‘The men did not come to the Yukon for the gold; they came to see me,” Klondike Kate Rockwell, perhaps one of the most well-known dance hall girls during the Klondike Gold Rush, is quoted as saying.
Klondike Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell in Kansas in 1876.
It was a date she would often forget throughout her life, claiming to have been born in 1880, 1882, and even 1892.
As a young woman Kate was beautiful and full of life.
“My father showered luxury on me,” Kate told a biographer, May Mann, later in life. “How could anyone imagine that his beloved and indulged stepdaughter, who was being groomed to take her place as a society leader in the city, was destined to become a variety showgirl and a Yukon dance-hall queen?”
She was expelled from a number of boarding schools because of her behaviour.
Kate loved to dance and flirt, especially with older men.
In New York City, Kate took the name ‘Kitty Phillips’ and got a job as a chorus girl in a variety theatre.
There, Kate got her first taste of what the job entailed: “I was told to sit in one of the boxes. An old schoolmate joined my table. ‘Will you have a bottle of wine?’ he invited. ‘Oh, no, thank you,’ I replied. ‘I do not drink wine. I only drink lemonade. A bottle of wine cost five dollars and the box waiter almost fainted. My commission would have been $1.25 a bottle.”
Later one of the girls told Kate that between acts she was expected to sit and drink with the customers on a percentage commission.
“She also showed me how to pour the drinks into the spittoons when the customers were not watching,” said Kate.
She worked in Washington and Oregon before coming north to the Yukon in 1898.
“I shall never forget my first sight of Dawson,” said Kate. “Front Street, facing the Yukon was a solid line of saloons, dance halls and gambling houses.”
During her first year in Dawson City, Kate made $30,000. One night, while wearing her $1,500 gown from Paris, Kate was crowned Queen of the Yukon. The men fashioned a crown from a tin can, and stuck lit candles on the jagged points. The boys went wild as Kate danced with wax dripping into her hair.
While in Dawson Kate fell in love with a Greek waiter named Alexander Pantages.
She supported him for five years as he worked his way up in the theatre.
He sent Kate to Texas for a year to perform and make money. While Kate was gone Alexander met and married a younger girl from the “right side of the tracks.” Heartbroken, Kate sued Alexander for breach of promise to marry her.
“The woman declares that by her earnings as a vaudeville performer in the Klondike during the early strike she enabled Pantages in five years to jump from poverty to riches, from a waiter in a dance hall in Dawson to the position of theatre magnate,” reported the Dawson Daily News in June 1905.
The case was settled out of court, leaving Kate with a settlement of between $5,000 and $60,000, depending on the source.
In 1933, she married John Matson and the pair returned to Dawson City for their honeymoon.
Matson remained in the Klondike and continued mining; he and Kate rarely saw each though they wrote two letters each year.
In 1946, one of Matson’s letters did not arrive on schedule Kate began to worry and soon after his body was found frozen about 12 kilometres from his remote cabin.
Later, Kate settled in Oregon and married twice before passing away peacefully in 1957, at age 80.
The MacBride Museum has a dress, purse and wrap that were owned by the legendary dance hall girl in its collection.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.