Madeleine Gould was sitting across the living room from me when I asked her about her honeymoon home back in 1946.
Her new home sat on the edge of Nugget Hill, overlooking Hunker Creek, near Dawson City. When she approached the rustic log cabin for the first time, she had to climb a hill and walk three kilometres to get to it. There was no electricity, no telephone and no plumbing. The only running water came if you were in a hurry and didn’t drop the buckets.
That was 63 years ago and counting.
Some new arrivals to the Yukon fled immediately from conditions like these; others lasted a couple of years before packing it in. But others took to the North like a duck to water.
One of the earliest pioneer brides was Emilie Tremblay. Born Emilie Fortin in Quebec, she later moved to New York state where, in 1893, she met and married Pierre-Nolasque (Jack) Tremblay. Jack was a Miller Creek miner who had come outside that summer to visit his family in the east.
The following spring, they departed-for the Yukon, crossing the Chilkoot Pass and arriving in Fortymile on June 16th. The Chilkoot trip was made on foot, in stages, as supplies were slowly and laboriously moved over the trail to the headwaters of the Yukon River, and down river to the town of Forty Mile.
The weather she encountered was typical of the Yukon summer: hot, with countless mosquitoes. These fierce little insects are notorious for their ferocity and persistence, and have been known to drive grown men to tears, or even madness.
She took it all without complaint
Her new home on Miller Creek was a one room sod roof cabin with a single window. It had previously been occupied by her husband and his partners; on the walls were the primitive bunks in which they slept. Already several years old, it had a floor partially covered with wood.
A single pole in the centre of the cabin supported the roof. At the foot of this post was a thick black crust of spit; the men, tired from working on their claim, lay in their bunks, spitting at it while passing away the idle winter hours.
Tremblay took a shovel and started her clean-up at the centre of the room, and in the following days, cleaned it from top to bottom, until it became orderly, if not lavish. The cabin was equipped with the barest of essentials and crudely built furniture.
For her, it was a difficult adjustment. There were no other women on the creek, which the other miners felt was no place for the fairer sex, and she was further isolated by the fact that she did not speak any English, although she started working on her grammar and vocabulary.
Tremblay and her husband remained in Dawson City and she operated a small dry goods store for decades after the gold rush.
Another woman who came north during the gold rush era was a young socialite and actress from the United States, Frances Noyes. She adapted to the north and, with her husband Tom, lived near Nome, Alaska, for a number of years. She loved the country.
Tom eventually died of pneumonia, but she continued to live in southeast Alaska, raising their adopted daughter Bonnie, and eventually married Bill Muncaster, a gangly young surveyor, in June 1919.
They were wedded at 8 in the morning of June 15th, then immediately hit the trail from McCarthy, Alaska, heading for the Yukon territory, where they spent the following year in the bush. This journey was no Niagara Falls picnic.
They packed their supplies using horses, crossing rapidly flowing rivers, rocky moraines and massive glaciers until they reached White River country in the fall. There they trapped and hunted and moved about the country.
Her experiences are captured in terse, stoic entries in her diary for that period:
November 21: “…I broke through (the ice) trying to get to the bank, didn’t get wet, froze too quick.”
December 9: “The sled fell through the ice. Bill was too far ahead to call … We could not make the camp, had left tent and stove. Made a big fire, no dishes, make toast and fried meat on sticks. Dogs dead tired, we are sore all over.”
December 21: “It must be 50 below zero. The mercury has gone down into the bulb.”
January 1: “We spent the day on the trail, broke camp around 9 AM.. Got to the mouth of Lake Creek at 12, spent rest of day breaking trail to a very small cabin, arrived at 4 p.m. Had to put off half the load, very tired tonight.”
They prospected throughout the southwest Yukon over the following years, and held a claim on Squaw Creek for two decades or more. She died in Haines in 1952 at the age of 78. They never struck it rich.
Ethel Berry was another bride who, in 1895, came into the Yukon with her new husband Clarence and few prospects. After climbing the Chilkoot Trail and descending the Yukon River, Clarence left her on her own in a tiny cabin at Forty Mile while he tried his luck in the Fortymile gold fields.
Unsuccessful at that, Clarence was tending bar in Bill McPhee’s saloon in Forty Mile when, in August of 1896, George Carmack came in with news of a new strike on a tributary of the Klondike known as Rabbit Creek. Clarence staked a claim on a small stream named Eldorado Creek, and they moved to the new claim where Clarence built a tiny cabin to live in.
Huddled inside this humble domicile, which had a flour sack for a window, Ethel kept house while Clarence mucked in the frozen ground looking for the paystreak.
“When I got there,” she said, “the house had no door, windows or floor and I had to stand around outside until a hole was cut for me to get in … We had all the camp-made furniture we needed, a bed and stove – a long, little sheet-iron affair, with two holes on top and a drum to bake in. The fire burns up and goes out if you turn your back on it for a minute … If anyone wanted a drink, a chunk of ice had to be thawed and cooled again.”
When they arrived in Seattle the next summer, they brought out a bedroll so laden with gold, she couldn’t even lift it. Though she vowed she would never return, she couldn’t stay away. She travelled down the Yukon River each summer to visit their claims until her beloved Clarence died in 1930.
These are just three stories of newlyweds coming to the Yukon. If you can stick it out for a year, you will probably take to it for life. The Yukon has a way of selecting her own.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based