There are many rags-to-riches stories during the early days of the Klondike Gold Rush, often ending with an unceremonious return to poverty. One of them is about a young man from Texas who arrived in the Yukon basin before the gold rush even began, stone broke and who four years left the same. But this story has a good ending.
He learned important lessons in the tumultuous times of the gold rush and developed the personality traits that would later propel him to prominence as one of the most successful prize fight promoters of all time. His name was George Lewis Rickard, but everyone in Dawson City knew him as “Tex.”
Tex Rickard was born in Wyandotte County, Kansas, January 2, 1870, but his family moved to Texas when he was four years old. When he was older, he worked as a ranch hand to provide money for his impoverished family. In 1894, he was married and was elected city marshal of Henrietta, Texas, but a short time later, his wife and son both died.
Unattached, in a depressed economy, Rickard headed north to Juneau, Alaska, in November 1895, where he spent his time playing poker. In April of 1897, he crossed the Chilkoot Trail, built a boat, and floated down the Yukon river to the tiny gold rush community of Circle, Alaska, arriving dead broke.
Tex got a job working for Silent Sam Bonnifield in his gambling establishment. That day, says biographer Charles Samuels, Tex “walked through the invisible door into that all-male, never-land in which he spent the rest of his life.”
Tall, slim and soft spoken, Bonnifield was a rarity — an honest professional gambler. Like Bonnifield, Rickard was a better listener than a talker, who “never had two sentences to rub together in his life and he was always like that, Circle City to Coney Island and back.”
Bonnifield became a mentor to Rickard, who developed a reputation for his honesty in a business filled with hucksters and con men. Rickard took on any assignment Bonnifield handed him from running the craps table, to sweeping floors. He watched Bonnifield lose $5,000 to a gambler called “Goldie” in a game of faro, then win it all back — and $17,000 more.
One piece of advice Bonnifield offered Tex: “Either be a gold miner OR a gambler. You can’t be both.” But when word of the Klondike strike reached Circle early in 1897, Tex partnered with Harry Ash and headed off through the ice and snow to get in on the action.
Tex quickly secured a share in two claims on Bonanza Creek just below those staked by George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, and quickly flipped them for a cool $50,000. With this money, he partnered with Tom Turner and established The Northern, a saloon and gaming hall.
In four months they had made $155,000, but in one bad night at the gaming tables, they lost it all, and Tex was broke once again. For the next 15 months, Rickard tended bar in the Monte Carlo Saloon, which was established the year before by Swiftwater Bill Gates. Rickard worked for $20 a day, and lost it just as quickly gambling. According to Rickard biographer Charles Samuels, Tex, “even while surrounded by larceny in Dawson, remained both honest and also true to his westerner’s code of live and let live.”
It was there he worked beside and became lifelong friends with Wilson Mizner. The lanky Californian developed the reputation as one of the greatest gadabouts of his time. Mizner later became a successful playwright and screenplay writer with a knack for turning a good phrase.
Rickard watched Mizner manage the stage shows and arrange the fight cards in the Monte Carlo the summer of 1898. Prize fighting was a popular attraction in Dawson City, and Mizner proved a master at making a big fight out of nothing. In one instance, he got Australian champion boxer Frank Slavin into a trumped up grudge match with his close friend and business partner, Joe Boyle.
To stimulate interest in the match, Rickard and Mizner got the men to pretend that they were enemies and sent them about town to trash talk each other about their coming fight. Their effort was successful and the match filled the house at $25 a ticket.
Things weren’t getting any better for Rickard; in the fall of 1898, he moved on to the next promising gold camp in Rampart, Alaska, where he made friends with a young Rex Beach, who later became a successful novelist. Tex operated his own saloon in Rampart. His opening included a boxing match and a ball.
The gold prospects fizzled and his business went bust, so in the spring of 1899, he moved on to Nome, arriving there with $21 in his pocket, after having spent the remainder of the winter cutting firewood.
En route to Nome, he befriended Jim White, and together they started another saloon called The Northern in a large canvas tent belonging to White. It was a success, and in the first year, Rickard banked $100,000. Over the next four years, he pulled in half a million dollars, yet when he left the north for good, he had accumulated a mere $15,000, plus an additional $50,000 from the sale of his share of the saloon.
In the years that followed, his fortunes rose and fell like the tide. He next went bust in South Africa. Then in Goldfield, Nevada, in 1906, he established his reputation as a fight promoter by arranging a championship bout for the lightweight boxing title.
Over the years, his fortunes increased. In 1920, he secured the right to promote live events at Madison Square Garden. Four years later, he put together the money to rebuild Madison Square Garden for the third time. In 1926, he secured an NHL franchise for the New York Americans, which quickly became known as the Rangers.
In 1928, he built the Boston Garden and had dreams of several more to follow, but all of that was cut short when, in January of 1929, he died from complications after surgery for appendicitis.
Thus the legacy of a bartender in the Monte Carlo Saloon in Dawson City survives today in his legendary career and the hockey team he founded 90 years ago.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org