Northern Treasure

The gold may be gone from the Klondike but the stories still glitter.

We can never have enough books about the Klondike gold rush. We need to be reminded constantly that it awakened us to the northern half of our country, crystallized the differences between Canadians and Americans, created the romance of sturdy Mounties amidst snowy wastelands and set the template for mostly foreign exploitation of our natural resources.

In Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, Charlotte Gray has sought to “show how a community develops and how history is built from the ground up” by using her sublime narrative skills to interlace the tales of six people seeking their personal strikes during the gold rush.

Gray’s modus operandi, as is familiar from her previous books, is to dig up long-forgotten memoirs, letters, government files and contemporary journalism, and to thread together extensive excerpts from these primary sources with her own fluid contextualizing. It is no coincidence, then, that the six individuals whose lives she attempts “to jigsaw together … to illuminate … life in Dawson City” each left behind rich literary records.

The only memoirist still well known, Jack London, found in the Klondike the literary gold that he would mine for the rest of his short life. The irony is that he hardly got to pan for the mineral himself; he ended up with only $4.50 in gold dust. A volcanic youth of manic but directionless ambition, London exulted in the physical demands of the journey from California to Dawson; when his party chose to winter 130 kilometres south of the town, however, it was precisely his powerful physique that broke down. The freezing cold and the starvation diet of beans, bacon and bread led to scurvy, which “drained his youthful vigor, destroyed his teeth, and left him as bent and slow as men three times his age.” Relegated to being “one of the wrecks of the saloons” while recuperating in Dawson, he soaked up “the spirit and lore of the Arctic as he caught it from his sourdough drinking companions.” Within five months of crawling home to San Francisco, he had turned the experience of a lifetime into immortal literature.

A much lesser literary light, Flora Shaw, breezed through Dawson in search of political gold, using her genteelly scathing London Times reports as the stepping stone to a series of prestigious imperial postings for herself as much as for her husband. Her inclusion in Gold Diggers seems an awkward fit, since she spent less than three weeks there and had nothing in common with Gray’s five other characters. She appears to have been chosen solely to give Gray a means of personalizing public condemnation of the Yukon administration’s corruption and inefficiency. A better or at least more representative choice might have been the notorious party girl Kate Rockwell, or the beloved “mother of the Yukon,” Anna DeGraf, whose touching autobiography (strangely overlooked by Gray) reveals what Dawson life was really like for the women of every social strata.

Gray’s attitude toward Sam Steele, the very archetype of the upright Mountie, is decidedly ornery. Snidely describing him as “part military dictator, part sheepdog,” she tries to paint him as a dubious digger after career gold, self-serving and self-promoting: “Sam Steele arrived in Dawson determined to burnish his reputation there, so from the start he exaggerated the wickedness he discovered while publicizing his own achievements.”

Yet his mild vanity aside, Gray is unable to substantiate her dislike of Steele. His integrity and honesty stand up under her scrutiny; and she cannot deny the dignity and grace with which he handled his scandalous firing by a thwarted politician. Even a later mini-scandal during the Boer War seems to have amounted to nothing more than forcing soldiers to gallop flat out in order to burst their hemorrhoids, which Gray seems unaware was a time-honoured British military “treatment.”

Father William Judge, who sacrificed himself to build and operate a free hospital and chapel in search of spiritual gold, is on the surface the least interesting of Gray’s golden six. A Jesuit who was “dedicated to a life of piety almost before he was born,” his life was so constricted by religiosity that its highlight was the arrival of three nuns to assist him in his holy labours. Dawson being typhoid ridden and full of godless single men, even his religious ceremonies were bleak ones—mostly funerals and masses, rarely “joyful family occasions such as baptisms and weddings.” Yet it is Judge who benefits most from Gray’s sympathetic touch and her primary-source research. Mentioned briefly in almost every memoir and history of the Rush, he has hitherto never been more than the shadowy “saint of Dawson”; Gray brings his narrow existence to humbly heroic life.

Father Judge’s antithesis was Belinda Mulrooney, a profane, avaricious protofeminist of steel and bile who could have given Martha Stewart lessons in the ruthless pursuit of business gold. Mulrooney made her grubstake by selling lingerie to the women of Dawson, shrewdly guessing that these bedraggled pioneers “had been so long separated from luxuries, they just wanted to possess them, to feel ’em … They didn’t care what they paid, either.” Within a couple of months, she had converted this seed money into three thriving businesses and was well on her way toward becoming the region’s dominant hotelier, a major mine owner and the monopoly supplier of clean water. As she became richer and more powerful, her naturally vituperative personality soured into that of a gloating, nasty bully. As obviously as Gray wishes to celebrate her as an independent woman entrepreneur (“She had turned herself into a successful businesswoman in an era when such a type was so unusual that the term was most often used as a euphemism for a brothelkeeper”), even she is more than a little repelled by the vicious multi-millionaire in the end.

The only one of the six characters who was a professional prospector actually panning for gold in the rivers was Bill Haskell, a thoroughly average American miner who laboured through the brutal elements to emerge with a good little “poke” of $25,000 (about $1.5 million today). The laconic memoir he wrote in his old age is as homely as the man himself, yet its very ordinariness conveys most effectively the regular-guy personalities of the vast majority of 1896–98 gold seekers, “loners desperate to escape the grinding conformity of the modern world.” His teaming-up with Joe Meeker was a study in the harmony of contrasts: the grim, obsessive Meeker worked relentlessly while the ever optimistic and sociable Haskell took time to savour every minute of the magnificent scenery and of the whole thrilling experience of being in “on the ground floor of a real stampede.” Surviving two severe winters together made them behave like an old married couple, rife with tension but deeply reliant upon each other. When Joe fell under the river ice and drowned, Haskell was so overcome with grief that he immediately left the Yukon, vowing never to return.

Gray’s six jigsaw pieces all made it to Dawson and found their gold. Dawson itself was not so lucky; when the easy pannings were exhausted and a new Rush ignited in Nome, Dawson was virtually emptied overnight. The Klondike gold rush, Gray concludes, “was, literally, a flash in the pan” that had very little “long-term impact on the Yukon.”

Maybe so; but it certainly had a permanent impact on Canada. We need books like Gold Diggers to remind us every so often that, while the past may be a different country, ours would not be the same without it.