The Victorian Age: The Spirit of the Time

The Victorian Age, under Queen Victoria's rule in Great Britain was roughly from 1837 to 1901. Ships were powered with steam, the railroads were spreading their tracks across the country and the muscle power of people and animals was still part of daily life. Up to the Victorian period, people lived agrarian lifestyles, on the farms and in small communities or villages. People generally lived in one place their whole lives. News traveled slowly between regions and communities were more isolated. More than anything else, the Victorian Age was known for enthusiasm for the future and a strong belief in progress. Astounding changes occurred with such great inventions as the telegraph, bicycle, gas lighting, electric lighting, the telephone, motor cars and x-rays. Due to all the great change and industrialization, the Victorians were caught up in the time that is also known as the Industrial Age.

By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, Seattle functioned as the central point for water traffic moving freight and passengers to Alaska. Before the 1890s, San Francisco controlled trade with the far northlands. During that decade, however, Seattle merchants gained a significant stronghold. The evidence of the Klondike stampede boosting Seattle's shipping leadership can be found in the newspaper report that the Seattle fleet tripled in size between 1897 and 1898. This was due partly to Alaska business. So pressing was the demand for steamships in the late 1890s, that some vessels of marginal quality were placed in service. Seattle's shipping "never was so entirely engaged," explained one reporter in 1897. Not a single vessel seaworthy and capable of use was overlooked.

Means of transportation were changing rapidly at this time. The Victorian Age saw the advent of many kinds of transportation, including trains and large ships. Steam was used by ships at this time;the use of these steamships increased because of their quickness and potential. During the late nineteenth century, shippers filled these vessels to capacity. The Alaska Steamship Company, for instance, operated vessels that carried as many as 700 passengers each. In general, each ship ran between Seattle and the far north one and one-half times per month. To prospector Martha Louise Black, it seemed that steamships left Seattle for Alaska almost every hour." The historian Clarence B. Bagley noted that all this activity resulted in a "scene of confusion" on the Seattle waterfront that "has never been equaled by and other American port." The docks were piled high with outfits, and crowds of impatient miners "anxiously sought for some floating carrier to take them to the land of gold." Disembarking in Dyea was quite different. From a personal account of stampeder, Addison Mizner, we learn that in Dyea,

there were no freight terminals, warehouses or docks. Newcomers, bewildered by it all, were almost pushed off into waiting scows, rafts and rowboats. Horses, cattle and dogs were run or pitched overboard to swim for shore, and vast masses of freight and baggage of every description was eventually piled onto a beach already crowded with the possessions of other arrivals who had found no place for shelter.

Compounding the problem was the large tidal range, which often exceeded 20 feet.

The Long Wharf, also called the Dyea Wharf, helped solve on the major problems associated with ocean travel during the Klondike Gold Rush. Just as today, the tidal zone sloped very gently; therefore, it was very difficult for ships to land there. The variation between high and low tide was as much as 24 feet and the horizontal distance between the high and low tide line was over a mile. When the gold rush began, the need for a wharf became obvious. Working crews began at deep water and built northward; constructions also took place, heading southward from the opposite end. The pilings were 12-inch round logs spaced in groups of three and separated by a 15 ft. gap. Logs in each pilings group was spaced approximate 6 to 7 ft. apart. It was intended to be a key part of a transportation system which would carry goods from Puget Sound to Dyea, transfer them onto wagons as far as Canyon City; then haul them by tramway over the Chilkoot Pass to Crater lake. Pack trains would complete the journey to Lake Lindeman. The northern and southern sections of the wharf were never joined.

The Victorians were subject to changes in industrial production, which created more wealth. The very rich made up roughly one percent of the population, and 15 percent were middle class;leaving 85 percent poor. Another fundamental change was the relationship between men and women. Up to this point in time, men and women stood side by side on the farms, heading westward and in small businesses. There is a change during the Victorian era. Why? With rapid industrialization, the division of labor becomes more important. It was commonly believed that women could not handle the complexity. However constrained by the 19th century standards of propriety, women did join the quest for gold. Women came north motivated by dreams of riches, others sought adventure. But the Klondike also held a special attraction for women who believed it was time for the two sexes to stand on more equal footing. In the chaos and single mindedness of the gold rush society, normal standards were to some degree, suspended. Of stampeders heading for the Klondike, about seven percent or 1,500 women went up the White Pass or the Chilkoot Trail.

We can learn from Lillian Oliver, who wrote this about her journey:
I am not gifted enough to tell you of the awful grandeur of my first day's walk on the bed of the river, between Dyea and this place. The river crossed our path fourteen times. I crossed on a fallen tree once, waded four times and was carried across nine times. We walked on and on, and did not see anything of Canyon City so I had to call a halt. I had started with determination of keeping my troubles to myself, but my feet were too blistered to go further. We had had a terrible walk for four miles over sharp rocks, and I was in great pain every step I took I wanted to lie down by the side of the trail…

Yet the overriding principals one often finds is a spirit of adventure from the Victorians.

There were many instances where men were amazed to see non-aboriginal women on the trail, dressed in men's clothing and living a hard life. William Haskell noted:

Sheep Camp is a favorable place to see what some women are made of…it was a revelation, almost a mystery. But after a while, I began to account for it as the natural result of an escape from the multitude of social customs and restraints which in a civilized society hedge about a woman's life. Hardened miners enter on the Alaskan trail as a sort of grim business, something a little worse than they have been accustomed to and yet much the same. The stimulus received from the novelty of the situation is much less than in the case of a woman, especially one who has not been used to roughing it. She steps out of her dress into trousers in a region where nobody cares. Her nature suddenly becomes aware of a freedom which is in a way exhilarating. She has, as it were, thrown of the fetters which civilized society imposes, and while retaining her womanliness, she becomes something more than a mere woman. Her sensitive nature is charmed with the new conditions and her husband who has had the advantage of no such metamorphosis, sits down, tired and disheartened by the obstacles in his path, and marvels at his wife as she drags her heavy rubber boots through the snow and climbs with a light heart the precipices of might mountains.

Not all women chose to wear trousers. The usual clothing of the day was not well suited to fording streams, climbing mountains and clambering in and out of boats or hiking over uneven terrain. Hems trailed the ground and full skirts were popular during the mid-1890s. Corsets were worn whenever women were in public despite how the tight lacing restricted breathing. So many stampeder women boldly shortened their hems, wore flannel dresses and some even abandoned their corsets. Opinions about acceptable dress were changing along with values, roles and expectations for women.

By the time they reached the summit of the pass, and deposited their outfits in a city of supplies, men and women who survived the climb, were gaunt, dirty, stinking and exhausted. They bore no resemblance to those who had posed against painted backgrounds in the studios of the Pacific coast as aspiring adventurers. They had been eager to get rich, ever optimistic as demonstrated by commissioning portraits of themselves on the eve of their departure for the goldfields. Now these onetime clerks and office workers were seasoned pioneers who had learned how to load an ox, to maneuver a shoulder pack and to protect their eyes from the glare of the snow, which even on dull days, could make a person blind. In these photographs from the summit, few are smiling; nobody is posing. They look up for an instant, stare briefly into the photographer's lens, and then get on with the job.

This text is adapted from a KHNS History talk written by Ranger Cindy Von Halle, March 2014.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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