Local connections to the Klondike Gold Rush

Local connections to the Klondike Gold Rush

In August 1896, gold was discovered in Rabbit Creek

In August 1896, gold was discovered in Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), near the confluence of Yukon and Klondike Rivers.

It turned out to be an incredibly rich find and precipitated one of the greatest gold rushes of modern times.

News of the Klondike gold strike was particularly electrifying as the North American economy had been mired in a prolonged economic depression.

Currency was still based on the gold standard. A huge new supply of gold meant a revival of the money markets, followed by a major international economic boom.

Tens of thousands of eager people began to head north for a direct share in the new riches. The Klondike region of the Yukon was remote and difficult to reach.

Nevertheless, the chance for quick wealth made the huge challenges seem worth it.

A number of people in Central Alberta decided to join the gold rush. They had already been attracted to the western Canadian frontier by the prospects of a better life.

However, they had been disappointed by the hard economic times and a long cold drought. Now wonderful new opportunities seemed possible.

Among the first to head north were Percy DeWolfe and N. Atkinson, ranch hands from the area around Pine and Quill Lakes.

In June 1897, they headed north from Edmonton, down the Athabasca and Mackenzie Rivers to Fort Simpson, and then northwest to the Yukon by the way of the Liard River.

DeWolfe finally reached Dawson City, centre of the gold rush, in June 1898. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money left to go gold mining.

Instead, he went into a number of business and freighting ventures. Finally, he became a legendary long-distance mail carrier between the Yukon and Alaska.

George Wilkins, who ranched with his brother Francis where the Red Deer Golf and Country Club is today, also headed north in 1897 by way of northern Alberta and northeastern B.C.

He made it as far of Fort St. John. Fortunately, he then decided to switch to the much faster route up the B.C. coast to St. Michael’s, Alaska and then up the Yukon River. He arrived in Dawson City in the fall of 1898.

In spring of 1898, Beau Gaetz and two fellow ranchers, A.E. Roberts and A.S. Brooks, headed north on the ‘all Canadian’ overland route of northern Alberta and northeastern B.C.

Like George Wilkins, they only made it as far as Fort St. John. Unlike Wilkins, they experienced a series of serious disasters, including a mauling by a bear, snowblindness and scurvy due to poor provisions.

They were lucky to survive.

Two years passed before they were able to make it back to Red Deer. When he arrived, Beau Gaetz was so weak that he had to strap himself to his horse so that he wouldn’t fall off.

In June 1898, a group of ranchers from the Buffalo Lake (Mirror/Alix) area of Central Alberta, decided to head north on the ‘all-Canadian’ water route via the Mackenzie River. The party included Alice (Alix) and Charles Westhead and the foreman of their ranch, Tristram (T.I.P.) Willett, as well two friends from England, a brother and sister names Jones.

They made it as far as Fort Norman by freeze-up.

In the spring, the Westheads decided to head home. However, Willett and the Jones siblings decided to press on, up the Gravel River, over the mountains and then down the Pelly River.

It is unclear what happened to the Jones siblings after they made it to Dawson City. Unfortunately, Willett came down with typhoid fever. Once he recovered, he headed home.

Meanwhile, George Wilkins partnered with Fernand Dejournal, who used to live in Red Deer and later San Francisco. Dejournal had become became a lawyer and businessman in Dawson City.

The partners bought claims on Hunker Creek and struck it rich, making more than $250,000 (the equivalent of millions of dollars today).

Once back in Red Deer in 1902, George Wilkins, together with his brother Francis, decided to invest the newly-acquired wealth in the construction of a hydro-electric dam where the Blindman River enters the Red Deer.

The venture was a disaster.

There was not enough flow in the Blindman to allow a hydro-electric generation plant to work properly. George died of a heart attack while trying to salvage the company.

Shortly, thereafter, a despondent Francis committed suicide. They were survived by their sister, Annie Wilkins Parlby, who ranched with her husband Edward near Alix, and was a close friend of Alice Hall Westhead, who had given up on her Klondike quest.