Whatever perspective you have on the subject, prostitution has had a colourful history in the Yukon.
As soon as miners started arriving in the Yukon, women followed to meet the demand for affection. The first fallen woman to enter the Yukon is believed to have been one named “Dutch” Kate, who accompanied a group of prospectors over the Chilkoot in 1888, a full 10 years before the gold rush.
Once the town of Fortymile was established, a troupe of entertainers arrived on the scene.
The women among the ensemble were amply rewarded for the “display of their talents.”
One of them was known as “The Virgin” because, it was alleged, she had once seen one.
The advent of the gold rush brought with it the development of a red light district in Dawson City known as Paradise Alley, which was located in the alley behind Front Street.
Most of these women worked more or less independently, but one, Mattie Silks, a successful madam from Denver, braved the Chilkoot Trail in early 1898 with eight working girls.
Mattie set up shop in a two-storey house on Second Avenue, where she operated for a period of three months. During that time, her girls earned $30 to $50 a day which, factoring in inflation, works out to roughly $72,000 in today’s currency. And that doesn’t include tips!
After accounting for overhead expenses and covering the gambling debt amassed by her husband, Mattie netted $38,000 dollars, which, factoring in inflation is equivalent to almost a million dollars in today’s cash. Not bad for three months work!
Prostitution extended out into the goldfields as well.
At Grand Forks, the largest of the outlying communities, had its own red light district at the far end of First Avenue, not far from the mounted police detachment. Other creek communities had their own districts, varying according to the resident population.
With the gold clean-up in the spring, there was always an abundance of gold dust out in the goldfields.
On the Queen’s birthday, in 1899, a well-known business man brought 11 prostitutes over the King Solomon’s Dome, on pack horses, to a road house near Upper Discovery on Dominion Creek, about 40 miles from Dawson.
That night $4,000 were taken in at the bar and festivities continued during the next day and night. One girl, alone, carried $500 of Dominion gold back to Dawson.
Business petered out very quickly in the goldfields as the more profitable ground was exhausted, but some women continued to ply their trade long after the stampede had gone bust.
One, a notorious member of the demimonde named Gypsy Troll, operated at Sulphur Creek, then later at Granville and Gold Run.
Laura Berton reported that Gypsy had been involved in a stabbing a few days prior to a visit the author had made to Granville sometime around 1908.
Prostitutes bore a stigma that repelled the respectable women of Dawson.
On the streets, they were shunned.
There were even certain hours, which by convention, they were allowed to go downtown to do their shopping.
Yet, for all of the tawdry associations these women shouldered, they also held a fascination for the upright citizens of the community.
Laura Berton, in her book I Married the Klondike, alludes to her voyeuristic walks beyond Lousetown, from where she and her walking companion could spy on the “ladies of the line” relaxing in the off-hours of the afternoon.
Betty Neumiller, a veteran sourdough, remembered that as a child driven by curiosity, she visited these curious citizens, one of whom offered her and her childhood friend a small orange each.
Oranges were a rarity and a special treat in Dawson in those times.
Another woman even gave her a small ring to wear, but in embarrassment, she threw it into the Klondike River on her way home, fearing that her parents would learn of their forbidden visit to Lousetown.
By the 1930s, prostitutes had become an accepted part of the community.
Unlike similar members of the profession Outside, the local practitioners were respected and trusted.
Some provided banking services, while others reliably held money for miners who occasionally visited town.
Many were able to leave with a bankroll to establish successful and legitimate businesses in populous southern cities. Others married well and achieved social acceptance in the process.
Ruby Scott, the most famous post-gold rush madam in the Yukon, reached a level or respect and social acceptance in Dawson City. She was known for her generosity and love of children.
Dances were often held in the Oddfellow’s Hall (now restored as the Odd Gallery and art school in Dawson). During breaks in the music, men would bring their dates next door to Ruby’s to escape the liquor restrictions of the day.
There, Ruby would offer drinks and conversation to her guests.
In time, Ruby received one of the highest forms of acceptance any community has to offer.
Her former home and base of operation was designated as nationally significant by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and is now cared for by Parks Canada.
Prostitution has, in fact, become downright appealing. Bombay Peggy’s, a small hotel in Dawson, known for its brief history as a brothel, has added cachet for the customers who now patronize its rooms.
Historic walking tours in Dawson City would not be complete without a passing reference to the presence of Paradise Alley and a stop at Ruby’s Place.
It is a popular spot for tourists, who have, on occasion, asked me to take their photograph standing on the steps to the entrance of Ruby’s.
I often see husbands handing their cameras to their wives to take the pictures.
Prostitution has slipped into the misty realm of myth and achieved iconic status in the territory.
This image has been twisted and distorted by its spurious association with can-can dancing. In 1992, then editor of the Yukon News Peter Lesniak was lambasted by members of the community for editorial comments he made about disbanding a local group of can-can dancers, whom he described as “thick-thighed hoofers.”
“As we all know,” he said, “can-can dancers doubled as whores during the Klondike Gold Rush.”
Protesters picketed the News and wrote letters to the editor, claiming that his remarks undermined Yukon’s Heritage.
Of course can-can dancers did not exist in the Yukon’s early days, so there could not have been any link to prostitution.
But why let that get in the way of a good story, or icon?
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.