Christmas on the Klondike Trail, 1898
By Anna DeGraf
Christmas on the trail to the Klondike could be a somber and lonely experience. The cold, the dark, and the hundreds of miles separating gold rushers from their families weighed heavily on the men and women so far from home. But they could look to their own fellowship to make the best of it.
Anna DeGraf was one of the sojourners on the trail in the Yukon in December, 1898. This hardy woman had come north to join in the excitement and opportunity of the Rush and to enjoy the land she had spent several years in earlier in the 1890s. To help lug her supplies, she had hired two “boys”; it is hard to tell how old the “boys” might have been, since at 59 years old herself, DeGraf called almost every man on the trail a “boy.” It turned out that she was sturdier than the boys, and found herself one day urging her exhausted helpers to one final effort to reach the shelter of a cabin. They arrived on Christmas Eve. Here is her story of that Christmas.
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“Boys,” I said, “It’s just a little farther. Around this next bend is Lake Marsh, I know it is! I have been there before, and I remember it well. Just around the bend! Come, get up, and make one more effort to get that far.”
But they would not budge; they said they could not go any farther. I hoped I was telling the truth, and I trudged on wearily and prayed constantly, and sure enough, when I got around the bend I saw the lights of Lake Marsh.
Oh, how I called and shouted to them to make them understand. At last they dragged themselves up and stumbled toward me. When they saw the lights, it put new heart into them, and we tramped on until we came to the first cabin, and rapped at the door. It was opened by a man who held a light above his head and peered out into the darkness, and then cried,
“Why, it’s the lady who camped beside us at Lake Lindemann’!–and sure enough I remembered him. We were hardly inside the cabin before he began to tell us how homesick he and his son were. I spied two bunks, and without ceremony climbed into the top one and said, “Here I stay until I get rested. Will you have room to keep the boys and me all night?”
They were glad to do it, for they were so lonely.
“We have a Christmas cake,” one of them said, “and you shall have supper, with coffee and cake.”
After supper I had Johnnie [one of her boys] get out his trombone and play “Still is the night, holy the night,” and we joined in singing. By and by we heard some one outside the cabin singing, and then some one else, and when we opened the door we found the men from the other tents in that little settlement, drawn together by the music. We left the door open, and we all sang together the different hymns and songs we could think of. I shall never forget that night! All those souls so lonely, and thinking of home and loved ones! Some of them broke down and cried, they were so homesick. But it made them feel better, to sing–and to cry. It was a wonderful, clear night, the stars were so bright and seemed so near, and we sang our hymns in the wilds of the Yukon, for even in that far country we did not forget, “Still is the night, holy the night!”
It was very late when everybody finally went away, and we lay down to sleep. In the morning the whole camp came again. They heard our story, we all sang some more, and when, after we had our Christmas dinner, we started on our way, they walked with us a few miles before they said goodbye.
For Anna DeGraf’s account of her experiences in the Yukon and in Alaska, see her book: Pioneering on the Yukon, 1892-1917 (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1992).
For a collection of gold rush Christmas remembrances, see Anne Tempelman-Kluit’s book: A Klondike Christmas: Celebrating the Season in a Northern Frontier (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 1998).