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!
February 7, 2016 at 8:57 am
Great post, Gwen! I’m amazed that they had olives and almonds there at that time. To pick up and leave Toronto for the Klondike at that time, and alone, shows how adventurous and brave she was.
February 8, 2016 at 1:03 pm
Thank you, Cryssa. The variety of foods described in the book surprised me as well. I believe she also mentioned pineapple juice which was all the more surprising. She truly was courageous to venture into an isolated and largely male population so far from home during a period of Victorian values.
February 7, 2016 at 10:26 am
Reblogged this on On Becoming a Wordsmith and commented:
Gwen Twuinman posts about the Yukon in the early 1900’s through the eyes of Laura Berton, the adventurous mother of famed Canadian author, Pierre Berton. Enjoy!
February 7, 2016 at 10:28 am
Love this, Gwen! In fact, I reblogged it on my blog. I’ll be anxious to see your next installment!
February 8, 2016 at 1:12 pm
I am so glad you enjoyed the post, Elaine. Thank you so much for sharing it with your readers. I am especially honoured to receive such a note from a writer of Canadian historical fiction (‘The Loyalist’s Wife’ and ‘The Loyalist’s Luck’)
February 8, 2016 at 11:56 am
An undiscovered shopping mecca! How wonderful. What a great snapshot of one of Canada’s forgotten moments in history. I find the contrast between neighbourhoods quite fascinating, and yes, there’s definitely a novel in there. The description of the ladies across the bridge kinda reminds me of the Warren Beatty film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller…a lot of fun if you’ve never seen it.
February 8, 2016 at 1:14 pm
Thanks for visiting, Sally. I am quite intrigued by the movie title. Perhaps I’ll have some luck in locating it.
One does continue to collect these threads of story and knowledge, not always knowing where they’ll fit into the creative stream of things. But they always find a place.
February 13, 2016 at 3:44 pm
Laura sounds like a fascinating, formidable woman, thanks for sharing her story Gwen.
February 14, 2016 at 8:02 am
I agree, Andrea. It was -22 degrees here yesterday and I can tell you, it was painful. Temperature is only one aspect of difficulty experienced. For example, healthcare was limited as they were so remotely located.
March 21, 2023 at 5:19 am
I just finished reading Laura Berton’s book ” I Married the Klondike “and your article on her also. I am interested in all things Canadian and found the book fascinating; my husband’s grandfather b. 1865 was in the Klondike in 98. He made his fortune along with his brother b.1879 in running a lumber mill. Now I will have to read some of your books . Thanks for the photos also. Laura Berton was the same age ( 76) l am now when her book was published. So I can see there might be still time for me to accomplish creative milestones. I’m a painter , artist/ teacher ( from Orillia, living the past 50 years in NS) and never exhibited my work. Thanks again for your article.
March 21, 2023 at 5:10 pm
Hello Sharon! Your note has made my day. I would love to see photos of your art if you’d like to share. In fact, it would be an honour. You could send them to email@example.com. Creativity is made for sharing, and mature years add insight and context to what we create. I am cheering for you!
I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. And thank you for your interest in my work. Your husband’s grandfather’s journey intritgues me. A lumber mill! )My forthcoming novel (with Random House Canada) comes out next spring. The story is set in the 1830s against the backdrop of the timber industry.) I hope your family has photographs or remembrances of this gentleman. What a treasure.