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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!