- Sourdough gold miners in the Yukon (courtesy Archives of the Yukon)
The following article was contributed by Will Woods as part of our Inside Vancouver’s Hidden Past series.
When The Excelsior docked in San Francisco harbour on July 14, 1897 around 80 prospectors disembarked with every available pocket, tin can and tobacco pouch stuffed with gold. They had been mining the Klondike, in the Yukon Territory, and were returning home to spend their fortunes. Known as ‘sourdoughs’, these Klondike gold prospectors triggered an international frenzy. Over the next two years over 100,000 men surged into the Pacific Northwest, en route to find their fortunes in the Klondike. The biggest, baddest and most brutal gold rush of them all.
For some lucky sourdoughs, the wild country of the Yukon literally was paved with gold. Stories abounded of men spending $30,000 on champagne in a single night in the saloons and honky-tonks of Dawson City. Bartenders fighting with each other for rights to sift the sawdust on the bar-room floor after a busy night (since so much gold dust fell from miners’ pockets in the course of an evening). And Dawson City showgirls who had more gold jewellery than some ruling monarchs.
Sadly, the majority of sourdoughs found scarcely an ounce of gold. That was despite surviving in near-arctic Yukon weather for months, or even years, in their vain attempt. Many lost hands or feet from frostbite, squandered their savings or even died.
But what does a goldrush in the Yukon, over a thousand kilometres north, have to do with Vancouver? (A question we tackle with glee on our latest Forbidden Vancouver walking tour, The Lost Souls of Gastown).
As word of the goldrush spread and men started to stream north to the Klondike, Vancouver became a very popular staging post. Prospectors would take boats from here to Alaska or northern BC and then make the rest of the journey by foot, horseback or canoe (or some combination of the three!). Mounties stationed at the Yukon border would not let you in without an actual ton of equipment and provisions – necessary to prove you could last the journey. So, many prospectors stopped in Vancouver to get ‘outfitted’ for their trip.
The money thrown around by prospectors as they bought equipment and provisions in Vancouver led to a huge boom. By 1898, hotels, boarding houses and saloons were being built at a frenzied pace. Cordova and Hastings streets were essentially lined with Klondike outfitters. Local newspapers were packed with advertisements for everything from thermal underwear to tobacco to axes to mule feed.
Modern day Vancouver seems a million miles away from a goldrush frontier town. But look closely and you will see some fabulous relics of the late 1890’s still standing in downtown Vancouver. Buildings that mark our city’s important role in Klondike gold rush history.
The Flack Block on the northeast corner of Hastings and Cambie streets was commissioned in 1898 and finished in 1900. It provided retail and commercial space, as it still does today. Funded by returning Klondike sourdough Thomas Flack (who clearly decided against spending his massive fortune solely on champagne), the Flack Block is an outstanding example of Romanesque Revival architecture. Lovingly restored in 2010 by the Salient Group, the building is a monument to when 100 block West Hastings was the epicentre of goldrush Vancouver.
My favourite goldrush-era building in Vancouver is without doubt the Hotel Victorian. Situated on the corner of Homer and Pender. Back when it was built in 1898, the Victorian was a truly grand abode. In those days the largest and most impressive rooms were on the ground floor rather than the upper floors, since elevators were not yet commonplace. Wealthy guests did not want to troop up flights of stairs to reach their rooms!
The current owners are doing a fantastic job to restore the hotel to its former glory. It has undergone extensive renovations recently including impressive work on the building’s exterior and a refurbished first-floor retail space that will include stores and a restaurant. Like the Flack Block, the hotel is situated in the Victory Square locale of Vancouver – the home of much of our city’s finest architecture including the Sun Tower and Dominion Building. The Victorian is certainly a natural staging post today for any visitors to the city interested in historic architecture.
The hotel had a period of decline in the 1970s and ‘80s, but perhaps that period of under-investment was a blessing in disguise. Original features still survive in the hotel that might otherwise have been torn-out and replaced. You will find original sinks, radiators and interior mouldings, now lovingly restored. Sitting in a hotel room you can easily imagine being back in the goldrush Vancouver of the late 1890’s, eagerly planning your adventure to the perilous Klondike.
Another relic of goldrush Vancouver was sadly lost last year when the Pantages theatre at 152 East Hastings was demolished. Built in 1907, it was until its demolition the oldest vaudeville theatre in Canada. But by 1907 the Klondike goldrush had been over for several years, so what does the Pantages theatre have to do with the Klondike?
The link between the Klondike goldrush and the Pantages theatre comes from Mr Alexander Pantages himself. It’s a story we enjoy telling on The Lost Souls of Gastown. In the late 1890’s Pantages was hustling drunk sourdoughs up in Dawson City as a bartender when he met Queen of the Yukon, Kitty Rockwell. Also known as ‘Klondike Kate’, Miss Rockwell was the Yukon’s most famous entertainer. She was notorious for her “dance of the flame”, involving a red sequin dress and 200 yards of chiffon – must have been quite the sight!
Teaming up, Pantages and Rockwell opened a theatre together in Dawson City. Rockwell brought the fame and the money, Pantages the business-sense and brawn. Before long, the pair had plans to marry and build a theatre empire. As the Klondike goldrush started to fizzle out around 1900, Rockwell began touring North America to raise funds, channeling the money back to Pantages to build the theatres.
Unfortunately for Kitty Rockwell, Pantages left her in 1903, marrying a 17 year-old violinist named Lois Mendeanhall. With the theatre chain entirely in Pantages’s name, Kitty Rockwell was left broke and heartbroken. She ended up a recluse on a small ranch in the desert high country of Oregon.
Pantages went on to become one of North America’s most successful theatre builders and operators. He built two theatres here in Vancouver, including his theatre at 152 East Hastings. The second Pantages theatre stood a little further west at 20 West Hastings Street. The second theatre was completed in 1918 and lasted until 1967 when it was demolished to make way for a parking lot.
There is a legend passed down by staff at the Hotel Victorian that Kitty Rockwell was staying in the hotel when she received the news that Pantages had left her. It’s plausible, since Rockwell was touring the Pacific Northwest at the time and may well have been here. Looking into this, I’ve been unable to establish exactly where she was touring. In her book “Klondike Kate – the life and legend of Kitty Rockwell”, Ellis Lucia reports Rockwell received a letter ‘from Seattle’ containing the news, so that is one city that can be ruled out! At any rate, it’s a tantalizing tale, the spurned goldrush beauty betrayed by her ambitious lover in Vancouver’s original goldrush hotel!
Compared to most other cities, Vancouver’s history is not long. But its history certainly is rich. And no period of Vancouver’s history is perhaps richer than the few years either side of 1900 – when it was the gateway to the Klondike. Goldrush City indeed.
Will Woods is founder and Chief Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver (www.forbiddenvancouver.ca)