Each month except December, we host five different history programs at various McMenamins locations, led by historians, experiencers or experts in their fields. They are always free and open to guests of all ages.
Coming up in January, one of our history nights is a program on Klondike Kate, celebrated dancehall girl of the Yukon gold rush, who retired in Bend, OR.
Kathleen Eloise Rockwell (a.k.a. Klondike Kate, a.k.a. Kate Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren, a.k.a. Aunt Kate) was born in Kansas in the early 1870s. The family moved to Spokane, WA, where Kate became adept at flouting society rules and forging her own path. Her parents sent her away to boarding school to curb her wild ways, but she was quickly expelled. In the 1890s, her parents split up and Kate and her mother moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune. But when that didn’t pan out, Kate once again pulled up roots and headed off in a completely new direction – to Canada’s Yukon territory, which shares its western border with Alaska.
In Dawson City, a rough-and-tumble miners’ town, Kate found her life’s calling as a dancehall girl. Founded in 1897, Dawson City went from a Native American trading camp to a bustling sprawl of 40,000 within one year, with saloons, an opera house and several brothels. Kate found immediate success as a dancer and earned the nickname “Klondike Kate,” signing autographs with the phrase “Mush on and smile.” (It is interesting to note that author Jack London also lived in Dawson City at this time.)
It was in there that Kate met the love of her life, Alexander Pantages. Their relationship was complicated from the start, marred by jealousy and ambition. He eventually secretly married another woman, and informed Kate by letter four days later. Kate filed a lawsuit against him for “breach of promise to marry,” but they settled out of court. Pantages went on to become an extremely successful vaudeville and movie theater owner, with a string of 84 theaters including the famous Hollywood Pantages Theater. However, he was ruined financially after he was accused of rape in 1929. Kate was asked to testify against him, although she never did. He was sent to jail, but acquitted in 1931.
By the turn of the century, the gold rush was effectively over, so Kate moved south to Oregon. She continued dancing well into her 40s, and eventually settled in Brothers, just outside Bend. While she was known for wearing her glamorous stage costumes around town, she was also beloved for her charitable work.
Early-day Old St. Francis student Betty Hall got to know Klondike Kate – and her good deeds – pretty well. “She was a friend of my mother’s,” Betty recalled. “During the Depression, hobos made ‘towns’ up and down the railroad track, and [Kate] would go around to people and collect clothes or food or anything [to bring to the hobos]. She wasn’t afraid to go out and deliver to them; because of her life in Alaska, she was pretty well acquainted with all that kind of stuff. She was Catholic, but I don’t remember ever seeing her at church. I just remember her at Mama’s house… She’d always – about once a week – appear at our house. She’d hit everybody she knew that might have a bag of rice or a shirt. Yep, she’d hit different places. I remember her telling my mother, ‘Well, I don’t take ’em out a fancy dinner, but what I take ’em out they can make a stew out of it….'”
Kate married several times, hence the Kate Rockwell Warner Matson Van Duren name(s). She was also the inspiration for 1952 Walt Disney character Goldie O’Gilt (a.k.a. Glittering Goldie), Scrooge McDuck’s sweetheart in the comic Back to the Klondike. In a flashback, Scrooge catches Goldie attempting to rob him of his gold and she repays the debt by helping him work his claimed stake at White Agony Creek. One of Goldie’s lines is: “You mangy, flea-bitten, stupid, ungrateful, handsome, brave, no-good polecat!! It’s time I showed you JUST what I think of you!!” She plants a big kiss on McDuck, right before punching his lights out with a POW!!
Kate passed away in Bend in 1957. To learn more about this vibrant, remarkable woman, attend the January 27 History Night at Old St. Francis School for “The Many Lives of Klondike Kate.”