Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gold Rush Dreams and Jaded Ladies

Lottie went to the diggings.
With Lottie we must be just.
If she didn’t shovel tailings,
Where’d she get her dust?

Chilkoot Pass
On August 6, 1898 the rumored arrival of a ship loaded with over two tons of gold and sixty-eight newly wealthy miners spread like fire through the Seattle area. Within hours sensible men had quit their jobs, dedicated men had left their families, and fortune hunters had spent their last dime on supplies, all with the intention of journeying into the harsh beauty of the Yukon to grab their piece of the pot.

But men were not the only adventurous souls to set their sights on the golden dream. Women of every social station shed their mundane routines and joined the swarm of men on the treacherous trip up north and the deadly thirty-three mile trek over the Chilkoot Pass and into Dawson City.

Restricted by Victorian morality, the Klondike Gold Rush was just the excuse these daring and sometimes desperate women needed to leave a life of security or poverty, and embrace an unknown and exciting future. Any hardships they would face were well worth the trouble when the possibility of wealth and independence was the payoff.

But as so often happens, the glimmering promise of gold dimmed once the women realized there were no respectable jobs to be found. Though it was legal to file a claim under a woman’s name, it was still considered improper. Mining was backbreaking work and unless paired with a man, the chore often proved too difficult.


If lucky, a woman might find a job as a laundress for $5 a day plus room and board, or a housekeeper for $12 a week plus room an board. But with the skyrocketing cost of supplies and rent, it became impossible for these hardy females to buy a simple meal.

What’s a girl to do? Go home? Many had spent their last dollar on their arduous journey and arrived in Dawson City broke and hungry. Suicide? Sadly, this was too often the path chosen by the desperate. With the gender rate reaching ten-thousand men to eight-hundred women, the choice became obvious. Like the devil holding the answer to their survival, the brothels, dancehalls, and saloons became a haven for the girls and women who were so far from home.

With companionship in short supply and gold dust overflowing, many of these working girls embraced their life and learned how to work the system. Dance hall or commission girls earned approximately $40 a week plus, 25% commission on any drinks sold, 50% on dances, and $7.50 on a pint of champagne. One commission girl reported that on her best night she earned $750 simply by talking to a lonely miner.

“The poor ginks just gotta spend it. They’re scared they’ll die before they get it out of the ground.”
                                                                                                                                          Diamond Tooth Gertie Lovejoy

Prostitutes earned $3 to every dollar earned by the dancehall girls. The clever strumpet used her own scale to weigh the gold dust she received in trade for her companionship. The standard four ounces of gold, or $64, for fifteen minutes often measured out more to the tune of eight ounce by the time she finished weighing the miner’s payment.

“A Dawson City girl did not need good looks. She needed stamina, a cold, calculating eye, and utter ruthlessness.”
Cy Martin

Not everybody like the bawdy women and their practices, but most accepted them as a necessary evil. Several of the showgirls in Dawson garnered quite a name for themselves and lived the life of their dreams


Klondike Kate, or Kathleen Rockwell as friends and family in Spokane, Washington knew her, grew up as a rebellious teenager, preferring an independent spirit over social rules and learning.
Klondike Kate

It’s rumored when Kate was denied entrance into Canada on her way to Alaska, she donned boys clothing and hopped onboard a boat heading to the Yukon. Once in Dawson City, Kate found her niche’ and became a local celebrity by performing her famed Flame Dance. With elegant and graceful moves, Kate managed to keep two-hundred yards of chiffon airborne for the duration of her dance. In her first year in the Klondike, Kate earned thirty-thousand dollars and secured a place for herself among the citizens of Dawson City.

Diamond Tooth Gertie Lovejoy headlined at the Palace Grand Theater during her stint in Dawson. Though she ended up marrying a respectable lawyer who had been her client, polite society never accepted Gertie as one of them. Perhaps the diamond jammed between her front teeth had something to do with the social snub.

Not far behind the sinner travels the saint. Church-going women soon arrived on the scene, rolled up their sleeves, and tried to help out or cast out the soiled doves. But the roots of prostitution and the need of the miners had burrowed too deep to eradicate the practice completely. The Reformists were somewhat successful in relocating the red-light district to the edge of town and building a tall green fence around the area. However, their efforts could never fully purge the city of sin.

“Of all the predatory, gold digging, disease-eaten, crooked female devils this side of Hell, the worst were in the Klondike in the early days.”
                                                                                                        E.C. Trewlawney-Ansell
Six Prositutes
As the discovery of gold in Fairbanks drew more miners, the prostitutes followed, as did the Reformists. Thomas Marquam, a brilliant criminal attorney quickly made a name for himself by defending the prostitutes, gamblers, and bar owners in the area. He also became the editor of the Fairbanks Times and was later elected as the mayor.

After the death of his wife, Marquam sought solace in the red-light district and namely in the arms of Ray Alderman. His affair with the prostitute was well known throughout Fairbanks but didn’t cause him problems until Fairbanks became the focus of a visit from the president of the United States, Warren G. Harding.

A delegation of irate matrons confronted Marquam and demanded he end the tawdry relationship with that woman. They argued his association with her would make the citizens of Fairbanks a laughing stock. Taking their dispute to heart, Marquam asked Ray Alderman to be his wife and she accepted. Much to the meddling harpies’ consternation, Ms. Alderman not only became the first lady of Fairbanks, but also the first lady in the reception party for President Warren G. Hardy. One must wonder if Thomas Marquam thought, “Take that you old battleaxes.”

Though landing a husband was like shooting fish in a barrel, many of the women decided they liked the independent life prostitution afforded them. Gussie Lamore, a nineteen year old prostitute, turned down a miner by the name of Bill Gates who offered to pay her her weight in gold if she married him.

She replied, “Independence is a good deal too.”

Miss Violet Raymond was the undisputed belle of the camp. Once the reining queen of burlesque in Juneau, the owner of The Gold Hill Hotel paid an enormous amount for her to move to Dawson City and perform.

“Her admirers numbered by the score,” reported gold king, Antone Stander, Violet’s future husband. To woo her away from the limelight, Stander bought every diamond in the camp and presented them to Miss Violet in a necklace that hung nearly to her knees. He also gifted her with $20,000 in gold dust, a lard bucket full of odd-shaped gold nuggets, and offered her $1000 a month allowance if she married him.

I make good money—but not that good,” replied Violet.

They were married a short time later.

Klondike Kate is the only good-time girl to receive any recognition for her part in the Yukon Gold Rush. In 1931, wearing the $1500 Parisian dress she wore during her glory days in Dawson City, Kate was honored by over a thousand aging pioneers.

Top of Chilkoot Pass
Many of the Gold Rush sirens and wealthy prospectors found joy in each others arms for short span of time, but few were able to keep the flames of passion burning once they left the wild atmosphere of the mining camps. Greed and suspicion replaced all-consuming passion and the very gold that brought the lovers together, soon tore them apart. Divorce, swindles, gambling, and even murder litter the pages of history for these unfortunate gold rush marriages.

Praying the north still held the key to happiness, many penniless Gold Rush veterans traveled back to Alaska in hopes of regaining their fortune. Few ever achieved the measure of success they’d previously experienced, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Like the thousands of men who journeyed into the unknown to find their fortunes, these spirited females of the Klondike fought and slaved for their part of the dream. Gold Rush history would not be nearly so colorful or interesting without these jaded ladies.

2 comments:

DeNise said...

Cool bit of history. Thanks

Lynn Lovegreen said...

There are so many great stories from Alaska; I'm glad you shared this one with us.