I could almost hear the piano from the saloon tinkling in the frigid air of dawn. It seemed as if ancient gaslights from the Palace Grand faded as the sun rose over the icy streets of Dawson City.
Ten to twenty percent of the people chasing gold fever in the Yukon were women. The lure of immense wealth overcame their fear of the hardships ahead. In 1897, journalist Annie Hall Strong wrote in the Skagway News, "First of all, delicate women have no right attempting the trip...Those who love luxury, comfort and ease would better remain at home.
"First and most important of all, by far...is the selection of proper footwear." Her list of basic necessities for Klondike women was topped by house slippers, wool socks, walking shoes, arctic boots, felt boots, gum boots and ice creepers. She went on to advise lots of mittens, underwear and bloomers but only one summer dress.
I found myself in agreement one hundred years later. A chill wind howled as I pulled my parka closer, glad I didn't have to hike the Chilkoot Trail in ankle-length skirts, high-heeled boots and corsets. The women of the Klondike Gold Rush lived amid the Victorian Era. Social customs were strict and repressive, especially regarding female dress and behavior. Discarding this impractical apparel in favor of men's clothes was considered to be immoral, even though they'd be safer on the trails. It didn't matter. The hardships of the Klondike separated the men from the boys; it also separated the women from the pampered ladies of Victorian white society.
Little is left to mark the passage of the thousands of people who dug in the frozen earth seeking their fortune. The valleys are quiet. The scars along the Eldorado and Bonanza creeks have faded, overgrown with trees and shrubs. The Klondike River is once again serene, just as it was before the Summer of 1896. With the exception of buildings like the Palace Grand, a stone cairn is all that is left to mark the site where the Klondike Stampede began. Yet if one is still and listens for voices from the past, their spirit can be felt.
The "Belle of the Yukon," Klondike Kate is perhaps the most famous of Gold Rush Women. Arriving in Dawson City in 1899, she was about 26 and determined to prosper. When women were barred from riding the rapids of the Yukon River by the Canadian Mounties, Kate disguised herself as a boy and hopped aboard one of the miners' crude boats. It wasn't long before Kate wore $1500 Paris gowns and bracelets of purest gold.
She mesmerized the miners, who threw gold nuggets at her feet during her sultry dances. Her most famous dance was the flame dance. Her dress was elaborate, covered in red sequins and an enormous cape. As she shed the cape, a cane appeared, attached to more than 200 yards of red chiffon. Leaping and twirling with the chiffon, she appeared to be on fire.
Kate also earned commissions on the liquor as a "percentage girl." Dancing with miners after her show, she plied them with watered down liquor. "My best night I earned $750, mostly just for talking to a lonesome miner."
At the other end of fame is Barbara. Elmer J. White, a Skagway newspaperman, gained fame writing gold rush tales under the pseudonym of 'Stroller' White. In 1898, he hired a paper-seller, "a little bit of a gray-haired woman with blues eyes and an appealing smile. She gave her age as 76 and the same figure would do for her weight, give or take a pound or two. She said her name was Barbara."
Barbara, a widow, lived in Butte, Montana, with one of her married daughters. While visiting a friend in Seattle, she bought a ticket to Skagway instead of going home. "All my life I've wondered what it would be like to go out among complete strangers and make my own way. I always wanted to try it, and never had the chance. When the chance came I took it. And here I am!
"And there she was, all 76 pounds of her, with her possessions in a worn carpetbag, only a few dollars left in her purse, and the necessity of earning money to live on." Stroller decided he would give Barbara a week to work and then arrange for her passage home.
But Barbara earned her way, paying for her own place to live--a two dollar piano box in a vacant lot. Soon she was selling more papers than the other paper sellers. Stroller acted as her banker until he suggested she go home rather than brave the rigors of winter. "She had $1,350 which she had saved in just five months. Of this total, $1,200 was exchanged for a bank draft which was mailed to her daughter in Butte. A ticket was purchased to Seattle, and she had something over $100 left for her fare from Seattle to Butte and for incidental expenses.
"Three or four weeks later a letter came from Barbara's daughter, saying that Barbara had arrived safely home and expressing appreciation for the treatment she had received. Later on, Barbara wrote to inquire whether her job would be open in the spring and to request that her piano box home not be disturbed as she hoped to return." There the record stopped. No one knows if Barbara ever returned. As I closed the pages on her story, I wondered if I would have the courage to still be chasing adventures at 76.
Yukon women came from all walks of life, sharing the same primitive living and working conditions as men, adapting to and coping with the same hardships. Some accompanied their husbands and tended their children along the way. Others came on their own, braving not only the high and dangerous passes, but the scorn of "respectable" folk who considered a woman alone as immoral. Many women struck it rich through mining claims, hard and honest work, or by catching the eye of a wealthy man. Native women served important roles too, using their skills to guide and nurture the white interlopers who might easily have died frozen in the deep drifts.
The words of Robert Service, bard of the Klondike, spoke of life in the frigid North:
His words stir my soul. They link me to the courageous women of his era, whose lives were challenged and perhaps ended among the crisp snow, flowing rivers, and forested trails of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women." Her sense of adventure began in childhood:
"Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie two blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.
When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind clown's make-up, the power of magic is never doubted."
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