Seeking Inspiration — Laura Berton: Teacher in the Klondike

i married the yukon

A gold mine has been sitting on my shelf for years in the form of a slim book about great Canadians. Only recently did I discover a chapter about Laura Beatrice Berton: Lady Teacher in Dawson City. I went on to read the full account of her experience, I Married the Klondike.

The accounts I’ve read about life in the Klondike region of the Yukon have, so far, centered around people pursuing the gold rush (1896-1899). The stories of ruddy-faced men and sharp businesswomen who braved geography and climate in search of a new life. One of my favourites is The Klondike Quest by the well-known Canadian author, Pierre Berton. As you may have guessed, he’s the son of Laura Beatrice Berton. My interest was doubly piqued. I promptly ordered a copy of her biography, I Married the Klondike.

Photo credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-044666

Dawson City Elementary  School (Photo credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-044666)

In 1907, Laura left her teaching position with the Toronto school board at the invitation of Dawson City’s superintendent of kindergarten. Adventure appealed to her as did the increase in salary, a leap from $480 to $2100 annually. Her parents expressed their concern before her departure. Laura’s father recited Walt Whitman’s Pioneers, O Pioneers the night before she left home. “I understand the Alaska steamers are filled with questionable women…My dear, I would certainly wear a wedding-ring. You’d find it a great protection,” her mother said.

She arrived in Dawson along with several newcomers, three other female teachers among them. For $25 per month, the four women  rented a two-story log cabin with five bedrooms. To have lived separately in a community so densely populated would have been frowned upon given the Victorian values of the day.

Chicago Hotel and Adair Bros. Store, 1901 (Photo credit: Library and Archive of Canada

Chicago Hotel and Adair Bros. Store, 1901 (Photo credit: Library and Archive of Canada

Laura described Dawson City’s shops in a manner  that surprised me, claiming they had a ‘cosmopolitan atmosphere’. Despite the harsh backdrop I’d always imagined, there was a store “with a glittering interior, full of hand-made French evening dresses …” Each year, the owner imported gowns and hats from Paris. A neighbouring business sold “silks, kimonos, parasols, linens, incense, porcelain, china and lacquer work.” I never would have dreamed that a market existed for such goods.

The dance halls and red-light district of Dawson are well known but the network of social events in the community were unknown to me. People took turns hosting a ‘day’ or an ‘At Home’, from late afternoon to early evening. Laura wrote of serving olives and preparing salted almonds, sherbet and home-made candies. In theory, the entire town was invited, but in practice, social standing dictated who attended. The ‘proper people’ included judges, high-end civil servants, heads of large companies, Church personnel including the bishop, and teachers.

Dawson City, June 1900 (Photo credit: Library and Archives of Canada)

Dawson City, June 1900 (Photo credit: Library and Archives of Canada)

At the height of the gold rush in 1898, 30,000 people lived in Dawson City. That number had dropped to 12,000 at the time of Laura’s arrival. She observed that “…the second shops wee crammed with what was left behind: stoves, gold pans old fur coats, rubber boots, and hundreds of beds.”

The school children were all born in the Yukon. Their cultural diversity ranged from Canadian and American to English, Latin American, South African and Japanese.


Dawson City school parade, May 24, 1904 (Photo credit: Library and Archive of Canada)

Twelve lights hung from the classroom ceiling to compensate for the two month disappearance of the sun beginning in early December. When the temperatures dropped to -50°C , the school  closed for the day. Before venturing outdoors, Laura put on every piece of clothing she owned under her fur-lined tweed coat. She draped a heavy wool veil over her fur hat for further protection. Much of her school day was occupied by bundling the children for outdoor activities and removing their layers again once they’d come inside. “They all wore ground-length coon-skin and musk-rat coats which presented an incongruous appearance, for it turned them into tiny adults.” In the summer months, twenty-four hour daylight left her students restless and distracted from lack of sleep.

Dawson City taken at midnight 1898-1910 (Photo credit: Library and Archive of Canada)

Dawson City taken at midnight 1898-1910 (Photo credit: Library and Archive of Canada)

One sun lit evening, Laura and her teacher friends decided, under the guise of berry picking on a hilltop, to survey the red-light district where the ‘painted ladies’ lived. Their curiosity had grown each evening as men crossed the bridge over the Klondike River to visit the neat rows of bright houses along the opposite shore.

dance hall girl in Klondike 1898 1910

“If we anticipated any shameful sights we were disappointed and confounded, for the scene below us was one of unparalleled gaiety.” The painted ladies chattered with each other like ‘bright birds’ amid singing and laughter. Waiters from a neighbouring hotel served them food and drink from silver trays. The teachers admired the colourful array of clothing, albeit scant. They climbed through the bushes and headed home “feeling unusually tired and disheveled, our long skirts clinging to us like cumbersome shackles.”

These stories of the Klondike in the late 1800s and early 1900s continue to engage me. I know they’ll wind their way into my writing at some point. For now, the ideas are still percolating. You might have noticed that Robert Service wrote the preface for I Married the Klondike. For a period of time, he lived in a cabin across the road from the one Laura and her teaching friends lived in. That is a story for a future post!

Do you have a story to share? Perhaps an anecdote or some trivia?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Categories: Seeking Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Curating Wonder — Going for a Swim






Photo 1: source unknown/Photo 2: source unknown/Photo 3: August 21, 1922. “Citizens’ Military Training Camp, Camp Meade” (Photo source: National Photo Co.) /Photo 4: July 28, 1921. Washington, D.C. “Relief from hot weather. Bathing at Rock Creek Park.” (Photo source: National Photo Co.)

“I wonder …”

How would you finish this sentence?

Categories: Curating Wonder | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Delving Deeper — Unwed Mothers and Maternity Home History

A character in my novel is in trouble.  She is  a pregnant, young and unmarried. Should she raise the baby? Should she give it up to a childless couple?

It seems that everyone has the answer but her. The father campaigns for her to keep the baby, but the character fears being stigmatized by her small rural community if news of her situation begins to circulate.  Her parents are eager to rush her off to a maternity home. Going off to ‘spend the summer at an aunt’s house’ was a common cover story for girls who needed to disappear during the last months of pregnancy.

What follows is some introductory research into the topic of maternity homes. I expected that this would be an emotionally charged subject, but I was unprepared for the numerous stories of despair. After hours of reading, I determined to share a few insights about historical attitudes toward unwed mothers and pregnancy along with a description of the maternity home experience.


An unwed mother arrives at a Salvation Army Maternity Home (photographer Ed Clark)

During eras when sex outside of marriage was taboo, being  single and pregnant was socially and morally unacceptable. Unwed mother’s were labelled by their communities as ‘ruined’ and they carried the burden of having shamed their families.  Girls were commonly disowned by their parents.

Regarded as bad girls or fallen women, they were secreted away to hide their condition and their babies were often given up, or in some tragic cases, left on the church steps.  At the very least, the mother would return to her life and suffer in silence.

pregnancy corset

During the Victorian era, North American middle and upper classed women, even married ones, often corseted themselves to conceal their pregnancies and then entered a phase of confinement during the final months. Babies were delivered at home by friends, relatives or midwives so, for unwed mothers, the anonymity of giving birth at a busy hospital was impossible.

It was during this time that the first maternity homes were organized to shelter unwed expectant or nursing mothers. For the first fifty years of the last century, the options of a pregnant single woman included marriage or hiding out and having the baby in secret, then putting it up for adoption.  Until 1969, abortion was illegal and punishable by imprisonment, for both mother and physician.

1950s family

A 1950s family at home in a very traditional family structure. Photograph: Fpg/Getty Images

Canadian maternity homes increased in number along with the increase in pregnancies following World War Two. The experience of living at one of these homes could feel very isolating and lonely.  Some homes insisted that the girls use false names and resist building relationship with other residents. Contact with family and friends from home was often restricted or forbidden. Girls were kept busy with daily assigned chores.

“In the postwar era, the maternity home became a social agency designed to pull a girl off the wrong branch of the road to correct her course toward femininity and motherhood.” Rickie Solinger –Wake Up Little Susie

Some maternity homes required that the girls remained for up to six months of service following delivery of their child. They would be trained to perform tasks for the home as a form of payment for medical and confinement expenses. Because many of these establishments also had a connection to a religious organization, the good works were viewed as redemptive or reformative.

At one time, there were 60-80 maternity homes across Canada, but most of them closed by the early eighties when teen parenting centres began appearing.


One Day at a Time was the first sitcom to feature a divorced single mother. The program aired from 1975 to 1984.

 “A report by the Canadian Welfare Council of 1957 estimated there were about thirty such homes across Canada. By the end of the 1960’s there were roughly fifty homes” – “Gone to an Aunts”,  Anne Petrie

By the late seventies, a single woman opting to keep her baby had lost the stigma assigned during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was believed that giving the child up meant that the girl could put her mistake behind her and move on.  Another social change lessened the sting of the term ‘single mother’ — divorce. As the divorce rate rose,  people could no longer assume by default that a single mother was an unwed mother.

While the moral judgement on teen mothers softened going into the 1980’s, the new call to judgment involved health and economic issues linked to their often interrupted education.


News clipping shared via OriginsCanada (click to enlarge view)

Throughout my research, I did discover several disheartening accounts of women’s experiences: coerced adoption, failure to inform girls about social assistance, sterilization, verbal and emotional abuse by staff members, unattended labour and the list goes on. The following is a list website should you wish for further conversation.

Lead Photo credit: “Babies fill a nursery at Humewood House in an archival photo from the shelter’s collection. ” via
Photo via

Do you have a story or a comment to share?

I’d be honoured to hear from you.



Categories: Delving Deeper | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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