Big Alex McDonald, known as the Klondike King, was one of the lucky and shrewd few who came out of the Klondike with millions in gold in 1898.
Just how many millions he had varies between seven and 27, depending on the source.
McDonald thought that the money would last, but he ended up dying alone and in debt, less than 10 years later.
McDonald was born in Nova Scotia in 1856, and came to the Yukon a poor man in 1895 – three years before the Klondike Gold Rush began.
He prospected in Forty Mile and headed for the Klondike when gold was found in 1896.
He bought a half-share of a claim on Eldorado Creek for a sack of flour and a side of bacon and, as his wealth grew, he increased his holdings little by little.
Like a clever stock market investor who diversifies his portfolio by buying many different stocks, McDonald spread his holdings around many different claims.
By 1898, he owned interests in 75 mines and he had hired a small army of men, whom he paid well, to work the claims for him.
Though he had success on the Klondike creeks, he realized that many men did not, and he cautioned gold-seeking men against going to the Klondike with inflated hopes and dreams.
“Too many men went in there last spring who expected to come out again in the fall with a fortune, and because they failed they are inclined to see every thing in that country through badly smoked glass,” McDonald told a newspaper reporter in 1898.
“I have been in there three winters and four summers and I know what it means to pack heavy loads on my back from creek to creek in all kinds of weather.”
Along with his business acumen, McDonald was also known for his good-looks and his generosity.
When the Dawson City’s Catholic Church burnt to the ground in 1898, McDonald supplied the funds to rebuild.
“It would be difficult to find a more plain, unassuming matter-of-fact man than Mr. McDonald,” reported the St. John Daily Sun in October 1898.
“He has secured the confidence of the entire Yukon community by his policy of ‘square’ dealings, and his marvellous success, which many have been pleased to attribute to ‘blind luck’ is really and in fact the exercise of his shrewd, hard-headed good horse sense.”
In 1899, 45-year-old McDonald travelled to London, England where he met and married the 20-year-old daughter of a policeman.
“Their marriage was arranged in the quickest possible time, because of McDonald’s business affairs, which necessitated his return to the Yukon almost immediately,” reported Toronto’s Daily Mail and Empire on February 10, 1899.
“The bridegroom is a big, stern man and looks the typical miner. The church was filled mostly with youngsters, who stood up on the benches with mouths agape eyeing the Klondiker.”
McDonald returned to the Klondike to oversee his business ventures, which, sadly were in decline.
Unfortunately, McDonald, like
so many other miners, thought the money supply would never end.
Over the next decade, McDonald became obsessive about purchasing claims, many of which had proved to be worthless. Poor business decisions and the Yukon’s boom-bust mining cycle nearly bankrupt McDonald.
Sadly, he died of a heart attack while chopping wood near his cabin in the Clear Creek area in 1909.
At the time he had $30,000 in assets, but it was not enough to cover his debts.
McDonald was buried in the cemetery in Dawson City.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.