LAURA SULLIVAN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
More than a century ago, George Carmack reached into the cool waters of the Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Valley, and he grasped a gold nugget as big as his thumb. After decades of searching, he was suddenly a rich man. And the frozen, deserted Yukon was overrun. Hundreds of thousands of gold prospectors trekked to Alaska and Canada for the biggest gold strike in American history.
HOWARD BLUM: (Reading) Klondikitis, as the New York Herald dubbed the phenomenon, gripped folks everywhere. A giddy mix of greed, a yearn for adventure, klondikitis convinced people to abandon their old lives in a rash instant and confidently set off for the far north. The lure of gold, people in all walks of life agreed, was too hypnotic to resist.
SULLIVAN: That's Howard Blum reading from his new book, "The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush." It was 1896, but it could've been today, prospectors once again flocking to Alaska in search of gold, this time with high-tech tools.
Howard Blum is in our New York Bureau. Welcome to the program.
BLUM: Hello. Nice to speak with you.
SULLIVAN: You, too. We'll get on to today's gold rush in a bit. But first, let's talk about what the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s was like. You say it was no easy task to get there, to even get a hold of this gold. Describe what the frenzy was like.
BLUM: Well, when the word came that a ton of gold had landed in Seattle, America was in the grips of a great depression. People were out of work, banks were closing down, farms were being foreclosed. There were fistfights on the New York Stock Exchange, so people quickly believed that they could change their lives by, presto, heading off to the Yukon, dipping their gold pan into a Yukon stream and picking up gold as if from the floor of heaven.
But it wasn't that easy. First of all, the ships took you on a dangerous voyage. Many of them sank along the way. And once you got there, the ships didn't let you off at the gold fields. They let you off, oh, about a quarter of a mile from a beach. You had to figure out how you were going to get into the Yukon, which was in Canadian territory.
Then you've got to get down to Lake Bennett, and you can't just float on the late because there's no boats. So you got to chop down trees, build a boat, then you've got to take this boat down the lakes, then down rushing rapids, then finally, you have to get to the gold fields, and by then, most of the claims have already been staked. So it was a rough going for the people who were doing it.
SULLIVAN: Let's talk about George Carmack. He kicked off this gold rush. He'd been searching for years and years, he was broke and often despondent. He almost seemed a little bit moody about the whole effort until he decided to head up the Klondike when other people just told him that he was crazy.
BLUM: Yes. Yes. He had a dream of a salmon with gold coins as eyes and solid gold scales swimming upstream. And this convinced him to go to the Klondike looking for gold.
SULLIVAN: You are able to develop such a rich portrait of him. And on the one hand, he wanted to live off a land, and he joined a native Alaskan tribe, he married an Indian woman. And then he got rich, and it seemed like everything just fell apart. What happened?
BLUM: Money changes everything, just like "The Treasure of Sierra Madre." As an eight-year-old boy, he held a gold nugget in his hand that was given to him by his brother-in-law. And he felt it and he said some day he's going to discover gold, make a bonanza, and he actually does. He actually finds Bonanza Creek.
SULLIVAN: I'm talking with author Howard Blum about his new book, "The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush."
Thousands of people were flocking to northern cities to try their luck at gold prospecting, and they were pretty easy targets for con artists. One of the main characters in your book, a man known as Soapy Smith, had a whole gang of men that would come up with elaborate schemes to trick people out of their money. Tell us about Soapy Smith.
BLUM: Well, Soapy Smith was a wonderful character. He started out - off as a con man, a bunko artist as a teenager in Denver. He would hang around the Denver train station, and when people would gather around, he'd have an auction. He'd give away, raffle off, rather, bars of soap with $50 bills tucked into the bars. People would bid five, $6 to get a $50 bill, except the people who won the bars of soap were working for him.
After the shills took their bars of soap with the $50 bills and exclaimed with great joy how much money they're making, then the actual auctions would begin, and people would wind up paying five or $10 for a nickel bar of soap. He did this for a while until he got run out of Denver. He got run out of Creed. He got run out of Washington.
And after 10 or 15 years of doing this, he thought he'd come to the end of the line. And then when gold was discovered in the Yukon, he decided, well, he was going to go there to make his fortune. He gathers up his gang and they go up to Skagway, this little tent town in the entry to the Yukon Passage to lead you to the gold rush areas. And within eight months, he becomes king of Skagway. He owns all the bars, all the bordellos. He's selling fake deeds to mines.
But sometimes, he's also quite ingenious. For example, when you arrive in Skagway and you get off the steamship, you want to send a telegram to your loved ones telling them you arrived safely. So you have to go to the telegraph operator, you pay them $5, and he sends a cable saying that you've arrived. The next day, you get a response and that costs you another $5, and the $10 goes to Soapy. The problem is there were no telegraph lines in Skagway for another 10 years.
SULLIVAN: So he was writing the responses himself.
BLUM: Yes, yes. He would say, oh, so glad you've made it safely, things like that.
SULLIVAN: So there's a third character in your book, Charlie Siringo, and he became a cowboy detective in Denver, Colorado. He was a member of a private detective force. And this is at a time when if you had a problem or you needed to track somebody down there was no FBI to call. You had to go private.
BLUM: You go to the Pinkertons. And he goes to the Pinkertons when he thinks they're going to put a bowler hat on him and keep him in Chicago or send him to New York. But Mr. Pinkerton gets this idea, go to the Denver office. The West is becoming civilized, and you'll become our cowboy detective. And for the next 22 years, he goes off on cases riding on his horse all over the West. But the case that fascinated me is one that sends him off to Alaska. There's a robbery at a mining facility just outside Juno. And...
SULLIVAN: And it's this robbery that brings the collision of these three characters in your book. There's the cowboy detective, a gold prospector and a con artist, and they all come together and collide.
BLUM: Yeah. All their lives come together. A further gold robbery is prevented. There's a pretty neat shootout at the end on the waters just off Skagway. And at the same time I'm telling the story of these three lives and this drama, I'm also telling a story about the end of the Old West and the beginnings of the Yukon gold rush.
SULLIVAN: What ended up happening to George Carmack?
BLUM: He fulfilled his one dream. And then after he did it, he kept on spending the rest of his life trying to relive this wonderful experience. He died in the '60s while he was still looking for another gold find, this time in Nevada.
SULLIVAN: Let's fast forward to today. Gold has passed $1,500 an ounce right now and people are again flocking to the Yukon. You traveled extensively throughout Alaska and the Canadian territories to research this book. What does this latest gold rush look like?
BLUM: It's a high-tech version of the same mood that struck in 1896. It's people who are out of work. There are no jobs for them in Detroit or wherever they're coming from, and they want to see if they could make it in Alaska. Alaska attracts people who can't make it elsewhere or just want to have the excitement of trying to make it on their own, and they're taking large risks again. And so far, no one has made this big find in Alaska. There hasn't been the next big find.
SULLIVAN: That's Howard Blum, author of "The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush." Thank you so much for joining us.
BLUM: My pleasure. Enjoyed talking to you.