Along with whales and glaciers, Gold Rush history is one of the staples of Alaska cruises, informing everything from your cruise ship's itinerary (Skagway and Juneau probably wouldn't even exist if it weren't for gold) to the Robert Service poetry you'll hear during salmon bakes, read by men dressed as old-time prospectors and women dressed in corsets as … well, prostitutes.
How did members of the oldest profession become the personification of women during the Gold Rush? Sure, many did trek up from the States to trade their services for nuggets, but they were hardly the only women who braved the wilds of the Alaska territory.
Follow me on a trek into Alaska's Gold Rush history with a look at the intrepid female travelers who traveled north more than a century ago.
Setting the Scene: One Tough Cookie
Imagine it's a movie: The scene, a train car in 1898, heading north to Seattle. On a bench sit two sisters dressed in the fashion of the day: long skirts, short jackets, ruffled shirts with high collars, hats, corsets, and bloomers. A man approaches, having heard that the women are heading north to Alaska, en route to the gold fields of the Klondike. "I beg your pardon," he says, "but don't you think you are awfully foolish?" The north, he informs them, is no place for ladies, and certainly not for ladies traveling alone.
The sisters sit silently and listen, treating the gentleman coolly, and after a time he bids them goodbye -- for good, since "if you are going to take that trip, we won't see you again."
To the side, a train conductor stands taking in the scene, wearing a smile that tells the audience he knows something the gentleman does not. What could it be? How about this: Just two years before, the older of those two sisters, 25-year-old Ethel Bush Berry, had become the first white woman to ever trek the Chilkoot Trail into Canada's Yukon Territory, where she, her husband, and her brother-in-law staked a claim and began mining the permafrost. A year later, when they returned stateside, Ethel had $100,000 worth of nuggets wrapped in her bedroll -- and a story of still untapped riches that helped spark the great Klondike Gold Rush.
North to Alaska!
In the late 1890s, the world was primed for gold fever. The U.S. financial panic of 1893 had precipitated four years of economic depression, and the prospect of heading off on a wilderness adventure and returning a rich man -- or woman -- was irresistible. Despite the likes of our chauvinist train passenger and his contemporaries, who declared women utterly unfit for life in the Klondike, women from all walks of life were taking up the challenge and making their way north.
One, in fact, was there at the very beginning. In August 1896, 34-year-old Tagish Indian woman Shaaw Tláa "Kate" Carmack was prospecting with her husband and her brother when they made the first of the great Yukon gold strikes at Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike River. Word soon got out, and by the late summer of 1897, more than 15,000 would-be prospectors were Klondike-bound from San Francisco and other West Coast ports. Within six months, some 100,000 gold-seekers had set off for the Yukon, from all points of the compass.
No Place for Ladies?
Few knew exactly how hard their journey would be. The route to the gold fields of the Yukon began, for most, with a steamship journey north from San Francisco, Seattle, Takoma, or Victoria, through the 1,000-mile Inside Passage to the Alaskan boomtowns of Dyea and Skagway, just six miles from each other at the northern tip of Southeast Alaska. From there, gold seekers faced a trek of 30-plus miles on the difficult Chilkoot or White Pass trails, both of which passed into Canada through 3,000-foot mountain passes and ended at Lake Bennett in Yukon Territory.
From Bennett, the majority set out on boats they built themselves, taking advantage of the Yukon River's ice-free summers to float the 560 miles north to Dawson City, in the heart of gold country. The journey was arduous under the best of conditions, but many stampeders were attempting it in winter, while carrying with them the 2,000 pounds of food and provisions the Canadian government insisted on as a condition of crossing the border. Prospectors who couldn't afford to hire help or buy pack animals had to carry the whole load on their backs, often making 25 or more round-trip journeys to the pass before they could even enter the Yukon. Once there, they had to contend with the lonely, arduous miner's life, living in tents or rough cabins, digging the frozen ground day after day, and enduring winter temperatures that could dip as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit -- all in the hope, never guaranteed, of striking it rich.
Decades later, Hollywood would enshrine the Klondike prospector as a stereotype: the grizzled old man with grubby clothes and a rat's nest beard, visions of gold dust and nuggets dancing in half-mad little eyes. But that's an image from gold fever's dotage, after the big claims had been staked and the big wealth sucked out. In the late 1890s, the gold fields of the Klondike were full of youth, energy, and the promise of fortune. All you needed was stamina, smarts, or both.
Belinda Mulrooney came across the Chilkoot Trail in the early spring of 1897, before the rush began in earnest.
Born in Ireland and raised in Pennsylvania's mining country, Mulrooney had left home at age 21. She began seeking her fortune first in Chicago and San Francisco, then as a stewardess with the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, which brought her to Juneau. There she heard about the Bonanza Creek strike and immediately made plans to journey to the gold fields, bringing with her not only provisions but also silk underwear, cotton goods, hot water bottles, and other reminders of civilization, which she sold to the early prospectors at a huge profit. Within months, she parlayed that into construction -- first of a restaurant in Dawson, then into building the two-story Grand Forks Hotel and restaurant, right in the heart of gold country at the confluence of the rich Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks.
An immediate hit with the area's miners, who no longer had to travel the 15 miles into Dawson for companionship and relaxation, the Grand Forks brought Mulrooney both the income and the information to begin buying up gold claims and land. Her investments included a tract in Dawson on which she built the 30-room Fair View Hotel, the finest ever seen in that part of the world. By 1900, at only 28 years old, Mulrooney was the richest woman in the Yukon -- a hotelier, owner of several mining claims, part owner of the Eldorado and Bonanza Mining Company, manager of the powerful Gold Run Mining Company, and founder of the region's first telephone and water utilities. By 1904, after a brief but disastrous marriage, Mulrooney left Dawson for Fairbanks, where she staked new claims and founded a bank. Finally retiring in 1908 at the ripe old age of 36, she spent the next 59 years enjoying her Klondike fortune.
The Freedom Seeker
Martha Munger Purdy set out for the Yukon in Summer 1898 with her brother and husband -- the latter who, upon reaching Seattle, announced that he had changed his mind and would rather travel to Hawaii. She, however, was resolved to continue north. She bid him goodbye and continued on, arriving in Dyea in midsummer, hiring a team of packers, and making the trek over the Chilkoot pass -- not realizing until she reached Dawson that she'd been pregnant through the entire journey.
Six month later, assisted by a prospector who had an iron hook for a hand, she bore a son. Persuaded the following summer to return to her parents' home in Kansas, she realized that her time in the north had changed her. "I was only 33 years old," she wrote in her memoirs. "So many years stretched ahead of me -- interminable -- uninteresting … What I wanted was not shelter and safety, but liberty and opportunity." She returned to Dawson later that year, started a successful sawmill, and eventually married lawyer and politician George Black. In 1935, she became only the second woman ever elected to the Canadian Parliament. Today, Mount Black -- the highest peak in the Yukon's Big Salmon Range -- is named for her and George.
The Angel of the North
And then there was Nellie Cashman.
Irish-born and petite, the 54-year-old Cashman had already established a reputation in the West before her arrival in the Yukon -- first as a miner; as a nurse and charity worker; then as leader of an expedition that rescued 75 sick miners stranded by a winter storm in British Columbia's Cassiar Mountains; and later as the owner of several businesses in Tombstone, Arizona, during the time of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons. Arriving in Dawson in 1898, Cashman immediately opened a restaurant and small store while also prospecting, acquiring claims, and working on various civic and charitable causes -- among others, collecting donations for the town's first hospital, extending charity to the needy, and opening a free social hall called "The Prospectors' Haven of Retreat" for lonely miners.
In 1904, she moved on, first to Fairbanks and then to the Koyukuk Region above the Arctic Circle, which became her home for the next 20 years. There, her reputation as a nearly saintly figure had its full, final flowering. Cashman never did strike it rich, but she always mined, and she was apparently happy, regularly covering hundreds of miles by dog sled even into her 70s, and helping her fellow miners whenever they were in need. "It takes real folks to live by themselves in the lands of the north," she was quoted as saying. "It takes the solitude of frozen nights with the howl of dogs for company, the glistening fairness of days when nature reaches out and loves you -- she's so beautiful -- to bring out the soul of folks."
When Cashman finally died of pneumonia in 1925 at age 75, it was at St. Joseph's hospital in Victoria -- an institution she had helped to build decades before.
Of the 100,000 gold-seekers who stampeded northward in 1897 and 1898, only about 30,000 actually made it to the Yukon. Of those, probably not more than 1,000 or 1,500 were women. Some traveled with their husbands, while others traveled alone -- a bold choice in those Victorian times. Some were immigrants, some widows, some children. Some searched for gold themselves, while others found their riches running businesses -- restaurants, hotels, and supply companies -- or saloons, dance halls, and brothels. While it was mostly the first wave of gold-seekers who truly struck it rich, pulling what's now estimated to have been more than a billion dollars in gold from the earth, many of the rest simply came and stayed, working the land and becoming the pioneers that set the stage for Alaska's and the Yukon's future.
The Gold Rush: 5 Shore Excursions
Today, cruise travelers have many options to get a glimpse into Gold Rush days, mostly during visits to Skagway, which is a veritable Gold Rush theme park. Here are a few good and/or theatrical shore excursions offered by most ships visiting Skagway.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway ($125-$400, 3-8½ hours)
The sturdy engines and vintage parlor cars of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway take you from downtown Skagway and past waterfalls and still-visible parts of the famous "Trail of '98" to the White Pass Summit, the boundary between Canada and the United States. You'll find several variations along this famous narrow-gauge railway. The longer and more expensive excursions travel farther into the Yukon territory and include various activities (visits to Gold Rush towns, lunch, kayaking, flightseeing, etc.).
Chilkoot Trail Hike & Float Trip ($120, 4&frac;12 hours)
From the pier, travel to the historic ghost town of Dyea (a sister-town to Skagway that didn't survive the end of the rush) and hike the first two miles of the Chilkoot Trail through the rain forest. At the shore of the Taiya River, you'll board 18-foot rafts for a float back to Dyea. Another Dyea tour visits the site on horseback, with a guide discussing the town's history.
Skagway by Streetcar($42, 2 hours)
This is as much performance art as historical tour: Guides in period costume relate tales of the boomtown days as you tour Skagway's sights in a big yellow touring bus. Though theatrical, it's all done in a homey style, as if you're getting a tour from your cousin. After seeing the Skagway Historic District, the Gold Rush Cemetery, and other sights, guests see a little song-and-dance and film presentation about Skagway, and become honorary members of the Arctic Brotherhood. This last part is very, very hokey.
Ghosts & Goodtime Girls Walking Tour ($40, 2 hours)
Skagway's Red Onion Saloon has been around since the Gold Rush, and today does an equal business serving food and drinks and peddling its history. Waitresses wear busty dance-hall outfits, as do the double-entendre-flinging docents, who lure visitors to the former bordello upstairs for tours of the premises. On this tour, one of the Red Onion girls tours you around Skagway's streets and back alleys, revealing "the untold and neglected stories of the courageous ladies of the Klondike Gold Rush." The tour ends back at the Red Onion for a champagne toast and brothel tour.
Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp & Salmon Bake ($63, 2 hours)
Just outside Skagway, the very theatrical Liarsville recreates Skagway's earliest days as a Gold Rush tent camp, with visitors taking in a puppet-show melodrama about a prospector and his dog, panning for gold, going on a scavenger hunt among the historic tent displays, crossing a short rope bridge, and chowing down at a salmon bake.