For a fleeting time—just two years—the Klondike Gold Rush captured the attention of millions of people around the world. This remarkable event at the close of the nineteenth century was the source of countless rags to riches stories that revolved around characters who were, literally and figuratively, larger than life. Though some embellished their tales to bolster their reputations and line their pockets, many Klondike-era legends and their stories were both extraordinary and true.
- The Gold Digger
- The Entrepreneur
- The Northern Eldorado
- The Dancehall Girls
- The Desperate Ones
- The Parliamentarians
Alexander "Big Alex" McDonald bought the claim to Thirty Eldorado for a sack of flour and a side of bacon. Born in Nova Scotia, McDonald was dubbed "the Big Moose from Antigonish" and was well-known for his over-developed body, awkward movements, enormous mustache and slow speech. Claim Thirty turned out to be one of the richest on Eldorado, with a gold bed that yielded $5,000 a day.
McDonald could have easily retired on its fortunes alone, but instead he bought every claim he could by 1897. Big Alex owned 27 claims and gained the title of King of the Klondike, and he even had an audience with the Pope. Though he was known to fashion complex deals, he never quite lost his unpolished charm. When he presented the wife of the Governor General of Canada with an exquisite golden bucket of nuggets at a ceremony in Dawson, he simply said, “Here. Take it. It’s trash.”
When Belinda Mulroney arrived in Dawson City in 1897, she wanted to become the richest woman in the Klondike. She threw her last half-dollar into the Yukon River, vowing she’d never need such small change again. She sold $5,000-worth of silk, cotton and hot water bottles she brought with her over the Chilkoot Pass for $30,000, and she used the money to open a restaurant on Front Street.
Within a couple of years, Belinda Mulroney was one of Dawson’s wealthiest citizens. Her holdings included Dawson City’s finest hotel, the Fairview, and a gold claim on Eldorado that reaped up to $1,000 a day. Mulroney’s dog was Jack London’s inspiration for Call of the Wild. She ended up marrying the ‘Count’ Carbonneau, a champagne salesman who claimed to be a French aristocrat, but who was rumoured to be a barber from Montreal.
Tall and handsome, European Antone Stander arrived in the Klondike River Valley two weeks after the great discovery on Bonanza Creek. The scene was chaotic, with men ramming stakes anywhere and jumping each other’s claims. Soon miners were fanning out across the watershed looking for more ground. Stander and his companions stumbled on a little trickle of water at the south fork of Bonanza and trudged up the tributary on a whim. He scooped up a pan of gravel and discovered six dollars worth of gold—they named the place Eldorado, and it was the richest gold creek in the world.
Stander had a hard time finding a loan to launch the mining operation, and the story goes that he went to a saloon for a drink and shared his woes with a bartender who became his business partner. Less than a year later, both men were millionaires. Stander married an actress from Juneau who came to the Klondike as another miner’s mistress—he wooed Violet with gold dust and nuggets, and a diamond necklace that reached to her knees.
With names like the Oregon Mare, Diamond Tooth Gertie and Babe Wallace, the dancehall girls of Dawson City were responsible for a large part of the town’s colour and cachet. Lonely miners would pay up to a hundred dollars an evening for the companionship of a special dancehall girl. Most were showered with marriage proposals. Chris Johansen, a miner from Whiskey Hill on Hunker Creek, offered Cecile Marion her weight in gold if she married him. She agreed. At 135 pounds, her price came to $25,000.
The Arthur Arnold Dietz party from New York endured one of the harshest ordeals of the Klondike Gold Rush. The party of 19 young men decided to travel to the Klondike by way of Yakutat on the Alaskan coast. The route they had chosen crossed the largest ice sheet outside of the North and South poles and required traversing the St. Elias Mountains, the tallest mountains in North America. Some of the men went insane with fear, vanished into crevasses, died in avalanches or perished from scurvy and fever. Seven survivors returned to the coast two years later. When the U.S. cutter Wolcott discovered them, three of the men lay dead in their sleeping bags and four suffered from severe snow blindness.
It’s remarkable that a society woman from Chicago would embrace hotheaded plans to head for the remote and wild Yukon. But a kind of madness seized the world when Klondike gold was discovered. Martha and Will Purdy joined a group of affluent American travellers making their way north. Will abandoned pregnant Martha along the way, but she never looked back, determined to break free of her straight-laced former life. Martha settled and made a life in Dawson City, and went on to marry lawyer George Black, a fellow Klondike stampeder who would becomeYukon’s Commissioner, Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House. When George fell ill, Martha ran for his seat and won, becoming only the second woman elected to
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