This photo of a prospector is on display at the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Seattle.

Mining the miners

Earlier in the day, I had walked past a snack shop in downtown Seattle called Cowchip Cookies. By afternoon, I was seeing this location near the waterfront as more than just a place with a funny name where I could indulge a sweet tooth.

During a walking tour offered by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, I learned that Cooper & Levy Outfitters once occupied a building on this site. The men who ran this business never joined the gold rush of 1897-98, which put Seattle on the map as the gateway to the Canadian gold fields. But they profited from it in a big way by selling supplies to thousands of folks who did.

The historical park, run by the National Park Service, uses old photographs, maps and exhibits to tell the story of the gold frenzy. The walking tour, led daily by a Park Service ranger, covers a compact area in and around Pioneer Square, where many buildings from the era still stand.

The story goes this way: In July 1897, the SS Portland docked in Seattle, carrying two tons of gold mined from tributaries of the Klondike River in western Canada. It didn't take long for news of this magnitude to spread across the country.

Soon the city was inundated by folks dying to head north and find nuggets "free for the picking." Even the mayor of Seattle quit his job and hopped aboard a steamship.

Of approximately 100,000 "stampeders" who rushed to the Alaska gold fields, 70,000 of them came through Seattle. Thanks to a vigorous advertising campaign by local merchants, this city became known as "the place" to catch a ship to where the gold was, beating out such other ports as San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver.

Ads of the era promised travelers the best lodging and entertainment while waiting for ships to embark. Stores were amply stocked with boots and coats for the cold northern climate.

"Seattle mined the miners," remarked our tour guide, Gene Ritzinger.

Many stampeders stayed at the Cadillac Hotel on Jackson Street and Second Avenue. Today, from the outside, this brick building — impeccably repaired after the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001 — looks much like it did in 1897. Inside, it now houses the museum, where the walking tour begins.

For diversion, stampeders could choose from any number of saloons, gambling joints, bordellos and opium dens that lined the streets south of Yesler Way.

"There cannot be that many houses of prostitution that warrant a commemorative plaque," said our guide, as he stopped the tour with a smirk on his face. "But here is one."

Sure enough, a plaque at the entrance of the building declares that you are standing outside what was once Seattle's most elegant pleasure parlor. Lou Graham was the name of the madam, and her clientele included many of Seattle's prominent citizens. A visit to Lou's would have cost the average stampeder dearly — but he could scrimp on other things, right?

Diagonally across the street from the brothel stood the city's first Catholic church, Our Lady of Good Help. The street signs spell out Third Avenue and Washington Street, but our guide had his own take on the address.

"We are standing at the intersection of Sin and Redemption," he quipped.

After a night on the town, stampeders were in for a miserable voyage of 1,000 miles on a crowded ship to either Dyea or Skagway, Alaska. A trek of 600 miles into the Canadian wilderness, including a torturous stretch through one of two mountain passes, still awaited them once they disembarked. Only a very few individuals struck it rich.

In fact, by the time the walking tour reaches Pioneer Square, it has become clear who the real winners in the gold rush were.

The Pioneer Building, the elegant centerpiece of the square, provided offices for 48 mining firms. Our tour guide defined the structure in architectural terms, calling it the city's best surviving example of the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style.

Besides that, though, this building seems to symbolize wealth that was beyond the reach of the common man. Yes, the Klondike held gold aplenty, but by the time the first stampeders arrived, the good claims had already been gobbled up by corporate interests. The gold rush was a boon for lawyers and accountants, like those who pushed papers across desks inside the Pioneer Building.

Most stampeders returned to Seattle with empty pockets. Some made their way back home while others found jobs around town — in the Moran Brothers Shipyards, perhaps, which employed more than 400 men in 1897.

History to be learned on this walking tour is not limited to the gold-rush years. For example, our guide called attention to the balcony from which President Benjamin Harrison delivered a speech in 1891.

"He griped about the rain the whole time he was here," our guide noted, "even while he was speaking to the crowd."

With a sissy attitude like that, Harrison never would have made it to the Klondike.

The walking tour, which begins at 2 p.m. and lasts about an hour, is free — offering a budget-conscious alternative to commercial tours of downtown Seattle.

Editor's Note: In next month's Joy, Paul Hadella writes about the second stop for miners heading to the Klondike from Seattle: Skagway, Alaska.

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