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The City of Gold: Women & Rats in Dawson on the Creeks, Starving Men -

a Land of Living Hell

By Sherwood Eliot Wirt


"There was never anything like it," wrote a veteran of the Klondike Stampede.  "There will never be again.  We heard about George Carmack's bonanza down in Missouri and every man Jack of us on pa's farm dug out our savings and hit the northern trail.  We left the horses standing right in the middle of the field."

The whole world was caught with its horses in midfield when the Klondike strike burst in upon history.  Britain was preparing to fight the Boers; the United States was preparing to fight Spain; China had lost a war with Japan and was being torn apart by all manner of "foreign devils."  But none of these portentous events could deafen the cry of "Gold" that circled the globe by magic.  And none kept the little city of Dawson, high up in the Yukon, from producing during 1897-98 a kind of human explosion unique in economic history.

"This is a story about Dawson and its people, gleaned in retrospect after well over 40 years.  To set the stage, let us hear the rest of the old-timer's tale:

"When we got to Skagway we found miners from Peru, Australia and Siberia, gangsters from the Tenderloin, college boys from Harvard, drugstore clerks and errand boys without so much as an overcoat . . . heading inside to spend the winter.

"I got there in April of 1897, and the snow was six feet deep on the summit.  I scratched and crawled up that ridge behind a man who was carrying a grindstone on his back.  Later on I met him in Dawson, and he was rich.  I climbed up a gulch that broke the backs of ten thousand pack horses.  You should have seen what they were carrying -- bathtubs and pianos!  And once when the trail up to the summit was alive with sweating men, a snow slide came down and buried half of them.  We never found them.  We had to go on or die -- on across the mountains and down to Lake LeBarge, where we raced against time over the rotten and melting ice on dogsleds to the banks of the Yukon.

"Some of us made it through the rapids, and some of us didn't.  We didn't know where we were going.  The country had never been explored until 10 years before.  We were just crazy for gold.  Why, I saw two brothers who had built a boat quarrel just as they were getting ready to sail for Dawson.  They got out of the boat, and sawed her in half.  I saw women, Bible toters and gold diggers alike, fight their way down the river on clumsy rafts with their hands and feet freezing, and a smile on their faces.

"When we got to the goldfields, you know what we found.  All the best claims grabbed off.  Nothing left but work for wages and the gambling tables to eat up your stake.  That was Dawson for you -- wine, women and song; yes, and to add to that the place was infested with rats.  Women and rats in Dawson, and out on the creeks the rest of us -- starving men and dogs, in a land of living hell."*

Gold was discovered in the Klondike in August of 1896.  By the following summer Dawson had sprung into existence and was a full-fledged city at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon.  At least it claimed there was some resemblance to a city.

The truth is, Dawson at the height of the stampede in 1898 was a sea of mud.  The streets were so soggy that habitués preferred sleeping on the saloon floor to returning through the quagmire to their shacks.  Horses sank belly deep in the sticky stuff and set up a constant whinney while their owners took to spirits for relief.  Heavy team traffic and persistent spring rains obliterated all semblance of roadbed.

Despite the muck, Dawson continued to expand as the sternwheelers, lumber scows and rafts kept coming down the river from Lake Bennett.  Log cabins mushroomed and tents were boarded over to last the winter.  Each steamer that arrived meant more hotel outfits, more staples, more dance hall girls.

Most of the glamour was contributed by the queens of the dance dormitories.  They quickly learned the art of sidling up to a grimy mucker hanging over the saloon bar, to ask him for a dance.  As soon as the music stopped (sometimes in a minute and a half) the danseuse led her partner back to the bar so he could buy another drink or two.  The girls split 50-50 with the management on their customers' drinks and dances.

If one of the young ladies found a rich prospect and wished to make a cleanup, she danced with him one or twice and then reported a weakness in her left ankle that could only be healed by sitting down in one of the upstairs booths.  Then after they had watched the dancers for a few minutes, she would gently close the curtains, push the buzzer connecting with the bar, and raise a thirst for champagne at $15 a pint.  If, an hour later there was any gold dust remaining in his poke, it was not the fault of the management.

Of course some of the fair denizens of the dance halls were nice girls who would never dream of progressing past the champagne stage in separating a man from his pile.  Among them was reputed to be one Mary C., a mysterious belle who was one of the outstanding beauties of Dawson.  According to the gossip of the creeks she left Seattle with a string of debts and adopted her lively occupation as a means to pay them off.  She was reputedly as chaste as a shipwrecked mountain goat, and never allowed her gum-booted barroom friends to escort her home.  When she finally hopped a steamer south she was a very rich little gal.

Largest of the dance halls was the notorious Palace Grand Opera House, where Cecile Marion Crooned in dulcet soprano and Cad Wilson swung her beautiful hips.  Originally designed for a theater, the Palace was transformed soon after it was built to meet the popular demand, and its two rows of tiered boxes became drinking closets for the Klondike Kings.  Among them Cad Wilson was a favorite, and she pulled out for Seattle in the spring of '99 with $50,000 to show for a winter's work.

One of the most famous yarns of the Klondike concerns the Raymond sisters, Maud and Violet, who were appearing on the stage of the Palace in a specialty singing number ad had won favor among the boys out in the creeks.  Among those hearing reports of the pulchritude was a black-haired young Austrian named Antone Stander who had come north before Carmack's discovery and had later cleaned up spectacularly on Eldorado Creek.  With his continental appreciation of beauty aroused, Stander went to investigate the reports, and soon became a nightly attendant at each performance of the sisters.

Violet became the focus of his affections and Stander tried persistently to interest her in an offer of marriage, but she had another daddy on the Salt Lake Line and refused to listen to him.  One evening Antone moved in on his beloved as she sat at a booth after her appearance on he stage, and after swallowing several beakers of sherry he offered her weight in gold to her if she would marry him.

The proposal overwhelmed Violet and she pleaded faintness.  After excusing herself she hurried backstage where her lover was waiting and told him the news.  He wholeheartedly approved -- provided it did not interfere with their personal relations.  That settled, he took Violet into an upstairs room and lined her corset with 20 pounds of buckshot!

The bride-to-be waddled back to Stander's table a bit heavy on her feet, and sweetly told him that she had decided she really loved him after all, and would consent to become his wife.  He blinked dazedly, unable to believe his good luck.  When she suggested an immediate ceremony he demurred, but she called to the orchestra leader and asked him to make the announcement.  Everyone immediately rushed to the bar for a round of drinks on the fortunate Antone, while Violet daintily perched on the scales and allowed herself to be weighed.  A hundred and forty pounds!  Who would have believed it?  The miners swore into their beards and cheered Antone Stander, whose bride was costing him #33,600.

To her lover, Violet gave $5,000 in dust as a wedding present.  She then graciously moved out to her new husband's Eldorado Creek cabin and stayed with him a whole winter.  By spring the $33,600 marriage was on the rocks; Violet returned to her Dawson lover and Antone went back to the creeks to refill his empty gold sacks.

Twenty-four years later the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an interview with the graying Mr. Stander.  He had just returned from Siberia.  After discovering gold on Big River, 150 miles from Anadir, he ran into trouble, for the Russians refused to allow him to take it out of the country.  His Klondike fortune had left him soon after his wife did.  Finally in 1935 he entered the Pioneers' Home for pinched-out sourdoughs at Sitka, Alaska, stayed there a year or two and collected a grubstake to go back to mining.

My last reports of Antone Stander place him in the Talkeetna River country, where he was still very much alive and still looking for another Eldorado.  As for Violet -- there are no reports.  However, I am informed that the prospecting season for her species is usually short.  Violets wither fast.  Perhaps if one is carrying one's weight in gold, it doesn't matter.

The story of Dick Lowe is a familiar one to all who took part in the stampede.  Lowe was a hardrock miner from the Black Hills and Coeur d'Alene country who came over the Chilkoot Pass in 1890 with the earliest pioneers and joined Major Ogilvie's boundary survey.  When Carmack's discovery was aired Lowe was making a reconnaissance along the boundary, and he did not get back to Dawson until nearly all the best ground had been staked.

Lowe was very indignant that he had missed out, and complained bitterly to the government officials.  When the gold commissioner checked the claims along the creeks he found several of them had been over-staked and had to trim them down, creating small unstaked strips known to the miners as "fractions."  He gave one of these to Lowe to appease him, and it turned out to be the richest piece of ground in the Klondike.

Lowe's Fraction, as it was known far and wide, was just 76 feet wide, and was located on Bonanza Creek three claims above Carmack's Discovery Claim.  He had been very loath to buy the ground, but when he sank a shaft to bedrock and went down 25 feet to look around, he came out looking white as a ghost.  The inside, he told his friends, glittered like a jewelry store.

Dick Lowe extracted $700,000 in gold from that fraction, and with it he won the heart of a leading Dawson actress, Virgie Graves.  They left for the great outside on a steamer in 1899, and no more is known of Mrs. Lowe.  The last report of Dick appeared in the Klondike Nugget's issue of March 3, 1900.  He was back in the Yukon again, sans wife, sans fortune.

If ham and eggs were worth $35, hearts and flowers were priceless in the land of gold.  Lonesome and homesick, a young miner would wander in from the creeks with three or four thousand dollars' worth of dust in his poke, and fall easy prey to the tempting Babe Wallace or Mona, or the legendary Diamond-Tooth Gertie, all dressed in thousand-dollar gowns at the height of fashion and anybody's for spending.  The gorgeous Oatley sisters, Polly and Lottie, were singing nightly at the Concert Hall, and Blanche Lamont appeared in a daring feature dance at the Pavilion.  Even better known to many were a pair of demi-monde characters known as the "Oregon Mare" and the "Utah Filly."  They lived across the Klondike in that section of Dawson known as "Louse town," which was reached by the Rocking Bridge.  Robert W. Service opens one of his recent poems with the words"

"Beyond the Rocking Bridge it lies, the burg of evil fame,
The huts were hive and swarm and thrive the sisterhood of shame."

Today Lousetown is not "thriving," but it is still lousy.

The 15,000 Americans who swarmed through Dawson in its hey-day set a new all-time record for drunkenness within the borders of the Dominion of Canada.  Food was scarce but Canadian Scotch was plentiful, and every bar had six bartenders.  Into the columns of the Klondike Nugget each week crept a number of alcoholic items gleaned from the police court calendar:

"J. Dempsey, too many friends, result $20 and costs.

"J. Montgomery imbibed, raised a disturbance, and dug up $20 and costs.

"Henry Gilcher was drunk ad noisily full, and squared himself with $20 and costs.

"H. McDouglas overestimated his capacity, fell all over himself, and paid a fine of $25.

"F. Gillis, noisily unpopular from the influence of 'lightning rod,' was mulcted [sic] in the sum of $20 and costs."

Nor was there any particular segregation of the sexes in the spreading of fumes and fines:

"May Parks climbed the various steps of inebriety, jolly, weaving, boisterous and noisy, and was restored to good standing upon payment of $20 and costs.

"Carrie Boyle boiled over in public.  Wrath unallowed in public places is reprehensible, so she paid $25 dues in advance.

"Lucy Cooper, and Indian maiden whom Pocahontas would disown, contributed $10 and costs for getting drunk.  W. J. Moore, who gave her the liquor which made her drunk, was fined $50 and costs. 'Verily, it is better to receive than to give'."

As an instrument of punishment for sins against the Crown, the Mounted Police perfected the "Corbett and Fitzsimmons," which quickly reduced the most hardened Yankee criminal to a state of watery-eyed penitence.  The "Corbett and Fitzsimons" was a two-handled crosscut saw, hard by an enormous woodpile of heavy logs stacked in front of the police barracks.  With iron balls shackled to their ankles, the offenders put in a 10-hour shift at opposite ends of the saw, winter and summer, while a "mountie" was stationed to encourage them in developing a rhythmic stroke.  The establishment of the institution had the effect of reducing criminal practices to a minimum.

A Mounted Policeman was likewise detailed to each gambling hall, to protect the innocent investor and keep the sharper from openly following his profession.  Despite the enormous traffic, the games were conducted on the square, under the tolerant and good-natured surveillance of the red-coats.  Whenever a player was found whose fingers appeared too nimble for the general good, he was asked to make a contribution to the municipal fund administered by the police court. 

The Klondike Nugget tells the story:

"J. Curwin paid $50 and costs for too many chances in making a living."

"John Boyle, a pasteboard expert over table green, paid $50 and all's serene."

Fifty dollars was not very much money when the Klondike was hot, and stove pipe was sold as half its weight in dust -- an ounce of pipe for half an ounce of gold.  Fifty dollars would not even buy a dog.  They tell a story of "One-eyed Riley winning $17,000 in a poker game one night, and then losing it all on the way outside.  That was the way of the country.

Richest of all the Klondike miners was Big Alex Macdonald, who made a habit of acquiring claims early in the rush, before their wealth was realized.  He later wrote a book about the stampede and left his money to the Roman Catholic Church.  Thomas S. Lippy, a poorly paid young Seattle Y.M.C.A. secretary, followed the crowd north and located a claim from which he took $247,000 in the spring cleanup of 1899.  Packing over half a ton of gold dust into Dawson by muleback he left for the outside and made some unwise investments in Seattle real estate.  Although he took and estimated million and a half from his claim, he died penniless.  One of his monument was a hundred-thousand dollar gift to the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The story of Charley Anderson, the luckiest of the lucky Swedes, has been often told.**  After tanking Charley up to the brim, one of his mining associates sold him a claim for $800, which constituted the sum total of the Scandinavian's wealth.  Sober and sorrowful, Charley sought to wriggle out of the deal next day, but his friend was hard of hearing.  Left with no recourse but to work the claim, Anderson went out to test the ground and in a few weeks was taking out large quantities of gold with a simple rocker.  The former owner, on learning of this, tried to get the court to set aside the deed of sale on the ground that Charley Anderson was drunk when the agreement was drawn.  When the charge was made, Charley stood up in court, pointed his finger at his adv3ersary and cried, "Ya sure, but you got me drunk!"  The judge awarded him the claim and he is reported to have taken out close to a million dollars.

In the fall of 1896, Joe Ladue's cabin was the only building in Dawson, but a year later, corner lots were selling at $8,000 and wooden buildings were replacing tents on Front Street.  By 1898, a railroad was being pushed over the White Pass; at least three big transportation companies were organized, with headquarters in Dawson; dozens of palatial steamers were plying the Yukon; Swiftwater Bill was building the Monte Carlo; dredges were being imported to scour the creek beds; thousands and thousands of "normal" citizens were abandoning their dental drills, shoe stands, machine shops, wives and children to hit the northern trail.  Fifteen thousand Americans!  When the Fourth of July drew nigh, they put on a display of patriotism that surpassed anything within the boundaries of their own nation, and shot fireworks into the air until every dog in town went mad with fear, disappeared up the creeks or leaped into the river to seek the calm of the opposite shore.  And through it all wandered the Mounties, their coats a blob of scarlet, their holsters empty.  Never was there a town like it, never will there be another.

Even while the rush was at its height other prospectors were finding rich gold wash in the beach sands of Nome, 2,000 miles down the Yukon.  Two summers later a general exodus was under way and the golden city of Dawson began to dwindle.  In 1901 the population was a bare 10,000.  One by one the dance halls closed as the houris [sic] left for the new diggings.  Muddy streets were no longer congested with mired animals.  The crowded barrooms were left to a few dependable old soaks.  The new order came in; huge electric dredges took the place of pick and pan and bonfire thawing; hydraulic pumps washed down whole banks into enormous sluice boxes; reports of monthly earnings drifted back to head offices in Toronto, Ottawa, New York.  Dawson adjusted her disarrayed petticoats and settled back into respectable machine-age senility.  The rush was over.

*From a Yukon pioneer's account in the Wickersham library, Juneau.

**Most of the big strikes in the north were made by Swede miners.


Source: Wirt, Sherwood Eliot, "The City of Gold: Women & Rats in Dawson on the Creeks, Starving Men -- A Land of Living Hell." Alaska Life: The Territorial Magazine.  Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Life Publishing Co., October, 1945.




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