The Call of the Wild. “The Spell of the Yukon.” Immortalized in the tales of Jack London and the poems of Robert Service, the North has lured dreamers and seekers throughout time.
The lure of the Klondike Gold Rush, however, called out years before London or Service, writing in 1903 and 1907, respectively, even put pen to paper. By then, the sluices had already started to dry up and Max Hirshberg had saddled his proverbial horse (which in his case was a bicycle) and headed toward the next gold rush in Nome, Alaska.
On Aug. 17, 1896, an American prospector named George Carmack, his Tagish First Nation wife Kate (whose indigenous name was Shaaw Tláa), her brother Skookum Jim and their nephew Dawson Charlie were travelling south of the Klondike River.
Following a suggestion from Robert Henderson, another prospector, they began looking for gold in Bonanza Creek, then called Rabbit Creek, which was one of the Klondike’s tributaries. It is not clear who discovered the gold, George Carmack or Skookum Jim, or as recent history has suggested, Kate Carmack. What is clear is that in no time, all of Bonanza Creek had been staked and their claims had been registered. When the news hit the lower 48 American states in July 1897, the Klondike stampede officially began.
Literature does not always tell the truest version of a tale. The North is harsh – trees are spindly, winters seem endless. Life in the North can be challenging by today’s standards. In 1897, it could be deadly. After taking months to get from San Francisco to the fields of gold, mostly one found frostbite, scurvy and empty silt at the end of the journey. Only the luckiest filled their pockets with more than just dreams of wealth. It was that dream of pockets lined with gold, however, that led thousands onto steamer ships, over the Chilkoot and other trails and up the Yukon River to Dawson City.
Of course, the North attracted all sorts of people from various walks of life. Wherever there is a dreamer, there is a schemer. Where one will be lured by the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, another will realize that the prospector is going to need a sluice pan and a warm pair of socks – which he can provide. While the North may not seem like an obvious choice for a nice Jewish boy from the city, when you think about it, it is not such a stretch. Harsh times foster resilience and for every dreamer, there is also a pragmatist.
It is that resilience and pragmatism that allowed a number of Jewish merchants to thrive in Dawson City, both during and after the gold rush.
J.S. Baron came from Winnipeg and mushed into the Yukon following the stampede of 1898 via the White Pass route, bringing with him a stock of merchandise. He was one of the first to open a mercantile store on First Avenue. Suffering one misfortune after another, Baron showed the true grit of a Klondiker. On three occasions, he lost his supplies to fire, twice in 1899 and once in 1901. Three times, he restocked and started over.
The Oppenheimer brothers of Vancouver sold supplies to prospective gold miners during the gold rush. For $215, one could get 200 pounds of bacon fat, 50 pounds of evaporated apples, six-dozen yeast cakes, two pairs of gum boots, three sets of long underwear, a coat, two gold pans, a knife and a fork.
Of course, not every Jew who wandered to the gold rush did so to set up a mercantile business. Joe Levy bought into claims on Sulphur and Ophir creeks. Herbert Greenberg of Detroit, Max Hirshberg of Columbus, Ohio, and Henry Marcoe from San Francisco all tried their hand at prospecting to varying degrees of success.
Robert Bloom was the personification of the travelling salesman as he headed to the Klondike, where he would load up his gold pans and merchandise and head out to the creeks to sell his wares to the miners.
Louis Brier, a native of Romania, went to the goldfields in 1897. He both provided materials and grubstaked prospectors on a percentage basis. In this, he was very successful financially and, after his death, donated his estate to the creation of a Jewish old folks home, orphanage and hospital in British Columbia.
Abraham, Charles and Henry Isaacs established the Isaacs Brothers Clothing store in 1900, in addition to staking claims. Henry Isaacs went back to his hometown of Milwaukee, married Belle Weissenback and wooed her to the North with a necklace of gold nuggets.
But not all women who came to the Klondike came on the arm of their suitor. The infamous Diamond Tooth Lil was really Honora Ornstein from a prominent Jewish family in Butte, Mont. (via Austria and Hungary). Lil became a famous entertainer of some disrepute before the turn of the century. While her choices paid handsomely for a time, the lifestyle did not and Lil died alone and penniless in 1975.
Max Hirshberg had one of the most colourful adventures of all the Jews who came to the Klondike. Hirschberg was born in Ohio around 1880 and went north at a young age. After losing all of his supplies in an avalanche while crossing the Chilkoot Pass, he continued on to Dawson City. He ran a roadhouse in the Dawson district, but sold out in 1900 to join the stampede to Nome. He intended to sled to Alaska with a dog team, but the night before he was going to leave, this hotel caught fire. (Forming a bucket line to try and quench the fire proved unsuccessful and the building burned to the ground.)
In the dark and chaos of the fire, he tripped and stepped on a nail and ended up in the hospital with blood poisoning. He was not able to travel until March. By then, it was too late to travel by dog team because of the spring thaw, so Hirshberg did what any reasonable 20-year-old in 1900 would do – he decided to bicycle.
A true pioneer of modern pedal movement, he strapped a fur robe to his bike, a waist-belt with gold pieces to his body and a change of underwear under his seat and set out to travel hundreds of kilometres. The journey took him about two and a half months, during which time he suffered from snow-blindness, exhaustion and exposure.
Crossing the Shaktoolik River, he broke through the ice (but managed to save his bicycle somehow). Just east of Nome, his bicycle chain broke. Undeterred and seemingly invincible, he jimmied a sail out of a stick and his coat and sailed into Nome.
Such are a few of the characters who could undoubtedly be characterized as the colourful five per cent in Yukon, and Jewish, history.
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In 1902, Isaac Simons drowned when his boat capsized in the rapids on Forty Mile River, while he was delivering merchandise in the district. Simons was a young prospector from New York who had sought his fortune in the Klondike, leaving his friends and family far behind in the United States. As a result, he had no family nearby to care for the details of his burial. So the local Jewish community took it upon itself to tend to his funeral.
H. Pinkiert and Abe Isaacs, the president and secretary, respectively, of the Hebrew Congregation of Dawson City, petitioned Ottawa for the use two lots, perched amongst many other cemeteries in Dawson, to bury their own. Pinkiert, in his letter to Francis X. Gosselin, the Dominion land agent in Dawson, noted the urgency in the request, given Simons’ demise. In striking bureaucratic efficiency, one lot was reserved for the Hebrew Congregation in 1913, over 10 years after the first request was made. Luckily, the community had not waited for Ottawa’s approval to tend to Simons’ burial.
There are varying reports of who exactly is buried in the Jewish cemetery. The sign created for the rededication of the cemetery in 1998 lists the names of five men who are known to be buried there with the following dates of death:
• Isaac Simons – Sept. 1, 1902;
• Jacob Klein – July 9, 1903;
• Samuel Ross – July 28, 1911;
• Solomon Packer – Feb. 26, 1918; and
• Jacob Rosenfeld – June 9, 1931.
Despite the formal application for land for a cemetery in 1902, there is some evidence that the area was considered for a Jewish cemetery years before Pinkiert petitioned Ottawa. Charles Eschwege died on the steamer Ora on June 29, 1899. The July 5, 1899, issue of the Klondike Nugget indicated that the burial was in the “Jewish cemetery on Dawson hill.” Indeed, a badly decayed marker board with the name “Eschwege” was found on a steep incline on the hill, below the plateau of the cemetery, in 2001. Mortuary records further indicate that Abraham Alton (died May 5, 1901) and Benjamin Zeriff (died April 8, 1902) were also buried in the Jewish cemetery, but they died prior to the Pinkiert’s application to acquire the land.
The Jewish community in Whitehorse cleared, restored and rededicated the cemetery in 1998 and has since continued research into the Jewish presence in the Klondike.
A three-panel museum display documenting the area’s Jewish community during and after the gold rush has toured the country. The exhibit has been updated and is preparing for a second round of travel throughout Canada.