Children of the Klondike

    Miners, dog sled drivers, stowaways, dance hall performers, entrepeneurs and prostitutes—these are not roles you would normally associate with children, but the children who lived in the klondike ...

    By Sarah Ligon on August 27, 2010

    Frances Backhouse, ’83 BSc
    Introduction by Ted Harrison, ’77 BEd, ’05 LLD (Honorary)
    Whitecap Books,
    www.whitecap.ca

    Miners, dog sled drivers, stowaways, dance hall performers, entrepreneurs and prostitutes — these are not roles you would normally associate with children, but the children who lived in the Klondike during the early days of the gold rush were, in many ways, no ordinary children.

    In Children of the Klondike, Frances Backhouse tells the stories of the children who accompanied their parents north in the first rush of gold fever, those who were born there — some en route — and the remarkable few who ventured there all on their own.

    You’ll meet nine-year old Emilie Craig, who was among the first children to scale the steep and treacherous Chilkoot Pass in 1898, and little Margie Newman, the “Princess of the Klondike,” who performed in vaudeville shows in Dawson and whose “natty neatness and grave conscientiousness... endeared her in the hearts of the big men who go so often to see her.”

    Although scholarly, this book — like its predecessor, Women of the Klondike (recently reissued in a 15th anniversary edition) — is an engrossing read. Backhouse can weave a story with as much adventure as Twain and as much humanity as Dickens — stories like that of eight-year-old orphan Martin Eagan, who stowed away in the coal bunker of a Seattle steamer in search of a father who’d gone off to the gold fields and hadn’t been heard from since.

    Given that children were a rarity in the Yukon in those early years, they were fawned over by the rough miners, many of whom had left behind children of their own for the chance to strike it rich. Often, the birth of a new baby was heralded by gifts of thousands of dollars in the “choicest nuggets.” But as more than one parent discovered when such babies were taken from them prematurely, the children themselves had been gifts more precious than gold.

    Life was clearly hard for the children of the Klondike, but in Backhouse’s recounting they also led “doubly enchanted lives,” with a freedom to explore a vast and untouched wilderness that today’s children can only read about in books. As one former Klondike child recalled decades later from her Seattle nursing home, “I couldn’t imagine a better place to be a little girl.”

    Southern-born Sarah Ligon is attempting to raise her own child in the frozen north of Edmonton.