Ton of Goods

People sit among piles of bags and boxes and tents
Stampeders pose with their gear on Dyea waterfront in 1897. 

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 55746a.  Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Historic newspaper advertisement for Columbia Grocery Co.
Advertisement targeted at inexperienced stampeders.
Why take a ton of goods?
To prevent mass starvation in the remote and inaccessible Yukon Territory, the Canadian government required every stampeder bring a year's supply of goods before crossing the border.

As people headed to the Klondike, few of them had any idea what they were getting themselves into. Fueled by dreams of gold and pure ambition, they set sail on an adventure most were not properly prepared for. Without modern communication systems, stampeders had to rely on hearsay and advertisements to let them know what they needed in the north.

Within days after the arrival of the first gold ship in San Francisco, observers were expressing concern about what would happen if a hoard of new arrivals got to Dawson in the fall. With a long supply chain stretching the length of the Yukon River to west coast ports like San Francisco or Seattle, getting extra food to Dawson before winter was problematic.

The Canadian government determined each person going to Dawson from Skagway or Dyea needed three pounds of food per day for a whole year. Food alone would weigh in at a minimum of 1,095 pounds (~497 kg) or just over half a ton. But for a prospector, adding necessary clothes and equipment to the food could easily double the total load, and thus came to be known as a "ton of goods." If purchased in the U.S., the goods were subject to customs duties payable to the North-West Mounted Police who also enforced the amount of goods required. Just between February and June of 1898, the Mounties collected $174,000 in duties. In today's money, that is about $4.9 million dollars!

Black and white photo of people with gear standing in front of a snowy mountain pass
Stampeders gear up at the Scales before Chilkoot Pass

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, KLGO 55832a. Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Transporting a ton of goods
Once a stampeder had bought the food and equipment he would need for a year in the Klondike, he was faced with the backbreaking job of packing his outfit up the trail to Lake Bennett. How would he do that?

Stampeders who carried their own goods had the choice of carrying more weight or walking more miles. A light pack of 50 pounds meant more trips. A heavy pack of 80 pounds meant fewer trips, but extra weight and slower pace. Every mile walked with a load meant another mile back empty. Stampeder Everett Barton wrote home, "We have been working terribly hard packing 50# & 75# over mountains that we would not think of walking over at home." Some stampeders walked nearly 1,000 miles to carry their supplies the 33 miles from Dyea to Lake Bennett.

"Stacey and I viewed our hundreds of pounds of supplies with much concern, especially when we saw the steep, slippery trail leading from the river up the canyon. We knew we would have to make a number of back-breaking relay trips to establish our first cache. Quickly, we began dividing our supplies, making about sixty-five to seventy-pound packs for each. Then we started. The trail immediately crooked up, narrow and slippery. As we climbed, we threw our weight toward the inside of the trail, hugging the precipitous walls. The fact that we must make several trips over this trail for the rest of our supplies was hard to bear." - Stampeder Ed Lung, 1897.

At first some stampeders hired local packers to help them transport their gear.

"The scales mark the point at which goods are weighed previous to being taken from here to the summit, the charges for transport by packing from this point upward being very much in excess to prior ones." - Sgt. Yanert, March 1898

"A dozen packers take my outfit across the pass to Crater Lake, but will not touch the boat lumber. Flour is a packers first choice, lumber last." - Tappan Adney, 1897

Many Tlingits were contracted to move gold rush gear and made good money working the trails. As the rush wore on, non-native packers, pack animals, tramways, and eventually a railroad were available as options for crossing the passes with supplies. Each method had its advantages and disadvantages. As fewer Tlingits worked the trails, local knowledge of the area and weather conditions was lost to the misfortune of many on the trail. On April 3, 1898, an avalanche killed many stampeders on the Chilkoot Trail who continued to pack even after the Tlingits had quit due to the dangerous conditions.

Black and white photograph of a crowd watching a man tied to a pole.  Text reads "Whipping a thief at Sheep Camp"
Stampeders at Sheep Camp punish a thief.

National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, George and Edna Rasmuson Foundation, KLGO 55811.  Gift of the Rasmuson Foundation.

Guarding your gear
Another challenge along the trails was watching over one ton of supplies. Generally an honor code kept supplies safe, but there were instances of thievery on both trails. To guard gear, stampeders had few options. They could employ enough packers to move all of the supplies in one day, thus ensuring it stayed together and was safe. Unfortunately, with the amount of gear most people had, this meant a person needed a lot of packers and thus money to pay them.

"Preparations being made for crossing the Chilkoot today. We secured about fifty packers who started for the summit with packs. It was not sufficient number to take all our baggage...."
- Stampeder T.D. Pattullo, October 26, 1897

Some stampeders may have used their money to buy the assistance of people to guard their supplies. Tappan Adney describes hiking the Chilkoot Pass in September 1897, "each [of us] with packs of stuff that we could not trust to packers, leaving the boat lumber in [the] charge of a trustworthy man."

Nevertheless, some thefts did occur. Everett Barton described one early in September 1897: "A man was caught stealing at Deya [sic] yesterday and was shot three times. A fellow stole a watch here yesterday and the people held a meeting to see what to do with him but I have not heard." Regulating groups were often established in some of the more concentrated areas to hand out punishments for rare crimes along the trail. Tappan Adney described one so-called court at Sheep Camp in the fall of 1897:

"The court-house was a ten-by-twelve tent. The commissioner or judge sat on a goods-box with a larger goods-box in front, and the lawyers and defendants and plaintiffs, numbering about a dozen persons, sat on other boxes and discussed the situation informally…. A settlement was arrived at in each case. There is not much law. Common-sense rules, or tries to."

Klondike historian Pierre Berton describes an incident that occurred when a Frenchman was found to be stealing from someone's pile of goods along the White Pass Trail. An elected committee found him guilty and sentenced him to a whipping that ultimately ended with him being shot to death. Berton recounts another instance on the Chilkoot when a thief by the name of Hansen was sentenced to fifty lashes for theft of supplies at Sheep Camp. The man was tied to a post, allegedly whipped only 15 times, then forced to march back to Dyea wearing a sign proclaiming "THIEF."

What should you take to the Klondike in 1897-1898?
The Northern Pacific Railroad Company published the Chicago Record's Book for Gold Seekers in 1897 and included the following supply list:

150 lbs. bacon
400 lbs. flour
25 lbs. rolled oats
125 lbs. beans
10 lbs. tea
10 lbs. coffee
25 lbs. sugar
25 lbs. dried potatoes
2 lbs. dried onions
15 lbs. salt
1 lb. pepper
75 lbs. dried fruits
8 lbs. baking powder
2 lbs. soda
1/2 lb. evaporated vinegar
12 oz. compressed soup
1 can mustard
1 tin matches (for four men)
Stove for four men
Gold pan for each
Set granite buckets
Large bucket
Knife, fork, spoon, cup, and plate
Frying pan
Coffee and teapot
Scythe stone
Two picks and one shovel
One whipsaw
Pack strap

Historic advertisement for Alaskan footwear
Two axes for four men and one extra handle
Six 8 inch files and two taper files for the party
Draw knife, brace and bits, jack plane, and hammer for party
200 feet three-eights-inch rope
8 lbs. of pitch and 5 lbs. of oakum for four men
Nails, five lbs. each of 6,8,10 and 12 penny, for four men
Tent, 10 x 12 feet for four men
Canvas for wrapping
Two oil blankets to each boat
5 yards of mosquito netting for each man
3 suits of heavy underwear
1 heavy mackinaw coat
2 pairs heavy machinaw trousers
1 heavy rubber-lined coat
1 dozen heavy wool socks
1/2 dozen heavy wool mittens
2 heavy overshirts
2 pairs heavy snagproof rubber boots
2 pairs shoes
4 pairs blankets (for two men)
4 towels
2 pairs overalls
1 suit oil clothing
Several changes of summer clothing
Small assortment of medicines
Read a woman's perspective on the required supplies after her experience in the gold rush.

Last updated: May 1, 2018

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