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1890's gold rush topic of Kiwanis meeting

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Sunnyside attorney Steve Winfree recently returned from a hiking trip on the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska and Canada. The trail was used for about a year and a half in the late 1890s by gold miners seeking their fortunes.

Sunnyside attorney Steve Winfree recently returned from a five-day hike across the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska, a pass that was created in the 1890s as a way to get to the Yukon gold regions in Canada. He shared his 33-mile journey with the Sunnyside Kiwanis Club Thursday morning.

Winfree, his two sons and a brother made the trip in June, before most hikers venture across the pass.

He said each year about 3,000 people cross the pass, which is only open to those with permits.

The Chilkoot Pass was created after gold was found in Dawson City in 1896, said Winfree, a native of Fairbanks, Alaska.

He said in the 1890s the United States and the world was in a recession. When the word that gold was discovered reached the outside world in 1897, a mass migration of people left their homes in search of their fortunes. Winfree's grandfather was amongst those seeking gold. After a year he returned and brought his wife and baby to the area. Winfree said they have found evidence that his grandfather had six claims, but, he said, most likely his grandparents leased out the claims to other miners.

His grandparents crossed White Pass, or "Dead Horse Trail," a pass about 10 miles from Chilkoot Pass, which is lower, but longer.

In 1897, when Seattle was a city of about 50,000 people, 100,000 people started making their way to the Klondike. Only 40,000 to 60,000 actually reached the gold mining areas, said Winfree. Of those, only about 5,000 were able to find any sizable amount of gold and only about 400 retained their wealth.

"The cost to get there was more than what they found," said Winfree.

Many would-be miners arrived and when they didn't find their treasures, they sold their gear and moved on.

Mining continues today in the Klondike, said Winfree.

Winfree said the pass was not a difficult hike. He said that the elevation of the pass is 3,700 feet, a height gain of which is made up mostly in a three-mile section. Along the trail there are established campsites that are near where the miners stayed when they were crossing the pass. Winfree said that most of the miners crossed the pass in the winter months because it was easier to cross the large boulders along the path when snow was on top of them. Winfree and his party had to climb the boulder covered hillsides without the aid of snow.

Winfree added that for much of the trip, miners would use pack animals to haul their supplies needed for the trip. He said that the Canadian Mounted Police set up weigh stations and would weigh the miners and their gear. A miner was required to carry one ton of food and equipment. Food would equal about 1,100 pounds of their load, which the mounted police believed was enough to sustain a person for a year. A miner would carry as much gear as possible along the trail and then make a return trip for more equipment. The process would take a miner about two months to cross the pass and reach Lake Bennett. Winfree said that in some sections of the trail, miners would hire people to ferry their food and equipment along the lakes the trail passed.

The trail ends at Lake Bennett, which was as far as many of the miners made it. They set up a large tent city. A bark-covered church built in the late 1890s still remains in Lake Bennett, as does the railroad station. Winfree's party returned to their starting point by rail.

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