How Gold Turned The Yukon Into The Wild West When gold was discovered in Alaska and Canada in the 1890s, thousands packed their bags and headed north, knowing little of the troubles they would face. Howard Blum writes about their adventures in The Floor Of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush.

How Gold Turned The Yukon Into The Wild West

How Gold Turned The Yukon Into The Wild West

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Nineteenth-century prospectors pan for gold in the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon Territory. Hulton Archive/Getty hide caption

toggle caption
Hulton Archive/Getty

Nineteenth-century prospectors pan for gold in the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon Territory.

Hulton Archive/Getty

More than a century ago, George Carmack stuck his arm into the frigid waters of Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Valley. What he came up with changed his life and many others: a gold nugget as big as his thumb.

The Floor of Heaven
The Floor of Heaven
By Howard Blum
Hardcover, 432 pages
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

After decades of searching, he was suddenly a rich man. And soon, 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.

"The country was looking for a panacea, something that would change lives overnight, and they hurried to go," author Howard Blum tells Laura Sullivan of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered.

Blum's new book, The Floor Of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, follows three fascinating characters of the time: cowboy detective Charlie Siringo, gold prospector George Carmack and con artist Soapy Smith.

"At the same time by telling the story of these three lives and this drama, I'm also telling a story of the end of the old West and the beginnings of the Yukon Gold Rush."

Gold Fever

When word came that prospectors had struck gold in the Yukon, America was in the grips of a depression.

"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 off gold as if from the floor of heaven," Blum says.

A long line of 19th-century prospectors make their way to Canada's Klondike gold fields through the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. Keystone View Co., Library of Congress hide caption

toggle caption
Keystone View Co., Library of Congress

A long line of 19th-century prospectors make their way to Canada's Klondike gold fields through the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska.

Keystone View Co., Library of Congress

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 go there, the ships didn't let you off at the gold fields, they left you off about a quarter of a mile from a beach and you had to figure out how you were going to get into the Yukon, which was in Canadian territory."

By the time voyagers arrived at the gold fields, most of the claims had already been staked, the author says.

Yet the possibility of finding gold pulled in people from all directions. Carmack was one of them. And once he found gold in a Yukon creek — a creek he named Bonanza — he never stopped prospecting, despite his riches.

"He died in his 60s while he was still looking for another gold mine, this time in Nevada," Blum says.

Getting Rich, And Losing It All

In the 1890s, the people flocking to northern cities to try their luck at gold prospecting made pretty easy targets for con men like Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith.

When a steamboat arrived in Skagway, one of Alaska's boomtowns, Smith and his gang would find ways to trick people who wanted to contact their families back home.

"So you have to go to the telegraph operator, you pay him $5, and he sends a cable saying you've arrived, the next day you get a response and that costs you another $5 and the 10 dollars go to Soapy. The problem is, there were no telegraph lines in Skagway for another 10 years." As Blum writes, Smith's operators used to write the responses themselves.

Howard Blum is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. He is the author of nine books including American Lightning and Gangland: How the FBI Broke the Mob. Mark Schafer/Vanity Fair hide caption

toggle caption
Mark Schafer/Vanity Fair

Howard Blum is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. He is the author of nine books including American Lightning and Gangland: How the FBI Broke the Mob.

Mark Schafer/Vanity Fair

Eventually, Smith became the equivalent of a mafia kingpin: Everybody knew he was a bad guy, but no one could bring him down. Until, that is, the cowboy detective Charlie Siringo hit town.

Cowboy Detective

Siringo was a top-hand cowboy. He hung around with American outlaws Billy the Kid and Bat Masterson before he settled down.

"After he got married, he realized his cowboying days were over. ... He needed to find a more sedentary life."

Siringo tried to be a merchant. He even opened a store that sold ice cream and oysters in the middle of Kansas. None of his endeavors felt right, though, until he was offered a job at a detective agency in Chicago.

One of his assignments took him to Alaska, which is where he got wind of Soapy Smith's plan to rob George Carmack.

And so in the end, the three men have an Old West-style showdown — except the face-off takes place on a river in Canada's Yukon Territory.

Excerpt: 'The Floor Of Heaven'

The Floor of Heaven by Howard Blum
The Floor of Heaven
By Howard Blum
Hardcover, 432 pages
List Price: $26

There's an etiquette to standing at a bar. In a trail of cow towns from Dodge City to Tascosa, Charlie had come to learn how a cowpoke handles himself in a strange saloon. You plant your boots about a foot or so apart, lean forward a bit from the shoulders, and keep your eyes fixed on your glass of whiskey. You don't go looking anybody in the face or striking up a conversation. A man who pays more attention to who's in the room than to his liquor, or who starts in jawing with someone standing at the bar, is setting himself up for trouble. He's letting it be known that he's a lawman come noseying around, or maybe a flimflam artist looking for a mark. Either way, folks aren't going to take too kindly to him, and that could have some dangerous consequences. In Dodge City one time, Charlie had seen a cowboy get shot just for asking why the lady outside was feeding a couple of doves.

So two nights after his meeting with Marshal Collins, Charlie stood at the mahogany bar in Jeff's Place with his attention fixed on his glass of Canadian rye. He wasn't asking any questions, and in case someone came over to say howdy, he was prepared to ignore them.

Charlie's plan was simple enough, but it would take some time to unfold. Detective work, McParland had often lectured, requires patience, and Charlie was prepared to wait before making any inquiries about Schell. He'd hang out in the saloon for perhaps a week, keeping to himself but letting folks get used to his face. He'd worked out a cover story, the latest in a long list of fanciful biographies he'd adopted in the course of his job, and as the days passed he'd get around to sharing a bit. He'd tell people just enough so that they'd believe he was a Texas outlaw on the run. The name he'd use would be invented, too, another alias dusted off from some distant experience in his rambling life.

Once he was more or less a regular, Charlie predicted, it wouldn't be long before someone would come up nice and casual and invite him into the back room. Soapy's always looking for reliable hands, would be the pitch. So he'd share a drink with the great man himself, and if all went well, he'd maybe be offered an opportunity to do a bit of sly work. And by and by, once Charlie had won the confidence of his new friends, he'd happen to ask if anybody had seen his ol' buddy Hiram Schell. Schell had lent him some money and now that he was flush, he'd like to pay his friend back. Things might get, Charlie knew, a bit scaly; after all, he was setting out to con a passel of con men. But Charlie had been jobbing outlaws for years without getting caught. No reason to think this script wouldn't play out as written, too. And anyways, he didn't have a better idea — or, for that matter, another clue other than the name of this saloon.

Of course, there was one occurrence that could upset his carefully reasoned plan. There was always the possibility, Charlie had to concede, that Schell might belly up to the bar or mosey out of the back room and find himself staring straight into the face of the man who had busted him. That happened, Charlie knew, cover stories and aliases wouldn't do him any good. That was why he wore his Colt strapped to his hip. And he made it a point to keep his coat unbuttoned and his gun hand free. If Schell wouldn't go quietly, Charlie was prepared to shoot it out. Sure, the fugitive might have a room full of friends to back him up, but Charlie had never known a thief or a bunco man who could handle a gun. Soon as he plunked the first one, Charlie reckoned, they'd all back off.

And so Charlie settled in at the bar. But he'd taken only a few sips from his drink before all his carefully laid plans fell completely apart. He reached for his glass and, without meaning to, noticed a man down at the end of the bar. Charlie was surprised, and that was why he made his mistake. He held his glance for a moment longer than he should have. In that instant the man at the end of the bar looked up and recognized him, too.

Charlie hadn't spotted Hiram Schell. He had found a murderer.

The two of them stood alone in the dark on the Skagway wharf. As soon as Charlie had locked eyes with Bill Moore he realized it'd be best if the two of them did their catching up someplace quiet. They went back quite a ways, and there was a lot to talk over. He'd given a small nod of his head, then walked out of the bar. Moore had followed.

In the days when Charlie was a top hand, Moore had run the LX Ranch. Charlie had enjoyed working for him. In his experience, Moore was a born leader of men and one of the best cowmen in the west. But Moore was a complicated fellow; he also was prey to his larcenous heart and killer's temper. All the while he'd managed the LX, he'd been stealing cattle. Finally, he put his own brand on the stolen herd and went off to establish a ranch in New Mexico, down in the American Valley. But Moore's days as a cattle baron didn't last too long. After an argument in a saloon, he shot two men dead. Charlie knew his old boss was now on the run, with a big price on his head.

"I heard you're working for the Pinkertons, Charlie," Moore began as the two stood on the wharf. He spoke in a whisper, but the night was so quiet that Charlie thought he might as well be shouting. "Don't turn me in," he said with some force.

Charlie had no intention of turning in his old compañero. And he'd no desire to draw on him. They'd done too much together for that to be a serious possibility. But Charlie saw no reason to share that with Moore, at least not until he got the information he needed. Course, if Moore went for his gun, Charlie reckoned, he'd have no choice but to go for his, too. He was hoping, however, that Moore wouldn't be so bold. After all, Moore had witnessed the now famous shooting match at the LX when Charlie had matched Billy the Kid shot for shot. If friendship wasn't sufficient to keep things civil, Charlie hoped, then perhaps that memory would discourage Moore.

So Charlie didn't respond to Moore. He simply asked if he'd happened to run into Hiram Schell. "Big bear of man with a full beard," Charlie added, trying to prod Moore's memory.

Moore thought for a moment. "Lot of folks come to Soapy's place," Moore said, as if making an apology. "Maybe. Sounds familiar. But I can't be sure."

"Well, I need you to be sure, Bill," Charlie said, his voice turning rough.

Perhaps it was the harsh tone in Charlie's voice that caused Moore to grow anxious. "Look," he offered, "I know lots of things. The sort of stuff a Pinkerton might find useful."

"I'm only interested in Schell," Charlie said flatly.

But Moore went on, a man bargaining for his freedom. "They're planning a robbery," he announced. "A big one. A quarter of a million dollars. They're gonna rob some prospector when he takes his haul of gold to the boat to Seattle--"

"No interest to me," Charlie interrupted.

But Moore was nearly frantic. He couldn't stop. The way he saw it, he was trying to make a deal to save his life. He was on the run for murder and negotiating with a lawman he knew he couldn't beat in a gunfight. All he could do was play the only card he had. So he continued: "Old sourdough's name is Carmack. George Carmack. A genuine Klondike millionaire."

Suddenly Charlie was all attention. "What was that about Carmack?" he asked.

"I tell you about the robbery the Soap Gang's planning, you let me go? Deal?"

"Deal," Charlie agreed.

And for the next twenty minutes, Charlie listened. He heard the secret plan Carmack had devised to get his fortune out of Alaska, and then he heard Soapy Smith's scheme to thwart it.

Excerpted from The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush. Copyright 2011 by Howard Blum. Reprinted by Permission of Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.