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Chilkoot Pass Avalanche - April 3, 1898

The Klondike Gold Rush began in 1896 with the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek. By 1898, a stampede of prospectors was heading to the Klondike. The prospectors could have taken any of a number of routes, but none was shorter or cheaper than the Chilkoot Trail. As a result, this trail through the Chilkoot Pass became the most popular path for people hoping to strike it rich.

Photograph of rescuers lifting a body out of the snow, Chilkoot Trail, April 3, 1898


Recovering the dead, Chilkoot Trail,
April 3, 1898

The Chilkoot Trail was not an easy trip, however. While the trail was only 53 kilometres (33 miles) long, it was very steep, climbing 1,067 metres over the Chilkoot Pass. In some places, it rose at a nearly 40-degree angle. That the trail was so busy and so steep contributed greatly to the tragedy that occurred on April 3, 1898. Also known as the Palm Sunday Avalanche, it was the deadliest -- and one of the most widely reported -- events of the entire Klondike Gold Rush.

Photograph of climbers with large packs on their backs on the side of a snow-covered mountain, Chilkoot Pass, 1898


Gold prospectors climbing to the summit of Chilkoot Pass, 1898

Heavy snow had been falling throughout February and March of that year, but the beginning of April brought warm weather that caused melting and unstable conditions. Then, on April 2nd, it began to snow again.

Guides knew that these were the perfect conditions for an avalanche, and warned others to stay away. The lure of gold was too strong, however, and some prospectors headed out on the trail regardless of the warnings. The first of a series of avalanches started at 2:00 a.m., and buried 20 prospectors. Another followed at 9:30 a.m., burying three more. All were rescued, but fear of further avalanches convinced some 220 other people living and working on the trail to evacuate.

Sometime between 11:00 a.m. and noon, a third avalanche occurred, and a group of evacuees was caught in a massive slide that buried dozens under 9 metres (30 feet) of snow, and covered ten acres.

Some 1,500 volunteers worked for four days to rescue survivors and recover bodies. Reports of the number of dead varied. Some claimed as few as 48 died; others put the death toll at 70. The generally accepted number is about 60.

Visitors to the town of Dyea, Alaska can view the victims' final resting place at the Avalanche Victims' Cemetery. Today, the Chilkoot Trail is a popular tourist destination, but it is no less dangerous. Parks Canada still warns hikers to have shovels, avalanche transceivers and probes, so they can be found in the event of an avalanche.

Newspaper article: THE CHILKOOT HORROR

Newspaper article: TALL TALE OF A TRAIL

Newspaper article: AWFUL CALAMITY