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Hardship introduction

Klondike characters are often depicted as rugged individuals who could withstand every kind of hardship. Indeed, tales of the klondike trails are filled with misery brought on by cold, isolation, failure and greed. Well, some of it is true, but not all.

Dawson City newspapers at the turn of the century paint a picture quite different from what we've come to believe were the hardships of the Klondike. For example, Dawson had its own telephone and telegraph service in 1899. The value of real estate in this city of gold was 20 million dollars and fully five million was spent on development in 1899.

The first brick building was built using bricks from a yard five miles down river from the town. Weekly mail service was guaranteed summer and winter. There is more, and the facts don't lie.

In 1899, there were 25 doctors and 10 dentists operating in the city. If you didn't like the service at the two public hospitals, you could try your luck and spend your money at any of three private facilities. Five dairies provided fresh milk daily. You could take dirty clothes to any one of 12 laundries.

165 kids went to school, some of them to one of the two private schools in the city. Trouble with the law? There were 25 lawyers ready to get you off the hook. Want to see a picture show? Choose any of three theatres. There lots of hotels, 12 of which were described at "first class". Restaurants and cafes in this city of 5000 permanent residents...40. And they got their fresh vegetables from 12 market gardens in the area.

The government took in over two hundred thousand dollars from the sale of liquour, licenses and booze-related court fines. And if you wanted to repent, four churches were there to hear your confessions.

Hardships? Yes, there were many. But the endless list of amenities shows that most of them were probably self-inflicted by the great characters of the Klondike.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Hardship 1
Interior view of a telephone office. Date: 1901.
Yukon Archives. Adam & Larkin fonds, #9148.
Click for larger view.

Hardship 1
View of the exterior of the general merchandise store on Second Avenue in Dawson. The two glass windows display tins of fruit and a wide variety of clothing. Date: 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4717.
Click for larger view.


Father Judge

He was known by everyone as the saint of Dawson. When he died in 1899, after only two years in the bustling gold-rush town, his impact on the people of that gold-mad town was so great that everything came to a standstill.

Father William Judge was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1850. He was educated as an architect, but later joined the Jesuits and became a priest. He began his northern ministry in Alaska before the Klondike gold rush.

He was in the 40-mile district of the Yukon when news of Klondike gold reached the outside world. During the "hunger winter" of 1897-98, Father Judge packed his sled with medical supplies and other essential and headed for Dawson.

Here he combined his medical, spiritual and architectural abilities to build both a church and St. Mary's hospital. The church was opened in September of 1898. When it burned down, Catholics and non-Catholics alike pitched in to help Father Judge build a new one.

The Klondike Nugget wrote glowingly about Father Judge and his hospital saying neither religious belief or skin colour mattered when it came to treatment of the sick or injured.

When he died in January of 1899, his church, St. Marys, was overflowing with mourners. Many houses were shrouded in black and the saloons and shops in Dawson were closed for the day. Father Judge, the saint of Dawson City, was just 49 years old.

Father Judge 1
Exterior view of the St. Mary's Hospital and the Roman Catholic Church in Dawson. Date: 1901.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4715.
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Klondike Creeks

It's easy to think of Dawson City as the focal point of the Klondike Gold Rush. But in 1899, Dawson wasn't the biggest community in the Klondike.

In the days before people commuted to work, they lived where the jobs were. So it was in the Klondike. Towns sprang up like wild fire. When the Mounties took the census in 1899, Granville on Dominion Creek registered 4,917 people. Dawson City could claim only four thousand 236 residents.

There were other substantial communities on the creeks...all complete with hotels, stores, restaurants and schools. Grand Forks on Bonanza Creek had three thousand 540 residents. It was called Grand Forks because it was situated at the meeting point of Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks...the richest in the Klondike.

But the year of dredging for gold was fast approaching. The littly guy with his little claim wouldn't last much longer. Bear Creek was headquarters of the Canadian Klondike Mining company, later to become the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation. When Joe Boyle built the first Klondike dredge and began buying up concessions, the communities in the Klondike began to disappear. But none with the flourish of Grand Forks.

In March of 1921, YCGC made known its plan for the summer dredging season. Grand Forks, located just 13 miles from Dawson, would be buried beneath tons of rock and gravel when work would begin on Gold Hill. And so it was, as the dredges turned the Klondike Valley upside down.

Bear Creek became the company town, and YCGC workers who didn't live there commuted from Dawson City. Times had changed from the early days when townsites bloomed at Hunker, Sulphur, Dominion, Quartz and other rich streams in the Klondike.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Klondike Creeks 1
Gold Hill on Bonanza. Date: ca. 1903.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4846.
Click for larger view.

Klondike Creeks 2
Partial panorama of Grand Forks, showing at a distance the Bonanza Hotel, Vendome Hotel, and Eldorado Hotel. Date: July 1903.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4754.
Click for larger view.


John Leonard, Klondike Balloonist

The Klondike gold rush attracted a strange mix of personalities. Dawson City was the land for adventure seekers as much as it was for gold diggers. The Klondike had it all - from major prize fights to big-league gambling nights. So it is no surprize that the fine art of ballooning would also grace the yellowed pages of Dawson's colourful chronicle.

In 1899, aeronaut John Leonard stamped his mark on the Klondike history books when he became the first man to pilot a lighter-than-air balloon in the skies over the gold rush city.

Ever on the job, the Dawson Daily News reported on the first balloon flight in the Yukon with a banner headline reading:
An Air Ship's Flight
First Balloon Ascension in Yukon Territory
The spunky newspaper went on to delight readers with bold headlines such as:
"Thousands of People Throng the Water Front and Watch the Performances of Aeronaut Leonard"

"It all happened at 6pm on a warm summer evening as Leonard and his balloon lifted over the river. The aeronaut, wearing a parachute, performed acrobatics from a trapeze slung below the balloon. Then, to everone's shock, Leonard let go and plummeted toward the river". Why? Turns out it was all part of his show. The newspaper reported that:
"When the balloon had reached a height of probably 500 feet, at a point over the river near the west bank, Leonard unhitched the parachute and dropped, striking the river with a splash, while the parachute collapsed and floated upon the surface of the water. A moment later he reappeared and, a boat not being near, he struck out for the shore, which he reached in a few minutes."

"The pilotless balloon slowly floated up the river and circled around the city. When the gas began to escape, it finally disappeared over the hill opposite Mission street. An hour later the balloon was recovered and taken back to West Dawson".

Leonard, meanwhile, passed the hat and the donations more than made up the cost of paying for the recovery of his balloon a few miles away in the bushes.

By September, Leonard was drawing bigger crowds and even scheduled a show at Grand Forks on Bonanza creek.

In September, 1899, the Dawson Daily newspaper, described his ballooning exploits as proof positive that:
"Dawson is strictly up to date on attractions of all kinds, even to ballooning, as was evidenced by two ascensions made by Professore Leonard, most recently - the last on Labour day. The river front was lined with 10,000 to see the daring young man."

"To say that he gave a glittering exhibition of aeronautical engineering is no exaggeration. The great crowd stood in wide-eyed wonder as it watched him leave the earth with the miniature planet of his own, bidding his friends a hearty adios. Up, up, and away soared the great balloon until its ascentive power began to wane and then, while hanging suspended by the ankles alone - a performance that for skill and reckless daring outrivals the most awe-inspiring feats of ancient Rome - Leonard made the pulse beat with a thrilling plunge with the parachute".

Leonard Inflating his Baloon [Balloon] Dawson. June 24, 1901
Yukon Archives. James Albert Johnson fonds, #57.
Click for larger view.

"After a drop of perhaps 150 feet, the parachute opened its graceful canopy and lowered the aeronaut safely to the roof of the North American Transportation & Trading Company's warehouse. As soon as his feet hit the roof, the parachute lost its sustaining power and the aeronaut in falling from the roof received a severe strain, from the effects of which he will be laid up for some time".

After the stunt, a tough miner was heard to remark that he'd rather go through Whitehorse Rapids on a cook stove than tackle ballooning.

Although he shattered no bones in his fall from the roof, Leonard was "severely injured about the hip and body, besides receiving painful cuts and contusions about the arms".

He was forced to cancel his Grand Forks show. Leonard decided to go Outside for the winter, but he left his balloon equipment in Dawson and returned in May 1900 to continue his shows. Again, the elusive Leonard left the Yukon and didn't reappear until the spring of 1903. This time, the tiny town of Whitehorse was on his performing agenda.

Then, one final balloon flight was made to mark the 4th of July celebrations in Dawson and one of the Klondike's most unusual characters headed south to perform at the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair.

Balloonist John Leonard's home town remains a mystery as does his strange attachment to performing his innovative balloon exhibitions in the Yukon.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Klondike reindeer saga

Many schemes came to not much during the Klondike gold rush. Bunco artists, whose only goal was to fleece the hard-working miner, dreamed up many of them. One wacky scheme was the product of the United States government. It failed, but at least the planners had good intentions.

In the fall of 1897, gold seekers were trickling into the Klondike, but very little was known about local conditions. When the trickle became a bit of a flood, Dawson police inspector Charles Constantine realized the newcomers were ill-prepared for a Klondike winter. They had come with few supplies and now faced the real prospect of starvation.

The Canadian government barely knew the gold rush was about to begin. But American officials realized something big was happening because most of the miners were Yankees.

When news of the threatening famine reached the Outside, it led to one of the most remarkable relief expeditions ever undertaken, one that would qualify for Ripley's "Believe it or Not" even today. Deliver reindeer from Lappland on the hoof and supply the new town with a supply of fresh meat. That was the plan.

But how to carry it out? First they had to find reindeer herders and eventually contracted seventy-four Lapps, ten Finns, and twenty-four Norwegians to deliver 538 reindeer to the Klondike. The bizarre expedition left Norway in February 1898. They carried the reindeer in a cargo ship that they had leased and refitted in a hurry.

The journey took the crew and cargo across the stormy North Atlantic, a dreadful crossing with reindeer and their herders jammed together in small quarters.

On February 27, they finally arrived in New York City and they transferred the whole expedition to railroad cars bound for Seattle. Once in Seattle they received news that the expected famine may not come after all. The herders also discovered that the reindeers' lichen they carried from Norway was almost gone. They released the reindeer in a Seattle park to eat grass. This city food did not sit well with the animals. Many got sick.

From Seattle the expedition continued by boat to Haines, Alaska. Most of the sick reindeer died. The herders moved the remaining animals to the highlands where there was good grazing. But by now, summer and fall had come and gone. When they finally reached Dawson in January of 1899, they were one year too late. The expected starvation had not happened. A good thing because of the more than 500 animals that left Norway, only about 100 survived.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Gold Fields of Nome

By mid-summer of 1899, news of an improbable gold strike filtered through the mining camps of the Klondike. Men working other people's claims for wages wanted something to call their own. Quickly, the little miner with his pick and pan slipped out of Dawson and headed for Nome.

Gold was discovered at Anvil Creek on the Seward Peninsula in 1898. Here on the sands of the beaches of Nome, Alaska they uncovered a fortune in fine gold dust. They quickly dubbed the discoverers, three newscomers of Scandinavian descent, "The Three Lucky Swedes." Although two of the men were naturalized citizens, miners at Council meeting felt that immigrants did not deserve their claims. There was a wild spree of claim jumping. By early spring of 1899, a few hundred men had staked 1,500 claims. Nearly 3,000 more people arrived after the breakup.

In a single week in August of that year, more than eight thousand people left Dawson bound for Nome. Tex Rickard, who later became general manager of Madison Square Gardens in New York, left the Klondike in 1899 without a cent. Nevertheless, his gold claims on the beaches of Nome made him $100,000. Photographer E.A. Hegg , whose pictures are the most gripping reminders of the Klondike rush, headed off to Nome. Again, the gold-rush photographer captured for all time the vivid images on the beaches of Nome.

Arizona Charlie Meadows said that he would load his Palace Grande Theatre onto a barge and float it down the Yukon river to Nome. Of course, he never did. In this new rush, men were making fortunes and losing them just as fast. Saloons and dance halls sprung up on the beaches just as they had two years before in Dawson.

Nome was a poor man's paradise. Ships could reach the gold fields directly from Seattle. New arrivals saw a line of white tents stretched up and down the beach for ten miles in either direction. With no civil government to mandate sanitary measures, the residents of Nome endured foul odors and the threat of disease.

Unlike Dawson City, the Nome gold rush was a magnet for the criminal element that followed the gold seekers north. The North-West Mounted Police warned American authorities that former members of Soapy Smith's gang in Skagway and many of the worst criminals ever known on this continent were en route to Nome in the fall of 1899. It was a familar story with a familar ending. Millions were taken from the gold fields of Nome. Then in a few short years, it was over. The miners who found no gold continued their wandering search until the day they died.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Nome 1
Nome Beach Alaska. Camp Nome - Moses Mayee and All Bunnell.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society Collection, #2. Click for larger view.

Nome 1
Street in Nome, Alaska.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society Collection, #3. Click for larger view.

Nome 1
Camp at Nome - Moses Meyee & Al Bunnell.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society Collection, #20. Click for larger view.


Cad Wilson

In those heady days of 1898-99, the Klondike kings had money - or gold - to burn. They were also starved for entertainment and they wanted the best. Saloon owners were prepared to oblige.

There were many Klondike entertainers, most of them skilled in the art of separating a prospector from his poke, often legally. Perhaps the best of the bunch was Cad Wilson. She was brought to Dawson by the Tivolo and Orpheum theatres at the highest salary ever paid a Pacific coast entertainer.

She was a small redhead who, the Klondike Nugget reported, was no raving beauty and who couldn't sing all that well either. But she quickly became the miners' choice with her salty brand of humour and relatively risqué songs. The miners lapped it up and often showered her with gold nuggets as she performed.

When a bunch of Eldorado miners were arguing about who had the largest nugget, they decided to put their biggest and best in a belt and give it to Cad Wilson. The belt was so stunning that a local store put it on display for a week.

The Nugget, reviewing a benefit concert which was billed as family entertainment, said Cad made no new friends for herself with her risqué performance. "Her audacity", it said, "caused applause from the back of the room, but the ladies in front hung their heads and their escorts wished they had never brought them".

Cad Wilson didn't seem to mind. The review merely solidified her status with the miners with the money. One miner was so smitten by Cad that he ordered a bath tub of wine at twenty dollars a bottle for her to bathe in. Cad took the bath, but the miner who paid for the wine wasn't allowed to scrub her back.

Her theme song was 'Such a Nice Girl Too'. It became a catch phrase which was often heard on the streets and in the saloons of Dawson.

When Cad Wilson left the Yukon, it was estimated she took with her over $30,000 and the gaudy, but very expensive Gold Nugget belt.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Stage coach robbery

Where there is gold, there are bunco artists, swindlers and just plain foolish felons out to make a quick buck. It was no different during the California or Klondike gold rushes. Nor, it seems, was the largely forgotten rush to Atlin immune from petty theft.

The Atlin gold fields were opened in 1898 when prospectors Fritz Miller and Kenny McLaren struck paydirt on Spruce Creek. Overnight, many men on their way to the Klondike via the Chilkoot pass, decided to take a chance on the Atlin region instead.

By 1899, there were upwards of ten thousand people mining for gold, or mining the miners, in the Atlin district that most people thought at the time was in the Yukon.

Along with the main community of Atlin on the shore of big Atlin Lake, a sizeable community called Pine City grew at the site of the original discovery on Spruce Creek. The road from the gold mining town of Pine City to Atlin was a wagon trail, about six miles long, called Discovery Road.

In a few short years, a four-mile stretch of Spruce Creek yielded more than $25 million in gold including an 83-ounce nugget discovered in 1899. It was half the size of a loaf of bread. There was a lot of money in the district and all kinds of businesses sprang up. Atlin and Pine City could have rivalled Dawson City, but no one except the locals were paying much attention.

But one day, the region resembled the wild American west. It happened on Monday September 16, 1899. At eight o'clock, Walker's stage was enroute to Pine City from Atlin when a masked highwayman stepped out of the bushes and pointed a Winchester rifle at the driver. The passengers were ordered to get out of the stage and to line up with their hands in the air. Four of the passengers, reported the Bennett Sun, took to the woods. The other five stayed with the stage and though they had considerable money with them, most of them managed to " - lose their purses in the stage before leaving it."

Thus, the newspaper reported: "the highwayman's order to throw their money in a pile on the road resulted in only $3.55 being contributed. This, the robber sulkily picked up, backed into the bushes and disappeared. The police were immediately notified and they made a vigorous search for the daring robber, but in late reports he has not been caught".

"The work of the robber", said the Bennett Sun, "was shockingly crude. His method, or rather lack of it, showed that he was not an expert in the profession, and that he was thoroughly in want of experience".

Whether the still anonymous Atlin highwayman ever received any further training, in the age old art of stagecoach theft, remains unknown.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Robbery 1
The elaborate headstone was a tribute to Frederick (Fritz) Miller. Date: 1921.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7754.
Click for larger view.

Robbery 2
Main Street Pine City Atlin B.C.
Date: November 26, 1899.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #186.
Click for larger view.

Robbery 3
Miners posed on their claim #124 Spruce Creek, Atlin Mining District, with sluice in foreground and their tents in background. Date: 1899.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #158.
Click for larger view.


Murder in the Yukon part one

When Mr. Ellis came to town, one thing was certain. Someone was going to die. Ellis, not his real name, was the name given to Canada's hangman. On December 10, 1962, Arthur Lucas and Robert Turpin felt the bite of his rope and made a macabre sort of history. They were the last two Canadians to hang.

The death penalty was abolished in Canada on July 14, 1976. But between 1867 and 1962, there were 710 executions. Eleven of those were carried out in the Yukon ... ten in Dawson City and one in Whitehorse.

In 1899, two prospectors, Christian Fox and William Meehan, were attacked by a group of native men on the McClintock River near Marsh Lake. Meehan was shot and killed, and Fox was severely wounded.

Fox hid in his canoe until it floated out of sight of his attackers and then travelled seven miles until he reached the Marsh Lake camp of William McIntosh, who reported the incident to the police at Tagish Post. He said the shootings were the work of the Nantuck brothers.

The Mounties found Jim Nantuck at his family's camp at Marsh Lake. With him he had some of the miners' belongings. He was arrested and taken to Tagish Post.

A police search failed to find Joe, Dawson and Frank Nantuck. Eventually, the chief at Lake Laberge persuaded the three to give themselves up to police.

The four Nantuck brothers were charged with murder and sent to Dawson City where Judge McGuire presided at their trial. In the first murder trial in the Yukon, the four were convicted and sentenced to hang. Frank and Joe Nantuck would however evade the Ellis noose. They died in jail of tuberculosis.

Dawson and Jim Nantuck were hanged in Dawson City in August, 1899, but they did not stand alone on the gallows. An Englishman, Ed Henderson was also hanged on that dismal day.

Back in November 1898, Henderson was involved in a fight with his partner, Thorburg Peterson, at Lake Laberge. Peterson, known to have a violent temper, grabbed Henderson by the throat and began to strangle him. Henderson shot Peterson in the stomach.

He then travelled to Tagish Post and reported his version of the incident to the police. At trial in Dawson in 1899, Henderson was convicted of murder and hanged with the Nantuck brothers. The first three of the Yukon's eleven state-sanctioned executions had been carried out.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Dawson City fire 1899

Dawson City hit the big time in May of 1899. The isolated gold-rush mecca was on the North American map. But the news was not good. A massive city fire made the front pages of newspapers across the United States . On April 21st, a raging blaze consumed about three quarters of the town - leaving piles of smoking ashes where once stood clapboard emporiums.

News reports quoted the son of the Mayor of Seattle, who said that hundreds of miners, gamblers, shopkeepers and saloon men were now sleeping in the snow. He said that panic broke out as the fire expanded and the uncontrollable blaze consumed thousands of tons of provisions.

Firemen brought out their only fire engine but their lack of ability to handle the apparatus, coupled with insufficient water, made the battle hopeless. The Bank of British North America had a flimsy vault that did not withstand the heat, and all the papers in it were destroyed.

The loss in the bank alone was estimated at one million dollars. Cabins where miners kept their supply of dynamite were blown up. The report was not kind to Dawson’s noted houses of ill-repute. The newspaper story blamed the conflagration on Dawson’s "curse."

Twice before, drunken woman had caused fires during quarrels, said the story. This one was no different and had its origin in an apartment over a saloon. Small shopkeepers, said Hume, were a tragic sight as they tried to save their hidden buckskin bags of gold while scantily clad women suffered from the biting gale that blew in off the Yukon river. Other shopkeepers tried to save their belongings but were often indistinguishable from looters. And it seems there were plenty of those.

The Mounties declared Marshall Law and patrolled the ash-covered streets. Still, thieves were plentiful. In the miserable days ahead, saloon owners who managed to save their supplies were doing a roaring business and charging three or four times the already exorbitant rate for a shot of whiskey.

Incredible as it seems, one hundred and ten buildings were destroyed. The financial loss in the Dawson city fire of 1899 was estimated at four million dollars in the days when the fixed price of gold was sixteen dollars an ounce.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Wyatt Earp

Among the thousands of stampeders who tried to cash in on the Klondike Gold Rush was a professional gunfighter named Wyatt Earp. Yep! The same guy who carved his name in the American history books for his celebrated role in the epic gunfight at the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp?

He was born in Illinois in March, 1848. In 1864, he moved to California, where he got a job driving horse-drawn wagons carrying supplies for prospectors.

In 1876, he moved to Dodge City, Kansas, where he became a dealer at the famous Long Branch Saloon. On the fateful day of October 26, 1881, a feud that had been going on for some time, between the Earp brothers and a gang led by Ike Clanton, culminated in the most celebrated shootout in western folklore - the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The famous gunfight was not in the O.K. Corral. It actually took place in Harwood's lumberyard, down the street from the rear entrance to the corral. It lasted thirty seconds. When the gunsmoke cleared, Frank and Tom McLaury lay dead, and Billy Clanton died later from chest wounds.

At the trial, the four Earp brothers were found innocent. In 1886, Wyatt and his wife Josie settled in San Diego. Wyatt bought real estate and continued his passion for gambling. By the spring of 1897, all of California was buzzing with the news of the richest gold strike in the world. This was music to the ears of the aging gambler, gunfighter and gold-seeker.

Wyatt and Josie headed north with thousands of others in 1897. The first part of the voyage to the goldfields ended in Wrangell, Alaska, as rough a town as Wyatt Earp had ever seen. He stayed there that winter and in the spring of 1898, set out for Dawson City around the coast of Alaska and the Yukon River. By the time they reached the town of Rampart on the Yukon River, freeze-up has set in. There the Earps spent the winter of 1898-1899. In the spring, Earp worked as the manager of a small store in St. Michael on the north Alaskan coast. He wanted to reach Dawson City, but decided that the Klondike staking rush was over. So the Earps settled in Nome.

Yukon History Hougengroup Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp

In 1901, after two years running the famed Dexter saloon in Nome, the Earps returned to the southern states. He and Josie spent their summers in Los Angeles where they became pals with early day Hollywood heroes. On January 13, 1929, Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles. He was eighty years old.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



See also: From the OK Corral to the Nome Gold Rush