A Gold Rush Donald Trump: Belinda Mulrooney and Her ‘Grand’ Endeavors

In an attempt to steer away from England for a post or two, I’ve taken the liberty of devoting this post to a topic completely unrelated to previous ones. A little known historical interest of mine lies in the Yukon (or Klondike) gold rush of the late nineteenth century.

The Yukon occurrence was probably the penultimate rush of a string of so-called “gold fevers” which caught the imaginations of spectators and prospectors alike from the Australian continent to the frigid reaches of Canada.

In 1896, George Washington Carmack claimed to have discovered gold along Rabbit Creek in the Yukon territory. To give my readers unfamiliar with the subject matter/region a point of reference, take a look at the map below:

Map of the Klondike gold fields. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

The map is unfortunately unclear in most aspects, but the whole point is that the larger Yukon river branched off into several tributaries. One of these was Rabbit Creek; after the 1896 discovery, it became known as Bonanza Creek.

Of course, there exists a continuing controversy about who “staked” the discovery claim which set off the Klondike gold rush. For the sake of brevity, suffice to say that two men, Carmack, a white man who married into a native Tlingit clan, and Robert Henderson, another prospector in the area, both laid claim to the discovery (for further information, check out this link). In any case, this drove upwards of between 100,000 and 200,000 people to the endpoint of Dawson City and the surrounding areas to try their luck at finding the mother lode. Men and women both desired to try their luck at becoming wealthy, some by prospecting, others by prospecting off the prospectors. Interestingly, gold rush women found themselves able to advance economically in a time where women were typically allotted the domestic sphere rather than the public one.

Typical gold rush lore romanticizes women as the “civilizers” of a wild, roving frontier. Author Frances Backhouse argues against this, however, noting that women often journeyed north of their own accord, desiring to serve miners in various capacities besides as suitable companions. [1] For the purposes of this post, I won’t delve into every single way in which women found economic opportunities. I am focusing on one exemplary example of a woman who became a female Donald Trump before Donald Trump even existed. But, women’s other economic opportunities included owning and operating various businesses including laundrettes, restaurants and boarding houses, living in the raucous camps as a demimonde, selling their domestic services, and even prospecting in small capacities. I explicate more upon this in my senior thesis, but that is for another time and place.

Now, onto Belinda Mulrooney. Born in Ireland, Mulrooney emigrated from her native land to the United States and eventually made her way to the Yukon via the Chilkoot route in June 1897. Charlotte Gray mentions that Mulrooney had a great deal of enterprising success under her belt before coming to the Yukon from opening and selling various businesses. [2] Upon her arrival in Dawson, a popular anecdote tells of how Mulrooney threw her last coin into the river and began her life anew in an entirely new place. [3] Ever one to take advantage of an opportunity, Mulrooney saw a great deal of potential in the tent-city that would grow to be a boomtown.

Almost as soon as she set foot on the Dawson beaches, Mulrooney staked her claim in several different arenas. Over the next year, she opened up a dress shop and a restaurant as well as becoming one of the earliest female real estate giants. [4] The Yukon gold rush peaked during 1897 and 1898, and with the rush of gold-seekers flooding into Dawson, Mulrooney placed herself in the most advantageous position. She recognized the necessity of housing this next wave, and as such bought many Dawson lots. On these plots she had workers build cabins. Complete with the latest amenities, she ultimately sold these homes for a substantial profit. [5] Finally, with all of the capital she gained, this Irish lady became a shareholder in the Gold Run Mining Company as well as the Eldorado-Bonanza Quartz and Placer Mining Company. [6] Even all these endeavors, however, failed to satiate Mulrooney’s strong and fervent desire for business.

In her grandest scheme yet, Mulrooney turned her extensive talents to hotel building and management. Sensing that greater opportunities lay to the southeast of Dawson, she traveled down the Bonanza and Eldorado Rivers, both the richest tributaries to be found in the Klondike. Mulrooney noticed the great volume of traffic around the conjunction of the rivers and decided this juncture had potential. [7] She built her soon-to-be-famous Grand Forks Hotel, and it soon became a sensation. After the town of Grand Forks grew up around her hotel, Mulrooney removed herself back to Dawson where she opened up the Fairview Hotel in 1898. [8] Many people surely stared the Fairview in awe; it contained glass chandeliers, silverware, china, and other luxuries which had traveled over the Chilkoot Pass. [9] Eventually Belinda married “Count” Charles Eugene Charbonneau in 1900, divorced him in 1906, and ultimately settled in Yakima, WA where she died in 1967.

Despite some failings and loss of fortunes, Belinda Mulrooney deserved the title of the “richest woman of the Klondike.”

Mulrooney’s Grand Fork’s Hotel. Image courtesy of the University of Washington, Special Collections Division.

[1] Francis Backhouse, Women of the Klondike (Toronto: Whitecap Books, 2010): 180.

[2] Charlotte Gray, Gold Diggers (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010): 103.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 110-113.

[5] Ibid. 112.

[6] Frances Backhouse, Women of the Klondike, 74-75, 161.; Charlotte Gray, Gold Diggers, 162.

[7] Ibid. 115-116.

[8] Ibid. 238.; Adriana Janovich, “Sunday talk on the ‘Queen of the Klondike’,” Yakima-HeraldRpublic, 13 March 2009.

[9] Ibid.; Ken Spotswood, “Women of the Klondike,” At ExploreNorth (1997-2009), http://explorenorth.com/library/yafeatures/klondike_women.html (accessed 08 November 2011).

For more information on the Yukon gold rush, check out the following sites:

The Postal Museum at the Smithsonian Institution: This has some great basic information on the gold rush and some of the key players.

University of Washington: The University of Washington has a great deal of collections relating to the Klondike and Nome gold rushes, including photographs from the famed Eric A. Hegg. I highly utilized this site for my capstone research.

Alaska’s Digital Archives: Another good resource for primary sources on the Klondike gold rush.

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