The Flame of the Yukon
Aunt Phil's Trunk
February 1, 2023 | View PDF
After brief stints in Skagway and Whitehorse, one Kansas girl swirled her way into gold rush history when she stepped on stage at the Palace Grand in Dawson City in 1900. Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, better known as "Klondike Kate," delighted audiences of miners with her song-and-dance routines.
She wore an elaborate dress covered in red sequins and an enormous cape in one dance that made her famous. Kate would take the cape off and start leaping and twirling with a cane that had yards of red chiffon attached. Onlookers said she looked like fire dancing around.
At the end of her number, Kate dramatically dropped to the floor. The miners, who went wild for the redheaded beauty, named her "The Flame of the Yukon."
Kate reportedly made up to $750 a night for her performances (more than $22,000 in 2022 dollars) and spent much of her fortune on fine clothes and jewelry. She boasted later in life that she wore "$1,500 gowns from Paris and bracelets of the purest gold."
Kate may have had a successful stage life for a couple of years, but her love life proved less fruitful. She fell for a man named Alexander Pantages, who owned Dawson's Orpheum Theatre on Front Street. He convinced her to invest in a string of theaters in the Pacific Northwest and start their own theater company.
Kate wanted a wedding ring on her finger as part of the deal. But while she was on a trip, Pantages married a violinist and took all Kate's money. She sued him for breach of promise in 1905, but later dropped the suit.
Although Kate, who later settled in Oregon, led neither an exciting nor a very lucrative life once she left Dawson, she did excel at self-promotion. She traveled on the lecture circuit around the Lower 48, expounding her legend and capitalizing on her life as "Queen of the Yukon," "Belle of Dawson" and "Klondike Queen," as she called herself.
In 1931, a Norwegian named Johnny Matson entered her life. Matson, who'd mined in the Klondike and had been smitten with Kate for 30 years, finally got around to telling her how he felt when he attended an Alaska-Yukon Sourdough reunion in Portland, Ore.
He wrote her about their meeting back at the turn of the century, and that began two years of correspondence – which finally led to marriage in 1933. Matson died in 1946.
Kate actively promoted herself and the gold rush legends, of which she helped to create, well into her 60s. If she wasn't dressing up for a holiday parade, reports say "she might be seen rolling her own cigarette with the deftness of a cowboy."
She later became a recluse and died on Feb. 21, 1957, at the age of 80.
This column features tidbits found while researching Alaska's colorful past for Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.