Clarence J. Berry was the Klondike embodiment of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.
As a young man in California, he was hard hit by the depression of 1893. He acquired land but during the economic downturn, which was the worst that had ever befallen America, he lost it all. Working for wages did not eliminate his debt. So he decided to try something new.
His father sold 40 acres to bankroll his venture, and, with a number of friends, including Frank Keller, Charles Lamb, and J.J. Clements, he left Seattle in 1894, headed for Dyea, then on to the mining camp of Forty Mile, via the Chilkoot Trail. Cheechako Berry made his way up the Fortymile River to Franklin Gulch, where he learned how to mine from sourdough J. Martin.
Back in Forty Mile, Clarence made good on some unpaid bills of a member of the party with which he came to the Yukon. Berry felt responsible by association. In the spring of 1895, he purchased a claim on Glacier Creek and hired Emil Stauf to work for him. He didn’t recover enough gold to pay Stauf’s wages, let alone his own. They returned to Forty Mile, where he secured jobs for both of them, and then gave his own wages to Stauf until he was paid up. At the end of the season, he was broke, but he was able to win enough playing poker to pay his way back to California.
The winter of 1895, he courted his sweetheart, Ethel D. Bush, and in mid-March of 1896, they were married. The following day, with little money, but full of aspirations, the couple left for the Yukon with Clarence’s younger brother, Fred. They arrived in Fortymile with an outfit and no cash.
Unsuccessful in prospecting, he secured a job tending bar in Bill McPhee’s saloon. It was there in late August that George Carmack strode in and announced that he had found gold on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. Berry was at first hesitant about checking it out, but Ethel encouraged him to go. Clarence and Fred poled up the Yukon River and then hiked up Rabbit Creek, which had now been renamed Bonanza, where he staked claim number 40 above discovery.
Back in Forty Mile, McPhee grubstaked Berry to return to his claim to seek a pay streak. Another prospector named Antone Stander was unable to secure a grubstake in Forty Mile to mine his claim on Eldorado, a tributary of Bonanza Creek. Berry backed him up in exchange for a half share of his claim (Stander would in return receive half of Berry’s claim number 40 above).
Clarence, Fred, Antone and Ethel returned to Eldorado Creek over the ice where they quickly constructed a crude log cabin. They put canvas over the door and a flour sack over the window and installed a stove. Berry did not waste any time getting started. He burned a shaft through the frozen ground four metres to bedrock.
At this time, there was still no comprehension of how rich the ground would become. Shares in claims were selling for a few hundred dollars, and the prospectors were glad to raise enough money for a winter’s grubstake. Consequently, Clarence Berry was able to secure shares in claims numbered 4 and 5 as well.
On December 6, 1896, Clarence hit the paystreak. He sent for Fred, who was freighting their supplies up the creek to their claim. Clarence then proceeded to dig out a pan that contained $50 worth of gold, a quantity that would be worth nearly $5,000 today – in just one pan! According to Clarence, they shook hands and shed tears of joy. Their days of hardship were over. Poor when he woke that morning, he was a millionaire before he went to bed.
He would later display jars of gold, each representing one pan of dirt from his claim; one contained $560, a second $230, and a third, $175. Berry took to leaving a coal oil can filled with nuggets and a bottle of whiskey by the front door of his cabin with a sign between them that invited passersby to help themselves.
Over the winter, they continued to burrow into the paystreak and by spring had brought a large mound of paydirt to the surface, ready to be sluiced in the spring run-off. Unlike many others, Berry did not waste his good fortune on wine, women and song. Instead he stuck to business. When he and Ethel departed for California that summer, they took with them $130,000 in gold, more than half of that in the form of big fat nuggets. Today that gold would be worth $13 million.
Ethel’s father scoffed at the letters she had sent to him reporting upon the gold that they had found. He would believe it, he said, when he saw it. In July, of 1897, he became a believer.
It is said that Clarence made more than $1.5 million from his Eldorado claims. He was among the first to bring in steam equipment to maximize his production. He was the first to use electric lighting to work at night. One day, it is also said, he noticed the steam exhaust from his boiler was thawing the frozen ground. He harnessed the steam by exhausting it through a rubber hose into a gun barrel he shoved into the frozen ground and thereby invented steam thawing to soften the frozen ground.
Berry was noted for his generosity to his employees and for worthy causes, and he remembered kind acts. Take Bill McPhee, who originally grubstaked Clarence to mine his Eldorado claim. When McPhee’s saloon in Fairbanks burned to the ground in 1906, Berry sent a telegram to McPhee, telling him to draw on his account for all the funds necessary to rebuild and get back into business.
Berry moved on to Fairbanks where, starting in 1905, he made another fortune mining on Ester Creek. Later, he moved to the Circle district where he first ran a hydraulic operation, then subsequently imported a dredge. Back in California, his California property drilled its first oil well, named the Ethel D, in 1910. Over a century later, Berry Petroleum has produced over 200 million barrels of oil.
Clarence Berry was truly a rags-to-riches story, and certainly the most successful miner from the Klondike.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at email@example.com