Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike (1899)
This is a series of footage presented on the DVD “Invention of the Movies,” but I’m not entirely sure that these scenes were presented to audiences stitched together as they are here. As it is, it appears as a kind of 1-minute documentary about the gold rush, giving modern viewers a chance to see Alaska as it appeared over a century ago.
The first shot is a newspaper headline that emphasizes the harsh conditions and large numbers of unskilled people emigrating to Alaska in search of gold. After that we see a tracking shot down the street of an Alaskan boom town, with largely empty streets and many signs for new businesses. Spectators in the street stare directly up at the camera, which seems to be on a wagon or other conveyance. The next shot shows a much busier street from sidewalk-level, and here crowds line the streets. There are banners over the street and a man carries a sign advertising a local business, giving the whole scene the sense of a parade or fairgrounds. Next we see a raging river, and a large boat speeds into view, carrying a handful of men through the rapids. The last shot shows men working at sluices, with a camp visible in the background. There is a woman at the lower part of the screen (distinguishable in her heavy 19th-century dress), and at one point she picks up a rock and shows it to her escort. I get the impression that she is being given a tour of the mining facility.
As I said above, I don’t know (and somewhat doubt) that these strips of film were ever shown to audiences in exactly this way. The editing structure of the current presentation seems too close to modern documentary technique to have been used at the time. What is more likely is that each of these shots was a part of a longer film, sold separately or in a bundle to exhibitors, who showed them with live narration or reading from newspapers about events in Alaska. Possibly these snippets are all that has survived, and editing them into a single film made sense from a video distribution standpoint. We do get some nice contemporary images of the Klondike, however. The ramshackle buildings and simple tents that make up the city and mining area speak to the primitive conditions people embraced, and the crowded street scene gives a sense of the population-problems the area was facing. Also the fact that we see only one woman among all these shots is telling in terms of the skewed gender-situation at this time and place. On the whole, while they are discouragingly short, these clips do transport us to a time which has been romanticized by cinema at least since the first version of “The Spoilers” hit the screen.
Camera: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan
Run Time: 1 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).