Life is full of surprises, some big and some small.
After 20 years of gathering information about one of the creeks in the Klondike gold fields, Gold Run Creek, I thought I had more or less accumulated the information I needed to develop a detailed history of the area.
That’s when I got my surprise.
While examining the material in the new University of Washington online photo database, a subject search for Gold Run Creek revealed a photo of John W. Nordstrom, a Swedish immigrant who mined on this creek during the Klondike heyday.
After it looked like he might lose his claim due to shady dealings, he sold out and left for Seattle with $13,000 in his pocket.
There, with a $5,000 investment, he went into partnership with Carl Wallin, another Swede who he had met while in the North.
Wallin had run a shoe-repair business in Seattle before the gold rush.
Wallin and Nordstrom opened their first store in 1901.
On the first day of business, they sold $12.50 worth of shoes.
Four years later, they had sold $47,000 worth of shoes.
Eventually, they opened a second store.
Both partners sold out to Nordstrom’s sons when they retired, and the brothers expanded the store into the largest independent chain of shoe stores in the United States.
Nordstrom’s grandsons took over the reigns of the business in 1968.
Three years later, they went public with the business. Nordstrom’s is now a nationwide fashion specialty chain with renowned services, generous size ranges and a selection of the finest apparel, shoes and accessories.
All that success was derived from a little grubstake torn from the gravels of one of the Klondike’s lesser-known tributaries.
The Klondike was renowned for its wealthy miners, who lived wild and extravagant lives with the gold dug up on their Bonanza and Eldorado Creek claims.
As Pierre Berton pointed out in his classic book on the gold rush, “If there was conspicuous wealth, there was also conspicuous waste.”
More than one Eldorado king wasted his money in pursuit of romance.
Charley Anderson, the “Lucky Swede” bought a million-dollar claim when he was too drunk to know what he was doing.
Grace Drummond agreed to marry him if he deposited $50,000 into her bank account.
He did, and he built her a turreted castle too.
Anderson died penniless.
Big Alex MacDonald, the “King of the Klondike,” was the richest of the gold rush millionaires.
He lost it all by re-investing his profits in more land.
He died 10 years after the gold rush while chopping wood in front of his cabin on Clear Creek, still a prospector to the core.
Some of the wealthy miners managed to hang on to their money.
John Grieve Lind, who had a number of claims in the Klondike, worked hard and stayed out of the saloons.
He took his money with him back to Ontario where, a few years later, he invested in a business that eventually grew to become the largest independent cement company in the country.
Perhaps the most successful of all was Clarence Berry, a fruit farmer from Fresno California, who was starving while mining in the Fortymile district before the gold rush. Berry, who was known as a man who kept his word and remembered his friends, made a fortune mining claim number six on Eldorado Creek.
A few years later, Berry hit it big a second time on Ester Creek, near Fairbanks, Alaska.
This property, and more in the Circle district, remains in the family to the present.
Berry later returned to California. In 1909, he formed the Berry Petroleum Company and made another fortune.
Today, the Berry Petroleum Company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Another prospector who made out well from his hard work was Louis Rhodes.
He left the Klondike with a fortune, which he lost when he invested in mining property in Mexico.
Undeterred, he returned to the North and made a second fortune by developing a quartz mine near Fairbanks.
He retired and lived comfortably for the rest of his life.
Not all the hopefuls who came to the North for gold left with a fortune, but they left comfortable.
After several years of hard work on Dominion Creek, Ed Lung left with nine bricks of gold, each worth $9,000. He opened an insurance business in Yakima, and had a successful career in Washington State.
One man left the North with enough money to set up a lodge near Orillia, Ontario. Another, who escaped appalling poverty in Ireland, took his gold back to his Irish hometown, where he bought a home and a farm and raised 11 children.
Over the years that my wife worked at the Dawson City Museum, she reports meeting many people who came to Dawson City to see where their father or grandfather had made his small fortune.
None of these men made the headlines in the newspaper when they left, but they were able to go home and live comfortably as a result of the gold they found in the North.
This was the legacy that they created from their participation in the “last grand adventure.”
But one of the most moving legacies of the gold rush comes from the one who found the gold that started it all.
Skookum Jim was renowned for his strength as a packer over the Chilkoot Pass. In 1887, he worked with George Carmack for William Ogilvie, the government surveyor, hauling the government supplies into the interior.
Carmack married Jim’s sister and maintained a close relationship with his brother-in-law during the ensuing years.
After the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek, Jim was reportedly earning $90,000 a year from his claim, which he eventually sold in 1904 for $65,000.
Jim continued to prospect for years until he died in 1916.
After discussing the care of his daughter Daisy with his lawyer, a trust fund was set up care for her needs.
After she died, the trust fund continued to accumulate interest.
In 1960, it amounted to $70,000. The money was used to establish the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, which was officially opened March 26th, 1962, and continues to operate today.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.