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New Gold Rush book disappoints

Any new book like this one holds the promise of adding another page or two to the history books.

I am always on the lookout for new books on Yukon history. When my wife saw the promotional material for “Gold Rush in the Klondike: A Woman’s Journey in 1898-1899,” by Josephine Knowles, (Quill Driver Books, Fresno California), she ordered me a copy as a special treat for Fathers’ Day. Sadly, I was disappointed.

Any new book like this one holds the promise of adding another page or two to the history books. According to the introduction, it “is the true story of (Knowles’) experiences as one of the few women among thousands of male prospectors who travelled to the Klondike in search of gold.”

It goes on to assert that this account reveals Knowles to be “courageous and compassionate, and also curious about the people that they met in the vast wilderness that surrounded them.”

Based upon the memoir written by Josephine sometime after returning from the Klondike, it details her year-long experiences as an American woman who accompanied her husband on a gold rush adventure. She remained in the Yukon from the late summer of 1898 till the breakup of the Yukon River in 1899.

The dust jacket proclaims the book “presents terrifying struggles against a hostile environment, picturesque descriptions of an untouched Arctic wilderness, and Knowles’ keen observations of men and women on the frontier.”

The blurb went on to note that her adventures included encounters with the great American author, Jack London. It seemed to have the ingredients of a good read.

Knowles describes the journey north, the travails of the Chilkoot, the river trip to Dawson, and a cold winter spent in the Klondike.

Of particular interest to me was her description of a visit to one of Dawson City’s notorious dance halls, The Klondike. Being a respectable woman, she could not walk in through the front doors. Instead, she and her husband were ushered to the rear of the building, where they entered the second floor through a window via a ladder, and sneaked into one of the private boxes. There, she was could witness the action below.

Her description of the antics in the smoke-filled hall made for fascinating reading. I hoped it would answer questions I have about the theatres, dance halls and saloons in Dawson City during its heyday. But I can’t take her narrative at face value.

There were many remarks made by Knowles that I found disconcerting. Of Bonanza Creek, she states “I was the only woman in this camp of 500 men.” This is patently false. By the time Knowles had arrived in the Klondike, hundreds of women had most certainly reached the Klondike before her (630 women had registered coming over the Chilkoot to Tagish Post by July of 1898).

Her recollections of the trip down the Yukon River were troubling. On page 63, after having made it through the Whitehorse Rapids, they approach “Five Fingered Rapids.” On page 66, they are on Lake Laberge, which they had travelled down for several days. They reach Fort Selkirk on page 74, from which point they would soon be at Forty Mile. They stayed in Forty Mile for a few days before continuing into Dawson City.

This jumbled and confusing account of her trip down the Yukon left me wondering why the editors hadn’t checked the geography for accuracy. If her trip down the Yukon ended at Dawson City, she could not have described their stay at Forty Mile, which lay beyond their destination. If not Forty Mile, what place was she was actually describing?

Later, she states that the sun had set for eight months with only the reflected light from the sky casting a twilight over the town. A couple of pages later she stated that they only had enough light in the sky to read for an hour each day. Even in the depths of winter when I lived in Dawson City, there were always three to four hours of daylight during the darkest times around December 21. After that, the days start getting longer once again.

The worst clanger is when Knowles describes her encounter with the famous author Jack London, first on the boat heading to Skagway, then later in Dawson City. She writes that London was a drunken lout who “seemed to assume a haughty and superior air toward the people around him.”

This recollection is entirely fabricated. In later years, many gold rush stampeders clearly remembered their contacts with famous people associated with the Klondike. Some remembered camping with Robert Service on the Chilkoot Trail, a decade before he arrived in the north.

Judge Wickersham, famed jurist and Alaska historian, remembers meeting Service in the bank in Dawson around 1901, while in her later years, famed actress of stage and screen, Marjorie Rambeau remembered clearly that Robert Service was there to see her off when she departed Dawson City in 1906. Service didn’t arrive until years later than any of these events.

Others remember downing beers with London in a Dawson barroom or sailing through Miles Canyon with London acting as their pilot, but few such remembrances can be authenticated. In Knowles case, they couldn’t have crossed paths, London having left Dawson City and the Yukon in the spring of 1898, months before she arrived.

I don’t doubt that Mrs. Knowles participated in the Klondike Gold Rush or that she spent a winter there. I would very much like to believe that her account is historically correct, But there are so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies that it brings everything else that she writes about into question. Which parts are fact and which are fiction? I don’t know and I wish the editors had spent a little time questioning the manuscript before they put it into print.

On the other hand, it is a nice read – if all you want is something to distract you.

“Gold Rush in the Klondike” is 172 pages with 33 historical photos, which, though well chosen, I thought lack sharpness and detail and were washed out. It includes a short appendix and an equally short biography of Mrs. Knowles, as well as a three-page index, but no maps and no bibliography.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometime adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I will be available in the spring