- The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush
There are few studies written about the environmental effects of mining, so this monograph makes an important contribution to this aspect of North American environmental history. This book is both American and Canadian history, since Kathryn Morse writes about mostly American miners who travelled to the Canadian Yukon in pursuit of gold. As a student of both William Cronon and Richard White, two prominent historians who helped create the field of environmental history, Morse is very qualified to contribute such a study.
For the first time, Morse provides us with names and motives of the prospectors, as she has combed the personal letters and diaries of individuals who struggled through the White and Chilkoot Pass trails. She also puts the Klondike Gold Rush in context. It occurred at a time when America was debating politically the basis of its monetary system, so that gold was on the American public's mind. The real passion behind the rush to the Yukon remained, as always, the pursuit of wealth; these men (and a few women) were willing to endure extreme hardship and physical obstacles to 'get rich quick.' This huge influx of people into an isolated region was part of the growing industrial system in America, as Morse points out, and had profound cultural and environmental impacts on the people, wildlife, and landscape of the Yukon area. After the initial rush to the Yukon, an impressive transportation and supply system developed, emanating mostly from Seattle, which portrayed itself as the 'gateway to the Klondike.'
This author writes little about the impact of the Americans on Canadian authorities, although she mentions that the Canadian government did collect modest royalties on gold and the rcmp was a presence. Relatively little is written about the newcomers' impact on the Indigenous peoples, who acted as packers, hunted with repeating rifles introduced in the 1890s, and sold food (salmon and game) to the miners. Natives partially adapted to a wage economy, became dependent on commodities brought in, and were made ill by imported diseases. Indeed these gold-chasers are treated sympathetically, and were apparently less brutal towards Natives than those Robin Fisher wrote about during the 1858 gold rush in British Columbia.
In the strongest part of the monograph, Morse describes graphically the immense environmental destruction that resulted. The surrounding forests were cut for fuel, shacks, and some mining shafts. The surface mining process heaped dirt and gravel into the water and transformed the gold creeks as the miners stripped vegetation, rerouted streams, altered stream valleys, and tore apart the ecosystem. The result was floods, soil erosion, [End Page 349] dried up riverbeds, and drought, which reduced the fish and wildlife populations that had been food sources for Native peoples for generations.
Morse concludes, without actually evaluating whether or not the Klondike Gold Rush was worth the environmental damage, that few found gold, which was scattered. In 1898, of the five thousand claims, two hundred were worth working, and the gold rush cost much more than the amount of gold extracted, but it did introduce capital and labour into the Yukon, open up the area's resources for future exploitation, and result in an improved transportation network, all of which was seen at the time as 'progress,' the triumph of capital and technology over nature, and the bringing of civilization to a frontier, famously analysed at the time by Frederick J. Turner. Though the gold miners in the 1890s never questioned the cultural or environmental consequences of their work, some North Americans today evaluate mining 'jobs' very differently as a result of the ideas of the modern environmental movement, and the reality of a planet which cannot sustain its current economies or lifestyles. [End Page 350]
Laurel S. MacDowell, Department of History, University of Toronto at Mississauga