fearless francophone paved a path to the klondike

Credited with being the first white woman to travel over the Chilkoot Pass, Emilie Tremblay literally had to hike up her heavy skirts and follow the…

Credited with being the first white woman to travel over the Chilkoot Pass, Emilie Tremblay literally had to hike up her heavy skirts and follow the trail to go down in Yukon history.

Born in Quebec in 1872, Emilie Tremblay (nee Fortin) was 15 when her family moved to New York. While there she met and married Pierre-Nolasque (Jack) Tremblay and they took the 8,000-kilometre journey to Fortymile in 1894.

She was the first white woman to cross the Chilkoot Pass, according to one history.

“I walked, I rode, I slept under the beautiful stars and under the rain, in little camps in tents, on beds of tree branches … but I cannot tell you that I was ever unhappy,” wrote Emilie.

The couple settled at Miller Creek where Emilie was the only woman.

Their small cabin had been previously occupied by her husband and a group of miners. Conditions were far from luxurious. The walls supported bunks where the men slept and in the centre of the room was a black pile of spit.

“The men, tired from working on their claim, would lie in their bunks and spit at the post in the centre of the room,” Yukon historian Michael Gates wrote in his book Gold at Fortymile Creek. “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.”

Emilie quickly became well known for an elaborate Christmas dinner she served to a group of hungry miners.

Because of Fortymile’s remote location, Emilie was lacking the amenities necessary to fix up a feast but she more than made do.

She sent out invitations scrawled on birch bark, guests brought their own utensils and an unused long skirt served as the tablecloth, according to Gates.

She served up a spread of rabbit, caribou, potatoes, sourdough bread and prune pudding. And, later on in the evening, a neighbour showed up with a bottle of rum that he had walked all the way to Fortymile to obtain.

In the spring of 1895, Emilie was joined by a friend: the French-Canadian wife of another miner that she had met in Juneau. Emilie planted a vegetable garden on the roof of their cabin to improve their diet.

At the end of the summer, the Tremblays returned to New York.

In 1898 the couple began their second trip to the Klondike, and ended up settling on Bonanza Creek where Jack prospected for gold.

Emilie spent her time keeping house, baptizing newborns and helping the wounded. She was godmother to 25 children and offered shelter to widows, missionaries and travellers.

They stayed at Bonanza until 1913, when they settled in Dawson and Emilie opened a novelty shop called the Madame Tremblay store.

A few years later, in 1922, Emilie founded the Ladies of the Golden North, and in 1927 she became president of Yukon Women Pioneers.

During the First World War, Emilie knit more than 250 pairs of socks for soldiers.

In 1935 Jack, known as the Grand Old Man of the Yukon passed away.

Emilie spent the following few years travelling, but returned to Dawson in 1940 and married Louis Lagrois at the age of 68.

Emilie spent the last years of her life in a retirement home in Victoria, British Columbia. She passed away in 1949 and age 77.

Today Ecole Emilie Tremblay is the only school in the Yukon that offers students complete French immersion classes from kindergarten to Grade 12.

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 lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.