What an attraction it must have been. Stories of thumb-sized gold nuggets just laying in a Yukon streambed for the taking drew men from around the world to make their fortunes. In the midst of a worldwide Great Depression, many walked away from failing businesses and farms, left their families, and headed North to Alaska in search of wealth and redemption. Some would become rich beyond their dreams, while many others would lose everything, including their lives, in their search.
Along with the would-be millionaires came confidence men, counterfeiters, thieves, pimps, and jaywalkers. Hoping to gull the marks, they worked in gangs which were often protected by the police. While usually not violent, they did have enforcers who would take care of anyone who protested about losing their money, or use strong-arm tactics to collect protection money. Alongside the reputable businessmen who served the legitimate needs of the growing territory, they would rake in the cash by indulging the darker side of human needs. Such men gave places like Skagway, Alaska–like every boom town before and since–a reputation as wide-open and lawless.
Three men–outsized personalities all–are the perfect filters to tell the story of the Yukon Gold Rush. George Carmack was a deserter from the Marines who lived with the Tagish tribe of coastal Canada when he wasn’t searching for gold. Charlie Siringo was a former cattle drive boss, a successful cigar merchant, an unsuccessful writer of Western tales and eventually a Pinkerton’s detective. And Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith was an accomplished con man, leader of a gang of specialists who could separate even the most suspicious mark from his last dollar. The three of them would eventually converge on Skagway, where they would face off over a fortune in gold.
Blum traces their lives, using contemporary records, their own letters and writings, and in-depth histories of the region. Readers see Carmack and his Native partners carrying enormous loads of supplies through the wilderness and stumbling across the creek that started the Gold Rush. We ride with Siringo in his lengthy search for desperadoes, then on his investigation into the impossible theft of gold bars from the world’s largest gold mine. And we learn about the variety of large and small scams that gave Soapy his fortune and ambitions for respectability.
Blum evokes the feel of a country where independence was giving way to corporations and associations, and where civilizing influences were driving free spirits into remote outposts. He captures the feel of cattle drives, the growing towns and cities, the loneliness of isolation, and the thrill of discovery. He also finds the humor in the stories. One particular tale, involving retribution for bigotry, is especially delicious. This is a great piece of North American history, which demonstrates the adage “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
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