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Feature Article on the Gold Rush. Topic: GOLD RUSH
Written by Rich Wallace in May, 1996

GOLD RUSH MINERS FROM SHELBY COUNTY, OHIO

Many dream of becoming instantly wealthy, either by way of winning the lottery or receiving an unexpected bequest from a long-forgotten uncle. A century ago, lotteries were nonexistent and virtually no one had much wealth to pass on to relatives. For Shelby County residents in the late 1890's, the one word that spelled riches was 'gold.'  A half century earlier, weeks of dusty and dangerous travel followed by disappointment were all that that most of the California '49ers' experienced. Now it was 1897, and only faded memories remained. Word raced down from Alaska that gold had been discovered. This time, it would be different. There would be plenty of gold to go around.   This is the story of some of the adventuresome men from Shelby County, Ohio and their exploits in pursuit of a fortune in the frozen tundra of Alaska.

Staley Brothers Seek Gold
Joseph Staley certainly thought he would find gold. This Salem Township farmer heard the news of gold prospectors in Alaska and Canada from his brother, Daniel, who lived in Spokane, Washington. Joseph decided to pack up and leave on short notice. He was single, and 44 years old. The Sidney Journal reported in an article on April 2, 1898, that Joseph and his brother were "On Their Way To Alaska." Their destination: the Yukon gold fields by way of Juneau, Alaska.

None of the early adventurers knew what to expect, other than that the weather would be cold. Few anticipated that the trip by sea from Seattle would pose a serious challenge. Joseph Staley reported in his first letter home that "We got here...after a rather rough trip and lots of sea sickness, especially off Queen Charlotte's Sound. There are 500 passengers, all bound for the Yukon diggings, and all of them got sick."

Ben Anderson of Sidney was not quite as fortunate on his journey. He spent the exorbitant sum of $900 on supplies, which he had shipped directly to Alaska. Anderson also received a guarantee from the steamship company that he would arrive in Alaska by October 1st. Anderson left Seattle on August 10, 1897 on the 'Eliza Anderson.' After 28 days at sea, in a voyage that he later described as being "full of peril," his vessel and several others returned to Seattle when the foul weather made it impossible for them to continue.

The weather that awaited these men in Juneau, the initial destination of the gold seekers from Seattle, was often horrendous. Former Sidney resident Horace Ley arrived in mid-April of 1898. In a letter to the Sidney Journal published the next month, he described the channels approaching Juneau: "It is very dangerous, the channels being very narrow and rocky, and a number of vessels have been lost." He reserved his choicest comments for the wind: "You have no idea what winds we have...It blows a hurricane here for days at a time...Just before my arrival they had a blow which burst every west and south window in town."

The prospectors pouring into Juneau had several options from which to choose. Many stuck with their original plan to strike out on their own and stake a claim. Some opted to work for other miners. Horace Ley reported in a letter home that "I have obtained a place with one of the large companies here, and will learn mining from A to Z." The going rate of pay was $12 a day, with a day off every two weeks.

Some adventurers like John Frey and William Bruce of Sidney chose to leave Juneau and head to the area known as 'Sunrise,' thus avoiding the arduous trek over the mountains. Frey told relatives that wages in Sunrise were only $1 a day (and not the $12 per day they had heard), and that "...last winter the people staked off everything they could find," thus leaving no ground on which to stake a claim. When moving to another location nearby, they had to ascend a 2,000 foot hill which required the use of block and tackle and four days of effort. Out of money and disillusioned, Frey and Bruce returned to Sidney.

Over the Chilkoot Pass
From Juneau, most of the men headed across the border into the Yukon Territory of Canada in pursuit of the gold strikes along the Klondike River. After a stop in the mining town of Dyea, the gold hunters had to ascend the 3,739 foot Chilkoot Pass. The Northwest Canadian Mounted Police stationed on the pass insisted each man have a year's supply of food before entering Canada (about 1,000 pounds). Together with his mining gear and other possessions, each man had to move about 1,700 pounds over the mountain. Because the climb was nearly vertical in spots, each man could carry only about 50 pounds per trip. As the summer streams on either side of Chilkoot would make such a passage impossible, the miners had to cross the pass in the winter.

William Kirtland of Sidney and his three friends hauled their supplies up and over the pass by on foot in March of 1898. They encountered thousands of people clawing their way up the mountain as well. In a letter home, Kirtland wrote: "You have no idea the number of people here working to get over the summit. From the bottom to the top there is not more than a step between men and some few women; it is no place for them." A month after Kirtland made it over the pass, an avalanche buried one hundred unlucky souls.

It took Joe and Dan Staley three weeks to move their goods over the same pass the year before. Joe later commented that "A number of men froze to death (there) last year. Kirtland noted that "There are probably nine or ten hundred dead horses in the Chilkoot River." After conquering the Chilkoot Pass, the men had to cross White horse Rapids, where the swiftly surging water covered three quarters of a mile in one minute.

Back in the states, concerns were raised about the dangers of such an ordeal. The Sidney Journal editor wrote on July 30, 1897, that most of the gold seekers "are totally unprovided for the trip...there is every reason to apprehend frightful mortality among the gold seekers from starvation and cold." Such words fell on deaf ears. The stampede continued.  Those reaching the gold fields after 1898 stood virtually no chance of hitting a strike. Sidney residents Thomas Emley, George Kraft and John Berkshire arrived in the summer of 1899. In Emley's first letter home, he reported they had been told that "some claims are paying as high as $500 a day." He and his partners found nothing.

The Staley brothers eventually made the trek to the village of Dawson in the Northwest Territory. Even in the summer of 1897, hundreds crowded in to compete for the claims. Joe and Dan Staley reported meeting "All kinds of men- physicians, lawyers, sea captains, college professors, all professions and from every country except for China."

Some made money finding gold, and many others made it supplying them. The Staleys recalled that winter clothes cost $250, nails were fetching $8 a pound, and hay cost $500 a ton. Meals ranged from $1.50 to $5 each. The price for a six pane window: $160.

It was not surprising that the adventure turned out to be a miserable failure for many. Former Sidney resident F. B. Chapman toured the Yukon area in the spring of 1898 and observed: "The prospector is everywhere to be found--weary, footsore, haggard looking and disheartened. This is not a poor man's country." From Sunrise City, he reported that "Hundreds of men came here full of hope and energy, and returned without going on a prospecting trip...Their hard luck stories would break the heart of a stone."

Desperate Weather Conditions
The weather conditions did not help. Joe and Dan Staley reported temperatures as low as 59 degrees below zero during the winter of 1897. The sun rose briefly at 11 AM in December. It was dark by 1:30 PM. The work never stopped in the cold winter months, as the men had to prepare their claims for activity in the summer. F. B. Chapman wrote in September 1898 that he "expected to spend the winter whipsawing lumber for sluice boxes and trestles and getting ready to start operations early in the spring." It cost one dollar to send a letter home. It was months between delivery of mail to the men.

James Perry left his job with John Loughlin's school desk factory in Sidney to explore the area up north. He reported winter temperatures of up to 80 degrees below zero. In the short summer he found the miners encountered poor water supplies in the camps and the existence of malaria.

The 'stampeders' persevered despite these hardships, and a good number prospered. James Perry saw people who had arrived at Cape Nome dig in the sand on the beach and find gold 30 minutes after arriving. Joseph Staley wrote home in January of 1898 that "We have done very well financially. We have only worked twelve days...I have plenty of money--more than I have had for many years, all put together. I shall be out on the first boat next year." His subsequent successes convinced him to stick around a little while longer.

Staley Brothers Encounter Luck and Gold
As the saying goes, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Joseph Staley wrote to his mother in April 1898 about a side trip he took to the El Dorado area to work on a bench claim. "We worked only four days until we struck bed rock. I saw at a glance that we had struck something rich. We took out three pans worth $218.75." Joe and his brother Dan filed claims immediately. In the same letter, Joe admitted to his mother: "This mining business has luck connected with it." Joe's luck was destined to continue. The region's newspaper, the Klondike Nugget, reported on June 23, 1898, that Joseph Staley found a nugget on his claim worth $71. (Dawson city records document a number of claims filed by the Staleys.)  Joseph Staley made a triumphal return to Anna for the Thanksgiving holiday in 1898. The Sidney Daily News reported on November 17, 1898, that Joseph "...arrived at noon. Mr. Staley and his brother Dan have some very valuable gold claims in Alaska and have been taking out considerable gold."

Sidney Resident Arthur Kah Prospers
Others were content to seek employment in the frontier towns that had sprung up, caring for the miners and the gold they found. All the gold was handled by an assayer, who 'smelted' the gold ore. Sidney native Arthur Kah was the assayer in Nome, Alaska. An article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in February 1917 featured Kah's work. He came to Alaska directly after graduating from Ohio State University. At the time of the article, he was processing two million dollars of gold each year. The Shelby County Democrat reported in October 1903 that the largest nugget ever found was located on a claim partly owned by Kah. It was eight inches long, five inches wide, and weighed 182 ounces.

Despite the harsh conditions, some women were part of the stampede. Some were employed weighing the gold in the camps, while others provided laundry services or told fortunes for the miners.

The gold fields were also fertile ground for con artists. The Sidney Daily News carried a story in its March 20, 1900, edition about a miner who was stuck with a claim that had little value. He paid the gold commissioner $6,000 for the 10% royalty the law required be paid- far more than was really due. The miner hung around the commissioner's office, and soon encountered an Englishman wanting to purchase a claim. Believing that no one would pay more royalty than was really due, the Englishman offered $150,000 for the claim, which the miner readily accepted.

Eventually all the gold fields were played out, and the men went home or moved elsewhere for adventure. Alaskan and Canadian census records show the Staley brothers stayed in the region until 1902. Daniel Staley returned to California with his wife. Hitchcock's History of Shelby County describes Joseph Staley "...as one of the fortunate prospectors. He returned home with an ample fortune." Still single, he settled down and purchased 250 acres of farmland in Franklin and Salem Townships. Joseph never lost his sense of adventure, making ten trips out west. He died at his home in Salem Township in 1923 at the age of 71.

 

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