'Gold Diggers': Six lives drawn to glitter of Klondike gold rush

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By Tim McNulty
Seattle Times
Thursday, October 14, 2010

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/books/2013163768_br15golddiggers.h...

In July 1897 the steamer Portland docked in Seattle. Among its passengers were a few dozen lean and grizzled prospectors fresh from the newly discovered Klondike gold fields in Canada's Yukon.

In "leather sacks, caribou hide pokes, trunks, belts, and bottles," they offloaded $700,000 in gold dust and nuggets, a payload worth about $42 million in today's dollars.

America was in the grip of a depression, and 5,000 Seattle citizens flocked to the docks to greet them. Seattle's newspapers trumpeted the strike. (The Times described the Klondike as a land of "fabled riches.") Within days gold fever swept the country.

In a few years Dawson City, in the remote northern Yukon, exploded from a camp of scattered shacks and tents to a settlement of more than 30,000. Prospectors, businessmen, bankers, prostitutes, priests, newspapermen and women, and government officials swarmed the remote outpost.

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A few became rich. Many more worked futilely in brutal conditions, suffered disease, starvation, exposure, and frostbite, or met tragic ends on journeys to the gold fields.

Some won small fortunes only to lose them in Dawson's saloons, gaming tables, and brothels, or at the hands of ruthless speculators.

In "Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike" (Counterpoint, 416 pp., $26), Canadian journalist and biographer Charlotte Gray ("Sisters in the Wilderness") recounts this story in exquisite detail. She re-creates the frenzied peak years of the gold rush through the lives of six "gold diggers," adventurers who made the difficult, months-long journey over Chilkoot Pass and down the treacherous upper Yukon River in quest of riches.

Remarkable among them was Father Judge. He was a Jesuit missionary working with native people in the region who founded a hospital in Dawson and saved countless lives.

Bill Haskell, a Vermont farm boy, journeyed with a partner to the Yukon in the summer of 1896 and was there when gold was first discovered in the Klondike. His partner drowned beneath the Yukon River's Whitehorse rapids as they hiked out with their earnings.

Belinda Mulrooney, a young Irish working woman, came to Dawson with a trunk of trade items, a savvy business sense and a prodigious work ethic. Establishing restaurants and hotels and investing in property and mines, she made a fortune.

Most famous of Gray's gold diggers is 21-year-old Jack London. The fledgling writer was as hungry for experience as he was for riches. He spent a severe winter working a claim, nearly died of scurvy and returned home with a meager poke. But his experiences in the North provided material for dozens of books and stories -- and helped make him the most popular author of his day.

Gray has drawn on memoirs, journals, newspaper accounts, and official records to bring these lives and their historic moment into dramatic focus. But it was, as she writes, a "flash in the pan. ... When the gold dried up, so did the number of residents." By 1902 Dawson's population had dwindled to 5,000.

Like a raft trip down the Yukon, "Gold Diggers" carries readers into the perilous, gritty, and desperate heart of the last great gold rush in North America.

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