Throughout my extensive research into Alaska’s colorful past, I’ve found Alaska gold rush women who rocked! And not in the sense that they hacked into quartz looking for gold. Many women who came north during the Klondike gold rush era carved out successful careers in the frigid north.
One of the more notorious damsels was a Kansas girl who swirled her way across the stage of the Palace Grand in Dawson City in 1900. Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, better known as “Klondike Kate,” delighted audiences of miners with her song-and-dance routines.
She wore an elaborate dress covered in red sequins and an enormous cape in one dance that made her famous. Kate would take the cape off and start leaping and twirling with a cane that had yards of red chiffon attached. Onlookers said she looked like fire dancing around. At the end of her number, Kate dramatically dropped to the floor. The miners, who went wild for the redheaded beauty, named her “The Flame of the Yukon.”
Kate reportedly made up to $750 a night for her performances and spent much of her fortune on fine clothes and jewelry. She boasted later in life that she wore “$1,500 gowns from Paris and bracelets of the purest gold.” ($1,500 in 1900 would be about $46,600 in 2020)
Although Kate neither an exciting nor a very lucrative life once she left Dawson, she did excel at self-promotion. After settling in Oregon, she traveled on the lecture circuit around the Lower 48, expounding her legend and capitalizing on her life as “Queen of the Yukon,” “Belle of Dawson” and “Klondike Queen,” as she called herself. Kate died on February 21, 1957, at the age of 80.
A Gold Rush Entrepreneur
Another woman who went from rags to riches was Harriet Smith Pullen, who left her children and a bankrupt farm in Washington state in the late 1890s. She arrived broke in Skagway on September 8, 1897. And although her husband came with her, their marriage ended in divorce soon after.
Earning $3 a day as a cook, the enterprising 37-year-old opened a tent restaurant to feed Skagway’s hungry stampeeders. She also began baking pies in pie plates made from discarded tin cans.
Soon Pullen gained quite a reputation as a pie baker by using the tons of dried apples, included in every stampeeder’s outfit, to create her pastries. She eventually made enough money to send for her three sons to help with the business, which she’d moved into a log building.
An experienced horsewoman, Pullen also saw an opportunity to provide the stampeeders with transportation as well as food. She sent for her seven horses, and when they arrived in Skagway, she jumped into a rowboat and guided them to shore because no one else would bring them in.
With grit and courage, along with her care and knowledge of horses, she hired out to pack prospectors and their supplies over the White Pass Trail. Pullen became one of the few women packers on the trail, surviving the rough conditions and the corruption imposed by the notorious Soapy Smith and his band of thieves.
Her business was so successful, that when she sold it, she netted a grubstake that funded several future enterprises – which included building a luxurious hotel in Skagway.
Over the years, Harriet Pullen became a well-known character throughout Alaska. She promoted tourism in Skagway, which at one time was Alaska’s largest city, and amassed a large enough collection of Alaska artifacts to have her own museum. In her later years, she regaled tourists with tales of the gold rush and the shooting of Soapy Smith, an event she claims to have witnessed.
In 1947, after spending 50 years in her adopted town, the grand lady of Skagway died at the age of 87. She is buried near the site of her once-vibrant hotel.
A Devoted Mother
Other women who came north were not interested in finding fortune or fame. One in particular was in search of something much more precious – her son.
Widowed German immigrant Anna DeGraf, who lost her husband in a gold-mining accident in the West many years before, climbed the Chilkoot Trail in 1894 at the age of 55. She hoped to find her youngest son, George, who’d left for the gold-filled Yukon region six years earlier.
Wearing a heavy skirt, blouse, warm jacket, cap and heavy boots, DeGraf hiked the trail on crutches while carrying her sewing machine and a feather bed.
When the widow heard that a man named DeGraf had passed through the Interior, she continued toward the Yukon. Weather forced her to winter in Circle City, however, where she found work sewing tents for the Alaska Commercial Company, owned by Jack McQuesten and his wife, Katherine.
DeGraf asked everyone she met if they had news of her son. She spent two winters in Circle City sewing tents, as well as dresses for dancehall girls, before selling her sewing machine and heading to San Francisco to be with her daughter.
She exchanged her gold dust for $1,200 cash, and in 1897, bought another sewing machine and bolts of fabric after hearing news of the Klondike strike. DeGraf headed north again over the Chilkoot Trail, hoping to locate her son.
Ultimately DeGraf traveled north seven times. Along with Circle City, where she helped start the first school, her search took her to Dawson, Whitehorse, Skagway and Juneau. She supported herself with her sewing machine and befriended miners, dancehall girls, theater performers and Alaska Natives.
At the age of 78, Anna DeGraf finally left Alaska for good after she learned about the birth of a great-granddaughter in San Francisco. She found employment as a wardrobe mistress with the Pantage’s theater company in the Bay area and worked there until she turned 90 in 1929. She died the following year, never having heard from the son whose disappearance first sent her over the Chilkoot Trail 23 years earlier.
The stories of these women and many others are included in my award-winning Alaska series, Aunt Phil’s Trunk.