Mossback's Northwest: Gold fever launched Seattle’s aerospace obsession

The idea of airships delivering provisions to the 1897 Alaskan gold fields gave rise to global sightings of fantastical flying machines.

Airships became a global obsession during the turn of the 19th century. Imagined as a way to move freight to the 1897 Klondike gold fields, the idea took off around the world, and people reported seeing all manner of them in the skies.

When gold was discovered in the Klondike in the late 1890s, it set off a stampede that changed Seattle forever. The region boomed, Seattle grew rich. One thing that happened as a result of the lust for gold: It spurred a passion for aerospace innovation.

What? Really?

It’s true. Gold powered the dreams of controlled human flight and everyone’s eyes were on the skies, as prospectors flocked to the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon.

The California gold rush of 1849 spurred fantasies of airships carrying miners quickly across the country, but it wasn’t practical then. People went by wagon or ship. By 1897, the vision of treasure sparked imaginations and set off a flurry of what were described as mass sightings of airships. People saw cigar-shaped objects and moving lights in the night sky. It was as if some fantasy of Jules Verne had come to life.

In late 1896 through 1897, as gold fever mounted, so did visions of airships floating overhead. They were seen in the San Francisco area first, fittingly enough. Then over the Northwest: Spokane, Tacoma, Snohomish, Oregon, British Columbia. Soon sightings were had all over the country. Someone — or something — was building maneuverable aircraft. Not just balloons, which had been around since the late 18th century, but ships that could carry people and cargo.

Stories appeared in the newspapers. Thomas Edison discussed his ideas for airships, trips to Mars and wireless communications. Hiram Stevens Maxim, an inventor of the machine gun, opened a shop in San Francisco to build an aircraft to carry supplies to the Klondike.

In Goldendale, Washington, an inventor named E.D. Parrott claimed to build a working flying machine made of aluminum. He promised a public demonstration in 1895, but it never materialized. Some believed the airships were flights of fancy, but many real backyard inventors sped up their efforts.

An inventor in Germany said he was working on an airship in Hoboken, New Jersey. Canadian, French and Irish inventors said they, too, were building Klondike-ready airships. A woman called “Miss” Eola Lee was said to be planning to fly an airship described as an “immense aerial houseboat” to the goldfields. The New York Times egged them on: “Suppose an airship to be now perfected and practical. The riches of the Klondike would at once lie patent to mankind. The difficulties of reaching that lonely valley would vanish at once.”

Gold-seeking required heavy supplies shipped expensively across forests, mountain ranges, frozen lakes, through ice and snow. Imagine floating your gear to the remote northern latitudes which would have saved so much time and heartbreak. Still, the steerable airship capable of such journeys did not come along until 1900, when the Germans flew the first Zeppelin.

The most successful airship launched for the Klondike was a “musical farce comedy” called The Air Ship, which in 1897 imagined a crew of 15 — including its inventor and lots of pretty girls, the publicity said — flying to Dawson City in the Yukon to seek a lake of glittering gold. The play traveled the country for the next decade delighting audiences, including in Seattle, where people loved its combination of technological innovation and old-fashioned gold fever.

People are still energized by that combination today: Seattle has ever since embraced tech, aviation and the lure of riches.

 

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.