Letters from Alaska and the Northwest

My wife Kathy and I are constantly hunting down new and relevant bits of Yukon history. It's amazing where they surface sometimes. Kathy deserves the title "Super Sleuth" because of the many important documents she uncovers.

My wife Kathy and I are constantly hunting down new and relevant bits of Yukon history. It’s amazing where they surface sometimes.

Kathy deserves the title “Super Sleuth” because of the many important documents she uncovers. She recently came across an obscure reference to some old Klondike letters in a library in Montreal that were published in a small booklet of 55 pages back in 1899.

This little gem throws new light onto a well known, often-told story. It’s about an American woman who, like the hundreds of other women who came north during the Klondike Gold Rush, was seeking an opportunity to make a fortune by finding a gold mine of her own.

She left Denver, Colorado, during the summer of 1898 en route to Seattle where, in the company of her brother George, she became a member of a party of six who planned to head to Dawson City.

I will share with you some of her writings home to her family. She describes her journey north, her adventures, and some of the people she met. There is a surprise in the second installment, and a very interesting postscript on what happened to her after her year in the Klondike.

This adventurous woman’s story goes like this. She left Seattle July 23, 1898, and started writing to her family a week later:

“To all the Dear Ones at Home;

“The steamer on which we took passage was called the Utopia. If memory serves me well the meaning of that word implies a heaven on earth, but here we had neither a heaven on earth, nor on sea, only in name, none on the boat, for it was crowded to the limit of its accommodating power. The great majority of passengers were steerage, men (with their families) going to work on the railway between Skagway and Bennett.

“Among the passengers was one couple who attracted my attention from the first. He tall, angular, 60, with very much the air of one thoroughly accustomed to roughing it; she, ‘fair, fat and 40,’ with ears and fingers loaded with diamonds and precious stones. When addressing each other, it was always ‘Papa’ and ‘Mamma’, and I inferred that they had been married for an indefinite period…

“With a coy shake of the head and hesitating giggle between every few words, she said, ‘Papa and I are on our wedding trip … he’s got lots of rich mines in Dawson. We’re going there now for the cleanup.’

“My eye followed hers until it rested on ‘Papa,’ and I tried to imagine him contented in a home filled with Italian statuary and could not. A good man, undoubtedly; an honest, hard working Scotch Canadian; but some stones are better in the rough…”.

Our intrepid letter writer described her arrival in Skagway, where the entire town had turned out to witness their approach. She retired to her cabin in hopes of catching some sleep, but the noisy winch unloading supplies all through the northern twilight denied her that privilege.

“My loved ones,” she writes, “over the distance my heart and thought goes out to you; know that we are with you always – not a day passes that, many times, we do not speak; we think of you as at the table, in the library, or on the verandah….”

She wrote again from Bennett on July 5:

“My very dear Parents, and others within your gates: … On route to Sheep Camp we passed scores of dead horses that had slipped and fallen on the mountain side, many miners’ outfits in caches, and many more deserted by those whom the early hardships of the trail had appalled.

“The walk over the Pass was a perilous journey, harder under foot at this time of year, we are told, as the snow is almost melted, and great care must be taken not to fall through the thin crust that is often the only bridge over a raging mountain torrent dashing hundreds of feet below.

“The walk, or rather ascent, was finished to within 50 feet when I slipped and fell on a sharp rock, skinning my shin … Ready to weep with pain, I sat down ready to meet my last moments with that calm born of despair … while George with white face sternly commanding me not ‘to be a driveling idiot’ but to ‘have some style and move on.’ Mustering all my courage and pride, I moved, and managed to saunter into the Summit Hotel (an ancient canvas structure) with a smiling face, but a murderous heart.

They struggled on to Lindeman City, encountering the resolute Mounties along the way, eventually arriving in Bennett, where the party arranged the construction of a boat to take them to Dawson.

After leaving Bennett, she recounts preparing her first meal over “a smoky campfire made of very wet wood, “consisting of cold rice, boiled ham and plenty of bread.”

At Tagish, the Mounted Police painted the number 14,405 on their 11-metre-long scow.

When they arrived at Miles Canyon, the Mounties had a policy of no women or children aboard the boats brave enough to challenge the turbulent waters. A fine of $100 faced all who broke this rule.

Our adventurous correspondent stepped ashore and, armed only with a stout walking stick and with camera in hand, obligingly walked the five miles to White Horse Rapids. Meanwhile, the overloaded boat raced through the canyon and rapids below. Although the steering oar broke in the foaming waters, and the boat whirled about out of control, the men arrived safely below to greet the footloose wanderer.

It took them 12 days from Bennett to Dawson City. With the daylight becoming shorter each day, and the evenings colder, she remarked that during the voyage down river, they found wild raspberries, red currants, blueberries and cranberries, but she lamented the absence of fresh vegetables.

“Since leaving Dyea,” she wrote to her distant family, “we have met hundreds of men of all sorts and descriptions, and it has surprised me that almost without exception they were pleasant, well-mannered, and in many instances, well educated.”

“God bless and be with you all. With love and devotion, Yours affectionately…,” She signs off her third letter home.

Now safely in the Klondike, she had no hope of leaving the North, and prepared for the long, dark, cold winter ahead. She had to find a winter cabin and face the elements thousands of miles away from home.

Many adventures lay ahead of her before her year in the Klondike is complete, and she will have some exciting news for her family far away before the winter is over and she returns to the warmth of her loved ones.

But that’s a story for the second part, which follows next week.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.