Meet the fortunate Bridget Mannion

Sometimes it can be difficult to create an historical picture of a person or event, because they often become shaded by misinformation or second-hand accounts.

Sometimes it can be difficult to create an historical picture of a person or event, because they often become shaded by misinformation or second-hand accounts, so the evidence has to be carefully sifted to get to the facts of story.

Take Bridget Mannion, for example.

According to an article in Irish Roots Magazine, written by Caroline McCall in 2009, Bridget Mannion was born in Rosmuc, County Galway in Ireland February 1, 1865. She came to the United States when she was about 20 years old, and eventually obtained a position as a cook for the wealthy Chicago financier, Portus B. Weare.

Sometime in 1892, Weare invited John J. Healy to dinner. Healy was a former whiskey trader in Montana and southern Alberta, who had moved North in 1886 and established a trading post under the business name of Healy and Wilson at Dyea, near the head of the Chilkoot Trail.

Over dinner, Healy pitched the idea of establishing a trading post at the tiny mining camp of Forty Mile, at the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers. His sales pitch worked and Portus B. Weare backed the formation of the North American Transportation and Trading (NAT&T) Company. Healy named one of the company sternwheel river boats after Weare.

According to author John Leonard, in his book The Gold Fields of the Klondike, Bridget announced to her boss her intention to go to Alaska.

“You can’t mine,” he said.

“That’s true,” she replied, “but there’s them that can.”

She accompanied Healy and his wife Belle to Forty Mile as their servant. The trip wasn’t easy. They arrived at St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon late in the summer of 1892 and consequently got frozen in for the winter at Nulato on their way up river. According to Leonard, Bridget practically had to beat the men away with a stick. By the time they had traveled 50 miles up the Yukon River, she had turned down 125 marriage proposals.

They completed the voyage the following year. Across the river from the mining town, they established Fort Cudahy, which consisted of the company trading post and warehouses; this formed a neat quadrangle facing the river. They also built a sawmill, and had a free reading room, a billiard hall, and a row of small log cabins strung out in a row along the banks of the mighty Yukon, also facing the river.

Finally, in 1894, Bridget married Edward Aylward, an Irishman who was mining on Napoleon Creek, up the Fortymile River. According to Leonard, Aylward was panning out $50,000 per month from his claim. That seems to be exaggerated on the positive side; geological reports by Josiah Spurr place the amount at a far smaller sum; whatever the reality was, he seemed to be doing well from his claim. When gold was discovered in the Klondike, Aylward wasn’t interesting in moving from Napoleon Creek. “I have all I want and more,” he wrote in a letter the winter of 1896.

In April of 1896, Bridget was able to travel Outside, taking with her 150 gold nuggets, averaging one ounce each, that she had picked up from their claim. Around her neck was a nugget necklace worth $100. A nugget bracelet hung from her wrist. According to Anna DeGraf, who shared a cabin with her, she suffered terribly from seasickness on the journey across the Bering Sea and the Pacific en route to Seattle.

When she arrived in Seattle, where she was hailed as “The Queen of Alaska” by the newspapers, she traded in her outdated mining garb for the latest fashions. She stayed in that west coast seaport visiting friends for a while, and then headed east to visit in Boston before sailing to Ireland to see her family.

Along the way, though, she couldn’t miss the opportunity to drop in on her former employer. According to Leonard, “a woman of stylish appearance and haughty demeanor swished past the admiring office boy in Mr. Weare’s office, and extended a primrose-gloved hand to the stout man at the desk. Looking up, he recognized his old cook. ‘I am now on my way to Europe,’ said Bridget, ‘and I thought I’d like to see you as I went through. You mind what I told you when I left.’”

Edward died in 1914, but Bridget lived until she was 94 years old. She remained in their comfortable Seattle home until 1948, when she returned to her beloved Ireland.

There is one story about the fortunate Mrs. Aylward that needs to be sorted out. According to a recent biography by Gordon Tolton, titled Healy’s West, Healy locked her out for staying out too late one evening. The miners took exception to her being fired, and called a miners’ meeting, where they agreed unanimously that was to pay her one year’s wages ($600) travel expenses back to Chicago. Then, according to Tolton, she married a wealthy miner.

I looked into the first-hand accounts of early-day Forty Mile, and found a report from Sergeant Charles Brown, of the North West Mounted Police. He was the only officer stationed at the gold mining camp the winter of 1894-1895. On January 16, 1895, he wrote, the miners indeed held a meeting, but it was against Charles H. Hamilton; Healy and his wife had gone Outside for the winter.

The miners were not favourably disposed to Hamilton and the NAT&T Company because they didn’t extend the long credit that competitor Jack McQuesten did. They ruled in favour of the “servant girl,” who remained unnamed in Brown’s report. The amount of money and goods that they demanded added up to $569.53 and included first-class passage to Seattle. Hamilton paid up; he was greatly outnumbered, and the miners would have blown up his safe to get the money, if he had not complied.

Was this Bridget Mannion? If the genealogical account is accurate, she and Aylward were already married in 1894, in which case, this incident would have occurred after the Irishwoman was married. Would she have been likely to have stayed out late with an amorous miner after she was married? It seems unlikely to me. Because Sergeant Brown does not name the servant girl in question, we must continue to sift through evidence until the mystery of the errant servant girl is clarified – once and for all.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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