Barney had heard that prospecting wasn't that hard. Whoever had said that must have been sipping something awfully strong. He was just the sorta fool to believe that drunkard. That was how he found himself squatting on the edge of the river with a shallow metal pan swirling and flushing scraps of mud and water around in a constant motion. He had been crazy to think he could strike it rich. The sluice box just below one of the company-owned mines, that the men at camp had been using didn't have much elbow room left and he wasn't ready to share any nuggets he found. Not that the company wasn't fair, just there wasn't enough to make any of them rich. He'd take his chances with the pan and his little spot on the creek.
The snow on the ground reminded him that winter was closing in fast. A sure breeze was whipping winter into the territory and the large clouds in the distance promised more of the same before dawn. It was just a few weeks into October -- two months from the glorious year 1899. Hard to figure the whole century was almost done. All the changes and new businesses sprung up around him in the Yukon amazed him nearly as much as the fact he would probably see a new century before much longer. Him! Just last year he was down in Seattle wondering what to do with his life. That was where he ran into the man with the map. He was only asking a small price and swore it was a rich gold mine. When the man was asked by Barney why he wasn't personally going to work the mine, a hard luck story about pneumonia and other ailments. Barney put some money down and got the map.
It took him a while but he made it up to the gold fields. As well as a couple thousand other men just as hungry for gold; the newspapers called them all stampeders. He preferred the term prospectors. Sounded more positive. And with the cold bitter weather coming he would need all the positive he could find. The map had been useless, he quickly figured out when he saw three other men in the Dawson City saloon with identically crafted pages. He kept his mistake to himself and got involved with a few of the more talkative men at the bar. That was how he got wind of the company that was hiring. Since he presented a fine figure and had an air of authority due to his past employment, he was hired on to work the mines. Those mines weren't nothing like what he had seen down in the States, but given his engineering background they welcomed him. He didn't give them the whole sordid tale of his past so they didn't realize his battle with the bottle tended to get in the way of success. Well, that and buying fake treasure maps.
"Barney, that you freezing your ass off in the stream?" A rough voice hailed him. He looked up from under the brim of his hat to see another prospector shuffling slowly down the snow bank alongside the river.
"Hell, Frank, what ya doin' traipsing around these here parts? Last I heard tell at the saloon you gave up after that nasty bit with the avalanche in the spring that buried your friend at the Chilkoot Summit." That was more than Barney had said for a week. Frank was one of the few folks he ever spoke with at length once he got hired. He was pleased to see the man. Even if it was bitterly cold and huge fluffy snowflakes had begun to fall again. That snowfall hadn't even the decency to wait until nightfall to cover the land with winter. He shook off the cold blanket that was sticking to his jacket. It wouldn't do to catch a chill. Too many died that way in the camps.
Frank carefully found his footing down the icy slope. His slacks had seen better days and he wasn't as cleanly shaven as Barney had seen him in the past. His mustache was frosted over like he had just quaffed down a pint at the saloon. The deep black circles shadowing his haunted eyes gave Barney pause and concern.
Gruffly he nodded, "Yeah, he was a good one. But came back to town 'cause I heard tell a new way to make some sure money."
Barney slowed his repetitive motion to regard the sorry figure of a broken man nearly falling into the creek. Frank really didn't look healthy. A cough started and doubled him over while he drew closer to Barney. He ignored his friend's discomfort and nodding slowly he said, "Yeah?"
The man edged even closer to the river's edge. Ice cracked under foot, and slowly he hunched down next to Barney. Barney poked at a glimmer of gold in the bottom of the pan. He pinched it out and put it in a worn cloth sack. Frank nodded at the find but continued with his news.
"Yup. The new frontier isn't dipping a pan into an icy run of water hoping something shows up. Instead it is taking photographs." Frank nodded slowly, as if imparting a deeply held secret. His bloodshot eyes were tight and the wrinkles around them chapped and cut with wind. A slip of ice fell from his mustache and he brushed it away from his raw lips.
Barney had seen all the men with their elaborate stands, glass plates and cameras setting up along the sides of the mountain. He heard they were photographers and that they made black and white memories of history. They seemed to litter the mountain some days.
"Sure enough." Barney said noncommittally. He dipped his pan back into the icy water and worked more of the silt and water in a swirling motion. He was willing to give Frank his attention but had no intention of stopping his work. Last month alone he panned out enough gold to get himself a nice room at the hotel and a bottle for a few days. The company offered some living arrangements in the various camps but they weren't quite up to Barney's standards. He was a proud man in spite of his faults.
Frank began to pull things from his coat pockets. To Barney's amazement there were bits and pieces of the Yukon in small pictures. Maybe Frank was right. The pictures were concise and sparse in some cases but others shot straight to the heart of the gold fields. He put the pan down and carefully dried his cracked hands on his shirt.
"Do you mind if I have a look?" Barney was itching to touch them but knew what courtesy was needed.
"No, Barney, that's why I hailed you! I want you to see what amazing photographs are being sold. I think we can get a business going taking pictures and selling them for folks to send back home. This whole world is changing. And I don't know about you but I am pure exhausted being last at the table." Frank leaned in and handed over his pictures. It was then Barney smelled the delicious woody whisky on his friend's breath. Aware of the man's affliction, Frank pulled out a small bottle and offered a taste. It was all Barney could do to stop after a small swallow. The burn of the good liquor running to his gut gave him a warm happy feeling.
"That was mighty kind of you. So what is it I can do for you?" Barney continued looking at the pictures. He tried to keep the falling snow from landing on the paper. There was one that gave him pause.
"Frank, that's where your friend died," Barney looked at the etching on the bottom of the picture and read softly 'Scenes of snow slide on Chilkoot pass April 3rd 1898'. He saw that the date was nearly lost in the white of all the snow. A shiver ran down his spine. There was something not right about his friend having this picture. The bodies had been dug out with the help of miners and he never remembered seeing anyone taking photographs. But then he hadn't been looking for memories of that day and the ones that followed.
"Yeah, sure is. But forget that one, lookee here," Frank fumbled through and found the picture he wanted to use to erase the memory of the snow slide and all those dead men. He pulled it out and showed it to Barney.
"See this one," there was a lovely shot of the Horseshoe saloon with a banner announcing the Oatley Sisters entertaining in Dawson City. That did give Barney a slight chuckle.
"Okay, so you have some nice photographs. What makes you think we can do anything like them?" Barney had been parted with his money already once over the gold map and wasn't looking to doing it again.
Frank grinned and said, "Because I have some friends who just opened a studio near camp. They will let us keep some of the money we get for selling their pictures in souvenir albums. And after a while we can be taught how to use that fancy equipment."
Barney pondered his friend's statement then picked at something, "Why would they do that?"
"Well, I sorta told them you had a passing fancy with photography when you were learning all that book stuff back East. You being an engineer and all, you will pick it up easy." Frank ducked his head slightly at the exaggeration. Barney forgot he had told Frank about his learning years. But then he and Frank tended to drink a bit when they got together. The thought to action, Frank pulled back out his bottle and took a pull. Wiping the top off he offered Barney the same. Nodding his thanks Barney took his mouthful and nodded.
A deep phlegm-filled cough broke from Frank's face. Giving another pull settled the man down and he waited for Barney's answer.
"Hell, we are already here. Why not enjoy some photography!" Smiling, the partnership was launched.
Although this is a fictional piece, it is firmly founded in some research. There was a snow slide/avalanche between Sheep Camp and Chilkoot summit on April 3rd, 1898. Over 63 bodies were dug out from the snow. Dawson's 3rd Street was a hustling and bustling part of town, and the Oatley Sisters came over on the first paddle wheeler of the season in the summer of 1898 and entertained at the Horseshoe Saloon. Commercial photographers took advantage of all the world had to offer during the Klondike gold rush events and created studios and souvenir albums that created a library of photographic travel essays. The online site, The University of Washington Special Collections was one of many locations I used to research this piece. The photographs on that site are stunning and amazing.
Originally appeared 2007-01-15
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