Whitehorse Daily Star

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ORIGINAL GOLD DIGGERS - Kate Carmack, right, discovered gold on August 17, 1896, along with her husband George, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie. Gypsy Troele, left, was a turn of the century dance-hall girl in Dawson City. She later married Elay Britton and settled in Carmacks.

Women in mining, then and now

"Strange things are done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold," wrote Robert Service.

By Whitehorse Star on June 1, 1990

But what about the women?

Rose Margeson of Parks Canada posed that question to a number of women active in today's mining industry at last Saturday's Gold Show in Dawson City.

She presented a number of slides of archival photographs to prove that - contrary to popular belief - the women who hiked the Chilkoot Trail in the gold Rush weren't all prostitutes and dance hall girls.

They were teachers, wives, entrepreneurs, nuns, mothers, prospectors, nurses and journalists. And although these women accounted for one out of thirty people hiking the Chilkoot, there's virtually no record of them.

They slogged up the Chilkoot in their knee-high leather boots, tight-fitting jackets and whalebone corsets for exactly the same reasons as the men, said Margeson: wealth and adventure.

But where the Gold Rush was a great leveller for men who sweated and drank together, it enforced social divisions between women.

There were the respectable women, said Margeson, and then there were the not-so-respectable women. Dance hall girls were more respectable than prostitutes, but not by much. Within a couple of years of the discovery of gold, prostitutes had been banned from Dawson City, forcing them to relocate in Louse-town, a safe distance from Dawson's increasing number of respectable wives and mothers.

During the gold rush, Dawson was populated by many fascinating women who crossed the line between ladies of leisure and working ladies, said Margeson.

They included: Edith Van Burn, a large, imposing and highly-opinionated American who brought two dozen pigeons, a parrot and a portable bowling alley along with her to the Yukon: Diamond Tooth Gertie, the dance hall girl renowned for the diamond stud between her two front teeth; and Martha Black, the Chicago woman who married a future commissioner, and went on to make her own mark on Yukon history.

Margeson also mentioned Belinda Mulroney, who sold $5,000 worth of trade goods for $30,000 and, against all advice, went on to build a hotel at Grand Forks. Her foresight and acumen resulted in the town of Grand Forks, located at the confluence of Bonanza Creek and Eldorado Creek, with a population at one time of 10,000.

Margeson said a tiny number of women did work their own claims, but they were prevented at that time from fully exploiting the many mining opportunities by the law, which said only a married woman could file for new claims. Single women could only purchase existing claims.

"There are dozens of fascinating characters among gold rush women," Margeson said at the conclusion of her talk. "They need not be glorified but they should be remembered.

"Dawson would not have survived beyond the gold rush without the women who stuck around."

Margeson's audience was living proof that the Yukon's spell continues to attract unusual trail-blazers.

Most of the women were actively involved in the placer mining industry - driving heavy duty equipment, operating sluice-boxes, expediting, and cleaning and pouring gold.

All the women who've worked in the placer industry for many years said there's just something about their way of life that's irreplaceable.

"At first, I was kind of frightened of the mining industry," said Paula Ross, who married into placer mining, and is a relative newcomer with a mere 12 years on the creeks.

"But now, I wouldn't change it. I wouldn't change it for anything. Not for all of Donald Trump's money."

True Yukoners, the women laughed at tales of severe hardship in the days of "no Finning or phones."

Marianne Holbrook said she and her husband decided to stay at their cabin on Quartz Creek through the winters of 1960 and 1961 to fix equipment. For three months in 1961, the mercury didn't surface from the lowest reading on their thermometer, an icy -60.

"Those were the years when we used to get cold weather."

Holbrook said it was so cold they ran out of wood and had to take a chainsaw to the log ends on their cabin to stay warm.

"Miners today have it soft with their VCRs and their washers and their welders," said Fran Hakonson, who started mining in 1946. "A lot today didn't melt snow and weren't in the sluice boxes like we were.

"Things are much better. I'm glad for them really."

She didn't sound convinced.

Noreen Sailer has helped her husband mine Dominion Creek and Quartz Creek for 26 years. Sailer was loaded down with the fruits of all those years of labor - a nugget bracelet, two tiny nugget necklaces, and nuggets on fingers and ears.

Like all the women, Sailer couldn't put her finger on what it is that's turned her into an addict.

"I think it's the spell of the Yukon," she said. "Why would you come back to something that wouldn't support you in the early times and even now you're not making much?

"It isn't because it's easy."

Bonnie Taylor admits she's hooked, too.

"My first summer on the creek, an old timer said to me 'You can take the man out of the North but you can't take the North out of the man,'" said Taylor. "That happens to us, too. Something makes us come back."

All the women said they preferred working on the claim rather than fulfilling a traditional female role.

"One thing I love is I work cleaning gold in the evenings," said Ross. "We pour our own gold. It's very satisfying - a lot more satisfying than throwing another turkey in the oven.

Ross was disappointed that there were no young women in the audience who are working actively in mining today. A lot of the women in the mining industry these days have grown up in it, she said.

"I know a lot of girls have taken over jobs and in time, we'll see more of that, especially in family operations."

Women have always done a lot of bookkeeping, she said, but now more women are developing their own businesses and running companies.

Wanda Schmidt said she's doing a job which, until a few years ago, was thought of as a man's job. She's an expediter. Schmidt said she knew there was a need for her service because she kept bumping into miners' wives running around town, trying to find everything on a huge list within a couple of hours.

"I've dealt with men a lot and so I know what they need when they say 'I need this thing-me-bob that goes on the end of the what-do-you-call-it and I absolutely have to have it before I go back out to the creek this evening.'"

Placer mining in the Yukon is a small world. The women all know each other well, and chatted casually about common friends and acquaintances.

But they couldn't stay talking for too long. Most were heading back to the creeks that night.

For more Yukon history, purchase the three editions of history totaling over 300 pages and covering 100 years of stories reported in the Whitehorse Star from 1900 up to 2000. $3.00 per copy (shipping not included) To order e-mail: circulation@whitehorsestar.com

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