Tall Tales: Fact-Checking Jack London on the Yukon


Jack London is tied to the Northwest through his dozens of stories of the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s — a movement of gold seekers that turned Seattle into a real city.

At age 21, London left his hometown of Oakland in the late summer of 1897. He took the steamer Umatilla to Port Townsend and transferred to another boat for Dyea, Alaska, the jumping-off point for the stiff climb up Chilkoot Pass. From there, it was 500 miles of lakes and freezing rivers to the boomtown of Dawson City. 

The aspiring writer spent one winter in the Yukon. It was a tough one. He came down with scurvy. He came home with only $4.50 of gold, but he extracted years’ worth of story ideas out of the Canadian North. Reading his novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang, and dozens of his Yukon stories, you think: This man knew the Yukon. No doubt he heard fabulous tales in the saloons, the cabins, and on the trail. Still, he couldn’t have possibly drawn all these stories from the experience of one year. And he didn’t.

While researching my book, The Panic of 1983, I came across this story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 21, 1897, page 2:

“PORTLAND, Oct. 20 — On the steamship George W. Elder, which leaves here next Friday for Dyea, Alaska, Charles E. Vest, of this city, will ship 4,000 dozen eggs and about a ton and a half of poultry, fresh meats and oysters, which he expects to transport over Chilkoot Pass to Dawson City by dog train before Christmas. The eggs have all been prepared and are ready for shipment. They were broken into cans, sealed up and then frozen. It will be necessary to keep them in cold storage until Dyea is reached, and after that it is expected that the weather will be cold enough to keep them frozen.

“Vest has four others associated with him and they expect to realize $100,000 out of the venture. They expect to sell the eggs at $35 per dozen and the poultry at fabulous prices. The party has 28 large dogs which have been in training for some time and they expect to get over the pass without serious difficulty.”

As a business writer at the old Post-Intelligencer, one of my favorite London tales was a kind of business story, “The One Thousand Dozen,” a 1903 story about a man who sought his fortune by bringing 12,000 eggs by dog sled to Dawson City. Like so many of London’s stories, including his most famous, “To Build a Fire,” it was an account of Man against Nature and of ultimate loss. In this case, it was financial loss, after his eggs, which hadn’t been frozen, arrived spoiled.

It’s a fine story, but years after reading it, I discovered that reality was not so harsh. On February 1, 1898, the Post-Intelligencer ran a story about Charles E. Vest titled, “MAKES A FORTUNE IN EGGS. Everybody Laughed at This Man, But Success Came to Him. Got $3 a Doz. for His Goods.”

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Very interesting piece, Bruce. Thanks! While reading, I found myself thinking about Robert W. Service. Similar to London, Service parlayed his time in the Klondike into fame and enough fortune to live a life of comfort in Lancieux, France. His poems describing life in the Yukon were very popular, similar to London’s stories. Among my favorites; The Shooting of Dan McGrew, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail.

  2. In 1969, my friends David Smith and Angus King (now the Independent US Senator from Maine) made an 8mm black and white silent movie of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”. I played Dangerous Dan, and wound up “pumped full of lead” with ketchup all over me.


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