New book chronicles the Klondike’s biggest winner

"It's the goddamndest story you ever heard," Gordon Bennett, an unassuming 92-year-old, told Betsy Lumbye, a journalist with more than 30 years experience. And he was right. 

“It’s the goddamndest story you ever heard,” Gordon Bennett, an unassuming 92-year-old, told Betsy Lumbye, a journalist with more than 30 years experience. And he was right.

Bennett was talking about his great uncle, Clarence J. Berry, who made several fortunes in northern gold and California oil.

A hundred years ago, the Berry name was front page news and Clarence Berry was widely known. Today, the Berry story is virtually forgotten in the San Joaquin Valley of California, though it is somewhat more familiar to anyone who knows the Klondike story.

Beyond Luck: The Improbable Rise of the Berry Fortune across a Western Century was published late last year by West of West Books, from Fresno, California. Its 281 pages contain 16 photographs and one map. A genealogy chart helps the reader understand the families and the marriages of the Berry clan.

Beyond Luck is reviewed here because a key component to this historical account took place before, during and after the Klondike gold rush on Eldorado Creek near Dawson City. The central character, among a large and complex network of family ties, is Clarence J. Berry, the most successful of the Klondike kings.

Clarence Berry was a failed fruit farmer from Fresno when he decided to test his fortune by going to one of the last true frontiers on the continent to look for gold. The year was 1894, and the location was the Fortymile district of interior Yukon and Alaska.

In 1895, Berry returned to California, where he married his sweetheart, Ethel D. Bush, in the spring of 1896 and returned with her to the Yukon. Berry failed again and again to find the elusive yellow metal, but never gave up. He was working in Bill McPhee’s saloon in Forty Mile when George Carmack walked in with a rifle cartridge full of gold and announced that he had found it on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike.

McPhee grubstaked Berry, who joined the stampede, and secured title to claims on Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks. Berry repaid this favour several times during McPhee’s lifetime. By 1902, Berry’s Eldorado claim had coughed up a million and a half dollars in gold. In today’s values, that’s over $100 million!

Berry went on to Fairbanks a few years later and successful mining there added to his fortune. He then built and operated a dredge on Mammoth Creek, near Circle.

Berry didn’t let his fortune lie idle in a bank, however; he invested in oil wells back in California, near Bakersfield and multiplied his fortune even more. Berry Petroleum recently sold to private interests for nearly $5 billion.

He could have made even more money in the oil business; he was once offered an opportunity to invest in oil properties in the Elk Hills of California. Clarence replied that he didn’t consider it worth one cent. He was wrong and missed a great opportunity.

Berry was philosophical about the loss. “To me business is like a game of poker,” he said in later years. “If one is a good poker player, he does not expect to win every hand, and still might beat the game. I have never made a losing in business that it was not the cause of me making it back and more.”

This story is filled with failures, fortune and wild adventure. Based upon over 200 historical sources, newspapers, and family and company papers, the narrative is painted on the canvas of man testing himself in the last frontier at the end of the 19th century. It is a story of the little man struggling for – and achieving – success.

Clarence Berry is portrayed as a charismatic and courageous individual, generous, tough and likeable, who is blessed with remarkable opportunities and good fortune. He confronts a bear during a prospecting trip, and it ends in a standoff. On another prospecting trip, he finds nothing but starvation.

Shortly after Berry staked his claim and hit the paystreak on Eldorado Creek, government surveyor William Ogilvie alerted him

to the fact that all his winter’s work was on a fraction, a piece of ground exceeding the 152 metres (500 feet) allowed by law. This could have been open to staking by anybody and may have led to rioting and fighting over the rich ground. Disaster was averted when Berry asked George Byrne, a close and trusted friend, to stake the fraction. Byrne then traded it for another piece of Berry’s ground.

Over the years, Berry was blessed by many instances of similar good fortune. While returning to the Klondike in the spring of 1898, for example, he was spared from the terrible avalanche that occurred high in the Chilkoot Pass in early April that killed more than 50 stampeders.

But it is not his story alone. His wife Ethel ventured into the unknown with him and endured much loneliness and hardship. Her account of being only one of two wives living with their husbands on Eldorado Creek in 1896 reveals her remarkable character. The story is also about two families – the Berrys, and the Bushes, whose fates and families are intermingled throughout.

At the height of the Gold rush, almost the entire Berry family was in the Yukon, including William, the patriarch of the family, and his sons Frank, Clarence, Henry and Fred. In addition to Ethel, there was her sister Tot, who was romanced by and eventually married to Clarence’s younger brother Henry.

Lumbye adds a healthy quantity of contextual information that sets the stage nicely for the unfolding of the Berry narrative. I noted a number of factual flaws in the Klondike context that suggests the author’s unfamiliarity with

the actual setting. At one point, she misstates how claims are numbered on the creeks. Number 40 Above, for example, is the 40th claim above the discovery claim, not the 40th claim on the creek, as she states.

On page 95, the author characterizes Joe Ladue, the founder of Dawson City, as an explorer and prospector, but overlooks his most important pre-gold rush role as trader. In another instance, on page 133, Clarence Berry’s father purchased the Monte Carlo, which was a dance hall, theatre and saloon, but not a hotel, as stated by Lumbye.

These are minor criticisms because she used her sources well, and has done a good job of capturing the swirl of excitement around the gold rush – the hubbub, the rapid changes, the tremendous notoriety of the people and the events, and the ironies of fortunes won and lost.

I think readers will find it a good rags-to-riches account of one man’s gold rush, and what happened to him after the Klondike.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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