I MARRIE THE KLONDIKE
The story of the gold rush has often been told. But here is the fabulous Klondike through the eyes of a woman who went there to teach school, fell in love with the north and with a penniless sourdough, and stayed twenty-five exciting years
LAURA BEATRICE BERTON
PART OI\!E OF THREE PARTS
I SUPPOSE in everyone’s life there eventually comes a moment when one’s future is suddenly changed. My own moment came one hot morning in Toronto in the summer of 1907. A voice on the telephone asked if I could leave at once to take charge of the kindergarten in Dawson City. As the salary offered was four times what I’d been getting I accepted immediately. Men rushed to the Klondike for riches; why not a 29-year-old schoolma’am?
My plan was to go for just one year and then return to Toronto. But I was never to live in Toronto again. I could not know that I would marry a sourdough, drive across the roof of the world in an open sleigh, spend a three-month honeymoon in a tent, raise a family in the north, Boat down the Yukon in a poling boat and live for twenty-five unconventional years in the unconventional little city of Dawson. If I had been transplanted to another planet the contrasts could not have been stranger.
I still remember my first sight of the town, as the stern-wheeled steamboat chugged around the bend of the Yukon River and the Klondike Valley lay spread out before us. Dawson lay sprawled along the beach and scattered over the hillsides an odd untidy assortment of grey buildings. There were large square government buildings, innumerable long low warehouses, irregular rows of frame stores with rickety false fronts, two-storied log hotels, banks, saloons, dance halls and—tucked in everywhere, squeezed between shops, oozing out of alleys, squatting on the water’s edge, overflowing the hills, clinging to the cliffs and the opposite shores were hundreds of small log cabins and l iny shacks not unlike enlarged dog kennels.
I had been in both London and Paris in my youth and yet Dawson, a city then of around 12,000, turned out to my surprise to be the most cosmopolitan town I had ever seen.
There were Americans from every state and Canadians from every province. There were monocled Englishmen, Latin Americans, South Africans and Japanese by the score. One of my first escorts was an Italian who taught me to make spaghetti. I still remember the sight of a handsome turbaned East Indian who used to mush in from the creeks, standing erect behind a long team of huskies, the frost on his eyebrows contrasting with the brown of his face. Jock Spence, our leading grocer, had to order delicacies from all over the globe - top-grade anchovies, lobster, caviar and shrimp— to satisfy the town’s expensive tastes. One drab little store on Second Avenue contained a
glittering array of handmade French evening dresses which Madame Aubert, the proprietor, brought back each year from her buying trips to Paris. In another unpainted shop a little Japanese named Kawakami did a thriving business in silks, kimonos, parasols, incense, porcelain and lacquer work.
Dawson was not a beautiful city but it certainly had character. It was bordered on the north and east by the Yukon hills, on the west by the grey Yukon River and on the south hy the famous Klondike. It had been laid out neatly on a checkerboard plan but there was no real feeling of neatness about the townsite for the buildings all nudged each other crazily or spilled into back lanes and narrow alleys. Many of the houses were built of the roughest kind of lumber, often old packing cases. One had a front wall consisting of the entire stern of a ship. There were huts made of stripped poles cemented by mud and clay, others composed wholly of tar paper on a frame, and some made of gasoline tins opened up and flattened out. The neat log cabin with its mud roof and moss-chinked walls and its carefully notched and matched logs was the
aristocrat. There was one next door to the house where we teachers lived and it was an incongruous sight in the early summer to see the owner in his dressing gown on top of his roof at three o’clock in the morning in the bright sunlight, planting pansies and nasturtiums and schizanthus in the rich loam.
I had a curious exj)erience on my first night in a Dawson boarding house, with what Klondikers called “telephone walls.” In almost every Dawson dwelling the interior walls were simply made of cotton stretched on thin rough boards wit h wallpaper pasted over it. There was no plaster anywhere in the north. Through these paper-thin divisions every whisper was transmitted and each house was nothing more than a great partitioned tent. All night long—on this first night—my slumber was haunted by the heart-racking sobs of a young mining engineer, whose wife had died in a log cabin on the creek. Sometimes in my dreams today his sobs come back to rack me across the decades. His mother was with him through the night and I can still hear her serene and beautifully modulated voice reading the verses of The Light of Asia to him against the harsh counterpoint of his sorrow.
There was no building in Dawson that in any way resembled the solid Georgian mansions which I had known in Toronto. The major structures l>elonged to the rococo school of architecture common to frontier towns of the jwriod. One night I trudged about town counting the saloons. There were twenty-eight, of them.
Thus it was an eye-opener to me to discover that within this motley collection of log cabins and rickety frame dwellings, the most elaborate social events proceeded without cessation in the grandest Edwardian style. This transplanted sophistication existed happily alongside the simpler pattern of the basic sourdough society. I received my initiation at a reception at Government House given by the wife of the federal commissioner of the Yukon. I arrived at the door preceded by two gentlemen in morning coats and silk hats which contrasted strangely with the surroundings. They were mining engineers.
I can still remember this first, reception: the immaculate Japanese servant in white who ushered me inside, my hostess in a gown of soft grey voile and lace standing aristocratically in the wide door-
We Spent a Three-Month Ht
I MARRIED THE KLONDIKE
way, the silver salver piled with engraved calling cards, the two big rooms gay with pink-shaded lights and huge bouquets of asters, the tea served in delicate porcelain cups poured out by two regal women in hats which fairly dripped willow plumes, the buzzing crowd of fashionably dressed women and impeccably tailored men.
Soon I was caught up in the ornate labyrinth of Dawson society. As a single woman teacher I found myself a member of what was called, in Dawson, “the crowd who went out.” This was also known as “the young crowd” and included anyone of any stature who wasn’t married, no matter what age. There was indeed one government man who was over sixty but who was still considered a member of the young crowd.
The crowd who went out, went out every night. We went snowshoeing, skating, sleighriding and bobsledding. We went on elaborate sleighing parties. We sat on the sidelines in our best suits and huge hats at the skating rink, waiting for a young man to walk up and bow and ask, “May I have the pleasure of the next skate?” We went to fancy-dress winter carnivals, dressed as old-fashioned widows complete with weeds, or as French nursemaids in starched apron and cap, complete with pram and dummy baby. We went on fast dogsled rides with two to five dogs to a team, wearing long heavy dresses and French-Canadian scarlet toques, and when the night was over we lay down in the moonlight and made angels in the deep snow. We were, needless to say, fully chaperoned.
When the snow fled and the perpetual daylight of summer was upon us we went hill climbing, dune 21, the summer solstice, was a day of considerable celebration in Dawson. It was the habit of the entire town to climb the eighteen-hundred-foot Midnight Dome behind Dawson and celebrate this longest day of the year with an all-night picnic. We left town usually about ten, wearing the absurd clothes of the period, so unsuitable for mountain climbing. None of us wore skirts less than an inch from the ground, for the Bloomer Age had passed and slacks, of course, were unheard of. As it was warm we wore a simple white shirtwaist and carried a “shortie coat” in case it grew chilly. There were no roads up the Dome but plenty of narrow trails uilt by those pioneers who preferred to live far
from the madding crowd. Up we climbed, our skirts dragging in the mud left by the spring freshets, until we reached the top where at midnight, we amused ourselves taking photographs and picnicking until three or four in the morning.
There was always a smattering of the young crowd at the great formal dinner parties that continued to surprise me with their lavishness. We sat down at long polished mahogany or oak tables, covered in net or fine Irish linen and proceeded through eight-course meals served from Limoges china and accompanied by wines and liqueurs. We went from canapes to clear soup to fish to salad to wild duck to brandy pudding to fruit to nuts. There were always place cards and specially made shades for the lamps and the invariable artificial flowers in great bouquets at the table. These were purchased from Turner Townsend, the local florist, who in turn bought them from the wholesale milliner-supply companies Outside (as we called the rest of the world) and fashioned them into exquisite arrangements. After dinner we played auction bridge. There were elaborate prizes: sterling cigarette cases, good pieces of china, sterling salts and peppers, teaspoons with nugget handles. In short, we lived to
the hilt and nothing was too good for us.
We saw a good deal of a group of young Englishmen of the peculiar stamp one finds, or is supposed to find, in the far places of the earth. One of my most frequent escorts was an immaculate man named Howard Grestock whose family were prosperous London jewelers. I suppose he was a remittance man. He never seemed to work at any regular employment. He lived alone in a log cabin, seldom rose until early afternoon, dressed leisurely and carefully, then strolled down to the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association where he played poker until the small hoursof the following morning.
Then there was Fred Chute, another Englishman of impeccable manner. He, too, played poker and occasionally did a little mining. He came into a title — a baronetcy I thinkduring this period but refused to use it. He tried to keep it a secret but as usual the whole town knew the details almost as soon as he did.
Another who was a member of the young crowd was E. H. Searle, the scion of a wealthy coalowning family, a public-school boy and a champion cricketer. His entire energy and fortunes were bound up in a mine called the Lone Star. For all of
my time in the Yukon, Searle kept working away on his mine without success, his money slowly dwindling away, his hopes ebbing. His family in England kept writing him, pleading with him to come home, but he refused to return a defeated man. His bones lie in a Yukon grave today.
I had decided to go to the Klondike for one year but at the end of this trial period I found myself wedded to the country and I had no thought of leaving. The contrasts between my old sheltered Toronto existence and the new one I had chosen were brought home to me in striking fashion one bright summer’s day almost exactly a year after I had first made my decision to go north. I, who had been carefully reared to observe every Victorian propriety, spent this anniversary in a red-light district.
It came about in this way: my Klondike cabin mate and fellow schoolmistress, Isabel Hamtorf, and I were fond of taking a long daily walk for our health. A married friend of ours used to poke fun at this custom. “You make me laugh,” she said. “Look at the women in Klondike City. They don’t bother with exercise. They work hard all night, sleep all day, drink and eat all they can get and
they’re always the picture of health.”
We blushed at the mention of Klondike City. As a rule it was not spoken of in polite Dawson society. In impolite society it was referred to as Lousetown. It was here that the town’s considerable population of painted ladies had their domicile. It lay on the far side of the Klondike River, connected to the town proper by a splendid cantilever bridge—a forbidden but very sunny-looking land beyond the pale.
We had to agree that the demi-mondaines from Klondike City, who were to be seen strolling along Fifth Avenue in the centre of town in pairs on shopping tours, were strapping-looking specimens, invariably with peaches-and-cream complexions. The thought whetted our curiosity. Their little houses, as those virtuous ones who remained on the right side of the river could easily see, stood in neat rows, each with electric light and telephone and with the occupant’s name plainly painted on the door.
Miss Hamtorf and I soon became consumed with curiosity to see at close range something of the setup of the forbidden city and so she and I one afternoon set out on what was ostensibly a berrypicking expedition along the banks of the Klondike.
But as soon as we were rid of the prying eyes of the town we faced about, and slinking along by devious paths and rocky hillsides reached the plateau directly above Lousetown.
Climbing steadily, and a little shamefacedly down the rough bush-enshrouded bluff which backs the area, we soon found a secluded clump of shrubs from which we could observe, unnoticed, the goings-on below.
If we anticipated any shameful sights we were disappointed and confounded, for the scene below was one of unparalleled gaiety. Indeed it might have been lifted straight from a Breughel canvas. At the back doors of the tiny frame houses the women, laughing and singing, calling out to each other and chattering like bright birds were making their toilettes for the evening. Some were washing their long hair invariably bright gold or jet black —drying it in the sun and leisurely brushing it out. Others were just reclining languorously and gossiping with their neighbors. Some were singing lyrically. All were in their chemises. Our eyes starte i from our heads as we gazed down on them for these garments were quite short, scarcely down to the knees, and every woman’s legs were bare. The chemises were also sleeveless, which seemed equally immodest, and cut with a low round neck. As they were made of colored muslin—pink, blue and yellow —the effect was indescribably gay.
This cheerful picture was further enhanced by the comings and goings of waiters from the neighboring hotel, carrying trays of bottles and glasses and platters of food covered with linen napkins. I must say that as the scene comes back to me now after forty years, the bright colors, the cheerful sounds, the brilliant sunshine, the great. Yukon River flowing majestically in the background and the encircling shoulder of the green hillside carpeted with wild flowers—it is more reminiscent of a gay Technicolor movie than the setting of the largest red-light district north of the fifty-four-forty line.
And that’s how we left it, climbing quickly up through the bushes and out of sight, feeling unusually tired and disheveled, our long skirts clinging to us like cumbersome shackles. We slunk home quietly and told not a soul of our escapade, nor did we mention it again to each other.
The following winter an incident occurred which changed my life. One week end I was invited by the commissioner of the Yukon to sing at a concert and dance in Granville, about fifty miles away. 1 was delighted to accept for I had never been to Granville, which was the centre of the Dominion Creek mining district on Continued on page 63
Continued on page 63
I Married the Klondike
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 19
the other side of the Klondike divide.
Off we went the next day, a lively party in the police sleigh, with a constable as chauffeur, swathed in bear robes, sleigh bells jangling and a fine sprav of dry snow flying up from the runners. As we dashed along the frozen roads of the lower Klondike Valley ! was reminded of a Russian scene in one -of the old school readers; a pack of wolves yapping behind us would have been quite in order.
We slipped swiftly along the hardpacked road, past Bear Creek with its huge snow-enshrouded dredge, past sileni workshops and little whiteblanketed cabins. Nothing seemed to be stirring in the Klondike Valley. A mile farther on we turned up the busy valley of Hunker Creek, and here there was a good deal of activity. The individual miners were hard at work hoisting pay dirt by means of hand windlasses from the bottom of the shafts to the dumps that would be panned and sluiced the following summer.
By four that afternoon it was pitch dark and we pulled up at the Gold Bottom roadhouse on Hunker Creek. The proprietress, Mrs. Endle, an American woman dressed in stiff white linen, greeted us at the door. From her deportment and appearance we might have been entering a fashionable spa at an Outside resort. But the interior presented a somewhat different api pearance. The roadhouse was an institution peculiar to the Yukon of the ¡ horse-and-buggy era. There was one j every few miles, for the roads were j heavy with travelers seeking warm i quarters for the night. This one was i fairly typical. We entered a large room j dominated by the ubiquitous sheetiron stove glowing red hot. There was | a bar on the right side and around it in circular wooden chairs sat the usual collection of queer unshaven hangers-on who evaporated into the gloom at the rear as soon as the commissioner entered.
What rabbit warrens those Yukon j roadhouses were—and what firetraps! The Gold Bottom house, like most of j them, was built of logs and had many ! old cabins stuck on indiscriminately as additions. Indeed it gave the ap; pearance of a giant mother cabin | suckling a litter of offspring. On the other side of the main room, opposite the bar, a wide doorway curtained by heavy portieres opened into the dining room. A large gasoline lamp hung from the ceiling and its uncertain rays shone on a number of curtained doorways opening into tiny bedrooms, one of which I was to occupy that night. Other sets of curtains opened onto the steep narrow stairs or into dim alleyi like passageways leading to mysterious premises beyond. As usual all the j partitions in the building were made of cotton and paper stretched on wooden frames. A single spark would have turned that roadhouse into a flaming hell.
The following afternoon we reached Granville, a mining town of log buildings. It numbered among its eight hundred residents the usual sprinkling of human curiosities that one ran into everywhere in this country. There had been a stabbing the week before in the cabin of a notorious woman named Gypsy. There was a strange scarred creature called Kentuck, a moonshiner by trade who provoked endless arguments about the shape of the world, which he believed to be flat. And there
was another curious man known as Doc who worked algebra problems for entertainment in his cabin at nights, read Shakespeare and Greek classics to the schoolchildren in a quiet cultured voice and, on rainy days, carved swords out of boxwood and gave everybody fencing lessons.
The music had hardly started for the dance that evening when a man with a huge mustache curled at both ends and a blond Vandyke beard came over and asked me for a dance. He was wearing a rather ugly dark suit, a shiny stiff collar and a white knitted tie and it
turned out that this was Doc himself.
“I’m not really a medical man at all,” he said. “It’s just a name I picked up while waiting around for something to turn up. I’m helping out the local dentist but I’m an engineer really. I’ve tried mining but without much luck, I'm afraid.”
He then told me the story of his trip over the Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River on a raft in the summer of 1898. Most of it consisted of a long description of the wild flowers he had seen en route. It turned out that, in between working mathematical problems
or carving toy swords for the schoolchildren, he collected and mounted botanical specimens. Agam 1 reflected on the strange collection of men brought together by the call of the gold rush. Here was a man who should have been a university professor mooning about the creek-beds of the north. Indeed he told me he had been offered a job at Queen’s University but the offer had not reached him until he was on his way north. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, that winter’s evening, coming across the dance floor rather hesitantly to ask me for a waltz. His
nftfine turned out to be Frank Herton, but I bad no idea then that 1 would marry him.
Late the following fall I saw him again. People now called him the Professor because he had rented a cabin in Dawson and began holding classes in French. Along with a fair cross-sect ion of the townspeople I became a student. It seems a strange thing now, 1 ht» group of us all chattering away in Parisian French in a log cahin in Dawson City, but that was what the Klondike was like in the twilight days that followed the gold rush.
That winter the Professor, whom I was now calling Frank, took me to the St. Andrew’s Hall, one of the biggest social events of the season. The polite society of Dawson revolved around these great balls. They were very formal affairs. The men lined up at one end of the hall six or seven deep, in dinner jackets or tails. The women sat demurely around the perimeter of the floor, arms encased in long white gloves, hands folded across laps with a fan between them. Sometimes there would be a bal poudre and then the whole town would turn out in powdered wigs and
eighteenth-century costume to emulate the court of Versailles, so many leagues and so many years distant from the Arctic Brotherhood Hall in Dawson City.
We danced two-steps and schottisches and Sir Roger de Coverleys and always the French minuet which was a great favorite everybody from scavenger’s wife to judge danced it. An enormous and well-spiked punch bowl dominated one end of the dance floor and halfway through the evening a “lunch” which was more like a banquet was served. 1 can still see the huge pots
of baked beans on the tables. No Dawson affair was complete without them.
But against this bright social tapestry we were all dimly conscious of a darker background fabric imposed on us by the nature of the country. As we danced the minuet in our Paris gowns, men were struggling and dying in the sombre hills and valleys just beyond. Bishop Isaac O. Stringer who always k'd the grand march at these balls was missing on this night. He had simply vanished in the snows on the trail that crosses the Rat River Divide, far to the north.
We danced on, as the thick curtain of snow fell ceaselessly outside, powdering the dark backdrop of spruce trees on the hills. We danced while the rising wind whipped the snow into great drifts and the husky dogs set up a doleful howl that drifted through the snow and across the little cabins from dog to dog until it reached Moosehide village where the Indians’ dogs took up the chorus and carried the melancholy message down the river to other dogs howling in front of solitary cabins thick with snow. We could not know it then as we danced inside the hall under a bright canopy of Japanese lanterns but, as the orchestra played, the bishop, lost in the mountain wilderness, was methodically eating his boots to save himself from death by starvat ion.
1 Become Engaged
Finally at five o’clock the ball was over and we walked out into the full light of the aurora. How strange vve all must have looked—live hundred people in correctly formal clothes trudginr through the thick snows to our homes against a background of shacks and log cabins and the dark hulk of the lonely hills.
Before spring came Frank and 1 had an understanding, as we called it then, and I had learned most of the background of the man I had decided to marry. He seemed less eccentric, but even more intriguing, than the queer bearded person called Doc whom 1 had first encountered at Granville.
By the time I met him he had been ten years in the Klondike and done almost everything. He had washed dishes for a thousand men and cooked for a thousand more. He had been in the Mounted Police and had washed the skull of a corpse that had been recovered from the river in one of the territory’s most brutal murders. He had shoveled gravel into other men’s sluice boxes for twelve hours a day seven days a week until every muscle cried out for mercy. He had been school principal, dentist’s assistant, stoker, private tutor, logger, political scrutineer, dredgeman, watchman, bill collector and magazine agent.
“Frank is the cleverest man l know,” a friend of mine once remarked. “He can make anything—except money.” This was quite trut;. He could build a loom, design a pattern and weave the cloth for it. He could grind a mirror to the proper focal length, construct a reflecting telescope and gaze at the stars all night. He could build anything from a child’s lamp to a twentysix-foot power launch. He could identify three hundred species of Yukon wild flowers and reel off all their Latin names. He could read Chaucer in the original Anglo-Saxon, Homer in the original Greek, and Tacitus in the original Latin. He could mush fifty miles in thirteen hours in fifty-below weather and he could cook anything from fluffy sourdough biscuits to marshmallows. Hut he literally never gave money a thought. When he had if he spent it at once on books or gadgets that interested him. When he
didn't have it hi* was perfectly cheerful. Perhaps this was the thing about him that attracted me most.
At th** moment lu* was broke. He stopped giving French lessons and took a job on Bonanza Creek asa pick-andshovt-l laborer for tin* Yukon Cold Company. When that ended in tlu* fall ho went out to Cranville to teach in the log schoolhouse. But lu* stayed broke, and marriage for both of us seemed a long way off. Meanwhile an epidemic of whooping cough struck tlu* town, tlu* kindergarten was closed, and I decided lo pay a visit home. Karly in October when tlu* snow was beginning to fly I took the last boat out of town.
The last boat’s departure was a considerable rit«* in Dawson City for it effectively marked tlu* In-ginning of winter. It was always a sat! and sentimental occasion. The entire town tunud ont for the ceremony of leavetaking. The last boat was always packed with th«wealthy going out for the winter, the lort unate going out for«*v«*r and tlu* sick going out to «lie. The atmosphere was elect ri«with branuntruths. Kverv last soul on board pr«* tended t«> he returning tlufollowing spring hut in point of fact few ever did Th»* last boat had a curious aiul «I«*pressng finality about it. For some reason thos** p«*ople who w«*re quitting tin* country for good (and in my thr«*«* \«-ars tlu-r«the town liad dwindled from twelve thousand peopl«* to four tholism«! i always wait«*«! for tlu* last boat ind the last moment before tlu*y did so. 'Pluis it b«*cam;* mor«* than just another boat leaving town; it Iwianu* tlu* symbol of the town’s decay. Ther«* was always a forced joviality among thus»* on tlu* «lock who call**«l “see y«»u next spring” to those on tin* deck, hut when the final whistle sounded everyhody on «l«*ck and dock l*«*gan quite openly to weep. 'Then the boat pulled out into tlu* river and turn«*«! its prow toward tlu* south, leaving a little crowd of peopl«* standing on an empty wharf, looking «*ol«l and miserable and «piite forlorn. Frank was on«* of tlu*m. I am sur«* lu* «*xp*‘«*t«‘;l n«*v«*r tu s«*«* nu* again.
But I had no intentum of staying Outside. When w«>rd cam«* in I* «•binary that my kin«l;*rgart«*n was r«*o|x*ning I was impatient to r«*turn. **v«*n though it meant a «*ol«l trip on tlu* overland stag«* lx*tw«*«*n Whitehors«* and Dawson. At four o’eloek one morning, with fluweather at fifty h«*l«>w and tin* whole Yukon Vall«*y blank«*ted in its mantle of fog, 1 and twelv«* other passengers ;*limlx*d aboard the gr«*at open sl«*igh and bundled ourselv«*s in furs. 1 he «Iriver cracked his whip and tlu* four champing horses start«*«! off through tlu* forests on a Blff-mile journey north.
Off we sped into the sil«*nt night and into a silent world of white. For tiv«* «lays we would sit in this sl«*igh. our noses ieicled. our f«*«*t warme«! by hot bricks and charcoal, whil«* we «*ross«*;l the Yukon T«*rritory. 1 have n«*v«*r i*mharki*d on a stranger excursion.
Our luggag«* was limit«*«!, as it is on an aircraft today, so I was r«*duccd to the subterfuge of wearing two suits as well ¡is a long ov«*r«*oat, every pocket bulging with «*xtras that 1 had purcham*d Outside. Thes«* w«*r«* t«»pp«*«l with a man's counskin ;*«>at which I had borrowed in Whitehorse. The coonskin was almost a uniform for stag«* travelers. We all looked lik«* enormous furry animals as we sat huddled tog«*tlu*r on tin* hard backless seats, our unsupported h«*a«ls wobbling unpleasantly as the stage jogg«*d along ov«*r the winter trail.
1 sat in tlu* rear seat squeezed h**tw«*en a Swede and a Fr«*n«*h Canadian. I lu* Sw«*de was a huge gaunt man with a great walrus mustache. The Fr«*n«*h Canadian was round and jollv. At tirst 1 was only too gla«l «if their fur-coat«*«!
proximity for 1 was so cold 1 would cheerfully have cuddled a grizzly. But as tin* journey continued 1 couldn’t h**lp realizing that tlu* warm and |x*rsistent pressure coming simultaneously from both sities was not altogether tinresult of confined space. For five days I lia«l to parry tln*ir advances.
We sp«*«l across a white laiul. along a trail that had lx*en carv«*d out «if the wilderness with axes and cross-cut saws, and graded with plows and wheel sera pers in t he pre-bulldozer days. Our «Iriver. an «*\-Mounti**. in his huge coat and eight-foil r«*«l fuihitiiiil sash. h«*l«l
tlu* reins in otx* buckskin-gloved hand and poundt*«) the other against his shoulder to k«x*p up circulation. Tintrail snak«*«! from valley to valley. r«>se up over mountains. t«u»k to tin* river, swept up the hank and through birch woods, skirt«*«! giant bluffs, then dipped again int«> tin* spruce forests. In all that tiv«* days on tlu* r«ia«l we saw nothing hut sn«»iv and forests. I f«*lt exactly as if we wer«* flying «ni st«*«*l runnel's a«*r«iss tin* roof of tin* vv«irl«l.
W«* mad«* four posts a «lay. Tin* ro.ulImuses wer«* spott«*«! «*v«*ry twentv -two mil«*s along tlu* mute and th«*r«* was
always a hot meal ready f«if its wfaitfftjffi arrive«!, for tlu* stag«* belt! t«i s»*h«*«lule.
I’ln* horses Wen* change«! at each |H»st anti no matter how heavy the previous meal had been we wen* always ready for the next one. Asa rule the driver didn’t leave a post if the thermometer register«*«! more than forty lx*l«ivv. If tlu*r«* was no thermometer, a bottle of painkiller set «mtsidi* tin* window and l'r«iz«*n to slush carri«*«l tin* warning that the t«*nifx*ratun* was lx*l«»w the «langer point.
The madlumses were simply log cabins. In on«* g«*n«*ral room stood tlHV
familiar giant healer around which was huilt an iron rack on which wo hung our wel gaunllels, scarves and coals. Beside Lhis was a table absolutely jammed with hot food—roast moose, caribou, mountain sheep, blueberry pie and the inevitable baked beans. As I was traveling alone I was allotted a tiny cubicle with a bed to myself. The single men slept in bunks, all in the main room. I could never bring myself to undress fully in these premises for 1 feared fire. Besides, the bedclothes were rarely changed and there was no way of knowing who had slept in them the night before.
The male passengers could not by any stretch of the imagination be called attractive. Many slept in their clothes, few bothered to shave and all wore, after the fashion of the day, long mustaches from which hung clusters of icicles. Each carried a flask and I remember one of them, when he ran out of whisky, cheerfully drank horse medicine. I really think he had the best time of us all.
Frank met me with a horse and cutter before the stage reached Dawson for we passed close to Granville where he was teaching. He still had no money and our chance of marriage seemed as far off as ever. But fate, in the form of the general election of 1911, took a hand in our affairs.
This was the Reciprocity election that unseated the Liberals. These were I lie days of party patronage and the government people in Dawson all knew that the game was up. Many of them didn’t even wait to be fired. As the victorious Tories celebrated wildly, the Liberal office-holders slipped aboard the overland stage and left town forever.
My New Home is a l ent
Frank, always an ardent supporter of all things conservative—-clothes, manners and politics—had once served the party well by mushing 150 miles to the McQuesten River post to act as scrutineer during one heated election. It turned out that here, during a previous election, more votes had been recorded for the Liberal party than there were voters and Frank was charged with making sure that future results would be more mathematical. 1 goaded him into reminding the jubilant party leaders of these past efforts. He summoned up his nerve and got on the band wagon. Then and there he was rewarded with a promise of a job. That was enough for us. We determined to be married when school ended.
As our wedding day approached we were faced with the problem of where to live. We had no money, and anyway Frank now had a laborer’s job on Bonanza Creek, several miles from town. He decided to take me with him and determined that we should settle down in a tent. A few days before we were married he gathered some rough boards that were once miners’ sluice boxes, built a floor and a three-foot wall, put a tent on top and named the result Honeymoon Villa. After the wedding we rented a buggy and, almost swamped with boxes and bundles, drove out to our new home.
Bonanza Creek, where Klondike gold was discovered, was a winding valley, choked to the brim with gravel tailing ¡files from the gold dredges. The pretty hills lay naked and shapeless, torn to pieces by great hydraulic nozzles. But wild flowers grew everywhere—even in the crevices of the gravel—clumps of blue delphiniums, white bedstraw and yellow arnica.
We crossed a little bridge and turned into a narrow green valley.
“There’s Sourdough Gulch,” said Frank. “And there’s the tent.”
And there it was, with a small Union Jack waving from the pole, standing on a sandy knoll about half a mile from the road. On the lower side, half hidden by bush and mossy rock, ran a gushing mountain stream. On the upper side a steep wooded hill rose behind us. But there was no time to sentimentalize over the view. Frank had to be at work by six in the morning and we had all our unpacking to do.
The only furniture we boasted had been made on the spot by Frank in his free evenings before our marriage. The bedstead was made of sluice - box lumber. The spring had been found discarded on an old tailing pile. The mattress came from a deserted cabin. God knows who had slept on it before us. The combination bed and bedtable made from an upturned box, we called the bedroom. The kitchen consisted of a number of crates and cases as closely and conveniently arranged as possible. The tiny camp stove we set up in the sand outside the back door. In what we called our living room, at the front of the tent, was a table, a miner’s chair and a homemade bookcase, all constructed without benefit of plane or paint.
I had brought along a roll of green oatmeal wallpaper, a quart of green paint and a bundle of cretonne curtains. As soon as Frank left for work next morning I began to paper the hideous board walls and the bookcase. The paint 1 used on table, chairs and bedstead, and in the so-called living room 1 spread a fairly passable canvas ground sheet as a carpet. When I had divided the rooms off with curtain material, thrown a rug over a settee constructed of cases of canned goods, anil installed a bunch of wild flowers in a painted coffee can, the interior looked fairly homey. I still have a snapshot of myself sitting stiffly on a stool against a background of bookcase and flowers. I am holding an open book in the conventional pose of the time, though I can’t remember ever having a moment free to read, and my seraphic expression is intended, no doubt, to represent romance and felicity.
It was in the construction of our bathroom that we contrived to triumph over our environs. Here Frank’s ingenuity was brought forward. One evening, tools in hand, he disappeared mysteriously into the dark gulch behind us. Then he reappeared, pushing his way through the almost tropical growth above the stream, dragging a long length of canvas hose. Water gushed from its mouth.
“Where’s the tub?” he shouted. “Here—I’ll fill it right now. Arid when it’s full, you turn the water off by letting it run back into the stream. Now, how’s that?”
He had dipped one end of the hose into the creek farther up the gulch thereby supplying us with an unending stream of running water, ice-cold, right to the back door. That gurgling stream proved a friend many times over and occasionally an enemy. It was our refrigerator in the hot July days and we placed our perishables and meat in a box in midstream with the lid securely held down by a rock. Then one day a storm descended and washed refrigerator and contents away.
I did my cooking on a small sheetiron stove set out in the open. Cooking in the open is more fun for the sand flies, horse flies and mosquitoes than it is for the cook. I soon had the stove moved back into the tent where I could work in more comfort. Here 1 made bread, first trying out the traditional sourdough which wouldn’t work for me (though it worked for Frank) then the more conventional yeast.
Our groceries came out twice weekly from Jock Spence’s store in Dawson on
the local stage. I ordered them by mail, posting the letter in a rough box on the main road where it was picked up bv the stage driver. Frank was a prodigious eater, and no wonder, for he worked a tan-hour day and a sevenday week of backbreaking toil, driving steam pipes down to bedrock with a sledgehammer, in order that the goldbearing gravel could be thawed. There were literally no holidays. For during the short summer season, when the water was running, men worked steadily, day and night, from spring to freezeup. Frank’s job was not attractive for besides requiring a great deal of physical stamina it was a filthy and often dangerous labor. The boilers which pumped the steam into the ground and turned it into a sea of mud were always threatening to blow up.
Every lunch hour 1 walked the mile or so to the thawing area to bring Frank a hot lunch and together we would sit on the grassy bank above the creek-bed and eat it. Below us we could see dozens of men working, the steam rising from the boilers, the pipes protruding from the mud, the whole valley laced with a network of coiling hose and the big gold dredge in the distance, whining and screaming as it swung on its cables.
It’s A Man’s Country
When lunch was over and Frank back at work 1 would walk leisurely back along the roadbed of the narrowgauge Klondike Mines Railway that served the creeks. The whole experience should have been an idyllic one,
1 suppose, but to tell the truth 1 was terrified almost every moment of my stay on Sourdough Gulch. More than once, then and later, I had cause to reflect on the truth of the adage that the Klondike was a man’s country. The men all loved the wilds but 1 do not think many of the women really did. The utter silence of the creek valley, the brooding unknown woods behind our tent, the strange furry animals that rustled underfoot and the strange bearded men who occasionally shuffled by—all these things were part of Frank’s life but I must say they unnerved me. 1 had been brought up by parents steeped in the Victorian tradition and early in life they had perhaps unconsciously inculcated in me the deadly fear of two bogies: first a Strange Man who might do dreadful things to me and, second, The Woods, where dreadful things might happen. Now here I was surrounded on all sides by vast quantities of both.
Not far from the gulch were several queer old men who had lived too long done in their cabins to be entirely balanced. I am sure most of them were as harmless as kittens but the sight of them sent chills of apprehension down my spine. One went past my door every morning with a gun in his band and what 1 judged to be an Evil Eye that pierced me as 1 worked outside, scrubbing out Frank’s long grimy underwear.
Another passer-by was really strange
a small stooped creature with long hair and tattered clothes who walked by, never looking to right or to left but muttering wildly to himself, swinging an axe as he went. He fancied himself an astronomer and he had surrounded his neat little cabin with long poles so arranged as to point heavenward at various stars and planets, each held in place by guy wires. His face was pale and his eyes bulged ■>nd the memory of him still makes me
iver a little.
Behind the tent lay the dark hollow
of Sourdough Gulch into whose mysterious labyrinth of vines and matted shrubs I never ventured. Somewhere up there, the men on the thawing crew said, was a bear. I never investigated the matter and the bear, thank God, never investigated me.
And so the short Yukon summer merged into fall. By September the trees were yellow and we had to break ice on the water in the basin to wash ourselves. The valley was full of fog and a white frost was on the foliage. We shivered in our tent and wondered whether the promise made that spring would be fulfilled. The long Yukon winter would soon be on us and the work would end. What then?
Our fears were groundless. In late September, when the flocks of wild geese were honking overhead and the ice growing thicker at the edges of the stream and the tent leaking in the cold rain, the call came. Frank had been appointed mining recorder at the Dawson office. Our honeymoon was over and we gratefully pulled up stakes.
Dawson, we found, was still shrinking, its population trickling from it like water from a leaky barrel. There were now not more than two thousand people left. As the last boats fled upriver sudden decisions were made to quit everything and escape before winter sealed the town off from the world. It was as if people were escaping from a foundering ocean vessel. They left all their worldly goods behind except for bare necessities.
Thus we were able to buy from a departing teamster’s wife a fully furnished bungalow for just seven hundred dollars. The furnishings included everything right down to the pots and pans and two freshly cooked hams in the kitchen. There was a bin full of flour, half a cake and all the food needed to set. up housekeeping. There were cupboards jammed with kitchen utensils, a new' Brussels carpet on the sitting-room floor, an Ostermoor mattress, good linen sheets and a real eiderdown.
There was a bathroom jammed with every imaginable variety of medicine, perfume and soap (but no basin or bathtub, of course, for as in most Dawson homes these conveniences were outside). There were stacks of furniture in every room and more crammed into the shed. There was a wonderful armchair, the most comfortable I have ever known. After forty years I still possess it. The woman we bought the house from had simply left with the clothes on her back as though she were haunted by the plague. She hadn’t even bothered to take her letters and photographs. Such was the Dawson of 1912.
Yet in all my years there, I never thought of Dawson as a ghost town and I would have been annoyed and flabbergasted if anyone had called it that. It had heen built for thirty thousand people and now it held onefifteenth that number. Its sidewalks were rickety, its ditches clogged with weeds, its cabins decrepit, its buildings leaning at all angles, its stores and shops boarded up or torn down, its graveyard full and its houses empty. But after a season on Sourdough Gulch it seemed to me to be the very core of civilization. I had come for a year. Now l was quite prepared to spend my life there. We were on the brink of a war that was to take us away from the Klondike, but, when the war was over, we did not hesitate to turn our faces north again. Dawson City was home to both of us and, in many ways, it still is to me. ★
X’EXT ISSUE: TART TWO
Doten The Yukon in nn