Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike

Reprinted from Maclean's September 27, 2010

Like the Klondike’s gold-laden streams, historians have been picking over the glory days of Dawson City, Yukon, for more than a century. The gold ran out long ago. Are there any stories left worth telling?

With Gold Diggers, Canadian biographer Charlotte Gray turns her formidable attention to the gold rush of 1896. Yet Pierre Berton’s Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, which first appeared over 50 years ago, still stands as the iconic popular history of that era. And the autobiography of his mother, Laura Beatrice Berton, I Married the Klondike, is equally dominant as a first-person account of life in post-boom Dawson City.

Despite all this competition from the Berton family, however, Gray manages a fresh approach to the well-told story of Canada’s most famous boom town.

Where Pierre Berton featured a “cast of major characters” that numbered nearly 50, Gray pares her attention down to just six key figures: prospector Bill Haskell, hotel owner Belinda Mulrooney, Jesuit priest William Judge, Mountie Sam Steele, British journalist Flora Shaw, and soon-to-be famous but struggling writer Jack London.

Freed from the obligation of having to tell the encyclopedic story of Dawson City’s meteoric rise and fall, the author uses her six Klondikers to reveal many untapped veins of historical interest. Of note, the competition in town was often as interesting, and fierce, as the competition in the gold fields to find the next productive mining claim.

Gray reveals a little-known ecclesiastical struggle over ministering to Dawson City’s sinful hordes. American and Canadian miners come into sharp conflict over which holiday—Independence Day or Victoria Day—should take precedence. She details the birth of a bitter rivalry between entrepreneur Mulrooney and mining magnate Big Alex McDonald.

And while Pierre Berton spent half a sentence on Shaw, the colonial correspondent for the Times of London, Gray provides a lengthy character sketch of this formidable woman and the surprising influence she wielded over Canadian government policy in the Klondike. The rush may be long over, but thar’s still plenty of story gold in them hills.
- Peter Shawn Taylor