In 1898, Henry Chauncey Cryder journeyed with two friends into the wilds of Canada’s Klondike region. There, like tens of thousands of others between 1896 and 1899, they hoped to discover gold. Cryder chronicled this trip in a diary that he gave to the New-York Historical Society in 1946 along with several photos and a smattering of related documents. Two years later, in 1948, his account featured in an exhibit on the Klondike Gold Rush.
At the time of his departure in February 1898, Cryder would have been about 28. Joining him were Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge and Lyman Roswell Colt. According to the Catalogue of the Members of the Fraternity Delta Psi (1889) the three were fraternity brothers at Columbia College where Cryder graduated in 1892. There Cryder had studied architecture, a discipline at the time still within the School of Mines where La Farge studied civil engineering. Contrary to his schoolmates, Colt graduated with an arts degree. Browsing the fraternity’s list of members it’s clear that Delta Psi (now “St. Anthony Hall”) recruited from the New York area’s elite Gilded Age families, boasting names such as Livingston, Rutherfurd, Chanler, Le Roy, Havemeyer, Schuyler, and Beekman.
Such a trio of well-heeled, Ivy League graduates, seeking their fortune in such an inhospitable place may seem unlikely for young men of means. However, beyond its record of Cryder’s struggle in the Canadian wilderness, the diary also reveals something about the society from which these men emerged.
Embarking from New York by train in late February, Cryder, La Farge and Colt arrived in Seattle after several days before making their way into the Yukon on foot and by boat. Cryder religiously documents each day’s events in his journal. Despite their brevity, these snippets convey the grueling realities of a prospector’s life in the Yukon, including an unwelcome aroma aboard one of the steamships on the way: “Had another fellow in the stateroom with us. He suffers from very strong feet. Stench was terrible.”
If we take him for his word, Cryder was not new to life in the wild, having apparently spent time in Idaho, likely following his graduation from Columbia. Occasional references to people he knows in the course of his trip may include men he had previously encountered out west. This, in fact, aligns well with his entry in Who’s Who in New York City and State (1904) which indicates that he held positions “consecutively” as an architect and railroad engineer, and in “mining and ranching in [the] Northwest.”
His companions, though, didn’t inspire his confidence. Cryder notes on March 14th that Colt and La Farge are “very green,” leading eliciting his anticipation of “lots of work.”
If Cryder’s observation was accurate, it evokes an important theme regarding the ambitions of many young men who flocked to the Klondike. Whether or not one was prepared, an arduous journey into the wilderness represented a rite of passage, especially amid historian Frederick Jackson Turner‘s 1890s declaration that the frontier, a critical influence on the evolution of American identity, was “closed.”
The Klondike thus offered a place to test one’s mettle, and to affirm one’s manliness, regardless of your place in society. Thus, a trio of Columbia graduates would not have been so out of place since prospectors were a cross-section of society.
Reinforcing this theme is Cryder himself, who three times in his diary references the Spanish American War, writing on May 25th “Wish I was with [the] Idaho cavalry, but cannot do two things at once.” His regret at not being able to serve suggests the war as an alternative adventure. As Douglas Fetherling notes in his book The Gold Crusades, the Klondike Gold Rush began to slacken as soon as war began, since, as Fetherling puts it “The type of people who would put enthusiasm ahead of good sense to climb Chilkoot Pass were also those who would put glory above morality to charge up San Juan Hill.”
Either way, the Klondike was no picnic. Far before anything like ultra-lite backpacking of today, Cryder notes that the total weight of their “outfit” was a staggering 4,940 pounds. Meanwhile, weather, with high winds, freezing temperatures, snow squalls, and steady rains, offered constant torment. Even when warmer weather arrived, it often became hot, with “perfectly awful” gnats and mosquitos providing little relief in a place where dangers lurked seemingly everywhere. Cryder records more than one near mutiny on board ships during his journey, and on April 6th, he notes that a “snow slide” had killed 49 men above Sheep Camp (a stopping place before the legendary Chilkoot Pass, a Klondike gateway for many prospectors). On May 29th, perhaps evidence of the tension that the frenzied influx of prospectors brought to a region inhabited by indigenous peoples, Cryder writes that “some Indians 17 miles below us, killed 1 white man and almost wounded another.”
But it was costly too. On February 25th, Cryder quotes a cost of $1,300 for their estimated 3,000 pounds of gear to get to Dyea, the now-abandoned town north of Skagway that served as the disembarkation point for many headed to the Klondike. That’s roughly $43,000 in 2021 dollars, a not inconsiderable sum, even split three ways. Not long after, their outfit would cost $90 to “summit,” likely Chilkoot Pass. Meanwhile, since they were bringing goods into Canada, their outfit was subject to a duty, another $143, for an additional total cost today of nearly $5,000.
Before long, Cryder’s concerns about his compatriots’ lack of experience devolved into impatience. In early May he attempted to convince Colt and La Farge to allow a friend, “Willie,” to join their group after Willie’s companions decided to call it quits. (It’s unclear how Cryder knew “Willie,” however, it is clear from the entries that Cryder was fond enough to want to help him out, and quite possible more fond than of either Colt or La Farge.) Their refusal prompts Cryder to write bitterly “I shall not forget them. Will leave these two as soon as I can.”
Five days later, on May 13th, with Cryder and Colt on a two-day hunt, Colt “gave out” under the weight of his 25 pound pack. Cryder records that he shifted ten pounds to carry himself, presumably with some annoyance. On returning, he learns that Willie was unable to find work at the sawmill and exhorts Colt and La Farge to reconsider their position on Willie. Only after Cryder threatens to leave do they acquiesce and Willie joins the group until Dawson City.
A week later the split finally occurs; Cryder and Colt are on an excursion when Colt pushes to stop and camp early. Cryder records that he wanted to continue on and told Colt “He had better go back and that from today we would dissolve the partnership.”
By mid-July, Cryder’s attempts to prospect for gold are not panning out either, and he muses about finding a job for the winter. Some time after the partnership ends, Cryder returns to their “cache,” receiving what he describes as a “pretty cold welcome” from Colt and La Farge. As the frostiness thaws, they discuss the sorry state of things. It’s clear Cryder’s morale is suffering: he writes “God knows how I can pull through this winter. It is [an] awful hole to be in.”
Shortly after he reconnects with Willie. By then Cryder is ready to head for St. Michael’s, Alaska and a steamer back to Seattle. In a bid to scrap together some cash for the last leg of his adventure, he flogs his camera and 204 “films” for $25. The rest of the diary documents the task of getting to St. Michael’s before their food stores run out which they achieve on September 18th, with little to spare.
On his way to Seattle, Cryder closes with “This ends this diary, the account of the hardest trip I have ever had. I came out dead broke but thankful to be alive.” He also adds: “Could statistics be had the number that have lost their lives in this rush would exceed that of the Spanish War.”
Despite the trials of his journey, it’s clear that Cryder was later fond of recalling the experience, sharing the diary and photographs with friends whose notes in response contain words like “hardihood” and “courage.” One even describes him as “a very tough hombre,” perhaps a subtle reminder of why many of these men ended up in the Klondike in the first place.
In an interesting twist, the experience of tangling with the Klondike doesn’t seem to have deterred Colt and La Farge entirely from the West. According to sources, Colt ended up settling in Chelan County, Washington, as a “farmer” immediately after his return from the trip in 1899 while La Farge stayed in Seattle and became a real estate investor. The man who may have seem most likely to remain, Cryder, however, returned to New York where he worked as the treasurer of Cryder & Co., an automobile importer.
This post is written by Ted O’Reilly, curator of manuscripts