Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Mining Towns and Characters

Glorious Dawson

During the fall of 1896 miners mushed or walked to the Klondike. Most came from the Fortymile region, the closest community of miners. The stampede from Circle City, then the largest population center in the interior, did not get under way until January 1897.

Fortymiler Joe Ladue is generally considered Dawson's founder because he shipped in his sawmill and laid out the townsite. William Ogilvie, the Canadian boundary surveyer, soon arrived to make an official survey of Ladue's site and of the valuable creeks, Bonanza and Eldorado, where gold discoveries had been made. With these preliminaries handled, the place boomed as hot-eyed arrivals kept coming.

Men kept busy over the winter and spring of 1896-97. The town lacked amenities, but all the stampeders brought in their own provisions, so there was food enough. Nonetheless, the arrival of the first steamboat from downriver in July was a great event. Food had been getting scarce, and the liquor had long since run out.

As the summer advanced, more stampeders came in from various Yukon camps and, increasingly, argonauts from the Outside hit town. By the close of navigation, Dawson claimed 5,000 souls and was well provided with saloons, dance halls, and gambling places.

A year later the town had 30,000 people and was one of the most celebrated places in the world. And, thanks to the Mounties, having been moved in soon after initial discoveries from their base at Fortymile, Dawson was a secure, orderly community. A man could drink and gamble all he wanted and hire a prostitute, but he could not display a weapon or indulge in rowdiness without police interference. In this respect Dawson differed markedly from the early camps on the American side of the boundary.

Dawson was a town full of Americans forced to observe the laws of Canada. Miners complained about Canada's laws and government officials. They hated the tax of 10 percent on their gross gold production (the first $5,000 was excluded from tax), but they paid it.

Dawson was a very special place from 1897 to 1899, in particular. The Nome rush and declining opportunities reduced the population considerably in 1899, and numbers fell sharply for the next several years. Even as the bloom faded, Dawson remained the important mining, supply, and cultural center of the upper Yukon, but the early years were the days of legend. Total production from all six Yukon Districts (1885-1988) was 11,720,026 ounces (troy) about 85 percent of which was derived from the Klondike. Hence, the Klondike has produced about 9.96 million ounces worth about 200 million (U.S.) at time of sale.

As the stampede to Nome was renewed in 1900 and then, within three years, excitement shifted to Fairbanks, much less was heard about Dawson and the Klondike. Production fell sharply from 1902 as local placer ground, that had been worked primarily by drift mining methods, seemed exhausted. But there was plenty of gold left for the investors who brought in advanced technology. With the advent of hydraulic and dredge mining on properties consolidated by Arthur Treadgold the industry boomed from 1901 to 1914. In fact, of the $250 million in gold produced in the Klondike, 75 percent was mined after 1900.

Jack London, whose literary popularity soared with publication of his Klondike stories, also dabbled in mining economics. In a magazine article of January 1900, the writer reviewed the great Klondike stampede in economic terms, comparing the costs and benefits of gold recovery. He calculated that 25,000 argonauts headed north in '97 with most failing to get beyond the head of Lynn Canal, while 100,000 started out in 1898. If the average stampeder spent $600, the total outlay was $75,000,000, half spent along the trail and the other half in transport and outfitting from Puget Sound or elsewhere. Few stampeders found paying claims, yet the stampeders lost a year's work which might have paid them an average daily wage of $4, had they stayed home. Thus, London calculated a loss of $150,000,000 in wages which, added to the $75,000,000 travel express, amounted to a total cost of $225,000,000. Against this outlay, the Klondike gold production was only $8,000,000 in '98 and, perhaps, $14,000,000 in '99: "The figure stand for themselves," London argued, $220,000,000 have been spent in extracting $22,000,000 from the ground. [1]

London went on to assess the long-range prospects of mining in the Yukon valley more favorably:

While there are very few 'paying' creeks, it must be understood that nothing below a return of $10 a day per man under the old expensive conditions has been considered 'pay.' But when a sack of flour may be bought for a dollar instead of fifty, and all other things in proportion, it is apparent how great a fall the scale of pay can sustain. In California gravel containing 5 cents of gold to the cubic yard is washed at a profit; but hitherto in the Klondike gravel yielding less than $10 to the cubic yard has been ignored as unprofitable. That is to say, the old conditions in the Klondike made it impossible to wash dirt which was not at least two hundred times richer than that washed in California. But this will not be true henceforth. There are immense quantities of these cheaper gravels in the Yukon Valley, and it is inevitable that they yield to the enterprise of brains and capital.

In short, though many of its individuals have lost, the world will have lost nothing by the Klondike. The new Klondike, the Klondike of the future, will present remarkable contrasts with the Klondike of the past. Natural obstacles will be cleared away or surmounted, primitive methods abandoned, and hardship of toil and travel reduced to the smallest possible minimum. Exploration and transportation will be systemized. There will be no waste energy, no harum-scarum carrying on of industry. The frontiersman will yield to the laborer, the prospector to the mining engineer, the dog-driver to the engine-driver, the trader and speculator to the steady-going modern man of business; for these are the men in whose hands the destiny of the Klondike will be intrusted. [2]

Dawson Characters

Among the best known Klondike characters of the heydays of Dawson were a handful of show business promoters who entertained at the Opera House, Monte Carlo, Palace Grand, and other houses.

Dawson's first theatre, the Opera House, was built of logs with a bar and gambling room in the front and the theatre at the rear. Benches accommodated those who bought tickets at fifty cents while more expensive boxes ringed the area. Drinks cost double the bar price in the boxes but these murky places assured some privacy and sense of grandeur. Tallow lights served for boxlights in the first theatre but the splurge of building by summer '98 brought new, more fitting structures featuring gas lights, chair seats, nice dressing rooms, and other furnishings appropriate to the boom town's status.

Swiftwater Bill Gates' entry into the theatre world owed something to his friendship with Jack Smith. Both men had made big money on claims and Smith induced Gates' backing of his Monte Carlo theatre. Gates went down to San Francisco to hire dancehall girls, summoned reporters to his Palace Hotel suite, and told them colorful stories. Becoming a "character" in Dawson was not all that easy. Among the rivals there were skilled showmen and vastly experienced self-promoters like Capt. Jack Crawford, the "poet-scout," a veteran frontiersman who sold goods and lively stories from his store, the Wigwam, and offered fine prospects to men foolish enough to invest in the Captain Jack Crawford Alaska Prospect and Mining Corporation. Another frontiersman-showman was Arizona Charlie Meadows, a legitimate theatre man who built the Palace Grand. [4]

The dancehall gals competed with theatre owners to create their own legends, particularly those who managed to marry or otherwise exploit the newly rich men who thrived on dangerous love. Performers' salaries seldom exceeded $150 weekly, but girls could earn nugget tips and other remunerations. But salaries and other costs were far above those faced by managers Outside, and there were no profits unless oceans of booze were dispensed and gamblers flocked to the gaming tables.

In 1899 Arizona Charlie Meadows opened the Palace Grand, a magnificent house by any standards seating 2,200. Folks were impressed and showed their approval by howling like dogs at the July opening. Since miners had traditionally expressed their boredom and disgust at the theater by doglike howling, other signs had to be observed to ascertain their mood. One feature of the opening season was a play based on Meadows' own adventures as a scout with Al Sieber in the Geronimo campaign. On stage he rescued a fair damsel tied to a stake for burning by Apaches and escaped in a theatrical tour de force, plunging with his horse from a 14-foot elevation into 8 feet of water. Before going north, Meadows had been associated with Soapy Smith of Skagway fame in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Meadows promoted a bull fight while Smith, then known as the "Denver Bronco Kid," ran a gambling concession stand. [5]

One of the most interesting aspects of Dawson's theatres was in its dramatic treatment of local characters and events. Swiftwater Bill Gates' edge in the race to legendom was fostered by lively skits highlighting his adventures. Still Water Willie's Wedding, produced at the Palace Grand, was one of several dramatic efforts to make fun of Gates by playwright-actor John Mulligan. Still Water later had a revival at the Tivoli Theatre where it was greeted with "yells of delight and amusement." [6]

Kate Rockwell, later "Klondike Kate," was a late-comer (1900) to the Dawson stage, and her paramour, Alexander Pantages, was a poor waiter at Dawson until he established the Orpheum Theatre. Later, Pantages left to foster a grand scheme for a circuit of vaudeville houses and made millions with the Orpheum network. Kate made her modest theatre reputation as "Klondike Kate" after leaving Dawson with Pantages and got big headlines when she sued Pantages for breach of promise in 1905. [7]


The Klondike interest extended beyond the experiences of trail hardships and golden fortunes to other titillating aspects of the new frontier. Tales of romantic liaisons between men and women had considerable appeal. In a situation where desireable women were extremely scarce and suddenly rich men wished to crown their achievements by winning the favors of a lovely woman, the stuff of legend existed. Fortunately, Swiftwater Bill Gates was on hand to seize the opportunity for fame certain to outlast gold. Gates dazzled everyone by presenting Gussie LaMore $50,000 on the day of her arrival in Dawson from Juneau. Swiftly this deal was consummated by a wedding. LaMore's traveling companion, Violet Raymond, made a similar arrangement with Antone Standen for a present reported to be $10,000 in gold, but Standen's status as a romantic hero could not compare with that held by Gates. Before long the public tittered over the fleecing of Standen and others by their beautiful fortune hunters, but Gates, who did not fare much better with Gussie, went on to greater exploits. Gates was that rara avis, the man who defied all the copybook maxims with outrageous conduct yet landed on his feet—or even took giant bounds forward in the realms of gold and sex.

Stories of Dawson's matrimonial market reached the world press in summer '97. Exaggeration of such widely appealing romances is understandable. Miners arriving in San Francisco told their best stories, and newsmen placed them in proper perspective. "As a matrimonial market," newspapers insisted, "Dawson City has no equal on earth. Women are as scarce as gold dust is burdensome in the metropolis of the new Eldorado. All the men vow that any woman can become a bride with a wedding present of thousands of dollars worth of gold dust within thirty minutes after arriving in Dawson City if she will but whisper her consent." After relating the triumphs of Gates and Standen the writer invented a story about the only unmarried woman left in Dawson: "She has refused every single man in Dawson, and they have knelt before her with uplifted hands full of gold. Being refused they have told her that she does not know a good thing when she sees it. She wears short skirts, carries an umbrella and wants to vote." [8]

Joaquin Miller

Newspapers dispatched numbers of reporters to the Klondike. Among them was one of America's leading poets and incomparable poseur, Joaquin Miller. Miller, celebrated as the "Poet of the Sierras" and author of "Columbus," a poem that became a fixture in school books and anthologies for generations, was a genuine frontiersman, even if many of the adventures he recorded were fabricated. He grossly misrepresented his youthful Indian fighting exploits in California and falsely claimed membership in William Walker's filibustering invasion of Nicaragua (eventually he worked out a fine response to charges of lying about Nicaragua: "Was Milton ever in hell?"), but he was a Pony Express rider between Florence and Lewiston, Idaho in 1861-62.

Miller's Yukon adventure was a fiasco that nearly cost him his life and the literary reputation he had been reasonably successful in rebuilding for the last decade. The New York Journal and San Francisco Chronicle jointly commissioned Miller to lend his peculiar genius to the great stampede. The Journal knew what it wanted from Miller's pen: "Joaquin Miller will tell the romance of the new '49' among the ice fields." But by "romance" the Journal meant colorful, exciting reports rather than fictional ones that evoked controversy and the scandal of mendacious journalism. Other reporters keen to score a beat against the Journal or Examiner and envious of Miller's fame, read Miller's dispatches closely and critically, longing for the kind of misrepresentation that might tempt an aging poet-romancer of shaky moral integrity and unbridled enthusiasm. [9]

The San Francisco Chronicle led the pack of snarlers against Miller: "No one ever believes Joaquin except when he says he is thirsty." The truth was always too commonplace for a man of Miller's temperament, "and he is the last man to entrust with Klondike reporting to men whose wealth, savings, and lives might depend upon the truth and justice of his statements." Miller's "Pullman car" stories of the Chilkoot and White passes had already caused misery to "stranded men at Dyea and Skagway" as have his misstatements on travel cost to Dawson. [10]

Miller's literary style had curious, fetching aspects. He described Dyea's location in a "long, low marsh, lying between snow-covered walls of granite, graced by scattered trees no larger than an arm and a leg, and almost half of them are dead and dying." The dismal scene might have depressed less ebullient travelers but Miller found it "grand, grand, sublimely grand, and the air is sweet, healthful, and invigorating as wine. The heaven's breath smells wooingly here. You never saw snow so white anywhere as here." What he specifically admired was the absence of the dust of California or Colorado and a snow cover free of the litter left by large trees. "One constantly thinks of the transfiguration all along this land of whiteness and blue; white clouds, white snow, blue seas, and blue skies. Heavens! Had I but years to live here and lay my hand upon this color, this fearful and wonderful garment of the most high God!" Readers of Miller's effusion could not fail to gain favorable impressions of marshy Dyea and the writer's Christian reverence. [11]

It is not true, as newspaper rivals accused, that Miller made light of crossing the Chilkoot Pass. He admitted climbing without the burden of a pack and finding the pass less formidable than it looked and even less difficult than other had represented it, "but, mark you, it is a man's and a big strong man's honest work and takes strength of body and nerve of soul." In other respects his supercharged prose paints true, impression able pictures as with a depiction of the crowded, burdened unending line that is as expressive as the famed E. A. Hegg Photographs of the scene:

"The brave men climbing and climbing with their packs, pike in hands holding on with one hand . . . [carrying] sixty pounds, seventy-five, one hundred, and in one case a giant French courier with two hundred pounds . . . All the pictures that have been painted . . . of Napoleon and his men climbing the Alps are but childish playthings in comparison. We raised a shout and up the line it ran, the long, steep, and tortuous lines that reached from a bluff about us on and over and up till it lost itself in the clouds."

When Miller reached Dawson and reported that the diggings would produce 200 tons of gold—an incredible forecast—he was only quoting Pat Galvin, a former Helena, Montana, newsman who had struck it rich. Galvin, a genuine high-roller, expressed his fervent belief in the Klondike's future by establishing a trading transportation company to compete with the Alaska Commercial Company and North American Transportation and Trading Company. Before long his extravagance and ineptitude cleaned him out. In quoting Galvin and believing him Miller did no wrong, and who could blame a poet for concluding his story by calling on the Queen of Sheba and deriding the harbingers of doom: "No, there will be no starvation. The men who doubt that supplies will get here, where gold is waiting by the ton, miscalculated American energy. As for the gold here, I can only say as the Queen of Sheba said to Solomon, 'Behold, the half was not told me.'"

Miller's report on travel time and cost, however, was justifiably attacked by his critics. His first dispatch from Dawson reported his arrival after only 23 days from San Francisco (20 from Seattle), as if such a speedy transit were normal. Talking with other travelers en route must have made him aware that his pace had been unusual. Worse yet he argued that "the trip can be made for less that $100, and can be made alone." Perhaps someone might somehow contrive to travel for $100 but the costs were generally very much higher—and stampeders did need 1,000-2,000 pounds of provisions and gear that was expensive to buy and transport. In short, Miller projected his own experience in light travel without encumbrances as a standard for others lacking the support that had been provided him. It is hardly likely, however, that his misleading report "caused misery" to other rushers as newspaper critics charged. Any reader of reasonable intelligence could distinguish between his own needs and situation and those of the journalist.

In October, Miller moved downriver to Circle and staked a few claims. He and E.O. Livernash, another Examiner journalist, shared a cabin. Years later, as a congressman from California, Livernash recalled the most memorable incident of a dull winter. It seems that Livernash had punched hole in a tin cup to make a coffee strainer. Miller, without noticing the mutilation, used the cup for a hoarded last drink of whiskey, saluting a female visitor with a poetic toast and lecherous intent while holding the cup aloft in tribute. When, weary of poetry, he tried to drink, his awful disappointment turned the cabin blue with curses. Livernash, in telling the story to an appreciative President Teddy Roosevelt, presented Miller as a buffoon, as did most of Miller's acquaintances. It was the price Miller paid for his chronic disregard for truth and modesty. Remarkably, Miller never retaliated in kind. He always spoke well of everyone, perhaps figuring this a fair return for the ego loss and discomfort that might attend his companionship.

But another more heroic side to Miller's behavior surfaced at Circle when word reached him that men caught by a blizzard on the Dawson-Circle trail were starving. Resolving to rescue them and provide a thrilling story for his editors, the 60-year-old adventurer and H.E. Canavan, an even older man, started off with some grub packed on a hand sled. Old-timers could not convince Miller an expedition of more than 200 miles in extreme winter conditions would be a folly even for experienced northern travelers. The men made 80 miles before holing up in a blizzard at the Charley River. Eventually they were rescued and taken to Dawson, suffering badly from frostbite after 35 days on the trail. Weeks of hospitalization and the loss of two toes followed for Miller. His foolhardy mission had not given him any good news stories, although it provided good copy for his detractors, particularly Edwin Tappan Adney's savage derision in Harper's Weekly.

Miller had left Dawson in June '98 and was at his palatial spread on the Heights near Oakland when reporters thoughtfully presented him with Adney's story in the July 9, 1898, Harper's Weekly and invited comment. Since Adney had carelessly averred that Miller, destitute in Dawson, had depended on miners' charity, the poet asked reporters to weigh his $6,000 commission plus expenses from the Journal and Examiner and the value of his 70-acre estate against Adney's canards. Avoiding mention of his disastrous Circle-Dawson journey, Miller threatened a $100,000 libel suit against Harper's. In December he started a vaudeville tour in Chicago, splendidly attired in his Klondike outfit of buckskin coat with gold nugget buttons, furry pants, and sealskin boots. His "five-a-day" lectures on the Klondike were hard work and not too successful, but it gave him a chance to deny having lured people north with inaccurate reporting. After some weeks, fearing that vaudeville would cheapen his reputation as a poet, Miller quit the circuit without any protest from the Keith Vaudeville Company management.

The "Poet of the Sierras" never became established as the poet of the Yukon, although some lines have survived, notably his commemorization of the Chilkoot:

Have you, too, banged at Chilkoot,
That rock-lined gate to the golden door.

Miller, a celebrity himself, drew attention to his own exploits and impressions. But he was only one colorful individual among an army of newsmen and miners who contributed to the heavy newspaper coverage. Most of the other were more serious minded and less flamboyant than Miller.

John J. Healy

In highlighting a few Dawson "characters" it does not do to focus exclusively on the high-livers. Some more serious businessmen were just as interesting. The place of John J. Healy in Alaska's mining history is significant. Healy, a tough little Irishman well into his middle years when he moved from Montana to Juneau in 1886, was already a frontier legend. After youthful U.S. Army service in the Utah campaign, he had been one of the discoverers of the Oro Fino gold fields in Idaho. Subsequently, he moved to Fort Benton and took up trading with Indians for buffalo robes. After American authorities curtailed the traders' whiskey traffic, Healy moved across the border into Alberta, then a lawless region rich in buffalo. Healy and a partner built Fort Whoop-Up, the most famous of the whiskey posts that spring up in the region. Healy flourished until the Canadian authorities asserted control by sending the Northwest Mounted Police to establish posts in the province.

Healy returned to Fort Benton in the late 1870s, where his exploits as an army scout during the major Indian campaigns brought him local fame but little money. After hotel management and newspaper work he served as sheriff for Fort Benton and the huge county for which it was the seat of government. As sheriff Healy continued to be famous for his fearlessness. He kept order among an unruly populace without gunplay over two terms of office. Back in private life Healy reviewed his rather glum economic prospects, heard reports of great potential in Alaska, and set out to try his luck.

After acquiring a schooner and conveying prospectors around the watery maze of southeast Alaska, including Glacier Bay, Healy became a trader at Dyea. For a time he also doubled as a deputy U.S. marshal. As a reformed whiskey trader, he was the nemesis of other whites who traded booze or molasses and other hootch ingredients to Indians. His reform seemed to have been genuine although those he charged with the nefarious trade charged him with the same thing. [12]

Of all the men who speculated on the future prosperity of Alaska, Healy was the most far-seeing and successful in attracting investments. His ability to convince Portus B. Weare and members of the Cudahy meat packing family of Chicago that Alaska would boom led to the formation of the North American Transportation and Trading Company. The new company's presence on the Yukon River was a great spur to Klondike developments. [13]

By moving the base to St. Michael in 1892, then Fortymile in 1893 Healy left opportunities for other entrepreneurs. Jack Dalton, conspicuous among the other independent traders and commercial venturers for daring and initiative, cast his lot with the Lynn Canal entry route into the interior in 1893-94 when he established Dalton Post in Yukon Territory and commenced work on his Chilkat Pass Trail to the coast.

Dalton, like Healy, was a formidable, determined man. A conflict between the two traders—had one occurred—would have matched characters of comparable strength, while a combination might have sparked some lively enterprises. Each, however, found backers elsewhere for their schemes—Healy in Chicago and Dalton in Juneau from John Maloney and others. The two tough individuals must have had some meetings, but no records exist showing any commercial or personal dealings.

Aside from trade interests the men had a shared experience as deputy marshals at Chilkat. Healy resigned the post in 1891 and Dalton was the officer in 1892-93. While Dalton was deputy he got into serious trouble. A brawl with a cannery storekeeper, who had been inciting Indians against Dalton's scheme of establishing an interior trading post, ended with Dalton's shooting the storekeeper. Dalton was acquitted of murder in Juneau, but angry citizens ordered him out of town and the prosecutor complained that defense attorney John Maloney had bribed jurors. Dalton recovered from this near-disaster to play major roles in many other important events in Alaska, including the gold rush and railroad surveys. [14]

Circle City

The literature sometimes gives the impression that Circle City died after January 1897 when Arthur Walden mushed in to confirm rumors of a great gold strike on the Klondike. It was true that most of Circle's population left, but some remained and as miners' expectations for Klondike gold faded, the old Yukon camp eventually took on fresh life.

Letters of Nora Crane, the lively wife of John Crane, who was with the North American Transportation and Trading Company and served as U.S. commissioner, fill in part of the Circle story. The Cranes, who married in Chicago months before moving to Alaska, reached Circle in July 1897.

Circle did not impress Nora favorably. She was feeling sick and ardently wished she had not come north: "It means a good deal to get sick here with no doctor within 500 miles and no good when you find him." About 25 people lived in town yet she counted about "300 log houses put down every which way on the bank of the Yukon River without any regard to streets . . . Some of them are quite nice but so lonesome now. There is a layer of about a foot of tin cans over the whole place and then for diversement those measly dogs." Good things included huckleberries, fresh moose meat, fresh lettuce "and salmon—lovely big fish steaks, nicer fish than we ever got at home. Everything else is canned, and the very best at that." The Cranes lived in the North American Transportation and Trading Company house, an eight-room log structure "rich with carpets, lace curtains, and good furnishings." [15]

In August the Cranes voyaged upriver to take a look at Dawson. "It is a wilderness of tents," Nora said, "bogs over your rubber tops and log houses, saloons and dance houses until you can't rest." Saloon gambling occupied many men but "this company's store is about as good as a gambling house. They average about $8,000 a day." On the whole Nora was not charmed by most of the men she met: "Some of these miners are perfect animals . . . I think men as a whole are as near P.B. Armor's chief product [hogs] as they get. If you don't believe it just live around a few hundred who have been away from civilization and women for awhile." [16]

She observed signs of gentility among the hustling crowd.

This place is full of nice people; ex-ministers to Austria; would-be actors; ministers' sons; and disowned bankers' relations; to say nothing of the nobodies who are nice, working side by side, hustling logs, running saw mills, and digging in the mines. From the most disreputable, worst dressed one in the pot you can hear English that would sound well in Chaunchey Depew's mouth—such are the fortunes of a mining town. [17]

Back in Circle, Nora got settled in more comfortably in another house but could not establish social contacts: "this is an odd, gossipy place. You would think people here might be different but it is all the same—nothing of a social nature since I came. All the men go prospecting and even the one preacher is down on the Tanana trading and playing poker with the Indians, beating them out of their skins." [18]

Nora's comments on some women were not too kindly either. She deplored the boss' wife, Mrs. John Healy, as a drunken "bowery tough." And she was delighted when the steamboat carrying missionaries Sheldon Jackson and Mrs. S.L. Beiler got stuck on a sandbar below Circle for 26 days. "Their interest in deprived and ignorant Indians consisted so noticeably of souvenir collecting, gold nuggets, and a pleasant summer outing." [19]

By Christmas Nora was in a much better frame of mind. She no longer had to share a house with several hard drinking North American Transportation and Trading Company people, and her own polite local society had formed. Sam Dunham, the U.S. Department of Labor official and poet, came for dinner as did Capt. Patrick Ray of the U.S. Army, and a party for 40 children was a great success. Circle's cultured folks even opened up one of the abandoned "opera houses" for a musical evening, although disputes over program planning evoked animosity. Her health had improved and she was contented and charmed by the colorful effects of the winter sun: "It was the most glorious, gorgeous yellow I ever saw in my life, but not strong enough to cast a shadow." At night she saw "millions of stars . . . the performances of the sun, moon, and stars are a never ending source of delight and wonder." [20]

Nora still did not care much for the miners, particularly as a miners meeting had defied the legal majesty of U.S. Commissioner John Crane and released a man from jail. This incident further disrupted the sociable mood of the holiday season which had been showing signs of overheated jealousy and passion. Nora had innocently protested the choice of a tall, thin man as Santa Claus for the Christmas party—and was "promptly blacklisted . . . and I am left to wonder why the Good Lord saw fit to make such length of leg and so little brain in some men." She resolved to lock her back door "and sit at the front with a Gatling Gun because the scenery is absolutely the ONLY subject upon which you may converse and not hurt someone's feelings." But the Christmas party was enjoyed by all. Then there was a dance that went on until 4 a.m., a pleasant affair, until "one man pulled a knife, then a gun came out," and Nora's husband had to settle down the combatants. "Oh! This is a lovely place." [21]

By July Nora was an old Alaska hand and cheered by John's promotion to manager of the Circle store. A visit from poet Joaquin Miller had amused her. "He stood and looked at me as if I were made of pure gold and of all the compliments and said he would send me a box of his own books. Invited me to come and stay a month at his ranch in California when I came out. Kissed my hand in parting and bowed before me as if I were a princess." [22]

Winter 1898-99 passed pleasantly enough at Circle. Keeping the peace was no longer a problem as U.S. deputy marshal Frank Canton was on duty. Unruly miners sensed that Canton, a veteran southwestern lawman, was too dangerous to trifle with. All was serene at the holiday parties and dances. A man was held up and shot on the trail, but the culprit was jailed by Canton.

Nora enjoyed reading the Yukon Press newspaper when the editorial office was moved to Circle in spring 1899—although she was none too complimentary: "It is a foolish little paper but affords considerable amusement on account of the amount of mistakes it makes." The people here have dubbed it the "Yukon Blunderer." For all the improved social decorum of the town it still remained too rough for Nora. "It is quite the fashion to wear a black eye for men and women." The big problem was all too obvious: too many people drank too much and most of the disturbances were connected with liquor abuse. [23]

Circle's best chronicler from 1897-99 left the scene in September 1899. Like many others the Cranes were swept along on the flood of the Nome stampede. John Healy moved John Crane to St. Michael and then, in 1900, to Nome where they remained for a couple of years.

Life at Rampart

Other Yukon towns, most notably, Rampart, had residents whose surviving letters provide some illumination on life in the interior. Hunter Fitzhugh, a literate young fellow of 28 when he left Kentucky, tried his fortune downriver from Circle and Eagle at Rampart. The first snowfall in October delighted him: "It is a joy to be alone now." On mining prospects he benefited from advice given him by John Minook, the Indian who made Rampart's first gold strike. "Minook's word is as good as gold in this country," Fitzhugh told his father before setting off with two other men to locate claims on Big Manook Creek. [24]

The young man spent most of the winter in town and looked forward to the Yukon River's breakup: "At any moment it is likely to begin its 2,800 mile march to the sea, with its burden of dead dogs, which died of eating dried salmon whose bones punctured their tum-tums." Besides dogs the ice would carry down all sizes of tin cans and abandoned "labor-saving equipment" which did not measure up to manufacturers' claims, and "long lines of fearfully and wonderfully made clothing, gotten up by some one born and raised in Australia, who has read somebody's "Life in the Frozen North." [25]

Fitzhugh was an engineer so he made good wages for awhile ($15 daily) surveying a trail from Rampart to Eureka Creek, 27 miles away. He noted that former Washington state governor John McGraw was enjoying a prosperous cleanup from his claims and others as well. He did not think future prospects were very bright but resolved "to stay another year as much as I dread staying away from home so long."

Everyone on the Yukon from 1898-1900 debated at some point whether they should dash for Nome. Fitzhugh resisted. He was not sure in July 1899 that reports were accurate: "We begin to hear very discouraging reports from there already. It is the most desolate country in the world; not a stick of timber as big as a broom stick for miles . . . this [Rampart] is the best part of Alaska." But, he noted, two-thirds of Rampart's people had left for Nome or the outside. "I am glad," he said, "as that gives me a better chance next winter." [26]

Fitzhugh and his partner built a cabin on Hoosier Creek and mined during the 1899-1900 winter. Meanwhile, his fiancee back home married someone else. He was mad—but not too mad. "I find her 'not Guilty,'" he wrote his mother, "I didn't write as warmly as she thought I ought, and I was always telling her that I would probably have to stay in here several years. She should not have been so 'suddent,' and that's all." [27]

Work went on over the winter. Water flooded his shaft and he had to scramble out in a hurry. After the water froze the miners had to pick through it before digging towards bedrock. Occasionally, they had visitors. Fitzhugh, a devout Episcopalian, entertained the Rev. Jules Prevost and his lay reader, E.J. Knapp, on occasion and once had the fun of traveling to town for a minstrel show. John Minook also visited. He was half-Russian "and is very entertaining and tells splendid stories of the Russian days in Alaska, and of the first steamboat on the Yukon." But mostly Fitzhugh's days involved work and it was unpleasant when he was at odds with George Preston, his partner: "Preston and I don't get along as well as two little doves. He knows it all and so do I. And then the work on this claim seems to be a blank anyhow." What was actually frustrating to the partners were reports of success in nearby claims while they found nothing. [28]

That Christmas, Fitzhugh did not feel his usual ebullience. Cold winds discomforted him as he took his turn at ground level handling up buckets of gravel by windlass. Now he was 30 years old and "getting tired of this working for nothing, and will look out for something more profitable when I go to town." Days were all too short—"only five hours of so-called daylight now, and it is rather gloomy. The thermometer registered 50 below . . . Our holes were pretty well frozen up today so we couldn't do much in them . . . Christmas Eve, but it doesn't seem like it." [29]

The winter's work was for nothing. Water continued to seep into their shaft and, for all their labors, they could not penetrate to bedrock and had to abandon the mine.

During summer 1900, Fitzhugh prospected, built a cabin, and dried salmon. He planned to spend the winter mining on his new claims on Slate Creek. Visiting Rampart he put on a white collar for the first time since leaving Seattle in '98 for a dance and whist party. All the men in town were excited about a pretty Miss Gonott, a new arrival. Fitzhugh liked her looks too. "I am a great society man, but we fellows on the gulches have to dig, and hoist, and pan, and chop, and cook, and sew, and toil, and moil, and sweat and swear all winter while the fellows in town rush the girls and wear soft shoes and don't get their noses frozen, so they look nice." [30]

Rampart had recently gained an amenity—a weekly newspaper. "The Editor," Fitzhugh heard, "has had two fight already for being too fearless (?) and too unsparing in the use of the mighty power of the press." Other new reading came his way including a new novel, Son of Wolf, by Jack London, which he considered an excellent description of Yukon life. These comments on journalism and literature were among Fitzhugh's last words to his family in Lexington, Kentucky. His end came suddenly when caught by avalanche. His death reminds us that, for all his denial of dangers in letters home, the miner's life was riskier than that of most of his contemporaries out side.

The boys at Rampart missed Fitzhugh, an amiable fellow always ready to help out others. But life went on, and the community reached an important decision at a miners meeting. Time of day was the issue. Winter was coming and it was useful to maintain a standard by which everyone could set his clocks. Businessmen agreed that Doc Danforth's watch "is a good regulator of time" and should be the standard. "If the boys say so," Doc told the newspaper editor, "I'll do the best I can." As Doc moved around town others could hail him for the correct time. Men who loafed in saloons during the winter probably did not care what their watches said—if they had them—but serious folks, especially churchgoers, wanted to know. "Now we can make church—all at one time," crowed the editor. [32]


Eagle was another of the important upper Yukon towns. The community's history differed from that of Circle and Rampart in that it developed after the Klondike stampede. Eagle owed its existence to the gold stampedes, even though it did not have a rush of its own. It was the town's proximity to the Canadian border that determined its foundation and survival.

Among the pioneers of Eagle was miner and lawyer, J.L. Waller. Waller crossed the Chilkoot in August 1897 and wintered over 1897-98 at Dawson, working for $1 an hour wages on number 33 Eldorado. It was not easy for him and he suffered from homesickness. "If home today," he wrote his wife in February, "I'd be enjoying my bacon and beans with greater zest." Mail service was an uncertain matter. He had sent letters out in the fall with Jack Dalton, "a bang-up pioneer," but feared their loss after Dalton's death was reported. Dalton had, in fact, been assaulted by an Indian but was not seriously injured. Waller sent his February letter out with another celebrated stampeder, W.D. Woods of Seattle, the mayor who resigned his office to form a transportation and mining company when the first Klondike gold arrived. [33]

Waller had some claims but sold them in March, "because I don't trust Canadian law," and because they did not appear too promising. Many American miners moved downriver to Fortymile, Eagle, or Circle when their expectations were not fulfilled in the Klondike. Waller settled in Eagle and opened a law practice. In October he won the first case ever brought before a miners meeting at Eagle. The North American Transportation and Trading Company was required to return building materials and other items to Waller's client. He also won election as president of the Eagle City Lyceum, a literary club.

Waller kept active in mining claims he held on American Creek and was on hand when the U.S. Army started building Fort Egbert. The army's presence stimulated the town's growth briefly as did the establishment of Judge James Wickersham's court in 1900. Lawyers flocked to Eagle as the interior's first federal district court opened. "There are 150 lawyers in town," Waller noted ruefully, "and business for 10."

Catholic and Presbyterian churches were founded in summer 1899 as Fr. Francis P. Monroe and the Rev. James W. Kirk moved to town. Population dropped to 100 over the winter and even lower as miners joined the exodus to Nome in the spring. Eagle revived when the court was established there in September 1900. And, thanks largely to Fort Egbert, the community survived after Judge Wickersham moved the court to Fairbanks in 1903, although its population remained small.

Capt. Charles Farnsworth moved upriver from Fort Gibbon (Tanana) to supervise telegraph construction in 1900. He encouraged cultural activities in town and sponsored twice-monthly dances on the post. Although he got along with Judge Wickersham and others in town, he did not admire miners—"a gambling, incompetent lot of men," even if he recognized their strong work ethic: "I have never seen men or animals work so hard as the men work up here for a bare living on bacon, beans and coffee . . . men are slaving their lives out all over this wilderness prospecting." [35]

Like most other government officials in Alaska the captain considered the gold craze exaggerated, wasteful, and unlikely to benefit those involved in it:

This is a desolate country and I would advise a man to keep out of it. There are just as many chances to make money in Pennsylvania as there are here and there is not half the hardship or risk attending it. I have not yet seen a man who has gotten rich digging gold. There is gold in the country but it is only about one man in five thousand who finds it and it is not because the other 4,999 are lazy or fools either. The other day, in dipping a bucket of water out of the river in front of our house, we found a speck of gold in the bucket. It is any easy thing to find gold here, but it is another thing to find it in paying quantities. [36]


Other aspects of Yukon town life are treated elsewhere in this study. A more comprehensive social history of the Yukon has been written by regional historian Melody Webb of the National Park Service's Southwest Regional Office. Any consideration of Yukon life during the mining boom should note that town life was neither static nor conventional. Populations shifted swiftly with news of new gold discoveries and even with the opening of the river to navigation each spring. Though mining towns on other western frontiers were also characteristically unstable, the movement on the Yukon each season exceeded the usual norm. The northern mining frontier could well be termed "the restless frontier."

Notes: Chapter 5

1. Jack London, "The Economics of the Klondike," Reprint of American Monthly Review, January, 1900, Seattle: Shorey Bookstore, 1968.70-72.

2. Ibid., 74.

3. Michael R. Booth, "Gold Rush Theatres of the Klondike," Beaver, (Outfit 292, Spring 1962), 33.

4. Chad Evans, Frontier Theatre, (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1983), 235.

5. Dawson Daily News, September 23, 1899; Whitehorse Star, July 18, 1980.

6. Gary L. Stevens, "Gold Rush Theatre in the Alaska-Yukon Frontier," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, 1984), 84.

7. Kate Rockwell collection, Yukon Archives, passim.

8. New York Journal, August 28, 1897; M.M. Marbery, Splendid Poseur (New York: Crowell, 1953), 41-45.

9. Ibid., August 14, 1897.

10. San Francisco Chronicle, October 7, 1897.

11. San Francisco Examiner, September 17, 1897 for this and following quotes.

12. Healy—Adney correspondence, passim, Dartmouth College, Stefansson Collection; Healy to Porter, March 24, 1891; Crow et. al. to Porter, March 28, 1891. Alaska State Archives, RG 505. Box 4397. Letterbook.

13. Pierre Berton, Klondike Fever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), 26.

14. William R. Hunt, Distant Justice (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1987), 42-47.

15. Nora Crane to mother, July 24, 1897, Kepner-Crane Collection, UAF.

16. Ibid., August 10, 1897.

17. Ibid., August 24 and 25, 1897.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., Christmas, 1897.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., July 9, 1898.

23. Ibid., March 26 and January 4, 1899.

24. Fitzhugh to father, October 5, 1898, Fitzhugh Collection, UAF.

25. Ibid., May 18, 1899.

26. Fitzhugh to mother, July 12, 1899, Fitzhugh Collection, UAF.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., November 12 and December 17, 1899.

29. Fitzhugh letter diary, December 17-26, 1899, Fitzhugh Collection, UAF.

30. Fitzhugh to mother, October 29, 1900, Fitzhugh Collection, UAF.

31. Ibid.

32. Rampart Miner, October 22 and 29, 1901.

33. Waller to Clara, March 12, 1898, Waller Collection, UAF.

34. Farnsworth to Will, February 1, 1900, Farnsworth Collection, UAF.

35. Ibid., September 14, 1899.


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