The Klondike Gold Rush was a promise that anyone who made it to the Frontier West could strike it rich, with a little luck and determination and captures the spirit of the unexplored Canadian wilds.
However, as much as it gave everyone a chance the reality was that it was much harder than it seemed- statistics have it that of the over 100,000 people who left for the Yukon, only about 30,000 of them were successful there. As much as not all were able to strike gold and make money from it, many of the people made their mark.
The Princess Sophia shipwreck
The Klondike Gold Rush was pretty much over by around 1918 but a few gold prospectors remained and they did not stay in the Yukon throughout but would instead spend summers looking for gold and go south for the warm weather in the winter months.
Princess Sophia , a ship which was offering transport services left Skagway, Alaska, on October 23, 1918, with passengers escaping winter. Despite bad weather warnings, the ship left and drifted off course and ran aground after a few hours of leaving port. Several ships and fishing boats as well as a ferry made attempts at rescue but the captain declined- he did not want to risk others in an attempt to rescue his passengers and thought he would wait out the bad weather.
However, the weather got worse and would be rescuers could no longer get to them. The Princess Sophia sent out one final distress call at 5:20 PM on October 25 before sinking and all on board died instantly having been suffocated by oil that leaked coated the water surface.
The Gold Rush came not long after the Civil War- a time when military units were still racially segregated. The RCMP was struggling to maintain order at the border. To assist, the United States sent in the Buffalo Soldiers which was made up of black soldiers. They got the name from Native Americans; who thought the Regiment’s bravery, fighting prowess and skills were like the buffalo.
The ‘buffaloes’ were given the responsibility of bringing law and order to Skagway, Alaska which had turned into a “little better than Hell on Earth.” When they arrived there in 1899, the soldiers found a town overrun with con men and violent streets. They drove out the criminals in a racially prejudicial environment and ensured the protection of prospectors and also built the first museum within a national park.
The original Klondike Kate
There were a few people who made their fortune in Klondike without any gold prospecting. Kathleen Rockwell –“Klondike Kate” from the US Midwest was one such person- took to the stage at Savoy in Dawson, Yukon, as a stage performer and became very popular for her “Flame Dance” act and her pink tights outfit.
Her fame elevated her to the point of earning gratuities, tips, and a portion of the profits of the Savoy according to her autobiography. She was so liked by the Yukon miners that they give her gold nuggets just for stopping to speak with them on the street.
The Klondike Gold Rush began in 1896 when gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon Territory. As one would expect, word of the discovery traveled fast and within a year fortune seekers has flooded the northern reaches of Canada.
The flood of people led to huge demand for supplies to survive and yet there was a lack of adequate stores on the way to the territory which meant that the small towns along the way would be depleted of food. Consequently, a provision requiring every American crossing the border to mine gold, to bring their own supplies was enacted by the government of Canada.
The provisions to be brought were supposed to be a year’s worth which meant heavy loading for the journey – this meant that in some cases, travelers did over 1,610 kilometers to and fro for supplies to survive on.
Klondike Kate the 2nd
About the same time that was packing up her skirts to dance, Katherine Ryan came into the Klondike scene at about the time when Kathleen Rockwell was hanging up her dancing shoes. She became known as the second Klondike Kate however, her path was different.
She was a nurse in Vancouver when she heard of the Gold Rush and left for the north wearing work boots and hanging a Winchester rifle. She was one of the pioneer women to Alaska and teamed up with a team of North West Mounted Police officers who helped her carry her supplies in exchange for her cooking services. She opened her first restaurant with only $ 5 to her name and began investing in the gold mines.
After two years of her arrival, she had opened another restaurant christened Klondike Kate’s Café and had been inducted into the NWMP as the first female Mountie. She was a special constable responsible for female prisoners and overseer of appropriate taxes on the gold mined. She died in 1932 and was awarded a Royal Canadian Mounted Police honor guard at her funeral.
The Sam McGee cremation
A poem by Robert Service gets its roots from the time of the Klondike Gold Rush and made more famous by a Johnny Cash recitation. It talks of a man who has to keep a promise to Sam McGee, his dead friend whose last wish was to be cremated. He proceeds to keep his promise by taking the body to a shipwreck and sets it aflame and unexpectedly McGee turns out to be alive- the fire simply thawed him.
There was a real Sam McGee but he lived to be 73 and did not die in the Yukon nor was he cremated there. He was a part-time prospector but earned from his work building roads through the Yukon. He caught wind of his fame when he returned to the Yukon and heard of people willing to buy ‘his’ cremated ashes. Robert Service said that he got the name from a bank ledger and used it because it sounded appropriate for a prospector.
The Klondike Ghost Town of Dyea
Dyea was a mere trading post by the Taiya River before the Klondike Gold Rush and was used by Native inhabitants as a trading post from Russia and several United States trading companies. As throngs of fortune seekers came down on the town, it became a major location for the Klondike; it saw a surge of up to 8,000 people leading to the construction of close to fifty hotels and restaurants to serve the population. It also saw the erection of two hospitals, four cemeteries, two telephone companies, two breweries and over thirty taverns.
However, the population explosion did not last and in fact; the numbers dwindled in just a few years so that by 1903 it was a town of 3! It is now a ghost town which is a stark contrast to what it was at the height of the gold rush.
Bill Gates “Swiftwater”
Inevitably, the Yukon spawned many tall tales and legends which are a mix of truth and made up stories and the story of “Swiftwater” Bill Gates is one.
Gates worked in Alaska as a dishwasher then decided to try prospecting where he put all his fortune together with six others on a claim and after several disappointments, they hit it rich. The sudden wealth went to his head turning him into a habitual gambler obsession with a lady called Gussie Lamore in Dawson city. He was so taken by her that he offered her weight in gold for her acceptance to marry him.
However, when he saw her with another man, he meted a bizarre revenge. She loved eggs, which were a rarity in the territory, so he bought all that were available earning him the moniker “The Knight of the Golden Omelet.”
Wyatt Earp and his wife ran into the Yukon after the events of Tombstone, Arizona. This is another instance of exaggerated legend- the New York Sun claimed that Earp met his match in Dawson city in a RCMP officer after trading his street clothes for his guns and started shooting up the town.
The Mountie who was about 5 ft. tall walked up to him and that he surrender his gun. After much swearing and cursing and refusal, the diminutive law enforcer persisted even after his life was threatened. Earp finally wore his street clothes and put his guns away. However, the story was reported differently by the Dawson Record who had an introduction stating that no one in Dawson city remembered any such incident.
The famous con man Jefferson “Soapy” Randolph Smith made Klondike home and got the name “King of the Frontier Con Men,” He opened his own establishment in 1898 and ran his gang of con men, cutthroats, and thieves. The bar was an ingenious design of secret exits for stealthy escape with clients’ money. Soapy Smith bought the United States Marshall’s cooperation and had a personal guard disguised as a military unit.
Smith was shrewd to ride the wave of patriotism after the sinking of USS Maine off the Cuban coast- he petitioned successfully, the War Department for permission to form a division of the US Military which saw him assemble his own troops and use them to maintain control of the town. He was killed in July 1898 by a vigilante of the town’s people who had had enough.