I had been to the Yukon twice and hiked the Chilkoot Trail in 1997, the hundredth anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, so I knew some history of the area before I started my research for my novel Romancing the Klondike. But I didn’t know anything about the north prior to gold being discovered on Rabbit Creek. When I began my reading I learned that there were good sized towns such as Circle City in Alaska and Fortymile in the Northwest Territories (the Yukon Territory was not formed until 1898) with theatres, libraries, schools, stores, and medical doctors. One little known fact, though, was that while most of the residents in the north before the gold rush era were men, there were also many women who lived there with their prospector husbands or who came as nurses, teachers, cooks, dance hall girls, and ladies of the evening.
One such woman was Ethel Berry who made the trek from California as a newlywed with her husband, Clarence, in 1896. When they heard about gold being found on Rabbit Creek (later named Bonanza Creek) Clarence staked a claim on Eldorado Creek, a tributary, and the couple set up camp in a 12X16 foot long cabin. There was only a dirt floor and a window that was covered with a flour sack. The winter was cold and Ethel spent her time keeping the wood stove going and cooking and cleaning. Clarence’s claim proved to be one of the richest claims in the Klondike and when they returned to Seattle with two hundred thousand dollar’s worth of gold in the summer of 1897, Ethel was dubbed the Bride of the Klondike by the newspapers. In 1898, they crossed over the Chilkoot Pass with thousands of hopeful millionaires and went back to their claim again.
Another woman who struck it rich in the Klondike was Belinda Mulrooney. She was raised in Pennsylvania and left home at twenty-one. She worked in Chicago and then San Francisco before heading to Juneau, Alaska, in 1896. When she heard about the gold strike in the Klondike she decided to go there. She bought the necessities she would need but she also thought ahead and purchased silk underwear, bolts of cotton cloth, and hot water bottles. These she carried with her over the Chilkoot Pass in the winter of 1896.
When the ice melted on the Lindeman and Bennett lakes and Yukon River she floated down the river to the new town of Dawson City, reaching in it June of 1987. According to Belinda Mulrooney herself, when she finally reached Dawson and the gold fields after many months of hardship, she tossed a 25-cent piece, her very last coin, into the Yukon River for luck. She was 26 years old and full of confidence. And rightly so for she sold her silk underwear, bolts of cloth, and hot water bottles for six times what she had paid for them.
With this success, Belinda turned her attention to the prospectors in gold fields. She set up a lunch counter to feed the single men and then added a bunkhouse for those who didn’t have a cabin to stay in. Eventually she built the two story Grand Forks Hotel and Restaurant, with multiple bunk beds on the second floor, at the junction of the Eldorado and Bonanza creeks. The hotel also acted as a trading post, a gold storage, and sometimes as a church. In the back were kennels for the husky dogs used to pull the sleds which were the main transportation in the winter.
Being the smart woman that she was, Belinda had the floor swept every evening and those sweepings run through a sluice box. This earned her as much as $100 a day from the gold dust that fell from miner’s pockets and clothing. And she began to delve into the gold claims themselves, owning or co-owning fiving mining claims by the end of 1897.
Belinda turned her entrepreneurial skills to Dawson and bought a lot on the corner of Princess Street and First Avenue. She sold Grand Forks for $24,000 and used her profits to construct the three-story high Fair View Hotel which opened to enthusiastic and impressive reviews on July 27, 1898. This was the most impressive building in Dawson and held thirty guest rooms and a restaurant.
Impressed by her strong business sense, a local bank asked Belinda to pull the Gold Run Mining Company out of the red. She had the company in the black in 18 months.
Belinda married and divorced and eventually moved to eastern Washington State and built herself a castle. She and her siblings lived there until her fortune ran out and she began to rent out the castle. She died in Seattle in 1967 at the age of 95.
These are just two examples of the many women who lived in the north, who took part in the Klondike gold rush, and who are not included in most of the books written.