What types of women came to the Klondike during the gold rush? asks historian Alice Cyr.
She’s testing her audience’s knowledge and she’s not disappointed.
“Those in the service industry,” says a voice from the crowd of 60 gathered at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.
“That’s right — the ‘service industry,’” Cyr answers with a big laugh. “What a wonderful way to put it, and yes they did provide a very valuable service.”
Every Monday Cyr engages and entertains audiences at the Museum with stories of some of the most infamous characters in Yukon’s gold rush history — the actresses, dance hall girls and the prostitutes.
The actresses occupied the top tier of Klondike society.
“Those 40,000 men who laboured on the creeks needed entertainment, and if that entertainment was good the men would throw gold nuggets on stage,” said Cyr. “Some of the actresses would literally be ankle-deep in nuggets.”
Then there were the dance hall girls. They sold lonely miners a dance and a drink for a dollar, or a pinch of gold from the miner’s poke.
The dancehall girls inspired great affection in the miners—some were showered with gifts of gold and diamonds. And they had funny names like Pea Hole Annie and Nellie the Pig.
“I’ll tell you how they got their names when you get a bit older,” she told the audience with a wink.
At the bottom of the barrel were the prostitutes.
There were not many choices for women looking to escape their troubles during the economic depression of the late 1800s. Women were not allowed to stake their own mining claim, and cooking and cleaning paid little.
“There were prostitutes during the Klondike Gold Rush as there have been during every gold rush,” said Cyr.
For the most part they were well respected by the miners because they were there for the same reason as the miners — to make a buck.
At first, they set up tents wherever there was open space. And for the most part they were left alone until the miners began bringing their proper wives to the Klondike and the North West Mounted Police had to law down the law.
The brothels were moved across the river from the Dawson town site to a spot called Lousetown, where they were ostracized from society.
Prostitution wasn’t an easy job and, although it gets romanticized by history, it wasn’t a glamorous job either.
The prostitutes had little freedom. Many were brought to the Klondike by pimps, who were known as “macks” in those days.
Others were driven to the job after their luck ran out on the trail.
One 18-year-old woman was headed to the Klondike by ship when the vessel hit a rock on the Thirtymile River and she lost all of her supplies, according to an account transcribed in the book Good Time Girls by Lael Morgan.
“Pitying passersby bring this girl of 18 summers to Dawson. With clothes all draggled and shabby and without a change of raiment, she sough work for three long days.
“Pocketbook and stomach empty, and employment refused, on the evening of the third day Milley found herself on the bank of the river with two courses open to her. She could either jump into the river or go to board with one of the madams.
“Long was the matter debated in her mind, but at last the youthful love of life triumphed. Within an hour the girl was seen bathed and dressed in satins and laces….”
From all accounts, this story was not uncommon.
“A vast number of these poor uneducated females lived in great despair at the very bottom of society,” wrote Sam Holloway in volume 1, number 3 of the Yukon Reader.
“Thousands of women worked in cribs, which were tiny cottages facing onto the street … large groups of cribs were known as ‘cow yards.’ Cribs could be located during daylight hours by a red shade hung in a window or, at night, by a red light burning outside the door.”
And, for the most part, their clients were no princes.
“These guys are out on the creeks wearing the same pair of underwear from October to April; their socks rotting off their feet,” said Cyr. “I have more respect for that level of society than any other. They had it hard.”
Cyr’s talk on Prospectors and Prostitutes: Mining for Gold and Mining the Miners takes place every Monday afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m. at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.
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.