Chronicles of the Klondyke

Some Reminiscences of the Great Gold Boom

E. Ward Smith December 1 1918

Chronicles of the Klondyke

Some Reminiscences of the Great Gold Boom

E. Ward Smith December 1 1918

Chronicles of the Klondyke

Some Reminiscences of the Great Gold Boom

E. Ward Smith

First City Clerk, Treasurer, Assessor and Tax Collector of Dawson City


I WANT to say at the very outset that the Yukon was, in my opinion at least, one of the most orderly corners of the earth. Even in the early days of the boom, when miners and adventurers of all nationalities poured in, the scales of justice were held firmly and rigidly.

The spell of the Mounted Police hung over the snow-bound land and checked the evil-doer.

It may sound ridiculous when I assert that the Yukon — that gathering spot of so much of the scum of the earth— was better policed than Winnipeg, or Toronto, or Halifax. But I believe it to be a fact, nevertheless; and there was, after all, a very good reason. The Yukon was almost like a walled-in city. The man who had broken the law had to stay and face it out, or run the gamut of the police up or down the river. All around was a country of grim mountains and inexorable cold, offering no hope of escape. There was only one way in and one way out—and the Mounted Police held the neck of the bottle.

Of course, crimes were committed, some of which were never solved. Doubtless, also many deeds of violence occurred which never came to light. But, on the whole, life and property were surprisingly secure. One day I visited the cabin of my friend Lippy, who made a million or so up on El Dorado. The door was partly open, so, on receiving r"1 response to my knock, 1 walked in. The cabin was empty. On the table was a five-gallon pail heaped high with glittering nuggets of gold! I glanced around the place. On the shelves and rafters, on chairs and under the bunks, were emnty cans filled with gold. There was a snug fortune in sight. Anyone could have slipped in and stolen the lot.

I took Lippy to task about it when he came in. He did not seem at all concerned, however.

“Pshaw,” he said, “I always have quite a lot of gold on hand. But no one would steal it. I’ve never lost any-

HTHE Mounted Police organization A was very thorough. The headquarters and jail were located across from the Administration Building and I had countless opportunities of seeing how ceaseless was the vigilance of the Red

Coats. They saw every new arrival and their watchful eye was on everything that went on. There were posts also at all camos of any size in the terri-

The police generally received word in advance when any particularly bad character was headed for the Yukon and in all such cases he was met when he slipped off the boat. I rememher particularly one case of the kind, as I hanpenetl to be on hand when the gunman landed. He was a quiet enough looking individual and had no weapons of anv kind in sight, hut a close scrutiny revealed the fact that he had a particularly evil eye in his sandy-freckled face. One of the Mounties picked him out unerringly and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Gat Gardiner?” he asked.

“No!” said the newcomer, “My name is Davison.”

“I happen to know you are Gat Gardiner,” insisted the policeman. “Got any weapons on you?”

“Leave go of me!” flared the socalled Davison, all the veneer of civility gone. “You got nothing on me. Let go, I say!”

"I’ve cot something on you,” declared the burly policeman, hauling a revolver from the hip pocket of the man. “Carrying concealed weapons is against the law on this side. Back on the boat, you, and don’t you dare put foot ashore or I'll have you in jail. You go back the way you came.”

And Gardiner went. I saw him leaning over the rail when the boat started

on the return trip and he shook his fist at the policeman on the wharf and emitted a string of vile oaths. He never came back, of course.

When the notorious “Soapy” Smith was killed at Skagway, his gang of desperadoes was promptly broken up and word came to Dawson that some of them were headed for the Canadian side. They were gathered in as soon as they crossed the line, denuded of weapons and sent back. Not one of the gang eluded the vigilance of the police.

The law against carrying concealed weapons was a big factor in keeping the peace. Comparatively few men took advantage of their legal right to carry a revolver in sight. I remember seeing an open box in a pawnshop containing the most amazing collection of weapons I had ever set eyes on—revolvers with silver handles, pistols of carved ivory, antiquated breech-loaders, weapons of fantastic design and, probably, of equally fantastic history, strange implements of death that had come from all climes and bespoke adventures on all the seven seas.

“Where did you get the lot?” I asked the proprietor.

“They all sell their shooting ironä after they’ve been in this camp a while,” he explained in an off-hand way. “No use for them here. I get ’em for practically nothing. Help yourself if you have any fancy that way. I’ll make you a present of anything you want.”

So much for the wild Yukon of the novelists! Instead of lurching into the dance hall and blazing away at the ceiling, picture the “old-timer,” the hardened miner of a hundred camps, planking down his pistols on the counter of the pawnshop and asking quietly, “How much?” That’s the truer picture.

OF course, the tough customers from the mining camps of Nevada and Colorado did not fall into the Canadian way of doing things right away. They frequently had to be educated and the methods employed were always prompt and sharp. Many of them came to the Yukon via Alaska, where claim jumping was a picturesque and common way of finding a fortune. So they would try it in the Yukon—but once only.

There was one obstreperous individual whose name has quite slipped my

memory. For purposes of narrative I shall christen him Enslee. Well, this Enslee was a regular tough one, a “stinging lizard from the bad lands,” who had come to our side to show that Canadian law had no terrors for a man of his kidney. He jumped a claim up on Dominion Creek that he thought the owner had abandoned and when the latter returned, Enslee ran him off the ground at the point of a rifle. The owner established his right of possession legally and notice was served on Enslee to vacate.

“I’ll blow the head off the first cuss that sets foot on my property,” said Enslee.

So a Mounted Policeman went up to see about it. He found the interloper standing guard with a rifle under his arm and a whole arsenal in his belt.

“Keep off!” ordered Enslee, covering the officer. “Put a foot over my line and you’re a dead man!”

The officer did not stop to bandy words.

He walked up to Enslee as coolly as though he were on parade ground, fixing the bad man with his eye. Enslee drew his rifle up to his shoulder and sighted it. The policeman came on, without a sign of falter or hurry. The rifle wavered slightly. The officer, seized it by the barrel and took it away from the claim jumper.

“Hand over the revolvers,”

he ordered. “Everything you’ve got. Now get. You’re allowed just as much time as it takes to get out of this country, And stay out.”

Enslee got out; and stayed out.

'T'HE most spectacular case of a miner coming into collision with the police through not appreciating that the Yukon was not as other camps was that of Alexander King. It cost him his life but not, unfortunately, before he had killed another man. The episode started on the upper reaches of the river where King put in an appearance one day, looking for passage to Dawson City. He cut a most picturesque figure, like a prophet of old in a soiled parka. He must have been about seventy years of age and his long beard

was snow white. He carried himself with an air of command and it was apparent from his talk that he had been in every gold camp of any importance on the North American Continent. The suns of the desert and the bleak winds of the North had weathered his skin, but nothing that he had faced, either of God, man or nature had tamed or dimmed the imperious snap of his hard blue eyes.

It happened that a young man who hailed from Ontario—I shall call him McQueen—was loading a scow for a run to Dawson with three assistants. McQueen offered the old miner a free passage and King carried his duffel aboard and squatted down with an air almost of condescension. He took no hand either in the loading or in the heavy tasks incidental to navigating a well-loaded scow down » +rpo«iiprous river like the Yukon and he accepted the food they ofte, ed him out of their own stores with hardly a word. He was openly impatient with them and their

ways. Where the Yukon broadens out and the cur rent is slower, there are innum erable sand bars. These bars are continually shifting so that the oldest river men never know what to expect; and few jour neys either up or down are

made without an occasional grounding. It happened that several times on this particular trip McQueen ran his scow aground on sand bars that poked their hidden noses up in unexpected places. It made a tremendous amount of work for him and his three assistants. They struggled and toiled in the water and became thoroughly worn out with the labor. Old man King sat at one end and rumbled maledictions in his patriarchal beard. Finally, he got up and addressed McQueen, who was standing waist high in the swirling stream.

T won’t have any more of this,” he announced. “I’ve no time to waste watching you young fools run this clumsy craft on every bar in the river. I must get to Dawson as soon as possible. Remember that.”

McQueen looked at him in amazement. “You don’t suppose we run into these bars on purpose, do you?” he demanded. “I want to get to Dawson just as much as you do. I’ll get there with the least possible delay.”

The old miner impatiently waved his explanations aside. “You had better,” he declared. “I’m warning you now—• don’t you run on any more sand bars.” He stalked back and sat down without another word.

They avoided the bars for some time after that, but the river was in a particularly ugly mood and their immunity could not last long. Finally, with the usual grinding bump, they landed square on a bar amid stream. King sprang to his feet with a string of vile epithets that astonished his companions who had been more or less awed by his venerable appearance. The owner, who had promptly jumped onto the bar and was trying to pry the scow loose, glanced up in surprise at his furious passenger. He saw King level his rifle. With a startled cry McQueen endeavored to duck out of range, but he was too late. King fired and the poor lad crumpled up and sunk hack into the water.

The three assistants backed in alarm to the edges of the scow and regarded King and his smoking rifle with terror. As for the murderer himself, he gave them the benefit of one scorching look and then went and sat down with an impatient order to them to “Get a hustle on and float the boat off.”

THE three assistants first recovered the body of McQueen from the water. He was quite dead. They stood around the body and whispered among themselves, glancing askance at the man at the other end of the scow. King reached for his gun and ordered them to get the scow afloat without any more talk. With fear of the old man to urge them on, they got the scow off the sand bar in record time.

Then King called them over to him and lined them up. He was probably not a little mad, for there was a glitter in his eye that completely intimidated the party. They stood there and took his orders like school boys.

“I want you three to understand this,” began King. “I killed this man in self defence. If any one of you poor skulkers ever lets one word drop that suggests anything different—any time between now and Kingdom Come—I’ll track you down no matter where you get to and shoot you. I mean what I say. Just

one sneaking word and you’ll have me to settle with!”

He fixed each one in turn with his glittering eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and they mumbled a ready acquiescence. What else could they do? King, looking more than ever like a prophet of old, one of the avenging type, stood over them with his rifle and they could feel his eyes boring into them wherever they went or did. Nevertheless, when they touched at a river post which had telegraph connection with Dawson, one of the party made an excuse to go ashore. He wired the news on to Mounted Police headquarters.

When the scow made fast at the Dawson wharf, two policemen had King in handcuffs almost before he knew what had happened. He protested sonorously at the indignity.

“I killed a man, but it was in self defence,” he declared. “This has nothing to do with you. I’ll stand my trial before a jury of twelve miners. Let me go, I say, I’m an old miner and I stand on my rights.”

I was in the court room when King was tried. He refused to plead, but again demanded that his case be taken before a jury of twelve fellow miners. He seemed amazed when his view of the matter was not accepted by the court.

It did not take long to conclude the case. On the testimony of the three witnesses the old man was found guilty and condemned to death. “Take me out in the courtyard and shoot me,” was the only comment he made. In due course he was hanged. He walked to the scaffold with a firm step, declaiming all the way that the law had no right to touch him.

THE wheels of justice ground rapidly in the Yukon. There were two judges in the territory—Judge Dugas and Judge Craig—and, when Police Magistrate Macaulay was appointed, steps were taken to give him a judge’s rank so that a duly constituted appeal court could be found. Thus all legal tangles could be straightened out without any recourse to the outside world. This expedited justice, and quick action was the order of the day.

I think that a record for speed was established there on one occasion. Three suspicious characters arrived in Dawson from the American side shortly after the dance halls and gambling dens had been closed by order of the commissioner. They did not know what to make of the place. Dawson City was the queerest kind of a mining centre they had ever seen, these three bad men, and they volubly expressed their opinion of it around the saloons—no faro joints, no dance hall girls, policemen everywhere you looked! In fact, their discontent brought them under police notice, to their undoing later.

The order to clamp the lid down tight had been put into effect suddenly as a result of the unusually questionable methods employed in some of the dives. Of course, it had been impossible to stamp out gambling entirely and on the Saturday night following the advent of the disgruntled trio a party of local men got up a game of draw poker in a room behind Tom Chisholm’s saloon. They kept it up until well into Sunday morning. A light tap came on the rear door of the saloon which opened on a lane and, when Chisholm cautiously

opened it, he found himself looking into the business end of a revolver. A masked face was behind it and a stout foot kicked the door open. Three masked men crowded in and ordered: “Hands


The poker party was lined up along the wall by two of the hold-up men, while the other one scooped in all the dust in sight in the safe which was unlocked. Tom Chisholm, who was a burly fellow and of a fighting breed, let a bellow of rage out of him when his safe was opened. But they soon quieted him and decamped with a clean-up of over twenty thousand dollars.

By nine o’clock Sunday morning the police had located the three, searched them, found the loot, and put them behind the bars. Monday morning at 10 o’clock they faced Judge Dugas, who sentenced them to fourteen years in penitentiary—the maximum penalty. Ten o’clock Tuesday morning they were on their way up the river, bound for New Westminster to serve their term. “What a camp!” groaned one of them. “What a country!” put in another.

JUDGE DUGAS had been a police magistrate in Montreal before receiving his appointment in the Yukon and he brought north with him the reputation of being able to read the minds of those who came before him. Certainly there was something almost uncanny in his gift for judging faces. Sitting up on the bench he would bend a stern gaze on the prisoner before him and proceed to strip the evidence right down to essentials. He was a picturesque figure and I often used to attend court just to watch him. I remember one occasion when a local character, who boasted the name of Count Charbonneau, came before him as a witness.

“What is your name?” asked the lawyer, who was conducting the case.

“Count Charbonneau,” replied the witness.

“Count? Countl” exclaimed the Judge, taking in the dissolute appearance of the man in the witness box. “Count nothing! I can read your past. You have been a saloon keeper all your life.”

The Judge was right. The man had been a saloon keeper in the East before he came to the mining country.

Judge Dugas was very stern and he upheld the law in all its majesty. A case that was typical of his methods comes to my mind. A weazened-up fellow who looked like a Chinaman, but answered to the name of Rodney, landed in Dawson one day and announced that he was going to start a newspaper, one of the right sort. He had money and so managed to get a plant together, and a few issues out. We soon discovered what he meant by a paper of the right sort. All the evil stories that floated around the camp he trailed through his columns and filled up the rest of his space with vicious attacks on all constituted authority. Dawson had kept pretty clear of this kind of blackmailing and the presence of Rodney and his rag became a distinct aggravation to all citizens of the better class. He was a subterranean sort of fellow, working in the dark, skulking in saloons, a kind of Miners Marat. The worst of it was that he had a degree of cunning that made

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it impossible for the police to catch him. But one day he slipped.

A case was being tried in court before Judge Dugas and Rodney took it upon himself to criticize the way in

which justice was being administered. I was in court that day and saw a copy of the paper, fresh off the press, handed up to the Judge. The case was lagging a little and he proceeded to skim the sheet. Suddenly he looked up sharply and motioned for the proceedings to halt.

“Mapley!” he called to the big police sergeant, who was on duty in court that day. “Mapley, bring this Rodney in

Mapley departed with alacrity and was back in a short time with the editor in tow. They presented quite a contrast—big, genial Sergeant Mapley and the little, yellow-skinned rat, with a red bandana around his neck and an evil smirk on his face.

“You own dis paper which I hold in my hand?” asked Judge Dugas.

“Yes, sir,” said Rodney, defiantly. “You’ll see my name at the top—George Rodney—that’s me.”

“And you write dis comment on de case I am hearing?” The Judge’s speech was quite broken at times.

“Yes. I wrote it.”

Judge Dugas leaned over' the bench and pointed a finger at the man.

“I commit you for contempt of court,” he said. “I fine you one t’ousand dollar. You leave the territory before six o’clock tonight or you go to jail.”

The editor opened his mouth to protest, but Sergeant Mapley took him by the shoulder and spun him around, then propelled him vigorously out of court. The journalistic thunderbolt, who was going to turn the Yukon upside down— as he had boasted—paid his thousand dollars and shook the dust, or rather the snow, of Dawson from his feet that

'T'HERE was a great deal of litigation over claims at all times. It is an easy thing to neglect some precaution in staking out and registering a claim and, as the miners were for the most part a careless and unlettered lot, they often went wrong. Perhaps the stakes put in were a few inches short, perhaps a mistake would be made in the form of a declaration. Any kind of a slip and there was always some one ready to step in and attempt to restake, particularly if the claim was known to be rich. The camp was full of technical miners, drifters from other fields, who knew all the fine points and battened like leeches on the mistakes of others. The law, I am glad to say, had no patience with these thieves and settled all disputes according to the dictates of fairness.

But it meant a great deal of litigation and the lawyers in Dawson made a regular harvest of it. I remember speaking to one young lawyer whose legal reputation was none too good and who was preparing to go back East. He was a fourth-rater as a lawyer and everyone knew it. Clients sought him out only when other legal assistance was not obtainable.

“I’ve got barely enough tj see me back home,” he declared bitterly.

“Why not stick it out then?” I asked.

“It’s no use,” he replied. “It goes as fast as I get my hands on it. I was looking over my books last night. I’ve been here nearly four years and took in over $83,000. And it’s all gone now!”

And, remember, this man was a fourth-rater.

'T'HE Mounted Police were, as I have ^ said before, a highly efficient body. From Major Wood down they were fine, honest, conscientious fellows. The camp stood in awe of them. They performed many remarkable feats in running offenders to earth, and in this connection I must make some reference to Sergeant Pennycuick, the Sherlock Holmes of the force. There is probably no more brilliant feat in the annals of the Mounted Police than his capture cf the notorious George O’Brien.

O’Brien was one of the offscourings of the Alaskan camps, who came to the Yukon when things got too warm for him elsewhere. His trade was murder. He was a powerful man, with a drooping black moustache and an eye like a live coal. No one knew anything about him and no one wanted to. He did not inspire liking.

He would vanish from Dawson for long spells and then come back flush. It developed later that his modus operandi was to get out on the lonely creeks and drop in at some cabin for a night's hospitality. If there was enough gold in sight to make the effort worth while he would murder his trusting host in the night, dispose of the body and decaían with the gold.

After he had been operating along these lines for some time, the district began to resound with enquiries. “Where’s Salt Lake George?” men were asking. Or, “Have you seen old Ginger Johnson?” Investigations were conducted up Shining Gulch and other outlying camps. The suspicion grew that there was a murder gang at work. The police suspected O’Brien, but had no grounds whatever on which to proceed.

Then O’Brien tried a new variety of murder. He ensconced himself at a bend of the river where he could see both ways clearly from a well concealed nook in the underbrush. When a lonely traveler came along and there was no one in sight either UP or down the river, O’Brien would steal down to the water’s edge and shoot his man when he turned the bend. Many cases came to the ears of the police of miners who started out on trips and were never heard of again. Their vigilance was redoubled, and O’Brien finally fell into the

He was endeavoring to make a “get away” overland and came to Selkirk, where there was a police post. While he was in an eating house one of the force saw a blanket with wide yellow stripes woven at both ends in his sleigh. It is an unwritten law that none but the police must ever have blankets of this description, so the officer went in to investigate. O’Brien could not give a satisfactory explanation as to how the blanket came to be in his possession, so he was put under arrest and sent back to Dawson.

SERGEANT Pennycuick searched the prisoner and, among other things, found a most peculiarly shaped nugget in his possession. It was about the size of a man’s thumb and on the inside was a loose nugget that looked as though it had been put there by an artificer. Pennycuick held it up with a loud chuckle.

“What does that nugget look like to you?” he asked a fellow officer.

“A thumb with a carbuncle on it,” replied the other.

“It looks like a gallows to me,” said

Pennycuick. His companion stared at. him blankly and would probably have demanded an explanation ; but the Sergeant was gone.

In the course of his investigations of the various missing men, Pennycuick had learned that Peter Johnson, an old Sourdough, who had suddenly vanished,, had shown to his friends just such a nugget as this shortly before he was last

Pennycuick started out with this clue and in time traced O’Brien back to his post at the bend of the river. It was in the dead of winter, but the Sergeant cleared the snow away from around the camp and proceeded to dig. He unearthed a most valuable lot of evidence —trousers buttons, parts of suspenders,, knives and belts.

Some of these tell-tale articles were identified, Pennycuick going as far as the State of Oregon to trace up a tailor’s label. In the end, O’Brien was convicted and hanged. He went to the scaffold cursing the priest in attendance,, the judge, the crown prosecutor and all who had anything to do with his conviction.

FINALLY, I am going to tell a story that deals with the administration of affairs in Dawson City, an occurrence in which I played a fairly important part mvself. When a city charter was granted to Dawson the conti'ol of the place became vested in the residents through the medium of a mayor and a council of six aldermen elected yearly. Now, it happened that, while the bulk of the taxes were paid by a small number, the rough element were in a decided majority and could outvote the substantial citizens. One year the rough element got control of the council and things began to happen. I soon discovered that systematic grafting and looting was going on but I was powerless to stop it. I had to make payments that the council authorized, even when I was morally certain that a good proportion of the sums expended was going into official pockets. Finally, in desperation, I went to the Commissioner.

As the result of a stir that followed in official circles, a petition was circulated for the cancellation of the charter which would throw Dawson back under the control of the Government officials. Anxious property owners signed it almost to a man. I reckoned that the signatures represented about eighty per cent, of the tax rolls, so the Commissioner decided to put the question to a vote. A plebiscite was ordered.

It looked like a forlorn hope, howeverThe reactionary crowd would outvote us almost four to one. Of that we were quite certain. Our only hope lay in devising some technicality to outwit them, and finally a plan was evolved. It was specified that only those who could produce receipts showing that they had paid their year’s taxes (all taxes included—property, income or poll) would be eligible to vote and that these certificates must he filed with the city clerk previous to the day before election. And then the voting was fixed for a Tuesday.

The referendum created a great amount of excitement and the opposing factions drew into hostile camps. It must not be supposed that all the opposition came from those who benefited by the depredations of the council. Many citizens wanted the charter retained as it gave

an increased dignity to the place. The civic gang capitalized this sentiment and won a lot of support on the strength of it. One of those who opposed the annulment of the charter was the owner and editor of a newspaper, a man named George. He heatedly objected to the move and fought it in his paper. In fact, he gradually became recognized as the leader of the antis. For some reason or other this man George took a distinct dislike to me. He, perhaps, suspected -that 1 had started the fight and at any rate he made it warm for me on every possible occasion.

George started to gather the certificates of the antis and we learned that he was getting them thick and fast. He openly stated that he was going to swamp us. It looked very much as though he would. However, I saw that our people had their certificates filed bright and early.

On the Saturday morning before the voting I passed George on my way to the office. He stopped me.

“Smith,” he said, “are you going to be in your office to-day?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Then I’ll be around,” he said. I imagined that there was a look of triumph in his eye as he said it and I continued on to my office very much downcast. The opposition had seen our ruse after all, it seemed, and were going to file their certificates in time.

BUT George had not put in an appearance at 1 o’clock. I promptly closed up the office and almost bolted away, fearing that he might be on his way and would stop me.

Early Monday morning in came George with a huge pile of certificates. He planked them down on mv desk with a thump that bespoke satisfaction.

“What are these, George?” I asked, looking up at him.

“Those? Oh, nothing much,” he said, jocularly. “Just the ammunition to blow that plebiscite to smithereens.” “But I can’t accept these, George,” I told him. “Look here. Let me show you the by-law. These certificates had to be filed with me previous to the day before election. This is the day before election.”

He looked at the printed instructions. Then he looked at me. Then he shook a finger under my nose and began to talk.

“I asked you if you would be In your office Saturday and you said you would. When I got around here at half past one you were gone!” he roared. “It’s a put-up job. I’ll see about this. You can’t do the voters out of their rights this way.”

“But, confound it, George,” I admonished him, gently, “I was in this office Saturday—just as I said I would be. But the city charter calls for the city offices to close at 1 o’clock on Satur-

“You’re around here other Saturday afternoons,” he spluttered in a rage. “You left on purpose. I’ll see that you get yours for this. There are fifteen million Smiths in this world, but you’re the meanest doggone one of the lot.”

But the antis did not vote, nevertheless. The plebiscite carried and the charter was duly revoked. Dawson City has remained under territorial control ever since.

(Mr. Smith's next article will be “The Dance Halls of Dawson.”)