THE TRAIL OF 1898 AS EXPERIENCED
BY SEVEN IRONTON YOUNG MEN
Submitted by Tom Everett
THE IRONTON NEWS REPORTER — IRONTON, OHIO
Monday, February 11, 1929
Photoplay Starting at the Marlow Theater Today, Recalls Actual Experiences in the Klondike;
Men Left Ironton in Special Railway Car;
Gone Almost Two Years;
Mr. Pete Koerper Tells Story to Ironton News Reporter.
It was only a photoplay which will be shown at the Marlow theater three days, starting today, but to some the Trail of ’98 recalls when seven Ironton young men, spurred on by the lust for gold, left their homes in this city, defied death and battled all the forces of nature to obtain the precious metal–but failed, and returned home after almost a two year battle against odds–broke.
These young men were Henry Selb, Harry Corns, Adam Ketter, Henry Horschel, Pete Koerper, John Q. Leighty and George Critcher. Those who can remember back 30 years know the story.
Saturday morning our friend Carl Moulton stopped in The News office and called our attention to the advertisement of the picture, “The Trail of ’98” on the bill board just opposite our office and asked if we were too young to recall the time these young men left Ironton. We recalled something about that famous gold rush, but Carl’s tip was all that we needed. Pete Koerper being the only one of the seven in the city today, we decided to spend an hour Blazing the “Trail of ’98,” so that we might tell the present generation, who, perhaps will see the photoplay, that it is not a dream, but seven Ironton young men, thirty years ago, took part in the maddest gold rush the world has ever known.
It was in the summer of 1897 that Jack Locasto and other miners arrived in San Francisco from the Klondike, where they had made a rich gold strike. The news was flashed around the world and soon people of all descriptions, smitten by dreams of sudden wealth, headed for ‘Frisco, to take the northward passage. Stories were printed in Ironton and newspapers all over the United States of the great gold strikes. They said that miners, already in the north, had taken out so much free gold that it was piled by the sackful on the wharves of Alaskan shipping points. Prospectors and sailor say that at St. Michael it was piled so high that it had the appearance of huge sacks of flour waiting to be placed aboard the ships.
Prospectors got as much as a thousand dollars from a single pan. A hundred thousand dollars was paid from a single claim in a few weeks of work. It lay on the ground, in precious nuggets–so thick that men had only to stoop to pick it up in their bare hands.
Then nature came to the rescue. Provisions and mining implements soared sky high. Even a ham from a native caribou went to as high as forty dollars. Daily wages for common laborers in the north climbed to fifty dollars–and people refused to work for so little. Millions of dollars’ worth of the precious ore was washed from river and creek beds and the average depth of a mine was less than twenty feet.
Proprietors of bars and dance halls threw it unceremoniously into great open barrels in their establishments. There was too much of it to attempt to keep it in safes and vaults. The word even went around that unless gold production ceased the metal would lose its value by oversupplying the world.
Organize Company Here
These stories were printed in the fall of ’97 and before Christmas that year a company known as the Ironton Mining and Trading Company had been organized with the late Col. H. A. Marting as president and plans were made for the trip. Many Irontonians wanted to go but when the starting time arrived, only seven left. These seven young men each put $600 in the pot and Henry Selb was named Treasurer. Of course they all took money along for their personal needs, but the $600 was to pay all expenses including food.
Leave on Special Car
After almost three months of preparation the party left Ironton on March 28, 1898, according to Mr. Peter Koerper, the well known baker of Fifth and Heplar streets who will see the picture at the Marlow today and again live over the hardships of the “Trail of ’98”. For months before the party left Ironton the clothing stores and the boot shops did a big business. It was a new experiment and like many a young man who left Ironton 20 years later to go into the training camps during the World War, these seven young men of 98′ took many articles that proved useless when they reached Seattle and started up the Yukon and the terrible Chilkoot pass with Dawson City their goal.
Car Loaded on Iron Railway
The box car was loaded on the switch at the Iron Railway depot on Second and Railroad streets. Sleds, packs, feed, 16 head of cattle and 22 dogs, with dog harness, besides personal belongings filled the car, and with the best wishes of their friends and all Ironton, the 7 representatives of Ironton Mining and Trading Co., were off for the frozen north.
The men even took along an oven, all kinds of cooking utensils and food supply as they figures these could be purchased cheaper in Ironton than in the West where the Gold Rush had shot prices sky-high.
Turned Dogs Loose
When the car reached Seattle the men discovered that the Ironton dogs were not the kind that would pull in harness and their first set back was when the dogs which they had taken across the continent had to be turned loose. Mr. Koerper does not recall the name of the boat the men took to Van Couver, B. C., but the Excelsior and City of Topeka are mentioned in the photoplay as the steamers and perhaps it was one of these boats. Here the men spent weeks meeting others who were enroute or returning, and planned on the best route to take to reach the gold fields. The party had thought of trying the Chilkoot pass, where hundreds were engulfed and died or were killed that year by the great snow slides. Their decision finally started them up the Sticker river toward the Hudson Bay summit.
History does not tell who was responsible for the great gold strikes of the Klondike but George Comack, known as “Sticker George” because he lived among the Sticker Indians, named the river. Research revealed that “Sticker George” found the first gold in 1896. The news didn’t reach the States until the steamer Excelsior docked at San Francisco during the summer of ’97. It was the following year that the great rush was at its height.
Comack had prospected the north for years. At last he made up his mind there was gold in the vicinity of Bonanza Creek, with a party of Sticker Indians he proved his hunch was right. It was there in quantities–gold that could be picked up by the handsful. It glittered in the clear shallow water and lay in the dry spots of the river bed. Comack gathered it in quantities and then let others in on the discovery. The result was the great trek to the Klondike.
The Ironton party spent all the summer of ’98 reaching the top of Hudson Bay summit. They moved in relays with their heavy packs, going only a few miles per day with their cattle, helping others, and with the approach of fall and extreme cold weather, they built a hut where they established a base of supplies. They killed some of their cattle and sold their meat to the passing prospectors and used the hides for a roof for their cabin. Mr. Koerper recalls that when the weather got down to about 40 below zero that the hides frozen so stiff that they pulled the nails out of the timbers and he laid on his cot and looked up thru the roof at the northern stars.
Hadn’t Shaved for Months
Members of the party hadn’t used a razor for months, and long beards were in vogue. Each member took his turn cooking for a week and Mr. Koerper recalls having to walk about 500 yards to the river where a hole was cut in the ice every morning so they could get water. Each morning when he returned from the walk to the river, his beard would be frozen stiff from his breath. (It will be recalled that this was the same winter that the thermometer went to 27 below zero in Ironton). From this point, to reach the nearest civilization port, it required about two weeks via of foot and dog sled. About Christmas time, the party decided to send mail home to their relatives and families, and to make the dangerous trip over the frozen rivers and dangerous passes, it was decided that a party of six would make the trip, each to help the other, if needed, and when straws were drawn, it fell to Mr. Koerper to remain at the cabin to watch the food supply. For two weeks he was alone, with a dog as his only companion to talk to. He had a revolver and a shot gun, and shot wild fowl.
The day before the party of six returned the forest caught on fire, supposed to have been fired by the Indians who were trying to frighten the white men away. For miles and miles the tall pine trees burned and the Ironton men were successful in fighting the fire away from their cabin.
Spring Comes; The Return
With the arrival of early spring many travelers passed the Ironton Colony. News reached this part of the frozen north. Across the Alaskan-Yukon International border line, that the British government would not recognize any claims of foreign subjects and without reaching Dawson City nor having any of their “Dreams of Gold” come true, the Ironton Mining and Trading Co., broke camp, starting for home and loved ones. But this did not end the hardships. The trail back to civilization was as full of dangers of blizzards, snow slides, ice flows and breaks, and the treacherous rapids of Alaska and the peril of attacks by wild animals as the trip going. However, the men found that since early Spring a year ago, when they made the “Trail of ’98” that hundreds of others had followed, and trading posts had been established, and it wasn’t the lonesome trip as a year previous.
The Ironton party came in contact with every human type of men and women which participated in the “gold rush.” Their personal experiences in the frozen north would fill a large volume of books, altho some of the seven have passed on and are not here to tell them.
It was lucky that civilization had followed them to a certain degree to help them on their return trip. The men were low on provisions and funds. They did considerable trading and still had a couple of their original 16 head of cattle they had taken from Ironton. Enroute back they worked helping others build boats, dance halls, etc., and earned some money and provisions. After enduring the hardships, when they arrived from the Klondike to the mouth of the Yukon and back to civilization, the party disbanded. Mr. Koerper and George Critcher made for Seattle where they secured work in a saw mill hoping to save enough money to return to Ironton.
Owing to the fact that less than one per cent of the men who took part in the gold stampede came out of the north with any money to speak of, the second-hand clothiers and the pawnshops of Seattle did a thriving business with the returning prospectors. Most of the men were glad to exchange their heavy northern clothing for any kind of a cheap suit which could be worn in the States.
Seattle pawnbrokers and dealers in second-hand clothing collected thousands of northern clothing outfits, sold some of them at high prices to other prospectors going north, but found themselves with a lot of heavy clothing on their hands when the bottom dropped out of the gold rush.
Jobs were hard to get, and Mr. Koerper walked to and from his work saving street car fare. Finally one day he learned of excursion rates on the railroads which were fighting to get business and he bought an excursion ticket from Seattle to Ironton for $35.00 and arrived home just before Thanksgiving in 1899.
In answering questions asked by The News man Mr. Koerper furnished the following interesting information.
He “hocked” his watch to get home. Meals in Japanese restaurants in Seattle were only 10 cents. The cattle or oxen taken from Ironton were shod.
Labels of their tobacco, dried beef, dried vegetables, powdered milk cans, etc., were used as buttons when they mended their clothes.
The Ironton men did not find the Gold at the end of the Rainbow, but hundreds of others did.
What Became of the Millions
One of the impenetrable secrets of the frozen north and unsolved mysteries of gold, is what became of the millions of dollars in dust and nuggets taken out, or off, the ground in the Klondike when the eyes of the world were turned northward in 1898.
Of the thousands of men and women who participated in the rush, less than one per cent returned to the United States with any considerable amount of gold or money.
It is an established fact that millions upon millions of dollars in gold were taken out of the earth at that time. Many prospectors had claims that gave them as high as a thousand dollars a pan. Gold became so common in Dawson City that it was tossed unceremoniously into great open barrels in gambling casinos, dance halls and saloons.
Most of the miners parted with their poles when they came into contact with gamblers, barkeepers and dance hall girls, yet the proprietors of these dives nearly always came back home after having lost their ill-gotten gains to others. Empty pockets were the order of the day when passengers stepped back to American soil.
The proprietor of one dive in (Dawson?) said to have thrown his twen—?? Gold pieces, or equivalent in ore or dust into a barrel which was soon filled to the top. A short time later he returned to the States in an almost penniless condition.
The research department of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, which has just filmed “The Trail of ’98,” under the direction of Clarence Brown, has been unable to trace what became of all this gold though the staff has interviewed hundreds of people who were in the north during the days of gold and greed. The gold isn’t there any more and it wasn’t brought home. The mystery now is where is it?
“The Trail of ’98,” the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture to be shown at the Marlow starting today, not only shows what seven Ironton men really saw and experienced but shows much more, with a plot. It is a wonderful picture with Dolores Del Rio, Ralph Forbes and Karl Dane in the leading roles.