It’s said that Swiftwater Bill Gates he did not drink alcohol, but bathed in champagne.
Legend has it that he bought more than $2,000 worth of eggs, and then fed them to hungry dogs.
Gates was one of the few who struck it rich during the Klondike Gold Rush, and his larger-than-life personality ensured that he would go down in history.
But how much of that history is accurate?
When it comes to the story of Gates, it’s difficult to tell what is fact and what is fiction.
Gates’ story begins in Circle City, Alaska, where he was working as a dishwasher at a roadhouse. He was up to his elbows in suds when he first head about the discovery of gold in the Klondike.
Before the sun rose the following morning, he was on his way to the Yukon, according to The True Story of Swiftwater Bill Gates written by his mother-in-law, Iola Beebe, and published in 1908.
Gates told people in the Yukon that his nickname was Swiftwater, because of his skill in navigating rough water back home in Iowa. (Although it’s also said that Gates got out of the boat and walked around the rough waters of the White Horse rapids.)
Soon after he reached the Klondike, Gates found his fortune on Eldorado Creek at claim number 13.
Though some considered 13 to be an unlucky number, it proved to be quite auspicious for Gates.
He earned between $300,000 and $400,000, and quickly went about spending the money, according to Beebe.
There was “a quality about Swiftwater of which few people had any knowledge whatsoever, and this shows in a startling way how easy it was in those halcyon days in the Golden Klondike for a man to grasp a fortune of a million dollars in an instant and then throw it away with the ease and indifference that a smoker discards a half-burned cigar,” she wrote.
Perhaps the most well-known example of Gates’ reckless spending is the story of him spending hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars on eggs (which were quite scarce and therefore very expensive in Dawson City at the time) in order to win a girl’s heart – the 19-year-old Gussie Lamore.
But historians can’t even seem to agree on the proper telling of that tale.
One day, so the tale goes, Swiftwater Bill was seated in a restaurant when, to his surprise and chagrin, he saw Gussie enter on the arm of a well-known gambler,” wrote Pierre Burton. “The pair ordered fried eggs, which were the most expensive item on the menu, and it was then that, in a fury of jealousy, Swiftwater achieved a certain immortality by buying up every egg in town in an attempt to frustrate Gussie’s cravings.”
In one version of the tale Gates order all the eggs cooked and fed to dogs, in another version he collects the eggs and presents them to Gussie as a gift.
Beebe tells a more creative version of the story where Gates orders all the eggs to be cooked for his own breakfast, so when Gussie came into eat there were no eggs to be had.
“Gussie’s face flamed with anger, but only for a minute. Then she picked up her plate, her knife and fork and napkin and strode over to the table where Swiftwater sat. ‘I guess I’ll have some eggs after all,’ said Gussie, without looking at Swiftwater, as she liberally helped herself from his platter,” wrote Beebe.
Now Gussie was won over by Gates’ hijinks and agreed to marry him in San Francisco. From there the story gets increasingly vague.
Gates ended up with a huge silver mining concession in Peru, where he died in 1935.
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.