Books We Love Ltd. Dedicates the Canadian Historical Brides series to the immigrants, male and female, who left their homes and families, crossed oceans and endured unimaginable hardships in order to settle the Canadian wilderness and build new lives in a rough and untamed country.
Books We Love acknowledges the Government of Canada and the Canada Book Fund for its financial support in creating the Historical Brides of Canada series.
“Isn’t this captivating?” Pearl exclaimed to her cousin Emma. She leaned over the rail of the sternwheeler and looked down at the mighty Yukon River. During their voyage, it had changed colour from clear blue to muddy brown and gone from wide and slow to narrow and rapid. “I love the way the paddlewheel churns up the water behind us.”
“You’ve been saying something like this just about every day since we left Halifax,” Emma said with a grin.
“I don’t think so,” Pearl protested.
“Oh, I do. The prairies you saw from the train were expansive and beautiful, the coast you saw from the steamship was wild and incredible, and now on this voyage up the river you’ve described the mountains as being majestic, the walls of granite we passed through as being proud, and the river as being lovely, treacherous, frightening, and now captivating.”
“It’s just that so far this trip has been everything I hoped it would be.” Pearl shook her head. “I still have a hard time believing that I am on my way to Fortymile to write articles and do sketches about life in the north for the Morning Herald.”
“Well, you are.” Emma put her arm around Pearl. “And I’m with you.”
Pearl leaned her head on Emma’s shoulder “Yes, and thank you for coming. I’m so glad you and I are sharing this trip. You’ve made it so much more fun.”
Even though Pearl had a writing assignment and a monetary advance from their hometown newspaper, her parents had thought that, at nineteen, she was too young to make the long journey from Halifax to Fortymile alone. But they gave their blessing and some money to help with expenses once twenty-one-year-old Emma decided to leave her job and come with her.
Pearl grinned widely. Her sense of euphoria had not lessened in the two months since she’d boarded the train, even when the long days became tedious and boring. She was on an adventure, an adventure as great as that of Mrs. Anna Leonowens who had taught the wives, concubines, and children of the King of Siam in the 1860s and wrote about it in The English Governess at the Siamese Court. Mrs. Leonowens opened the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax and Pearl had attended it for two years learning how to write and sketch. During that time she’d had articles and illustrations accepted by Collier’s Weekly: an Illustrated Journal, Harper’s Magazine, and the Morning Herald.
At the same time, her cousin, Sam, had been sending home letters about his experiences in the north looking for gold. He’d gone there five years ago with two friends and while they had not found a big strike, they had found enough gold to keep themselves in money while they continued the search. Those letters had made the north sound so romantic and they had been the basis for her pitch to the newspaper publisher.
For the first part of the journey up the river, the weather had been warm and she had enjoyed drawing the hills, the animals, and the birds she had seen from the deck of the ship. She’d also sketched some of the Indian summer camps they’d passed. Their houses were shorter and had rounded roofs, much different from the teepees she’d seen in the prairies. Then, after leaving the post of Beaver, the hills had slowly disappeared. Now, as they watched, the water flow became sluggish and it was as if they were steaming out onto a lake instead of up a river.
“Is this still part of the river?” Pearl asked one of the crew.
“Yes,” the crewmember answered. “It’s known as the Yukon Flats.”
“How long do the flats last?”
“We will be sailing north by northeast through them until we cross the Arctic Circle and reach Fort Yukon.”
Pearl watched as they passed islands and sandbars where a few ducks and geese swam in the quiet water. The dinner bell rang. Pearl and Emma headed to their table. After their meal, they joined an older couple for a game of cards.
Later, before going to bed Pearl walked around the deck enjoying the twilight at such a late hour as ten o’clock.
It was late in the next day that they crossed the Arctic Circle and arrived at Fort Yukon. Pearl had learned that the fort had been a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post in the early 1860s even though it was Russian territory. When the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, they ousted the British fur traders. Pearl quickly drew the few buildings of the post that she could see from the sternwheeler. After an overnight stay, they began steaming south and soon were out of the flats and back onto the river.
* * *
Sam Owens sat at a rough-hewn, wooden table in the smoke-filled Fortymile Saloon and stared at his drink. He barely heard the boisterous laughter and clinking of glasses around him as he tried to find the right words to say.
He and his friends, Gordon Baker and Donald Miller, had just returned to their cabin after panning a creek twenty miles inland from the town of Fortymile. They had trekked over permafrost, around sloughs, and through the bush with backpacks only to find nothing more than a few cents of gold per pan.
Their discussion at the table about whether they should head back home to Halifax on the next boat out or stay for one more winter was going nowhere. It was the first week of August and the riverboats only plied the river until mid-September when freeze-up began. They had to make up their minds soon. Did they want to make one last attempt to strike it rich, or just give up their dream and return to a normal life in Nova Scotia?
Sam, who had convinced the others to come north in the search for gold, had voted to stay. Donald Miller wasn’t sure which way to go, but Gordon Baker wanted to go home.
“I think we should give ourselves more time,” Sam said.
“More time?” Gordon banged his fist on the table. “My god, we’ve been here five years. How much more time do we need to figure out this whole thing has been a waste of our time.”
Sam stared at his friend as Gordon gulped down the last of his beer and signaled for another one. He was worried and had been for the past few months. Gordon had changed. Gone was the carefree, happy man he and Donald had come north with, had shared many experiences, good and bad, with. In his place was a man who could erupt in anger at the smallest thing, whose face sometimes took on a demented look, and whose eyes darted from place to place as if fearful of someone or something.
Sam had heard stories about men who had gone mad while living in the north. Men like the guy only known by the nickname, Old Maiden, who kept a bundle of old newspapers with him because he said he needed them to refer to if he got into an argument. Or Cannibal Ike who kept a moose carcass in his cabin and ate the meat raw.
Was Gordon going that same route? Had five years of looking for the big strike affected his mind?
“Well, I wouldn’t say our time here has been a waste,” Donald said, tracing one of the many gouges in the tabletop with his finger. He looked up with a smile. “It certainly has been a grand and splendid venture.”
“Yes, it has,” Sam agreed heartily. “And I really don’t want to see it end.”
“That’s because you’ve become a northerner,” Gordon snorted.
The three of them had been unlikely friends since grade school. Donald had been the shy, quiet one, Gordon the outgoing and athletic one, while Sam had been pudgy with a sense of humour. They’d left their homes in the province of Nova Scotia six years ago heading first to the Cariboo gold fields of British Columbia. Even though that strike had happened in 1860, some still found gold in the area. After a year with no success, they came north to the Yukon River in the Northwest Territories. For the past five years they had tramped all over the territory, sinking shafts and shovelling gravel on creek after creek and had nothing to show for it except their run-down cabin here at Fortymile and a claim that produced five cents of gold with each pan, and that was on good days. Sure, it kept them in supplies and they always had some money, but like all men who searched for gold, they wanted to strike it rich.
In spite of trekking up and down miles and miles of rivers and creeks, and following every prospector’s direction to where he had panned gold, they hadn’t found a better paying claim. The only reason they had the cabin was because an old prospector from the 1886 Fortymile gold rush was heading south to live with his son and he offered it to them for whatever gold they had on them. Before that, they had rented a cabin in the settlement for the winter and lived in a tent in the summer.
“I’m tired of stumbling through the tough wilderness, fighting the elements of heat and cold, and going hungry,” Gordon continued, taking a drink of his beer. “I don’t want to spend another cold winter here. It bothers me that I am cut off from the rest of the world for eight months unless I want to trek six hundred miles up the frozen Yukon to Lake Bennett, go to Lake Lindeman and over the Chilkoot Pass.”
“Why don’t you join the theatre group with me?” Donald asked. “Rehearsing for the plays and building the set gives me something to do during the winter months.”
Gordon just glared at him.
“Or we could put you in charge of keeping the stove going all day and night,” Sam grinned, trying to lighten the mood. “That would keep you busy.”
“That’s another reason I want out of here. We either spend some of our summer chopping down trees and cutting them into lengths for our stove in the winter or we use most of the gold we find to buy wood.”
Sam scratched his short black beard and sighed. He really hated to see his friends leave and he had tried every argument to make them stay. He thought he had Donald convinced but Gordon seemed set on going.
“I guess there’s nothing more I can say,” Sam said, his voice subdued.
“No, there isn’t.”
“Are you taking the next boat?”
“Well, I’d like to make one last trip to Ogilvie.”
“That’s a hundred miles upriver,” Donald protested.
Sam felt like kicking Donald under the table. Maybe a trip up the river would change Gordon’s mind.
“I know,” Gordon said. “But Joe should be back from his visit to the Outside by now and I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to him.”
Sam nodded. Joseph Ladue had been one of the first men they had met when they’d arrived. He was a co-owner of the trading post at Ogilvie and, not only had he outfitted them for their first search for gold, he had explained what they were to look for. He had become their closest friend in the north.
“We haven’t seen him since he left last year, so this will be a good reason to go,” Sam said.
“If we make it back in time for me to take the next boat, fine,” Gordon said. “If not, then I will book passage on the last one in September.”
“What about you, Donald?” Sam asked. “Are you leaving, too?”
Donald kept his eyes on his glass. “I’ll decide when we get back from Ogilvie,” he said.
Sam nodded. That was the best he could expect for now. “Let’s head out tomorrow,” he said, keeping his voice warm and affable to hide the deep disappointment he was feeling. “We have a lot of upstream poling to do.”
The others agreed. Gordon signaled for another round.
“I’ve had enough,” Sam said. He finished his drink then stood to leave. “I’ll see you later at the cabin.”
Sam ducked his head to miss the kerosene lamps hanging from the ceiling as he walked through the wood shavings on the floor and out of the saloon. He breathed deeply of the warm summer air and started walking along the wooden sidewalk. He loved this town he now called home. From what he had heard it had begun as a lonely village until someone discovered gold on the Fortymile River late in the fall of 1886 and about twenty miners camped near the mouth of the river for the winter. The smattering of log cabins along the water became a town of about 200 in 1889 when the Alaska Commercial Company sternwheeler Arctic began delivering regular supplies and equipment.
Because it was so far north, spring, summer and fall were usually lumped together from May to September. The nearest outfitting ports were thousands of miles away in San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. Steamers with passengers and supplies sailed north as far as St. Michael, near the mouth of the Yukon River. There the passengers and supplies transferred onto sternwheelers like the Arctic and the Weare. These stopped at the posts along the river, Fortymile being one of them.
Miners, some flush with money from a summer working their claims, moved into Fortymile for the seven to eight months of winter. He knew most of them and found them to be an odd assortment. There were men who suffered from wanderlust and went wherever there was a suggestion of a gold strike. Some of the men had taken part in the American Civil War. Others came from all over Canada. Still others came from England, men whose parents had shipped them to North America because they were a disgrace and embarrassment to their family. These men were paid money to stay in the far-off country and were called remittance men. There were also women in town that worked in the dance halls or set up businesses as bakers, laundresses, and seamstresses.
Many of the miners were well educated and they had built a theatre where they put on plays. He, himself, enjoyed the lending library with its reading material. There were also six saloons, several restaurants, a billiard room, and two well-equipped stores. Other businesses included a watchmaker, a dressmaker with the latest fashions, and two blacksmiths. If anyone got sick or injured, two doctors made Fortymile their home.
Really, Sam wondered, what more could a person ask for in a place to live?
Pearl and Emma shared what passed for a stateroom. It was a small room with bunk beds, a writing table with chair, a separate wing chair and a small closet where they had hung some of their clothing. They had brought their own bedding and pillows—otherwise they’d have had to sleep on bare mattresses—and their own papers, pens, and ink. The Weare was approaching Circle City and their excitement was high at the idea of having a full day to explore the town.
“I’ll do your hair if you will do mine,” Emma suggested.
“Okay.” Pearl smiled. She had always thought her long blonde hair was her best feature and she wanted to keep up with the latest fashion news in hairstyles. She spent hours poring over the Delineator, the New York fashion magazine that came out every month.
Through reading the magazine, she’d learned that there was no other item of her toilette so influential in emphasizing or lessening her natural attractiveness than the arrangement of her hair. This crowning glory could almost be a disfigurement if not done becomingly. But if the tresses were carefully dressed, they would lend a decided charm to a plain face. The protruding knot at the crown of the head, known as the Newport, was the present rage.
“Let’s do the knot for a slender face today,” Emma said. She was always encouraging Pearl to try something new. Emma liked to change her hairstyle every month.
“I’ve tried it and it doesn’t seem to look right on me.” Pearl sat down in front of the large mirror over the writing desk.
“To you maybe, but I’m sure it would be the perfect one for your face.”
Pearl thought about the article she had read. The Newport should sit just below the crown of a woman’s head if her face is round, but to secure perfect becomingness it could be raised above the crown for an oval face or made into a longish knot for the long slender face.
“I’m just not sure what type of face I have.” Pearl had gone over the article many times but had never found a description of what full and round, oval, or long and slender looked like. She had tried the different adaptations until she found one she thought added a perfect becomingness to a plain, oval face. Once she’d settled on the style, Pearl hadn’t varied from it.
“I keep telling you it is slender.”
Pearl sighed. “Okay, let’s try it.”
“Turn your back to the mirror so you can’t see it until I am finished,” Emma instructed.
Pearl turned the chair around and sat. She pulled at her bangs while Emma took the chimney off the alcohol lamp used to light their room at night and lit the wick. She put the chimney on again and balanced the waving tongs on the opening at the top to heat.
“I wish I’d inherited grandma’s hair like you did,” Emma said, as she combed out Pearl’s long hair.
“And I wish I’d got her daintiness like you.” Pearl had always envied Emma her small stature and tiny waist. Even though she was only slightly taller and heavier than her cousin, Pearl always felt large compared to her.
Emma gathered the hair at the center of Pearl’s head into a switch leaving the hair all around the edge. She twisted the switch and wound it into a coil at the crown securing it with a hairpin. By this time, the tongs were hot. She took a cloth and wiped any soot off the iron, then picked a portion of Pearl’s hair and, starting at the scalp, wound the strand on the round jaw of the tongs. She closed the clamp part of the tongs over the hair and heated it through to make the waves last longer.
Emma unwound the hair, heated the tongs again, and did another section. When all the hair outside the coil was waved, the twist was undone and the waved portions were pulled up into the switch. The coil was wrapped around into a long knot and held in place with pins.
“Can I see?” Pearl asked.
Emma turned Pearl towards her so she could work on her bangs. She combed some of them over Pearl’s forehead then parted the rest down the middle. She pushed small side-combs, made of shell, vertically through the bang at both sides about half an inch from the parting.
“There,” Emma said when she was finished. “That makes you look so beautiful.”
When she had first read the article about the Newport knot, Pearl had stared at her reflection in the mirror for, according to the magazine, the face must be studied for the proper arrangement of the large, natural-looking waves of the side-locks. If the face was full and round, the waves should be slightly puffed out at the sides; for an oval face, the waves must be loosely adjusted; and they should be drawn back, but not rigidly, from a long, slender face.
So far, she had thought her face was oval and had loosely adjusted the waves. Pearl was surprised at the woman who now looked back at her from the mirror. The waves around her face were soft and seemed to enhance her cheekbones while toning down her square chin.
“I like it,” Pearl said, happy with the results. It was much better than she had been able to do herself. Emma was right; this was the proper hairdo to improve her looks.
“Good, because this is the real you.”
Pearl returned the favour for Emma, only instead of knotting her brunette hair on the crown of her head, with the waves heading towards it; she set the knot at the nape of her neck with the waves travelling over the crown of her head and down to it. It was secured with a hair buckle.
“What are you going to wear?” Emma asked, as she admired the way Pearl had curled her bangs gracefully over her forehead. “A rainy daisy or bloomers?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Pearl’s taste in clothing had changed since Annie “Londonderry” Choen Kopchovsky became the first woman to journey around the world on a bicycle in 1894-95. Despite never having ridden a bicycle before, Annie took up the challenge of the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company to test a woman’s ability to fend for herself. She left Boston, her husband, and her three young children behind and travelled with a change of clothes, a pearl-handled revolver, and a placard on her bike for the company.
It wasn’t long, though, before she switched her long skirts for the increasingly popular bloomers, styled after Turkish trousers. Annie headed to Europe and biked through France, Egypt, Colombo, and Singapore before landing in San Francisco. She crossed the United States and arrived home fifteen months after leaving and five thousand dollars richer for having made the trip.
Pearl had devoured the article written in the New York World that described Annie’s trip as “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” Since then Pearl had given up the long, full skirts that were heavy and cumbersome, the corsets and petticoats that further limited her movement and the high-collared dresses that forced her to hold her head high or even tilted back.
“What are you wearing?” Pearl asked. She stood in front of the closet and looked at her outfits.
“It’s a lovely day, so I think I’ll wear my light blue dress.” Emma already had on her cotton Combination, which combined a chemise and drawers into one smooth-fitting garment designed to protect her clothes from the oils of her skin. She was donning her corset over it. “Would you please tighten this for me?”
“How can you still wear this?” Pearl asked as she tugged on the laces of Emma’s corset. “It’s a torture contraption and I’m glad I threw mine away.”
“But don’t you miss having something to keep everything in place?” Emma squirmed as she adjusted the corset a bit.
“No. I certainly prefer my ‘functional fashion’.” Pearl tied the laces tightly. With her slightly larger frame, it didn’t matter how tight her mother had pulled Pearl’s corset, she couldn’t achieve the fashionable hourglass figure even when Pearl was on the verge of fainting from lack of oxygen. “I like casual clothes like my rainy daisies, my bloomers, and my travel outfits. I like the freedom of movement that longer skirts don’t allow.”
Pearl rummaged through her overflowing trunk. After reading and rereading Sam’s letters, in which he sometimes mentioned the cost of the clothing and other items he had had to buy as his wore out, she had made a list of clothes and sundries to bring with her for her year in the north. They included one pillow, two heavy wool blankets, one waterproof blanket, and a pair of dark sunglasses. Besides the outfits for her trip she had packed a waterproof coat and hat, one pair of heavy gloves, two suits of heavy wool underwear, two suits of summer underwear, winter hose, one serge, one corduroy and one woolen dress lined with flannel, a cap, a Norfolk jacket, and a wool coat. For her footwear, she brought two pairs of shoes and a pair of low-heeled boots.
Emma hadn’t been sure if she was staying for the winter but to be on the safe side, she, too, had packed winter outfits.
Pearl pulled out a rainy daisy and held it up. It was a style of walking or sports skirt that was perfect for rainy weather. The shorter hemline did not drag through puddles of water when she walked and seldom caught in her bicycle mechanism. She folded it and put it back. Next, she took out a pair of bloomers. She liked the long, full pants that gathered at the ankle or below the knee and sometimes wore them with a knee length skirt. From the way Sam described the terrain she thought they would make getting through the bush much easier.
“I think I’ll wear my beige shirtwaist and brown walking suit.” Pearl pulled on her Combination and then her shirtwaist, a bodice tailored like a man’s shirt with a high collar. It was for informal daywear and worn by many working women. Her brown walking suit had an ankle length skirt and matching jacket. She stepped into her pair of oxfords that came up to her ankle and fastened the three buttons. The day was warm so she decided to leave the jacket in their room. She donned a straw bonnet and tied the strings under her chin.
She looked at Emma. Her form-fitting bodice had leg o’mutton sleeves which were tight from the wrist to the elbow and flared out from elbow to shoulder. With its gathering at the waist, her skirt fell naturally over her hips. She finished dressing with a pair of suede shoes lined with satin and trimmed with steel beads. The heels were two inches high and flared out at the bottom. Pearl had always envied Emma’s small figure, her alabaster skin, her pixie face. She had been a cute child and had grown into a beautiful woman.
Emma had a parasol in her hand. She stayed out of the sun, not liking the way her skin tanned on her face and hands but left the rest of her body white.
* * *
Before disembarking, Pearl and Emma stood on the deck to look at the sight before them. Circle City, with its main street built on a curve of the river sported a row of one and two storey log buildings, the fronts of which faced the water. The buildings on the right went straight, far into the distance but on the left, the street curved out of sight.
The men from boat crew were unloading supplies, carrying sacks of flour down the plank, across the dock, up a slight hill and through the door into McQuesten’s Alaska Commercial Company store. On the roof of the store, a tall flagpole with a large US flag hung limply in the still air.
Four dogs waited on the bank and a crowd of mainly men milled along the sidewalk that ran in front of the buildings. It was boat day and many of the residents had come out to see who was arriving and who was leaving and to check if they had any mail. A pile of wood sat on the bank of the river waiting to be loaded for the steam engine’s boiler.
Pearl and Emma walked along the dock and up to the main street with the bright, warm sun beating down on their heads. Pearl had her sketchpad under her arm and two pencils in her beaded handbag. Emma opened her parasol.
“Which way should we go?” Emma asked.
Pearl shrugged. “Let’s go in the trading post first and then look around.”
A tall, stout man with sparse graying hair and a large moustache was checking the bags and boxes brought in by the boat crew. He looked up and smiled at them when they walked in the door.
“Good day, ladies. May I help you?”
“Thank you but we just want to look around,” Pearl said.
He nodded and went back to his work.
They wandered through the store looking at the shelves stocked with winter clothing, boots, food stuff like sacks of oatmeal and bags of tea, as well as sundry items like dog harnesses, fishing equipment, saws and axes, pots and pans, and fire pokers.
“What do you suppose that is for?” Emma whispered, pointing to a large round pan. “Looks like you could cook enough food for twenty people in that.”
“That’s a gold pan,” the tall man said. “Miners use it to separate gold from the sand and gravel in the rivers and creeks.
Pearl and Emma reddened as they furtively grinned at each other in embarrassment.
“Um, thank you,” Emma said.
Since there was nothing that a woman of fashion would be interested in, they quickly finished their tour and left.
“So, that’s what Sam meant when he described a gold pan,” Pearl said, as they walked along the sidewalk and around the front buildings to see the rest of the town. They passed an opera house, a library, a hospital, a church, a couple of dance halls, a newspaper building and even a sawmill. They also saw clusters of log cabins along several of the short streets.
The front of one cabin sported a sign the sign: Mrs. Wills Laundry. On the sidewalk in front of the cabin sat a table with a large, round galvanized tub filled with soapy water. A hand-operated wringer attached to the rim and a washboard leaned against the edge. The door of the cabin opened for a stocky woman in a long, checked dress who stepped over the stoop with an armload of dirty shirts. With her hair parted her hair in the middle and pulled back in a bun she looked to be about fifty.
“I want to stop and talk with Mrs. Wills,” Pearl told Emma. In his letters, Sam had mentioned that there were a few white women in the north and she had decided her first article would be about these women. She wanted to know why they came to the gold fields. So Mrs. Wills might be her very first subject.
“Excuse me,” Pearl said. “Are you Mrs. Wills?”
The woman dropped the shirts in the water and pushed a strand of hair off her face with a work-reddened hand. Then she glanced from Pearl to Emma and smiled. “Yes?”
“My name is Miss Pearl Owens and this is my cousin, Miss Emma Owens.”
Mrs. Wills sloshed the shirts around in the water then picked one and scrubbed it against the glass ripples on the board.
“I’ve come here to do some articles about life in the north,” Pearl explained. “And I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Because I want to write about the women and men who live here in the north.”
“There’s nothing to write about me,” she said, checking a particularly tough stain. “But ask away.”
Pearl opened her sketchpad, the only thing she had to write in and took out a pencil. At the top of her page she wrote, “Mrs. Wills”. “Could I have your full name?”
“Mrs. Hattie Wills, wife of John Wills.”
“How long have you been in Circle City?”
“Two years.” Mrs. Wills tucked the collar of the shirt between the rollers of the wringer. She turned the handle and the rollers pulled the shirt through, wringing the excess water out of the material. She caught the shirt and set it on the table.
“Why did you come?”
Mrs. Wills was reaching for another shirt. She hesitated.
Pearl suddenly realized that she might have gotten too personal.
“I’d be careful if I was you,” Mrs. Wills said, scrubbing another shirt on the board. “There are some people here who won’t take kindly to you asking that question.”
“I’m sorry. That’s none of my business.”
“I, personally, don’t mind. I’m from Tacoma, Washington. My husband is a gunsmith and terribly crippled by rheumatism. He wanted to come here and look for gold but his illness prevented him from doing so. There was no way he could make the trip or survive the winters. So I said I would come for him.”
“Have you found gold?”
“Not from a claim.” She waved her hand at the dirty shirts. “I get their owner’s gold.”
“So there is good money in being a laundress?”
“There is until you have to start paying the prices for soap and starch at the Alaska Commercial Company.”
“It’s expensive to live here?” While Sam had told of the high costs of clothes, Pearl hadn’t thought about how much difference there might be in the price of other items between the towns in the north and south.
Mrs. Wills snorted. “I pay $2.50 for the box of starch for the shirts, and that doesn’t last very long.” She held up the washboard. “This is worth about twenty-five cents back home. It cost me $1.50 here.”
“That’s a big difference.”
“And that’s not all. The rent for this little cabin is thirty-five dollars a month and a supply of wood to heat it for the winter costs $225.”
A young native woman came around the corner carrying another large tub. She set it on the sidewalk beside the table and left.
“And I pay my assistant four dollars a day plus meals.” Mrs. Wills rolled another shirt through the wringer. She threw it and the first one into the empty tub.
“Do you plan on returning home to your husband?” Another personal question but she was curious.
“I could never get a job there that pays me as well as this. He’s living with his sister and I send some money to help with his care when I can.”
Pearl didn’t know what else to ask. “Do you mind if I do a sketch of you and your cabin?”
“You’ll have to do it while I’m working.”
“I’m bored.” Emma yawned. “I’m going to wander around.”
“Sure,” Pearl nodded absently, as she flipped to the next page in her sketchbook.
The native woman returned with two pails of water and poured them in the rinse tub. She left and came back again with two more. By this time, Mrs. Willis had scrubbed all the shirts and added them to the rinse.
“This is Winnie.” Mrs. Wills said as she placed the wringer over the lip of the tub. “Winnie, this is Pearl Owens.”
Winnie looked up at Pearl and smiled. The smile illuminated the dark-skinned beauty of her face.
“May I sketch you?” Pearl asked.
Winnie tilted her head, a quizzical look on her face. Pearl looked at Mrs. Wills.
“She doesn’t understand much English and I don’t know what sketch means in her language,” Mrs. Wills said.
Pearl walked over to Winnie and showed her the drawing she had done of Mrs. Will and her cabin. She then pointed to Winnie and then to the paper.
Winnie smiled and nodded.
Pearl turned to another page and drew just Winnie’s face, her high cheekbones, her shiny black hair, and her deep brown eyes. When she showed it to Winnie, the girl stared at it, then looked up at Pearl. She pointed to the portrait and then to herself.
“Let me see,” Mrs. Wills said. Pearl tilted the book towards her. “You’re good. That looks exactly like her.”
“Did you talk with Jack McQuesten?”
“I saw McQuesten’s store when I got off the boat. Emma and I went in but the only person we saw was an old man.”
“Who is he?”
“Who is he?” Mrs. Wills laughed. “Only the most generous man in the north. He has kept many a prospector from starving while looking for gold.”
“How did he do that?” Pearl found another page and began writing.
“By giving credit to any man who needed it so he could keep prospecting.”
“If he gives credit to everyone how does he make a living?”
“When they eventually find gold they go to him and clear their accounts.”
“And you say his first name is Jack?”
“Actually it’s Leroy Napoleon but everyone calls him Jack.”
Pearl scanned the sidewalk and spied Emma talking with a young woman. Emma beckoned to her.
“I have to go.” Pearl closed her book. “Thank you for your time.”
“Will I get a copy of the article?” Mrs. Wills asked.
Pearl stopped. That was something she hadn’t thought of. “Only if you get the Morning Herald from Halifax.” She opened her book again and handed it to Mrs. Wills. “I’m not sure when it will be published in the newspaper but if you write your address here I will send you a copy when I get one.”
Pearl walked over to Emma.
“This is Miss Clara Foley,” Emma said. “I’ve been telling her about our trip, about Sam and Donald and Gordon living here and that you are working on an article about women in the north. She met Sam and his friends once and she said you could talk with her.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Foley.”
“Miss Owens.” Miss Foley nodded. “And call me Clara.”
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Pearl.”
Clara appeared to be a couple of years older than Pearl. Her shirtwaist and ankle length skirt tagged her as a modern woman. “Have you been here long?” Pearl asked.
“One year. I came here to visit my brother who is prospecting. There was a need for someone to mend the men’s clothing and to sew new shirts and pants. I stayed on.”
Pearl asked Clara several of the same questions she’d asked Hattie Wills. Clara explained that she and her brother shared a cabin. He had a claim eighty miles north of Circle City. She had been there once but preferred to live in the city. She liked Circle City and planned to stay for a while longer.
“How many people live here?” Pearl asked.
“It varies from around seven hundred when the men head to their gold claims to twelve hundred when they return.”
“I didn’t know there were that many people in the north let alone in one town. How long has the town been here?”
“Jack McQuesten and his wife Katherine set up a trading post here two years ago. He named it Circle City because he thought it was close to the Arctic Circle. It’s actually about fifty miles south.”
“It’s grown this big in only two years?” Pearl couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Yes, it’s the largest log cabin town in the North Country.”
“There seems to be an active social life here. We saw theatres, dance halls, even an opera house.”
“There’s certainly a lot to keep everyone occupied. A small theatre troupe came here this summer to put on a production of a play written by one of them. It was a comedy and was actually very funny. They said they would return next summer. And, of course, the girls in the dance halls put on quite a show. Some of the miners produce a pageant at Christmas.” She stopped and shook her head. “It’s amazing the education some of these men have.”
“This place doesn’t sound much different from any city in the south,” Emma said.
“It’s just smaller, is all. Jack McQuesten keeps saying that at the rate it’s growing it’s going to be bigger than Juneau in a few years.”
“It sounds like I need to talk with Mr. McQuesten.” Pearl put her pencil in her bag “Nice meeting you, Clara.”
Pearl and Emma returned to the trading post, where a younger man at the counter was talking with Jack McQuesten. The women wandered the shelves but couldn’t help overhearing the conversation.
“How much do I owe you, Jack?” the man asked.
McQuesten pulled a ledger from under the counter. He thumbed through the pages then ran his finger down a column. “Six hundred fifty dollars.” The old man’s voice was a quiet rumble.
“Geeze Jack, I’ve only got four hundred. I can’t pay you six fifty from four.”
“That’s fine. Just give me your four and I’ll let the rest go until you do your next clean-up.”
“But I need more grub.”
“I’ll let you have it like always and we’ll settle up later.”
“But, what about my spree?”
“Well, you can’t return to your claim without having a spree.” Jack laughed. “Come back here when you are finished and we’ll carry on with our discussion.”
“Thanks, Jack.” The man left the store.
Pearl went up to the counter. “Mr. McQuesten, my name is Miss Pearl Owens and this is my cousin Miss Emma Owens. We’re from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I’ve come to the north to write newspaper articles for our city’s newspaper.”
“Articles about what?”