This is the story of one immigrant’s hard life and his Klondike gold rush legacy. I had studied Gold Run Creek for 20 years before I came across this account for the first time, so I went to the Yukon Archives and checked the old mining records to determine if his story would check out. It did.
Our immigrant, whose name was John, wrote his narrative for his grandchildren to read after he was gone, to let them know what the average immigrant had to go through in the 1880s
John was born in 1871 in Sweden. His father died when he was young, and at the age of 16 years, he took his inheritance, which amounted to $112, and bought his first set of clothes that hadn’t been spun and woven by hand.
With the balance, he bought a ticket to America, where he arrived in Michigan with only $5 in his pocket. His first job, arranged by a cousin, working in an iron mine, paid him 16 cents an hour. After a close call with a mine cave-in, he quit. The man who hired him for his second job cheated him out of his wages.
He then got a job cutting wood for the winter. In the bunkhouse, sleeping in his bed, which he shared with a teamster, it was so cold that his hair froze to the wall. The lice were a torment.
Next, he worked narrow seams of coal in a coal mine, but that left him with next to nothing after room and board were deducted, so he moved on to San Francisco. One job led to another, and he slowly worked his way up the coast until after a few years, by careful saving, he had amassed $500. That went a lot farther than it does today.
When the depression hit in 1893, he had a hard time finding any work at all. His savings were dwindling despite his best efforts.
Then he saw the headlines in a Seattle newspaper of gold in the Klondike, and with two partners, bought an outfit and three horses, and booked passage on an overcrowded converted coal freighter.
There were 1,200 men, 600 horses and 600 mules aboard the northbound ship. Old timers claimed that this was one of the most heavily laden vessels that ever headed north for the Klondike. The first class passengers got to sleep with the horses, the second class with the mules. John travelled second class.
They laboured over the White Pass Trail, often in the cold and rain, carrying their outfit by horse and on their backs, load by load, to Bennett, where they built a scow. The scow was ready by the beginning of October; then in the face of winter’s rapid advance, they crossed the lakes and passed through the rapids of the upper Yukon in the autumn snowstorms. Navigating through a Yukon River congested with ice floes, they made it to Dawson before freeze-up.
They built a small log cabin a half mile up the Klondike River from Dawson City, using lumber salvaged from their scow for floors and a door. Lacking plate glass, they filled the window openings with whiskey bottles.
The partners had only 10 candles apiece to last them through the winter, so they used their bacon fat and a twist of rag in a crudely improvised lamp to supplement the lighting.
John stampeded to All Gold Creek and staked a claim which yielded no gold at all. Here, he froze his feet so badly that his toenails fell out. He worked on someone else’s claim for two-and-a-half months for a share of nothing, and then on another where his earnings, after four-and-a-half months work, amounted to $1,800.
John invested most of his earnings in a share of a claim on Gold Run Creek, which he worked hard but on which he found only small amounts of gold. Meanwhile, there were court cases over the legitimacy of the original staking of the ground that put his ownership and his investment at risk. Finally, he sold the claim for $30,000 to the partnership of Chute and Wills, who later took $2,000,000 out of the very same claim in just two years..
After expenses, John left the Klondike in 1899 with $13,000. That was not a bad return for his time since a labourer could expect to earn $800 per year in those days. The trip home was far more comfortable than the trip north two years before. He bought some property in Seattle with his money and built houses on the lots. John married a young Swedish woman named Hilda Carlson, who came from a village not far from where he was born.
With the residue of his Klondike earnings, he sunk $4,000 in a partnership with another Swede, in a shoe store in downtown Seattle. On their first day of business, they sold one pair of shoes. On their second day of business (the store was open 16 hours a day), they brought in only $47.
Their business improved, and after some frugal living, and a couple of moves, they operated for the next 25 years out of a store located on Second Avenue. They added a second store in 1923. When John retired in 1930, his three sons bought out his share of the business, and his partner’s as well.
The legacy of his Klondike grubstake continued. The sons expanded the business through the financial depression of the 1930s. By 1950, in addition to the original two stores, it had grown to several shoe departments in large department stores. As well, they had a store north of Seattle and another in Portland, Oregon.
By 1962, John was 92 years old and his sons continued to expand the operation. The original store in downtown Seattle had grown into the largest single shoe store in America. They had another eight stores in the Pacific Northwest and 13 shoe departments in department stores in Washington, Oregon and California. They had added one more store in Seattle, another in Phoenix, and two more were being planned.
Ten years later, they bought out a small chain of apparel stores, and expanded their line of products to include quality women’s wear. They had moved into Hawaii and had three stores in Alaska, adding in total another 20 outlets.
In 1971, they went public on NASDAQ and later the New York Stock exchange. Between 1978 and 1995, they had opened 46 full-line department stores. Today, still a fourth generation family operated concern, they also market through an e-commerce division and are listed as a Forbes 500 company.
By the way, John’s full name was John W. Nordstrom, and that name is still displayed prominently on stores all over America. Not bad for a Swedish immigrant who arrived in Michigan with five dollars in his pocket in 1888.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book most recent book is History Hunting in the Yukon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.