From the bookshelf

Trek created oddball gold rush memoir

Posted: Thursday, June 09, 2005


  "Two Women in the Klondike," by Mary E. Hitchcock

"Two Women in the Klondike," by Mary E. Hitchcock

Two Women in the Klondike

By Mary E. Hitchcock

University of Alaska Press

232 pages


$24.95 (hard cover)

The Klondike Gold Rush inspired legends about fabulous fortunes, desperate privations and the howling wilderness of the far north. Chronicling its excesses made the reputations of literary lions such as Jack London and Robert Service.

Less well known is the eccentric memoir of Mary Hitchcock. A middle-aged widow with aspirations literary, geographic, financial and aristocratic, she resolved in 1898 to travel to Dawson with her adventurous friend, Edith Van Buren.

"This longing of ours to see one of the few countries unknown to us had created such astonishment among our friends and acquaintances that we were considered quite mad — fit subjects for an insane asylum," Hitchcock wrote.

The two matronly "society ladies" not only reached their destination, but did so with a mind-boggling amount of luggage while scribbling detailed journals all the way.

Hitchcock published "Two Women in the Klondike" a year later. The public interest in the topic was high and the book well-received, although critics bemoaned its long-winded inclusion of mundane minutiae, according to Fairbanks historian Terrence Cole.

The volume is the ninth in a University of Alaska Press series reprinting classic books of northern history. The modern editors have spared contemporary readers by whittling the 500-some original pages down to a svelte and jaunty 200.

What is left is part eyewitness history, part adventure tourism and part an unintended comedy of colliding lifestyles. The narrative follows the ladies' odyssey. It starts with a steamship from Seattle to the Bering Sea and up the Yukon to Dawson, continues during a two-month sojourn in West Dawson (across the river from the main settlement) and ends with their precipitous departure via White Pass and Southeast Alaska ports of call.

If the ladies' friends thought Hitchcock and Van Buren were crazy to undertake the trip, imagine the reaction of the Klondike prospectors when the duo arrived with, among other things, a circus tent, a portable bowling alley, formal evening wear, an ice-cream maker and a flock of pigeons.

Their routines revolved around the upper-crust preoccupations of business opportunities and social calls, with the elaborate attention to propriety, money, clothing and food those entailed. In the process the ladies met a cross-section of Klondike society, from the men whose success made them legendary, such as "Klondike King" Big Alex McDonald, to failed prospectors and overrun Natives.

Hitchcock admired most of the people she met, heaping praise on their generosity, fortitude and tales of adventure.

Yet the prejudices of her time and class glare at the modern reader. She and Edith suffer versions of "servant problems" in the democratic frontier settlement, and she recoils in fear from contact with Indians. Hitchcock repeatedly exploits the leverage her gender gives among chivalrous men. When she is helpless to do any sort of labor other than writing, and when men decry her as "haughty," it is easy to read between the lines and frown at the narrator.

Despite Hitchcock's shortcomings, her descriptions of Dawson are rich with details and human touches. She depicts memorable characters and scenes, quoting men's dialects, repeating conversations and detailing menus.

The two women had minimal interaction with the actual gold mining. They deserve credit, however, for going into the field for a few days with McDonald to walk the sluices, pan for nuggets and talk to the mud-streaked miners. The blisters they suffered were a badge of authenticity in their too-artificial world.

The ladies come across as well-heeled "Chee Charkers," as they phrase it. Modern northern women have to smile as Hitchcock advocates wardrobe modifications such as bloomers, writing:

"Nothing but heavy flannel, such as one rarely wears at home, is comfortable. A skirt is decidedly in the way in gathering wood for the stove, washing dishes, cooking, etc. Edith has tried it on several occasions and has succeeded in burning three of them ."

Hitchcock's writing style is full of Victorian affectations, such as using initials instead of full names. But, at least with modern editing, she is a shrewd observer with a strong command of language and even flashes of humor and humility. One does wish, however, that she had included more anecdotes from other people to enliven the adventure.

Her photographs, although grainy, are of great interest due to their historical subject matter. The map and index with the new edition are also valuable additions.

Cole's new introduction is especially helpful. It includes interesting biographical information about Hitchcock and Van Buren and telling quotes from other Klondike memoirs that reflect upon them.

Hitchcock is, in some sense, the antithesis of a London or Service. Hers is another angle on gold rush life, a domesticated version dwelling on soup brands, favorite songs and haggling at the trading post. On the one hand, it rings terribly silly to modern ears, yet on the other you can't help but admire these gutsy ladies for pushing themselves far beyond their comfort zone.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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