They have been called “soiled doves,”“ladies of easy virtue,”“fair but frail,” and, yes, “languorous lilies of soulless love.” They have been reviled as a stain on society, and they have been glamorized in western lore. Whatever way you look at it, 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 “Dutch” Kate, who accompanied a group of prospectors over the Chilkoot in 1888, a full ten years before the gold rush.
Once the town of Forty Mile 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 and located behind Front Street. Most of these women worked independently, but 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 three months. During that time, her girls earned $30 to $50 a day. Factoring in inflation, that works out to roughly $72,000 dollars each, over the three months, 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 over three months, equivalent to almost a million dollars in modern-day cash. Not bad for three months’ work!
Prostitution extended out into the goldfields as well. Grand Forks, the largest of the outlying communities, had its own red-light district at the far end of First Avenue, a short distance from the Mounted Police detachment. Other creek communities had their own districts that varied in size.
With the gold cleanup in the spring, there was always an abundance of gold dust out on the creeks. On the Queen’s birthday in 1899, a well-known businessman brought 11 prostitutes over King Solomon Dome on pack horses to a roadhouse near Upper Discovery on Dominion Creek, about sixty-five kilometres from Dawson. That night $4,000 was taken in at the bar.
Festivities continued during the next day and night. One girl alone carried $500 worth 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 faded. One, a notorious member of the demimonde named Gypsy Troll, operated first at Sulphur Creek and 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 made to Granville sometime around 1908.
Prostitutes bore a stigma that repelled the respectable women of Dawson. On the streets they were shunned, and shops were only open to them during specific hours.
Yet, for all of the tawdry associations these women shouldered, they also fascinated the upright citizens of the community. In I Married the Klondike, Laura Berton – mother of well-known Canadian author Pierre Berton – 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.
Lousetown, or Klondike City, was located at the mouth of the Klondike River on the opposite shore from Dawson, and well separated from the conventional mores of the Klondike capital.
Betty Neumiller, who lived in Dawson just after the turn of the 20th century, remembered being driven by curiosity as a child to visit these exotic ladies, one of whom offered her and her friend a small orange each.
Oranges were a rarity and special treat in Dawson in those times. Another woman even gave her a small ring to wear, but in embarrassment, Betty threw it into the Klondike River from the bridge on her way home, fearing her parents would learn of the forbidden visit across the river.
By the 1930s, prostitutes had become an accepted part of the community. Unlike 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 the South while others married well and achieved social acceptance in the process.
Ruby Scott, the most famous post-gold rush madam in the Yukon, enjoyed a high level of respect in Dawson City, and 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 can bestow.
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 quaint in its historic context. Bombay Peggy’s, known for its brief history as a brothel and since refurbished into a modern-day hotel, now provides a colourful setting for guests who patronize its rooms.
Historic walking tours in Dawson City would not be complete without a passing reference to 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 of the former brothel. I often see husbands handing cameras to their wives there and asking them to take a picture.
Prostitution has slipped into the misty realm of myth and achieved iconic status in the territory, being further 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 proceeded to picket the News and wrote letters to the editor claiming 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?
This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.