heading to the Klondike by 1900. Of those, only 300 struck it rich. (Courtesy Scott Rohrer and Museum of History & Industry)
NOW: Framed by the Seattle Wheel and the Aquarium, a 70-foot yacht owned by Sailing Seattle and called the Obsession, returns from an evening journey past the former Schwabacher’s Wharf. The dock, which survived the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, was renamed Pier 58 after World War II. Removed in the 1960s, it was replaced by Waterfront Park until its collapse and demolition in 2020. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 17, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on June 20, 2021)

In 1898, all that glittered wasn’t gold — or a rescue expedition
By Jean Sherrard

It’s said that success has a hundred fathers. Failure, on the other hand, is an orphan best ignored and forgotten.

On July 17, 1897, seven months before our “Then” photo was taken, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted: “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the steamer Portland. Stacks of Yellow Metal!”

On that misty Saturday morning, thousands at Schwabacher’s Wharf on the downtown waterfront cheered the haggard returnees who lined the steamer’s decks bearing at least a ton of “golden fruit.”

The Seattle Times listed the 10 wealthiest miners, starting with Seattle bookseller William Stanley, worth a reported $112,000. “Now is the time,” The Times allowed, “to go to the rich Klondike country, where … gold is as plentiful as sawdust.” The P-I predicted: “There will no doubt be a great rush for the new discoveries, and the majority will outfit in and leave from Seattle.”

Such news of a bonanza was most welcome amid Seattle’s economic depression. It sparked a stampede known as the Gold Rush.

Lured were the jobless and gainfully employed, from bums to bankers, con men to carpenters. Heeding the siren song was Seattle Mayor W.D. Wood, who immediately resigned, along with a dozen Seattle cops. Within 10 days of the Portland’s arrival, more than 1,500 latter-day Argonauts headed north.

Of course, the smart money played it safe and stayed home. Downtown merchants and shipping firms ramped up services while Chamber of Commerce boosters insisted that only Seattle could serve as a jumping-off point and fanned the rallying cry: “Klondike or bust!”

Contrarians — from returning miners to newspapers — immediately sounded notes of caution. “Winter has set in at the frozen north,” the Tacoma Daily News reported Sept. 10, 1897. “Those who have been seeking gold must now seek for food or starve.”

News of impending famine in the Yukon soon reached the halls of government. In December, an alarmed U.S. Congress funded a “relief expedition.” Accordingly, the sailing ship Lucile (subject of our “Then” photo) docked in Seattle, fully loaded with 1,200 tons of supplies, 110 mules, and 22 government packers, all commanded by two Army lieutenants.

On Feb. 15, 1898, the morning the expedition departed, “an immense crowd” lined docks to cheer the would-be rescuers. Photographer Edward S. Curtis, whose brother Asahel already was mining the Yukon for gold and photos, captured the Lucile and its crew on what should have been an auspicious day.

Mysteriously, however, the three-masted schooner never completed its mission. Sparse and cryptic accounts indicate only that after weeks of delay, it was towed into Skagway. Its efforts never bore fruit — or delivered it.


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Jean, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!


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