Most people who know me know that I spent three summers in Skagway, AK, driving tour buses. During that time, I gained a lot of knowledge about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, during which Skagway became a boomtown. Even now, many signs in Skagway contain the word “Klondike,” even though the actual Klondike is another 400 miles north (a fact which some tourists in Skagway are quite disappointed to learn).
So when I saw Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush this spring, I decided I had to read it. It tells the stories of three men before, during, and after the gold rush: George Carmack, the man who (along with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley) discovered gold in the Klondike; Soapy Smith, the con man who was the most powerful man in Skagway during the gold rush; and Charlie Siringo, a cowboy who became a Pinkerton detective. Before reading this book, I knew a lot about the first two, but had never heard of the third.
The story starts well before the gold rush, with each chapter focusing on one of the three men. There are chapters on Carmack’s journey from an AWOL marine to a member of the Tagish Nation, Soapy’s growth from a grifter to the head of an organized crime syndicate in several Colorado towns, and Siringo’s various cases as a “cowboy detective.” As the book progresses, the three men’s lives overlap more and more, as when Siringo meets Carmack in Juneau and Smith tries to steal Carmack’s gold.
Blum has clearly done his research, and has invested a lot of effort in telling a tale that sustains interest, even for someone who has heard part of the story before. There was only one point, late in the book, where it seemed Blum made a mistake. He writes that when Carmack brought his gold out of the Klondike, he and Siringo “crossed the Chilkoot summit and began their descent into American territory.” Two sentences later, he writes that they had left Bonanza Creek (in the Klondike) “earlier on that June morning.” There is no way they could have traveled 400 miles in less than a day. Also, Blum writes that they took a string of packhorses over the Chilkoot. But in all that I have read about the gold rush, the Chilkoot was too steep for pack animals. Something about how Blum tells this part of the story doesn’t make sense.
Aside from that, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read an engaging book about an exciting period in US and Canadian history.