The rise and fall of Dawson City
A MACLEAN'S book-length FLASHBACK
There was nothing like it north of San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Fools, knaves, a sprinkling of heroes and one saint— Dawson City swelled with their thousands through two fevered years. Then came the flames
Dawson City existed as a metropolis for exactly one year: from July 1898 to July 1899. Although it lay in the shadow of the Arctic Circle, more than four thousand miles from civilization, and although it was the only settlement of any size in a wilderness area that occupied hundreds of thousands of square miles, it was livelier, richer and better equipped than many larger Canadian and American communities. It was, in fact, the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg, and it was probably as big as any Pacific coast city north of San Francisco.
Before this period it had been nothing more than an overgrown frontier community of shacks and tents, feverishly thrown up on the frozen swamp where the Klondike River emptied into the majestic Yukon. Afterward, it subsided slowly but inevitably into a ghost town. Gold made Dawson and gold unmade it. The rush to the beach sands at Nome, Alaska, emptied the town in the summer of '99 just as the rush to the Klondike had filled it in '98. In a single week in August eight thousand people left Dawson forever.
In the first three years of its existence Dawson was one of the world's strangest communities. At times, men worth hundreds of thousands of dollars tramped its boardwalks, hungrily, offering five dollars for an onion. Cut off from the world, they would pay fifteen dollars for a newspaper stained by bacon grease. In the “starvation winter" of 1897, miners who knew they had to make it to the Outside or die found themselves being passed on the way by other miners rushing in, but by 1899 the city had a telephone service, running water, steam heat, and electricity. It had dozens of hotels, many of them better appointed than those on the Pacific coast. It had motion-picture theatres operating at a time when the projected motion picture was just three years old. It had restaurants where string orchestras played Cavalleria Rusticana for men in tailcoats who ate pâté de foie gras and drank vintage wines. It had fashions from Paris. It had dramatic societies, church choirs, glee clubs, and vaudeville companies. It had three hospitals, seventy physicians, and uncounted platoons of lawyers. Above all, it had people—some thirty thousand of them.
STORY AND PICTURES CONTINUE OVERLEAF
"They came from all over the world and from every background and creed. A descendant of Isaac Newton was in the
K L O INJ D L K !E ! continued
None of its citizens were ordinary, for almost every one of them knew how to build his own boat or his own cabin out of green lumber, how to handle a dog team on a narrow trail, how to treat scurvy with spruce-bark tea, how to carry a pack on a tump line and how to navigate fast water. Some had more individual accomplishments: there were gamblers, ready to bet fifty thousand dollars on the turn of a card; there were dance-hall girls willing to be purchased for their weight in gold.
They came from all over the world and from every background and creed. Arthur Treadgold, a direct descendant of Sir Isaac Newton, was in the gold rush; so was the nephew of H. Rider Haggard, the novelist—and the nephew of Jay Gould, the Wall Street financier, and the son of William Lever, the soap king. Frank Slavin, the heavyweight champion of the British Empire, was part of the throng and so was W. J. (Sailor Bill) Partridge, who became so rich from Queensland gold that he never wore the same suit twice, even though he changed clothes several times a day. There were scores of newspaper correspondents in Dawson, many of them women, ranging all the way from Nelly Bly, the New York world-girdler, to Flora Shaw, the aristocratic colonial expert of The Times of London, who crossed the White Pass dressed as a perfect English gentlewoman, her skirts
of ladylike length, her hair neatly coiled, and her neckpiece carefully fastened.
The town was crowded with men who made their names and their fortunes after leaving the Klondike: Sid Grauman, whose name was later emblazoned on Hollywood’s famous Chinese theatre, where movie stars left footprints in the wet cement; Tex Rickard, who became the manager of Madison Square Garden; Jack Marchbank, the one-legged gambler who was to run the great Tanforan race track in San Francisco; Alexander Pantages, the little Greek immigrant who laid the foundations for his chain of motion-picture theatres in Dawson; and, of course, the Mizner brothers, about whose exploits three books and countless magazine articles were to be written.
There were an equal number who had arrived at the end of their careers, and to them Dawson City was the last stop. Buckskin Frank Leslie, a famous gunman from Arizona, joined the gold rush and faded into obscurity, as did Calamity Jane, the camp-follower from Leadville and Deadwood, a pale reminder of the era of Wild Bill Hickok. Irish Nellie Cashman, “the miner’s angel,” ran a boarding house in the Klondike, just as she once had on Tough Nut Street in Tombstone, where she sheltered the homeless and relieved the afflicted.
For such people, there was nowhere else in the world to go but Dawson. The west was no longer wild and the frontier had moved away three thousand miles. And so they walked the streets of the golden city, many still clinging to their fringed gauntlets and their hide vests and
wearing their broad-brimmed plainsmen’s hats.
Dawson in its climacteric year remained a town of nicknames. Half the community, it seemed, went under such pseudonyms as Limejuice Lil, Spanish Dolores, Deep-Hole Johnson, Billy the Horse, Cassiar Jim, and Two-Step Louie. At first glance, this melange of humanity seemed to be an odd and insoluble mixture from every corner of the globe. But they had one thing in common: they were there. They were like war veterans who, having served their time in action, now found themselves bound together in a camaraderie born of fortitude. They were all part of a proud elite who, in spite of every vicissitude, had managed to reach their goal.
Although Dawson covered several square miles, spilled across two rivers and was squeezed up the sides of the surrounding hills, its pulse beat swiftest in those three or four short blocks of Front Street where the saloons, dance halls and gaming houses were crowded together. This was the most unstable as well as the liveliest section of the town. The buildings here were continually burning down and being rebuilt, changing ownerships and managerships, being lost and won in gambling games and sometimes changing both name and locale, so that the street was seldom the same from one month to the next. And yet, in another sense, it never changed, for any man who walked inside one building might be said to have walked inside them all. The outer façade of the street was a deceptive one. The carved scrollwork, the ornate bay windows and balconies with their intricately wrought balustrades, the elaborate cornices and pillars, presented a rococo elegance as false as the square fronts which hid the dingy, gabled log building behind. Hollywood films have presented the Klondike dance halls with Parisian splendor, but the real edifices were cheaper and shabbier than their dream-world counterparts. So were the girls who danced within them, especially in the early days. Like the furniture and the trimmings, they had to be brought in over the mountains and thus they were plain, sturdy, serviceable and without embellishment'. Most of them ran to weight; only the huskiest, after all, were able to withstand the rigors of the journey.
continued on page 51
“At first glance this melange of humanity seemed an odd and insoluble mixture. But they had one thing in common:
gold rush, and a nephew of Rider Haggard, and the son of a soap king, and the heavyweight champion of the Empire."
hey were there. They were all part of a proud elite, who', in spite of every vicissitude, had managed to reach their goal."
Continued from page 34
“Beyond the saloon was a small room where faro, poker, dice and roulette were played constantly””
The interiors of the dance halls were of a piece, and a description of the Monte Carlo serves for them all. It was a hastily erected two-story building with large plate-glass windows on which its name was inscribed, facing the street. Upon entering it. the newcomer found himself in a small, rather dark room dominated by a sheet-iron stove, with a long polished bar to his left, behind which the bartenders in starched shirts and aprons, with white waistcoats and diamond stickpins, stood reflected in the long mirrors at their backs.
Champagne at $60 a quart
Beyond the saloon was a smaller room where faro, poker, dice and roulette were played continually, day and night, and behind this room was the theatre consisting of a ground floor (with movable benches), a balcony (three rows and six boxes), and a small curtained stage. The remainder of the establishment’s upper story was given over to about a dozen bedrooms which could be rented by the night or by the week for any purpose, even including slumber.
This layout differed only in detail up and down the street. A sign on the balcony of the Opera House reminded customers that “gentlemen in private boxes are expected to order refreshments,” and these instructions were rarely ignored for it was a mark of affluence for a man to be seen in an upper box, encircled by a bevy of soubrettes, drinking champagne at sixty dollars a quart.
The men of the Klondike craved such outward signs of success more than they craved the actual champagne or the favors of the women; their presence in the balcony surrounded them with an aura which proclaimed to all who watched that they had won a hand in the hard game of life. The private box in the Dawson dance hall thus became a sort of symbol; suspended above the turbulent and sweaty masses on the floor below, a miner flush with gold could feel that he had indeed risen in the world. In a single night in the Monte Carlo one such celebrant had seventeen hundred dollars’ worth of champagne brought to his box.
In the larger establishments, the bar, gaming room, dance hall and stage entertainment were operated as separate concessions. The most versatile of the entrepreneurs was John Mulligan, who, with his wife Carrie, had been staging
vaudeville and burlesque in the various Pacific coast towns before coming north. Mulligan wrote the entire show himself, a series of bawdy and satirical commentaries on the times made up from suggestions he received from gamblers, miners, dance-hall girls and bartenders.
His best-remembered drama was The Adventures of Stillwater Willie, a satire on the exploits of Swiftwater Bill Gates, who was not only the Klondike’s most enduring legend but also its most effervescent character. As hard as other men worked to gain gold. Swiftwater worked to get rid of it. occasionally, in fact, bathing in champagne. His relations with the Lamore sisters, of dance-hall fame, have become a staple piece of Yukon folklore. In the days when hen’s eggs were as scarce as diamonds and as costly as nuggets. Swiftwater is said to have purchased every one in town to either spite or delight Gussie Lamore. (There are as many variations of this story as there were eggs.) Swiftwater joined Gussie in San Francisco as part of a monumental binge, but she refused at the last moment to marry him. possibly because she was already married, and a mother. Unabashed, he instantly married her sister Grace and when Grace threw him over after three weeks commenced at once to court her sister Nellie.
With a fine sense of casting. John Mulligan starred Nellie in his play. Swiftwater Bill would occupy the finest box in the theatre and applaud the caricature cheerfully while the audience laughed. The little man (he was only a few inches over five feet) did not mind the guffaws; he was being noticed for the first time in his life and that was what mattered. Gussie Lamore returned to Dawson, her reputation enhanced by the legend of the eggs, and she. too. was a popular favorite. From the stage of the Monte Carlo she would sing to Swiftwater in his box:
Give me a pen. I’ll make my will.
I’ll will it all to Swiftwater Bill.
I loved him once and I always will,
For he was certainly good to me.
All eyes would turn upwards to the little man with the Prince Albert coat, the diamond stickpin and the comical mustache, applauding furiously: and the cheechakos in the pit would nudge each other and remember, years later, that they had once seen the legendary Swiftwater.
The incidental entertainments in the
dance halls were usually supplemented by more serious dramas. Most of the plays of the day. from East Lynn to Camille, found their way to the Dawson stages, although a certain amount of
invention was sometimes necessary in the properties department. In Pygmalion and Galatea, for instance, a Dawson stock company, vainly searching around for
a faun, had to make do with a stuffed and mounted malemute. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the bloodhounds were represented by a single howling malemute puppy drawn across the stage by invisible wires, while newspapers were used to simulate ice floes.
The pièce de résistance at Arizona Charlie Meadows’ Palace Grand was a full-blown production of Camille. The ambitiousness of the production suited the theatre. To build it, Charlie, an old Indian fighter and rodeo king, had bought and wrecked two steamboats, and to open it he had held a banquet foCforty persons and laid a hundred-dollar bank note upon each plate. The stage production, alas, was not entirely successful owing to a monumental piece of miscasting.
The restless audience swiftly noted a distinct lack of ardor between Armand
Duval and his consumptive lady. It appeared that George Hillier, the actor playing Duval, was the divorced husband of Babette Pync, the dance-hall girl playing Camille. Babette hated him so much that she could not bear to speak with him in the wings, and at the end of each performance was in a state of nervous prostration from being forced to make love to him on the stage. This was only one of several flaws in the Camille production. The girls on stage also worked as box hustlers during the dancing that followed as well as during the inter-
missions and this double duty brought its own impasses. One night Babette Pyne, in her role as Camille, called over and over again for Prudence, her neighbor, but no Prudence appeared, and the action came to a dead stop. In the end, after repeated entreaties, the actress, Nellie Lewis, her hair tousled and her face flushed, poked her head from between the curtains of a wine box in the gallery and in a high-pitched and nearly incoherent voice called out: “Madame Prudence isn’t here! Call all you like but Madame Prudence ain’t a-comin’ tonight.
Don’t you think she’s a-comin’.” And although she was carried from the box by force, neither cajolery nor threats would force her to go onstage.
Children were an especial hit on the Dawson stages, perhaps because their fresh faces contrasted so sharply with the rouged features of the professional soubrettes. Young Monte Snow and his sister once picked up one hundred and forty-two dollars thrown at them as they danced and sang on the stage, while little Margie Newman, “the Princess of the Klondike,” sometimes stood heel-deep in nuggets after she rendered a sentimental song. The sight of the nine-year-old girl and the sound of her piping voice brought tears to the eyes of men far from their wives and families. When, at last, she left town, Frank Conrad of Eleven Eldorado tore off his solid-gold watch and nugget chain and tossed them to her as she stood on the steamer’s deck. She smiled and he pulled out a fifty-doilar bill, wrapped it around a silver dollar and threw that. She smiled again and he produced a hundred-dollar bill, wrapped it around another silver dollar and threw that too.
A smile or a song was often all it took to open a lonely miner’s poke of nuggets. One night, when a prodigal claim-owner was giving away nuggets to various dance - hall queens, Beatrice Lome, known as the Nightingale of the Yukon, walked up and asked for her share.
“Why the hell should I give you one?” the miner demanded.
For answer she began to sing Coinin' Through the Rye and she sang so sweetly that he poured five hundred dollars in nuggets into her lap and asked her to marry him. “I would have, too,” she blandly confessed some time later, “only his shoes squeaked and squeaked so they got' on my nerves.”
Slaughter for fourteen rounds
A varying form of entertainment consisted of prize fights which also took place on the dance-hall stages. Although the main object of all the stage shows was to pack the house with customers in order to keep the bar going, the fight promoters were able to get as much as twenty-five dollars a seat for the better matches. Frank Slavin, of Australia, the Empire’s heavyweight champion, known as “the Sydney Cornstalk” because of his tall agile figure and long loose arms, figured prominently in the most memorable of Dawson’s matches. Although Slavin was past his fighting prime, and embittered by his failure to meet either John L. Sullivan or Jim Corbett for the heavyweight championship of the world, he was still more than a match for most of the men put up against him. He fought one Australian named Perkins for fourteen rounds and gave him such a beating that Perkins died eighteen months later from internal injuries.
One night a drunk named Biff Hoffman knocked Slavin to the floor in the Monte Carlo saloon. The fighter took his measure and said: “You can knock me about when I’m drunk but I’ll show you what I can do in the ring when I’m sober.” Wilson Mizner, who was weighing gold in the Monte Carlo at the time, heard these words and saw the incident as a heaven-sent opportunity for a grudge match. The fight was profitable but disappointing. Slavin did not even bother to don the regulation trunks, but climbed into the ring immaculate in white turtle-neck sweater and white flannel trousers. He swung a right, knocked Hoffman cold and collected one thousand dollars from Mizner.
Although the promoters tried to bill every fight as a grudge match, most were mere exhibitions between men who knew each other well. Slavin had come into Dawson in the company of Joe Boyle, his Canadian sparring partner, with whom he had barnstormed around America. Boyle later became one of the great figures of the Klondike, securing an enormous concession on the main river, building the largest dredges in the w'orld, and ending his years as the "Uncrowned King of Rumania," where he was popularly believed to be the lover of Queen Marie; but in 1898, he did duty as a bouncer in the Monte Carlo.
Tex Rickard, who went from penury to fortune and back to bankruptcy again in Dawson, gained some early experience in fight promoting by matching the two friends against each other and making the crowd believe they were enemies. He billed Boyle as a man who had defied Soapy Smith in Skagway, and he referred to Slavin as "the Sydney Slasher.” He talked both men into acting infuriated whenever they saw each other, and to whip up interest in the match placed Slavin in a prominent position in a Front Street saloon where the crowd could see him. Rickard was disgusted to discover, one day, that Slavin’s chief drinking companion, in full view of the entire town, was Paddy Flynn, who was also billed as the referee. Rickard hustled Flynn out of the town until the night of the fight and then extracted twenty-five dollars from every customer, including those who crowded in for standing room only.
But these entertainments, although they brought thousands into the dance halls, were only a means to an end and that end was to extract as much gold as possible from the audience when the entertainment was done. When the curtain finally fell about one a.m. the girls descended from the stage to mingle with the customers, whereupon the real business of the evening began.
The floor was cleared and the orchestra, usually consisting of piano, violin, trombone and cornet, struck up, while a caller or “spieler," standing on the stage, cried out to the high-booted crowd to “take your partners for that long, dreamy, juicy waltz.” The miners paid their dollar for a dance ticket, grasped a girl and tried to complete a single lap around the floor before the orchestra stopped, somewhat after the fashion of musical chairs.
Like so much else in the Klondike, the long, dreamy, juicy waltz was not quite as advertised; in less than a minute the spieler was already shouting: “Belly up to the bar, you Rocky Mountain sportsmen!” The girls seized their partners, propelled them to bar or to curtained box, and ordered whatever the traffic would bear. For every dollar spent, each girl received a circular disc representing her percentage of the profits, and this she secreted in her stocking to cash the following day until her legs were lumpy with ivory vouchers.
All night long the dances roared on —waltzes, polkas, schottisches, squaredances, and lancers—while the horns blew and the violins sawed away and the callers kept the crowd in an unremitting state of excitement. All night long the wealth of the creeks was transferred bit by bit to the nugget belts and pouches of the dance-hall girls. As Diamond-Tooth Gertie remarked, not without a certain compassion, "the poor ginks have just gotta spend it, they're that scared they’ll die before they have it all out of the ground.”
Although the dance-hall girls led an exacting life which required them to be awake and working all night, most of
them remained plump and healthy, for like the men who had mastered the mountains they were a remarkably resilient breed. Sometimes, as in the case of Cecile Marion, the avoirdupois was an asset. She was short in stature w’ith creamy skin and black eyes, but rather overweight. The extra pounds might have been considered a drawback, but Chris Johansen, a wealthy miner from Whisky Hill on Hunker Creek, turned them into an asset. He was an unprepossessing Swede with close-set eyes and hair like stacked straw, who had vainly pursued
Cecile for weeks, lavishing champagne and gold dust on her and proposing to her nightly. Maddened by her refusals he at last offered to pay her weight in gold if she would accept him. She burst from the box in the dance hall, stopped the orchestra and called upon the assemblage to witness the offer. A ceremony was arranged on the spot, and side bets laid as to Cecile's weight while a massive pair of gold scales was trundled out. Cecile weighed in at a chunky one hundred and thirty-five pounds, which at the prevailing rate came to more than
forty thousand dollars. The denouement of the story has been blurred by time and legend. One sequel has it that Cecile, terrified by what she had done, left town the following day after extracting a healthy down payment from the miner. Another more ironic version relates how she went out to Whisky Hill to live-With her new husband while he worked away at his claim to pay the debt to her. After months of labor he cleaned up his total of forty thousand dollars and handed it to her. She took it. so the story goes, turned on her heel and walked out. He never saw his auriferous bride again.
The most successful and celebrated of all the Dawson dance-hall queens was a diminutive redhead with large brown eyes named Cad Wilson, who was brought to Dawson at the highest salary ever paid an entertainer on the Pacific coast. She was no beauty and she could not sing very well, nor did she have a good figure, but her personality was such that men vied with each other to throw nuggets and gold watches and pieces of jewelry onto the stage when she appeared. She would run about, laughing her famous laugh, picking up the baubles and holding her dress out, apron-like, to display her legs. The audience stood on the benches in the Tivoli and the Orpheum when she sang and danced, and cheered for encore after encore.
She made no secret of the fact that she was in town to separate miners from their pokes. Eddie Dolan, the stage manager at the Iivoli, used to introduce Cad when she first appeared on stage. Dolan would pretend that he had seen a letter from the actress's mother telling her “to be sure and be a good girl and pick nice clean friends.” Then he would turn to the audience, wave Cad on with a flourish, and cry: “I leave it to you, fellers, if she don’t pick ’em clean!”
Cad and her dance-hall sisters were a cut above the common prostitutes who inhabited Paradise Alley and who were later moved to a section of swampland well back from the business section and known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” The girls in the dance halls enjoyed the freedom to come and go as they pleased and to pick and choose among the men who lavished attention upon them, but the prostitutes were white slaves in the proper sense of the word. Paradise Alley ran conveniently behind dance-hall row, and here, from a double line of identical frame shacks, each with a single window facing the two board sidewalks that ran down the narrow street, the girls plied their trade. There were at least seventy of these “cribs,” with a girl's name painted on every door. Most of the inhabitants were in bondage for their passage money to the pimps who had brought them to the Klondike.
In the gaming rooms of Dawson, which ran twenty-four hours a day, the gold never stopped circulating. The entire Klondike stampede from the first moment had been an enormous and continual gamble, and when the rush reached its height men were ready to make any kind of wager for any kind of reason. Two old-timers bet ten thousand dollars on the accuracy with which they could spit at a crack in the wall. Swiftwater Bill and John J. Healy lost five thousand dollars between them in a single side bet on a stud-poker game in which they were merely kibitzers. Thomas Wiedemann stood in the gaming room of the Northern one night in the fall of '98 and watched a neatly dressed man with clean-cut features thoughtfully saunter over to the roulette wheel and lay a thousand-dollar bill on the red. The black came up. He laid a second on the red and again the black came up and he laid a third and lost again. Ten times he laid a thousand dollars down upon the green-baiz.e table and ten times he lost. He showed no emotion but strolled over to the bar and nonchalantly asked for a drink. “I went broke,” he told the bartender and with that gulped his whisky, turned about, thrust a single fleeting glance at the wheel, walked into the street, and shot himself.
The same wheel that brought tragedy to one man brought involuntary fortune to another. Frustrated in his attempts to find either a gold claim or a job, and
down to his last fifty dollars, Walter Leroy, a Texan, decided to get drunk. He awoke the following morning with a splitting headache and no memory of the evening's revels but with his pockets miraculously bulging with gold dust. He had cleaned up at the gambling houses while in his cups.
The best-known gambler in Dawson was Sam Bonnifield, known as Silent Sam because of his taciturn nature, and sometimes as Square Sam because he always ran an honest game. His Bank Saloon and Gambling House at the corner of Front and King was the most celebrated establishment of its kind in the Klondike. He was a handsome man in his early thirties, tall and slender, with eyes of a peculiar unfading blue, who never cracked a smile or uttered a word as he pulled in bets of five hundred dollars at the roulette or faro tables. Tex Rickard once watched Bonnifield lose seventy-two thousand dollars in a poker game—and his gambling establishment into the bargain. At the eleventh hour a crony arrived and lent the gambler enough to keep going and within six hours Bonnifield had won it all back again and cleaned out the customer.
Bonnifield came north with another bold and persistent gambler named Louis Golden, better known in the north as Goldie. This pair took part in the biggest poker game ever recorded in the Klondike. There was fifty thousand dollars in the pot when Goldie raised it by twenty-five thousand. Bonnifield called him and raised again, bringing the pot to one hundred and fifty thousand. Goldie triumphantly laid down four queens. Bonnifield without a word or a change of expression turned his hand over to show four kings and raked in a fortune.
The miracles that came
Far from the carnival of Front Street, in his makeshift hospital under the hill at the north end of town. Father William Judge, the frail and cadaverous priest, quietly toiled away. Acting as his own architect, contractor and workman, the “Saint of Dawson” had erected a simple hospital, church and residence. He filled the mattresses with grasses he had gathered and collected herbs to add to his small stock of medicines. The steaming undrained swamp on which the town was built, rank with undisposed sewage, had spread typhoid, malaria and dysentery among the stampeders. These, together with scurvy cases, jammed every available cot in the hospital, filling the very hallways and crowding Father Judge himself out of his own spartan bedroom.
The overworked priest had one quality in common with all the others who descended upon the Klondike: he was a believer in miracles. For him, if not always for others, the miracles seemed to come true. It was his practice, for instance, never to turn a patient away, but one afternoon he accepted twenty more than he had bedding for. Then the miracle came: at nightfall three bales of blankets arrived mysteriously on an unidentified sleigh and were dumped at the door. Again, early in the fall, he had so many patients pouring into the hospital that he was forced to put some of them in the upper rooms which were not yet finished, for the roof of his hospital had not been completed. As if in answer to his prayers, there was clear weather for three weeks until the last board was in place. During the winter he found that he could not hire workmen to dig a grave in the froz.en ground of the cemetery for one of his dead patients and so struggled himself with pick and shovel until he was about to give up in despair. Suddenly, out of the gloom, two husky miners appeared; they told him they had heard that they were wanted at the hospital and proceeded at once to complete the grave and to cover in the coffin.
“Nigger Jim was planning a dead-of-night expedition to stake a fortune”
In a sense, Judge was the conscience of Dawson. Men watched him at his work and felt a little better that they belonged to the same race; it was as if his own example cleansed them of their sins. His little office that contained nothing more than a board lounge, two blue blankets and a rough wooden drawer in which his worldly possessions were kept, had long since been given over to the sick. The priest, when he slept at all, curled up in the hallways, on a corner by the stairs or in any cranny he could find. When his nurses pleaded with him to take more rest, he replied only that when his work was finished he would have plenty of time for sleep. It was his habit to rise at five a.m. to hear Mass, to eat a spare breakfast — frequently sharing his food with another—and to work until eleven at night. He always insisted that he be awakened if any patient asked to see him and all through the dark hours he could be seen moving quietly, like a guardian shade, through the wards.
He rarely smiled, and yet his face was forever radiant, beaming with what one man called “an indescribable delight.” Despite his frailty he moved with catlike speed, he did not walk upstairs, but always ran.
All that fall the priest remained on the town's conscience, and in December of ’98 the feeling grew that something tangible should be done for him. In spite of some heavy donations from both Catholics and Protestants the hospital was still in debt and so the people of Dawson proposed to pay it off as a Christmas present. A benefit show was planned, and although December 25 was the best-paying night of the year, Joe Cooper offered his Tivoli theatre free for the affair.
As Judge’s only outer garment in all his months in Dawson had been a tattered black cassock, patched and worn, it was decided that he must have a new suit of clothes for Christmas. A tailor was dispatched to get the priest’s measure, but Judge politely refused. The tailor was told to make the suit anyway, together with a sealskin coat, cap and gloves (for Judge dressed lightly with shocking disregard for the severity of the Yukon winter). A presentation was made a few days before the show; but Judge, although moved, explained that as a Jesuit he could neither own chattels nor accept gifts. The presentation committee urged the clothing upon him, pointing out that most of the donors were Protestants, and in the end the priest relented. He was reluctant to attend the minstrel show in his honor, but was prevailed upon to do so.
When George Noble, the interlocutor, rose to make a little speech, referring to him as “the grand old man of Dawson,” the audience went wild. Judge was taken up on the stage, much against his wishes, and the cheering continued for five minutes. But this was the only time he appeared in his new clothes; the following day he was seen again in his threadbare robes.
His time was running out and the whole town knew it. Although he was but forty-five years old, he looked closer to seventy. Overwork had lowered his resistance and, two weeks after Christmas, the word sped across the commu-
nity that he was ill with pneumonia and would probably not recover. A pall settled over Dawson. As if to accentuate the mood the temperature dropped to fifty below, the snow turned dry as sand, squeaking eerily beneath men’s feet, while the smoke from the buildings pillared vertically into the still air to hang across the river valley in a pale shroud. The whole community, it seemed, was slowing to a dead stop. It was so cold that horses could not be worked and after a few days there was scarcely any life in the streets. Moving like ungainly animals to protect their lungs, and bundled in furs to the very ears, men made brief forays into the cold, and then retreated again into the steaming interiors. Windows frosted solid while cabins even a few yards distant were blurred by the fog that encompassed the community.
In the hospital on the hill, the death watch began. Then suddenly, tantalizing rumors began to seep through the saloons and a bizarre charade, half comic, half tragic, broke the spell and shook the town from its lethargy. Gold, it was whispered, had been discovered on an unknown creek down the river . . . nobody knew exactly where the gold was, but Nigger Jim Daugherty had the secret . . . he was planning an expedition in the dead of night to stake out a fortune. Like a hive prodded by a stick, the community began to buzz as hundreds laid in stocks of provisions, and mended the harness on their dog teams, and did repair work on their sleds.
No one was quite sure how the Nigger Jim Stampede originated. Some there were who swore that a mysterious prospector had sold Jim a map for a thousand dollars and produced a poke of gold dust as evidence of his good faith. Others claimed that Jim had started the stampede on a wager, to prove that nobody could keep a secret in Dawson. Whatever its beginnings, the stampede itself was the most frenzied that the town had seen that, year.
Nigger Jim was a member of the Klondike aristocracy, a blond giant of a man who had quit his job as logger on the Pacific coast to go north to Circle City in 1894. His claim on Upper Bonanza netted him three hundred and sixty thousand dollars, enough to purchase two dance halls for the singing Oatley Sisters, one of whom he was eventually to marry. He was called Nigger Jim not because of his color, but because of his soft Missouri accent, and because he
liked to sing spirituals and accompany himself on the banjo. He was seldom seen without a cigar in his mouth or a sombrero on his head or a heavy diamond ring on his finger or a glittering stickpin in his tie. He wore no coat, but his fine silk shirts and vests were specially tailored for him in London. He preferred to drink champagne, and to impress Lottie Oatley he would stand at the bar until dawn treating every comer to the best vintages. In Skagway, the previous spring, he drank up all the champagne in town and then chartered a steamer to go to Juneau, one hundred miles down the coast, for a new supply
At eleven p.m. on January 10, Jim stood in the Aurora-Saloon with some of the Klondike elite, to whom he had disclosed his secret: Charlie Anderson, The Lucky Swede; Skiff Mitchell of One Eldorado, and a handful of others. Outside, all along Front Street, newly harnessed dog teams lay waiting in the snow, while ghostly figures glided about town passing the word that the moment had almost come. Jim swallowed his eighth whisky and soda, walked out of the door with his friends, and the rush was on. By two that morning there were fifty sleds dashing down the frozen river in the wake of the leaders and behind these, plodding on foot, came stragglers, one or two of them with queer devices for carrying their outfits. Among these could be discerned the tall, muffled figure of Arizona Charlie, leading a loaded ox.
Here was an odd pantomime; it was as if this small knot of men, forcing their way along the whitened river in the dark of the cold night, was bent on acting out once again the full drama of '98. For the Nigger Jim Stampede, with its wild rumors, its sudden frenzy, its optimism and despair, its trials and its yearnings and its ultimate irony, was a scale model of the Klondike gold rush itself.
The temperature dropped to sixty below and the journey became a horror for all but the anointed few who had the foresight to prepare for it. Nigger Jim and his friends slept soundly each night; they had brought tents and Yukon stoves and thick fur robes. The rest cowered in the lee of their sleds which were arranged in a huge circle around the central camp so that Jim, in the words of one, “was enclosed like a Roman general.”
Back in Dawson, in the hospital under the hill. Father Judge clung to life.
By the second day the stampeders had left the main river to fc.iev a tributary stream into the hills, waiiowing in snow so deep that sleds and dogs had to be cast aside. Here some gave up the struggle and turned back in frustration, fatigue and disgust, while others like hounds on a scent only grew more eager. On they floundered, up a miniature Chilkoot. the snow falling upon them as fast as their snowshoes packed it down, a vicious galeblowing into their frostbitten faces, their beards and mustaches stiff as boards.
On the far side of a razor ridge, in a valley of phantom white, Jim reached
his goal and hammered in his stakes. The others followed suit; and then began the weary, anti-climactic trek back to Dawson some hundred miles away. By the time the town was reached, all were in a state of depression.
Some of these men bore the scars of the Nigger Jim Stampede all their lives. Several were maimed hideously and one man lost both his feet. Few. if any, returned to the lonely valley to examine the ground that had been staked at such cost. The word went round that it was quite worthless, and this was accepted as
truth, just as the original tales had been.
On their return, the stampeders learned that Judge was sinking lower day by day. Hundreds of enquiries poured in asking how he was, while gifts arrived daily, including one case of champagne worth thirty dollars a pint.
Skiff Mitchell, just back from the stampede, made his way to Judge’s bedside. He was an old friend of the priest, although Protestant, and when he saw the wasted figure on the couch the tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Why are you crying?” Judge asked
him. “We have been old friends almost since 1 came into the country.”
“We can’t afford to lose old friends like you,” Mitchell replied.
“You’ve got what you came for,” the priest reminded him. “I too have been working for a reward. Would you keep me from it?”
The end came on January 16, and Dawson went into deep mourning. “If the whole town had slipped down into the river, it would not have been more of a shock,” someone wrote later. Shops and dance halls closed their doors, and even the houses were draped in black.
It took two and a half days to hack the dead priest’s grave out of the hard frozen soil, but there was no dearth of men for the task and when the body was taken to its rest the grieving populace followed. Nothing would do but that the casket cost one thousand dollars and be made of the finest material. It was a gesture in keeping with the general ostentation of the community, though the shriveled figure within would have shuddered at the thought.
The following day the town returned to normal. At the Tivoli where, less than a month before, Father Judge had received the homage of the camp, John Mulligan was winning applause with a topical new song;
"Nigger Jim just wanted to know
If a fresh cheechako could outrun a sourdough.”
Jim himself sat in his box, with Lottie Oatley beside him, and laughed and applauded while the champagne ran as swiftly as the water in the sluice boxes on Eldorado.
Town in flames
But time was running out for Dawson City, as it had already run out for Father Judge. Like the priest the town seemed destined to pack a normal lifetime into a brief and fevered span. It is odd that, of the thirty to forty thousand stampeders who touched at the golden city, fewer than half bothered to search for gold at all; and of these only about four thousand found any; and of these only a few hundred got rich. Now, as the spring approached, an uneasy feeling swept across the community, as if it were becoming slowly aware of its own redundancy. The town was burning itself out. literally as well as figuratively.
The climax came on the bitterly cold night of April 26. A long tongue of flame shot skyward from a dance-hall queen’s bedroom in the Bodega Saloon and almost within seconds Front Street was enveloped by a wall of fire.
As fate would have it, the newly organized fire department was on strike and the fires in the engine boilers were cold. Scores dashed to the river in the glare of the llames and tried to break through the ice to reach the water supply. Fires had to be set to melt the frozen surface so water could be pumped to the scene. In the meantime half of Front Street was ablaze. The temperature stood at forty-five below. There was no wind and the tongues of llame leaped vertically into the air like flashes of lightning, causing clouds of steam to condense into an icy fog which soon encompassed most of the city.
Within this white envelope the ghostly and frantic figures of the fire fighters dashed about ineffectually against the background of the crackling fire. As the dance halls and saloons began to char and totter, hogsheads of liquor were overturned, and whisky ran into the streets where it instantly froze solid in the biting cold. Behind dance-hall row. Paradise Alley was aflame again and the prostitutes poured, naked and screaming, from their smoking cribs into the arms of the fire fighters, who ripped off their own coats to bundle up the terrified women.
The men on the river having meanwhile burned their way to the water supply, and the pumps being started, the hoses, long in disuse, slowly filled. But as the water was ice cold, and unwarmed by boiler heat, it froze solidly long before it reached the nozzles. Then there came a ripping, rending sound as the expanding ice tore open the hoses, followed by a moan of despair as the crowd realized the town was doomed.
"What’s to be done?” cried Tom Chisholm, as the flames darted forward toward his Aurora Saloon.
Captain Cortlandt Starnes of the North West Mounted Police, plump and red-faced, his mustachios stiff with his frosted breath, supplied the answer: "Blow up the buildings in front of the fire!”
A dog team went racing for fifty pounds of blasting powder, so that Starnes and his police could demolish the Aurora and other buildings to leave a blank space in front of the moving wall of flame.
By this time the fire was occupying the energies of the entire town. Thousands struggled in and out of the condemned buildings carrying articles saved from the blaze until the marsh behind the business sections was littered with chattels. Many were offering ten dollars an hour for help, and any two-horse team and driver could command one hundred dollars an hour. David Doig. the fastidious manager of the Bank of British North America, pledged one thousand dollars to anyone who could save the building, but the offer was made in vain.
The town shuddered with reverberations as the dynamite did its work in the face of the advancing wall of flame. The firemen, unable to pump water, worked ahead of the explosion, soaking blankets in mud puddles to try to save the Fairview Hotel, which stood on the edge of the conflagration. In its adjoining stables were hogsheads of rum which the proprietress Belinda Mulroney used to keep her horses warm and working during the chill winter days; she poured it by the dipperful down the grateful gullets of the fire fighters.
At last the groaning multitude saw that further effort was useless. Half freezing, half roasting, they stood like lost souls on the edge of the Pit, their faces glowing redly in the reflected light of the vagrant flames. Before their eyes, Front Street, with all its memories, was being consigned to the inferno.
Bill McPhee’s Pioneer Saloon, one of Dawson’s oldest log buildings, crumbled to ashes and was gone in a shower of sparks, the piles of gold and sacks of mail stacked behind the bar buried beneath the charred timbers.
“Gather up the money, the town is going to go!” Belinda Mulroney had called out as McPhee made a final dash into his building.
"To hell with the money,” he shouted, "I want to save my moose-head,” and back he staggered with the prized trophy. It meant far more to him than fleeting gold, for it had hung above the bar since opening day — that day which seemed so long ago, when Dawson was young. Could it have only been two years past?
Harry Ash's Northern Saloon, whose sawdust floor had glittered with gold dust, went the way of the Pioneer. And now the Tivoli was crumbling, the Tivoli where John Milligan produced Stillwater Willie and Cad Wilson danced and sang; and the Opera House with its famous gallery of private boxes; and the Dominion Saloon and Gambling House where the stakes were so high that eight Mounties had sometimes to be posted to keep order.
Walter Washburn, a faro dealer who had invested ten thousand dollars in the Opera House, watched with quiet resignation as it was devoured by the flames.
“Well,” he said, “that’s the way I made it and that’s the way it’s gone; so what the hell!”
As if to underline this statement the vault within the tottering Bank of British North America burst wide open in the fierce heat and the contents spewed out into the debris—gold dust and nuggets scooped from the bowels of Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks by moiling men, heavy gold watches from the vests of gamblers and saloonkeepers left here for safe keeping, jeweled stickpins and bracelets and dance-hall girls’ diamonds bought with favors and with wine and with music and now fused inseparably into the molten mass that oozed from the shattered strongbox to mingle with thesteaming clay.
Ashes in the city’s heart
One hundred and seventeen buildings were destroyed that night, their loss totaling more than one million dollars. In the cold light of the ensuing day, the weary townspeople crept from their homes to view the havoc. The fire had died away, leaving a smoking ruin where the business section had been. On the north edge of this black scar was the Monte Carlo, scorched but still standing: on the south the Fairview Hotel, a grotesque sight completely sheathed in frozen mud. In its lobby, scores of exhausted and homeless men and women were sleeping in two-hour shifts. The river marked the western boundary of the fire; the littered swamp, the eastern. In the heart of the city was an enormous gap from the ashes of which a large number of shapeless sawdustcovered piles arose at scattered intervals. They revealed themselves as immense blocks of ice which had been cut from the river for summertime use and covered with sawdust' as insulation. Of all things, they alone had survived the fearful heat.
At once the town began to rebuild. Less than twelve hours after his saloon was destroyed, Tom Chisholm had erected a big tent labeled Aurora and was doing business again. Although nails sold for twenty-five cents each, the familiar ring of saw and hammer was quickly heard on Front Street.
But the town that rose from the ashes —a newer and sturdier metropolis—was not the same town; it would never be the same again. To walk down Front Street, Senator Jerry Lynch remarked, "was like walking for a block or two in the Strand.” Sewers were installed, the roads macadamized, new sidewalks built. The shops were full of fancy goods displayed behind plate - glass windows. Schools were going up. Scores of handsome women sauntered up and down in fashions imported directly from Paris.
Already there was talk of a tunnel under the Chilkoot Pass, and a company was floated to drill one but the scheme was abandoned because the White Pass railway was swiftly becoming a reality. Before the year was out. men would be riding in style where two seasons before horses had perished by the thousands.
And now the old-timers of the pre-
gold-rush days, who had witnessed the rise and fall of earlier mining camps, began to get an uneasy sensation in their spines. It was as if the whole cycle of their experience was being repeated. This feeling was communicated to the cheechakos, who by virtue of their year in the Klondike were already thinking of themselves as sourdoughs. Some had spent the winter in hastily built cabins in distant valleys sinking shafts on barren claims, far from the golden axis of Bonanza and Eldorado; some had found work, as laborers in the gold fields (the glut of men had driven wages down from fifteen dollars a day to a mere hundred dollars a month) or as clerks in stores or as bartenders or dock workers.
Now a sense of anticlimax spread among all of them. Thousands walked wooden sidewalks seeking work, but there was less and less work to be had. and a stale taste began to grow in the mouths of those same men who, a year before, had tumbled pell-mell from the boats with shouts of triumph and anticipation.
The Klondike Nugget reported that, in the outside world, the word "Klondike." which had once inspired visions of fortune, had become an epithet of contempt and derision. The newest expression of disgust was the phrase: “Ah!— go to the Klondike!”
All through the spring vague rumors of something exciting on Norton Sound near the mouth of the Yukon River had been filtering into Dawson. It was the same kind of news that had once emptied Fortymile and Circle City. At first the news was sketchy, as it always was. and men refused to believe it, as they always did. But skeptical or not, they began to trickle out of town and down the river in twos and threes, and then in dozens, and then in scores, searching not so much for new adventure or new wealth, perhaps, as simply for the love of the search.
By mid-summer 1899 the news from the beaches of Alaska was confirmed. On the sands of Nome, just across the Bering Straits from Siberia, a fortune in fine gold dust had been discovered—a fortune that had been lying hidden all the time, at the far end of the golden river on whose cold breast so many men had floated in search of treasure.
The story was beginning again, like a continuous show at a movie house. In Dawson, log cabins could soon be had for the taking as steamboat after steamboat, jammed from steerage to upper deck, puffed out of town en route to Nome. The saloon trade fell off; real estate dropped; dance halls lost their custom.
In the same week in August that year eight thousand people left Dawson forever, a few haggard and wild-eyed men, with matted locks and shredded garments, straggled in from the Rat River divide. These were the last of that eager contingent which had set off from Edmonton twenty-four months before to seek their fortune; there would be no more.
And so, just three years, almost to the day, after Robert Henderson encountered George Carmack here, on the swampland at the Klondike’s mouth, the great stampede ended as quickly as it had begun. ★
Pierre Berton’s hook, from which this series of four articles was drawn, has heen made an alternate selection hy the Book-of-the-Month Clnh for December. The American title (Alfred A. Knopf Inc.) will he The Klondike Fever; the Canadian title (McClelland and Stewart Ltd.) will he Klondike!