• THE GOLD RUSHERS

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    THE GOLD RUSHERS

     

    “I’m telling y’all I et penguin two times a day for almost sixteen months,” said Will Coltrane. “Why on earth would you do that?” asked Jack.  “Because there wusn’t nothin’ else to eat, that’s why.”   “Was it Tasty?” asked Mugs.

     “Are you daft? Just imagine the toughest, grizzliest piece of turkey gizzard you have ever put down your gullet; douse it with cod liver oil and oxtail blood, then soak the mess in herring juice – smelled like the entrails of a slaughtered hog.  We would pound a penguin between two rocks, and then start by marinating the little bird in the ocean if it wasn’t frozen.  When victuals got tough we would even toss the head and feet into a stew.”  “That’s pure BS, you’re a damned liar,” said Mugs, with a dark look.  Will just gave him a stare, saying nothing.

    The three men were sitting at the Northstar Saloon in San Francisco drinking beer and getting to know one another.  They had met that morning at the 20th Street Mission Branch of the YMCA, assigned to bunk beds in the same small room. They had a few things in common – youth, lots of energy, and a desire to get rich.  It was February, 1898.

    “Let me tell you how I ended up eating Magellan Penguins,” said Will.  “I grew up in Cairo, Missouri, population 161.  My folks were sharecroppers where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers come together.  We farmed bottom land that barely kept food on the table – grits, greens and salt pork – about every third year we got flooded out.  I was the only child, born late when my parents were in their forties – they called me their ‘mistake.’  When I was eighteen they both died of the flu. I let the farm go back to the landholder right after the great flood of “94”.  Wasn’t nothin’ left, topsoil washed downriver, even the mules and the danged house floated off.”                    

     “My pa started working me like a slave when I turned five – dawn til dusk, six days a week – then dragged me to a camp meetin’ all day Sunday with the Hard Shell Baptists – worst day of week – didn’t learn to swear until I was seventeen.  Schoolin’ stopped at age twelve.  The only relation I had was an uncle from back east.  He agreed to stake me to a railroad fare and a chance at his place of employment – Grover Shoe Manufacturers, one of ninety-one shoe manufacturers in Brockton, Massachusetts.  They make the best shoes in the business – Emerson brand – I got a pair on right now.  I was supposed to sell shoes in New York City.  Terrified, but I got used to the job, and I liked sneakin’ a peek at women’s legs and the excitement of the big city.  Within eighteen months I was the top salesman in all their New York stores.  I think the gals liked my accent.”   

     “Eventually the president of Grover came down to New York  – wanted to see why I was doing so well.  He was looking for an assistant sales manager.  “Would I be interested?”  “Would I, I almost jumped in his lap. I was off to Brockton the next month.  The old man was tough but fair.  He was generous with my expense account for travel and I got along with the VP of Sales; Beauregard Thurston, a good ol’ boy from Hickman, just apiece down river from Cairo. To top it off, the boss had a gorgeous daughter – Lily.  Well, one thing led to another and we started seeing each other on the sly, then finally told her parents.  Before you could say Jack Robinson, we were engaged.  Still, I was a bit uneasy, she seemed a mite prudish, and wasn’t the most affectionate, but I assumed that was just do to her straight-laced Catholic upbringing, and that she would be a tiger in the bedroom. I was so eager, I tell ya, I even converted to Catholicism.”

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    “Wow, fella’s, did I made a mistake.  The honeymoon was a total disaster – she had every excuse including Rasputin’s Rash.  I didn’t know what to think. Came to me after we returned home and said that the only time that we were to have intimate relations was when we were planning to bring children into the world.  She frosted up like an icebox.  When I talked to her father, he said he completely understood – apparently she was just like her mother – all he could say was he was sorry.” 

    “It was hell, married to the ice woman, but I didn’t want to cheat on her.  Liked my work, but the future looked damned grim.  I ground it out for a year; by that time she and I were almost living separate lives.  She was ensconced in her own locked bedroom, but told me in the next couple of months she might be interested in conceiving a child. She would let me know when she was ready.  I felt like I was waitin’ for a Doctor’s appointment.”

    “The writin’ was on the wall.  I would hafta’ escape. The destination would have to be an unknown place where they would never find me.  There’s no divorce as a Catholic. Maybe Lily could declare me dead and find some other fool if I disappeared.”

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    “In 1887 gold was discovered at the tip of South America, the Wollaston Island Group; 800 miles from Antarctica, 350 miles south of the Straights of Magellan, volcanoes all around and the worst weather in the world, almost total darkness for two months – always frigid and windy, icebergs afloat – sometimes a boat couldn’t get to the islands for three months – end of the earth.”

     “I listened to a man from Dalmatia in our factory who had been down there. Came back with $1,500 that he sent to his relatives in Eastern Europe. He swore it was quick money; other coal miners had been recruited from Dalmatia and Albania, but none had any idea about how to mine or do anything practical in the awful weather, other than try to keep from freezing to death, and most quit immediately.  Smarter than most he lasted a year – then left – afraid he was going crazy.”

    “I’d saved up $2000.  After work one Friday night, I told everyone I was going to Boston to see an old friend from Missouri and I would be back on Monday.  By midnight I was on a worn out Argentine freighter headed south. I left Lily a message that I had a brain tumor and didn’t want to live – I was going to drown myself – not to look for my body.” 

     “Two months in a stink hole of a cabin to Rio Gallegos, on the southeast Argentine coast, then across the Straights of Magellan To Ushuaia and then took a small boat  to Hornos Island in the Wollaston Group after waiting seventeen days for clear weather.” Hornos is South America’s southernmost island.  When Isaac Le Marie of Holland finally ‘Rounded The Horn’ in January, 1616, he named the island after his home town – he should have named it blizzard hell.” 

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     “ As luck would have it, I found a good partner right as I stumbled onto the rock. He needed some money to acquire the claim next to him, so we threw in together.  We bought the small mine two hundred yards from where the fifty foot breakers crashed together where the Pacific and Atlantic come together.  We jumped right on our claim, but had to guard it twenty-four hours a day – no law on the island.  The gold was in veins and we just had to chip it out after removing the rock overburden.”  “What about girls,” asked Mugs?”  “I found the Yahgan Indian maidens to be somewhat unhygienic,” said Will.  Besides it was teeth-chattering cold all the time and you know what that means – no part of me ever got warm.  You had your choice, either torrential rain or blinding snow – I think there were 21 days of sunshine the entire time I was there.” 

    “The weather and living rough in a small cave was so bad that we sold out our equipment and claim after a year and a half.  I did get a bag of nuggets out of that hellish island, learned to speak Spanish, and I got to eat Penguin almost every day.  The boat brought a few canned goods each month; most of the time we ate them cold – no firewood, lessen’ we could buy it from the mainland.  Everything was freezin’ – did you notice the tip of my little finger, it’s gone – frostbite.  During the summer months we had constant light – toiled eighteen hours a day.  After we sold I came up along the west coast of Chile in a small freighter to Valparaiso, then to Lima, and then caught a steamer to San Francisco.”  “Where do you keep your nuggets?” asked Mugs.

    Will ignored him and ask,  “How about you, Mr. Jack Wayland?” “Do you boys know where the Red River Valley is in Texas?” The other two shook their heads.  “We’ll I’m from Denison, about half way down the valley on the Oklahoma border – that explains my accent.  Not much to do unless you’ve got a cattle ranch or a cotton plantation.  My daddy was a gunsmith, but our family had been making moonshine for over forty years.  You give me some tubing, a big kettle, and some sort of fruit or vegetable and I can distill the best white lightning you’ve ever tasted, even from taters.”

    “The state and federal marshals teamed up against us eighteen months ago.  Threw a net over our entire operation. As they crept in, pa told me to head out; he’d keep them at bay til I got away.  His last words were, ‘Don’t come back, head west.’  Went over to New Mexico, tried making Tequila from blue agave cactus, but couldn’t get the hang of it.  Lived with a school teacher and her husband for a while – done some chores and she taught me lessons.  I heard about the strike in the Klondike, thought I might be interested.   Got in town like the rest of you with a few setbacks – not sure what I want to do, don’t have any skills other than gunsmithin’ and whiskey makin’.”  “What have you been doing since you got to San Fran?” muttered Mugs.  “Well, pretty much gambling, drinking, and favoring attractive young women with my presence.”  The other two guffawed, but Mug’s laugh contained no humor.

     “And Mugs, what’s yer story?”  “Don’t have a damn story or a last name or anythin’ much to say.  I like to keep myself to myself – let’s just say I have a world of experience – much tougher than you two.  That’s it, I don’t like questions,” and he put his head down.

    Mugs was swarthy, coarse hair sticking up, deep-set flat eyes, broken nose, steady cough. Very small yellow teeth, lips the color of liver.  His clothes were dirty, worn, tattered, and smelled like clotted earth, a large sore was over his left eye.  Overall he was the kind you’d cross a street to avoid –  he radiated anger and malevolence.  The other two almost felt sorry for him; neither had seen a man this ugly in appearance or disposition.

    The next day Will and Jack tried to lose Mugs. The three were not physically alike; Will was tall, gangly with a perennial smile.  At 6’4,” he towered over the other two with his skinny frame, which was topped by a shock of unruly red hair.  Jack was the opposite, short and stocky, fair complexioned – barrel-chested, arms like a blacksmith’s – very quick in his movements.  Dark hair and hazel eyes.  They were as engaging as two young men you would ever want to meet.  Mugs was in between the two in height, about five nine, long simian arms. 

    Jack and Will were intelligent, with good senses of humor, a firm grip on reality, and willing to work hard.  Will was hell-bent-for-leather to head for the Yukon immediately.  He told the Jack that they should throw in together and head north as soon as the first steamer left the Embarcadero in another month.  “I know a lot about the yellow ore,” said Will.  “And Alaska will be a mite durn warmer than Hornos Island.”  “I’m a bit short,” said Jack, his eye’s downcast. “Wasn’t able to tap my whiskey stash before my unexpected departure; I’m down to my last fifty.” “I’ll stake you and take what’s owed out of the first gold we find. That okay with you?” said Will.  “Never better,” Jack said. 

    When Mugs heard them planning, he wanted in.  Will reluctantly told him if he had the dough he could come.  But it wasn’t to be.  The three went to Delmonico’s on Market Street to have dinner to celebrate their future.  As they were about to leave, Mugs said, “Let’s just walk out, we won’t be coming here again.”  The other two protested, but Mugs strolled out leaving them with the check.  He was waiting for them outside.  Jack came up behind him – quickly pinning his arms while Will went through his pockets – threatening physical harm.  On the way back to their room Mugs did something despicable that finished it.  They strolled past a beggar slouched on the sidewalk.  Mugs reached down and grabbed the change that was in his hat.  “He’s not blind, just ‘pretendin’.”  Will grabbed him by the throat and said, “That’s it, you ain’t coming with us, period.  Now give the man’s damn money back, you twitchy little bastard.” Mugs said,  “So that’s how it is, huh?  You’ll see me again, just you wait.”  He was gone by the time they arrived at the YMCA.

    And so the two went – 15th of March, up the coast – rough seas, rough weather all the way.  Torrential rain fell as they hit Seattle.  A bit early to head north to Skagway.  No boats scheduled until April 10th.  They found a cheap boarding house and started to make plans.  The hardest part of the journey would be to ferry loads out of Skagway/Dyea up over the Chilkoot pass, then on to Lake Bennett.  There they would cross into Canada. A Mountie would check their gear to make sure they had supplies for a year so they wouldn’t need to be rescued -– approximately a ton apiece.  After crossing Lake Bennett in a homemade raft it would be roughly 490 miles down river to Dawson, where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers met.  If the river ice broke up by the middle of May they could be mining gold by June. 

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    Our two adventurers were about to participate in one of the largest and quickest run for gold in all of history.  The Klondike Gold Rush was a migration event by an estimated ninety-five thousand gold seekers clawing their way to the Yukon Territory between 1896 and 1899.  The rush of people excited the world, bringing prospectors from as far away as South Africa, Australia and Greece.  Reports of the strike in newspapers created an atmosphere of speculation and euphoria that was nation-wide.  People left their jobs immediately and headed for the Klondike to become diggers on the tributaries and streams that flowed into the Yukon and the Klondike rivers.  The entire open-hearth midnight shift at Carnegie Steel in Pittsburgh walked away from their jobs and headed west.  Half of the graduating physicians in California started for the gold fields.  The Yukon was just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be assessable.

    Gold was discovered in rich deposits along tributaries to the Klondike River in 1896.  The original strike was found by George Carmack, his wife Shaaw, a Tagish Indian, and her brother, Skookum Jim, as they were prospecting along a creek flowing into the Klondike river.  They all became very wealthy. Due to remoteness of the region and the unrelenting winter climate, the news of gold didn’t reach the outside world until 1897.   ,

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    A claim could be filed anywhere, but the naive prospective miners didn’t know a whit about finding the rare metal or how to harvest it.  But the lure of becoming rich, with gold at $16 an ounce, encouraged thousands.  A claim of 500 feet was allowed along a stream – top of the bank to the bottom of the creek – one claim per person.  If you didn’t do any improvement work for six months, someone else could file.  Most of the gold was within a thirty-five mile radius of Dawson, but by the time the huge mob arrived in the spring of 1898, most of the good pay dirt had already been claimed.  Most teamed up with a partner or several partners.

    The terrain was extremely difficult – rough uneven ground covered by snow and ice, dense brush and trees growing over the permafrost – and harsh weather – sometimes  60 below, large streams and canyons everywhere.  Those obstacles, combined with dark winter months and blizzards, caused havoc.  It took some gold rushers a year to reach Dawson. The long climb over mountain passes such as the Chilkoot trail turned back thousands. Once the Yukon River finally thawed in May, a boat or raft had to be built and floated downriver almost 500 miles to Dawson. The gold seekers died by the thousands from exposure to intense cold, avalanches, drowning and frequent blizzards.  They sicken and fell, starved, injured themselves and killed each other – some even succumbed to hundreds of mosquito bites – and many just laid down and died of a broken heart, too ashamed and discouraged to return empty handed.

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    Of those that started, many gave up from the beginning difficulties of the journey, especially trying to climb the passes; Chilkoot out of Dyea, and White out of Skagway.  Only about 25,000 made it to the gold fields. Around twenty-seven hundred actually found some gold and less than a thousand made somewhat of a fortune, most of which was spent in saloons and speculating on other mines. 

    In the summer of 1898, gold rushers arrived in the region like swarms of bees. Those that made it had their work cut out for them, as the gold bearing ore or flakes were not easy to locate or extract.  Mining was challenging due to unpredictable distribution of gold, and digging was slowed by permafrost.  On some of the better claims the permafrost overburden was fifty feet deep.  Log fires were lit each night to thaw the permafrost so that the miners could dig a foot or so come daylight.  Understanding sluices and rockers and shaker boxes, or even how to pan was unknown to most.

    Some filed on remote drainage’s and then sold their claims rather than digging themselves.  Many times there was no gold to be had and the owner sold it to the next unsuspecting arrival –a giant Ponzi scheme.  The grafter would fill shotgun shells with gold dust and then fire them into the gravel, (salting the claim) before he took the mark out to see the glittering fortune to be made.

    It was a time of mass hysteria. The ones that found gold spent much of their time and money in saloons, and tried to avoid being robbed or killed. Those that found nothing headed back home or went to work in someone else’s mine for $15 a day.  In 1899, miners received news that gold had been discovered in Nome, and that it was much easier to extract, causing the departure of the majority of the miners and the decline of Dawson.  One man, who survived the winter of 1897 and most of the year of 1898 before heading home with slightly less money than when he started, was interviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune.  The reporter asked him if he was disappointed with his experience. 

     “Disappointed, hell no, it was the greatest experience of my life.  I almost froze and starved to death, was chased by a bear, bit by a wolverine, ate porcupine, caught a twenty pound salmon with my bare hands, rowed through rapids that should have drowned me, drunk more whiskey that I will the rest of my life, got in a saloon brawl with twenty other fella’s, found a little gold and made life long friends. I wouldn’t have missed it for all the world.  For the rest of my life I’ll be able to tell my friends and family I was one of those who climbed the Chilkoot Trail and rushed down the Yukon for the Klondike gold.”

     “We should we start assembling supplies,” stated Jack, as both were lying on their bunks in their boarding house, having paid their $700 apiece for passage to Skagway.  “Let me tell you my idea,” said Will.  I think we can do better by taking just a few supplies, maybe 200 pounds worth, rather than the two thousand everyone else is assembling.  If it’s like the tip of South America, there will be plenty of discouraged prospectors willing to sell their gear and supplies and hightail it home.  My cash can convert to anything we’ll need.”  We’ll need weapons, said Jack.  “Yup, lets get a pistol apiece.”  “I’ll take a rifle myself,” said Jack, “I’ve found If you are close enough to an opponent to be shot at with a pistol, then I believe you are a mite too close, I prefer a thirty-caliber rifle with good sights, built by myself.”

    They visited the Seattle saloons where there were miners, would-be miners, or failed miners, and took everything in.  The stories varied from endless riches lying on the ground to one man who claimed he ate his partner when their food ran low.   None showed any evidence of making a real strike – but many hit them up for a grubstake to go back. These men had exhausted their vitality, they looked listless, with slow lagging steps – swearing and drinking seemed to be their main occupation.

    There was a girl, called Jenny Kate, who danced and hustled drinks ( aged in Tennessee oak barrels was the way she described the alcohol with a laugh, adding it was “the best rotgut they would ever pour down their pipes.”)  Kate worked in The Queen Saloon, a bar they both liked.  She was bouncy and full of life and swirled her petticoats – and had a tendency to lean over their table displaying the tops of her abundant breasts, which struggled to free themselves from her low cut bodice.  She seemed tall, until she showed them her five-inch heels.  Her hair was dark, with beautiful blue eyes, but she was cursed with an aquiline nose.  Jack and Will, after a long discussion, decided she really wasn’t pretty, but still a handsome woman despite her roman nose.  And she had a sweet smile, “one of the sweetest smiles this side of heaven,” thought Will.  Jack mentioned that she would never be accused of having skinny hips.  “You imbecile,” Will said.  “She’s got on five layers of petticoats”

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    Will showed his own stupidity the next night by asking Kate if drinks wuz all she was sellin’.  He got a close-handed punch on the side of his face that rocked his head, then, as he put his hands up, she walloped him on the other.  He immediately apologized.  Kate was bright, and witty, and had lots of stories.  If you looked at her straight on you didn’t notice her nose.  And she seemed to know a lot about the Klondike.  The more they talked with her, the more they were impressed.  She had a southern accent, but a bit different from theirs. Kate had come out the year before and as luck would have it she and her husband bought into a small claim off Journey Creek that turned out to be a major find.  They had dug about $18,000 from their shaft, guarded their nuggets at all times, but the claim was playing out. September first was her day of infamy.  Her husband had taken the night watch.  She woke up to find him gone with all their gold.  Disappeared down river with two other guys in an oar powered skiff. 

    She had no money and no way to go after him, so she was sunk.  A friend helped her back up river and down over the trail to Skagway where she worked for two months to get to Seattle.   Here she was, trying to decide what to do.  Twenty years old, she felt she could get along with anyone, but told them she not only mistrusted men but also had a deep and unrelenting dislike of most.  Then she flashed a smile and said, “Present company excepted.”

    One of her dislikes for men came about when she met the infamous Soapy Smith, a crooked Skagway saloon keeper, who propositioned her by putting his hand up her petticoats.  She violently stamped a pointed high heel through his boot, almost severing a toe. Before she could get away, he knocked her down and started to use his boot on her face, but was restrained.  “I never got the opportunity to even things up with the man, but I have to admit I shall read his obituary with particular enjoyment some day when a honest man finally shoots the scalawag.  (Indeed she got her wish, Soapy Smith was shot through the heart by Frank Reid on July 8, 1898.)  I can mine, I can cook, I can fight, I can build a boat and most of all I’m trustworthy.  I like you fellas’.  My life has been an uneven business up til now.  I’d like to change that.  What do you all think about me joining you?” 

    The two were thunderstruck.  Never in their wildest imagination had they thought about adding another partner, let alone a woman.  “Why would we do that?” said Will.  “Because I know the territory and many of the miners; I learned a lot about where gold can be found by watching the success and failures of others.  I don’t expect to be a partner or have any share until I’ve proved myself.  What say you?”

    That night the two talked about Kate’s proposal.  Jack was dead set against her coming.   “She’ll cause trouble between us before she’s done.  I don’t trust women and her in particular.  But I’ll reserve my vote until we know a bit more about her.”

    The next night she got them to buy enough whiskey to be able to sit at their table for a half hour.  First she said, “Dump that swill on the floor, the owner tossed a dozen rattlesnake heads in the barrel to give it a kick.  Look, let me tell you about myself.  I was born in Florida – Buckhead Ridge on the Northwest bank of Okeechobee Lake.  Raised dirt poor, swampland, folks fished for a living; married off to a cousin, Treme Toussaint, at fourteen.  I couldn’t read ner write.  First pair a shoes was for the weddin’.  Treated me like a backdoor slave.  Six months after we wuz married, the Monroe Hurricane came through – we were running towards our boat hand in hand when I fell.  He looked down at me, cursed, shook his head, let go my hand, and ran for the boat.  Never saw him again. The next surge knock me off the dock, but I washed into a big log and survived the storm.”  

    “No one would take me in, but there was a French priest who saw something in me he liked, and arranged for me to go to the Sacred Heart Convent in Jacksonville. As I learned to read, I was embarrassed by my own ignorance and swore to improve myself.  The nuns hammered and educated me for three years before I left, heading west, riding the boxcars.” “Were you religious when the nuns got through with you” asked Jack.  “Well let’s say this, God and I have an arrangement – I don’t bother him and he doesn’t bother me.”

     “I kept myself clean – generally begged and did housecleaning to stay alive.  Did steal a little now and again, but left a note saying I’d be back to pay.  I did some other things to stay alive that I’m not so proud of.  Met my second husband (we were common law, never had a ceremony) three years ago.  Good looking, smart and devious as all hell.  We went to Skagway first – he was a great gambler, but then the gold greed bit him and we headed for Dawson – lucky to file a claim where there was still plenty of gold under the permafrost.  I can be of help in many, many ways.  What about it, fella’s? We’re all from the south, that oughta to count for somethin’.”

    After another round of discussion, the vote was still one to one, but Jack said he’d go along for now – admitting he had contributed no money and would trust Will’s decision.  Kate was elated and told them they wouldn’t be sorry.  She had a list of suggestions for accumulating the supplies they would need, but changed her mind when she found Will had money.  Forget all of the food and equipment, except winter clothing and boots, and some dried pemmican for an emergency.  We’re each allocated a ton on the ship; I would suggest that we use our allotment to bring in whiskey.  The average miner drinks around a gallon a day, and has the gold dust to pay for it.  “What about the Mounties as we enter Canada?  They will not let anyone pass who does not have a year’s supply of staples to keep them alive,” said Jack.  “Don’t worry,” Kate said.  “There will be plenty of would-be miners who will be glad to sell their supplies and equipment for pennies on the dollar at Bennett Lake. You need to trust me partners, I’ve been through all this before.”   Before they boarded the steamer, Jack made three rifles – Damascus steel, six-sided barrel’s – all 30-06’s – should be able to stop a bear.  And he did something not many had seen.  He built the rifles to shoot semi-automatic.  After cocking, you just needed to pull the trigger each time to fire.

    There was no natural harbor as they pulled into Skagway and the prospective miners had to wade or take a skiff over the mud flats, which was about a half-mile to the wharf. They hired a large flat-bottomed boat and sold all their whiskey at a twelve percent discount to the market within four days – now they had $3,800 between them plus Will’s money.  Will mentioned to Jack, “I’m glad we brought Kate with us.  It seems to me that she gets prettier and prettier every day.”  “I don’t know,” Jack said,  “I’d admit she is perky, with that great smile, and has nice curves, but I still don’t trust her.”  The three headed to the Bonanza Saloon and Grill, which was filled with men who were surely, way beyond irritable – all looking for someone to curse and fight.  When Jack mentioned the bad mood of the miners, and that they should leave, Kate agreed, mentioning the patrons were mostly failed miners.  “Let me tell you something,”said Kate, “ You’ll find minin’ in the Yukon is not a good mood type of job.”.

    Part II next month – KLONDIKE BOUND

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