Make the McKenzie Connection!

The Case of the Klondike Kate Katfight

Part Two

Kathleen Eloise Rockwell was born in Kansas in 1876 and grew up in Spokane and Valparaiso, Chile. At age 18 she left home, moved to New York, and took a job as a chorus girl.

It was the start of a lifelong career as a dancer on the Vaudeville scene.

The turn of the century found Kate in Spokane again, working in a variety of theaters there. And that’s where she was when she heard about the Klondike gold rush.

She was adventuresome, athletic, and young, and the Klondike offered her the adventure of a lifetime. She did not waste time. With a colleague, she set out for “where the river is winding, big nuggets they’re finding”: North to Alaska — and points east!

The girls arrived in Dawson City in 1900 and found work right away; after all, there was a gold rush on, and every theater and drinking establishment was happy to hire as many pretty girls as it could.

Kate quickly nailed down a high-paying gig at the Palace Grande Theatre, where she developed something called the “Flame Dance” which involved a bright red dress and long trailing flame-colored ribbons and which was meant to metaphorically burn down the house — and usually did.

In Dawson, Klondike Kate was also famous for her red-gold hair, charisma, and happy-go-lucky style on stage. Plus, she was a spectacular conversationalist. Miners in town for an evening would chuck nuggets up on the stage and she’d scoop them up; she’d drink with them afterward, sharing bottles of wine that cost $5 each and pouring her glass discreetly into a spittoon to avoid getting drunk, while they talked about their lives. She talked at least one miner out of committing suicide, talked several out of leaving their wives, and even staked a few with some cash to keep them going after they’d been cleaned out by a professional gambler or robbed.

Very soon she was the most popular dancer in Dawson and was raking in the tips to the tune of up to $750 a night (in 1901 dollars — that’s the equivalent of more than $27,500 today).

Unfortunately, as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben probably never said (but no doubt would have if he’d thought of it), with great wealth come the great attentions of mercenary men. For Kate, that involved a charming Greek-American chap named Alexander Pantages.

Kate fell hard for Pantages. Soon they were a certified item, and she was living with him — “living in sin,” in the lingo of the day.

Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey is a serious Christian, and so sometimes when young unmarried couples call into his radio show and talk about setting up housekeeping together, they interpret his advice to get married first as moral posturing. He’s usually quick to turn that aside, telling them that without the legal protection of an actual marriage contract, both sides are taking on enormous risks when they mix their finances on big items like houses and cars and business ventures.

The story of Kate Rockwell and Alexander Pantages might just be the best, most on-point, and most extreme example of what Ramsey is talking about.

Pantages’ dream was to become a theater manager, with a string of Vaudeville theaters across the nation. He had saved up a war chest to do this with, but it wasn’t big enough to do the job right. In Kate Rockwell, the young impresario found a “sugar mama” who could and would stake him to the additional startup capital he needed to get it done.

So in 1902, as the gold rush started petering out, Pantages headed back to Seattle with his pockets full of money, both his own and Kate’s, to launch that dreamed-of string of theaters. Kate followed him a little later.

Unfortunately for Kate, by the time she got to Seattle, Pantages’ roving eye had fallen upon a dishy violin player in one of his theaters.

This girl was a little wiser than Kate had been and insisted that if Alexander liked it, he would need to put a ring on it.

Which he promptly and secretly did. And then he coldly informed Kate — who at this time considered herself his fiancée — of his altered marital status in a letter four days later.

Following this blow Kate Rockwell tried her best to shake it off. She plunged herself into her dancing, touring the West Coast with vaudeville troupes and doing what she did best.

But as the years went by, it became harder and harder to do that, and it was increasingly clear that she was going to have to find something else to do. In Dawson, she’d been in her early 20s, but by the late ’oughts she was in her 30s. She was still gorgeous, but like any athlete approaching middle age, she was starting to be dogged with injuries — especially sprained ankles and knees.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that Pantages, the ex-fiancé who had jilted her in the ugliest way imaginable, had gone on to build a huge empire of Vaudeville theaters all over the West, with his name on them and her money in them. Every time she passed one of them it reminded her of how badly she had gotten taken advantage of.

The only thing that made it feel better was performing, and she toured and performed frenetically for a few years, trying to lose herself in her work.

Finally, after an especially bad ankle sprain brought on a sort of nervous breakdown, a doctor told her bluntly that she’d have to quit, or she’d die.

She needed a place to get away from the Vaudeville scene, a place far away from the nearest Pantages Vaudeville theatre, a place to renew her soul.

Central Oregon would be that place.

We’ll talk about Kate Rockwell’s Oregon story — the stage of her life in which she transformed herself from “Klondike Kate” into “Aunt Kate of Farewell Bend” — in the the third and final part of this story.

(Sources: Klondike Kate: The Life and Legend of Kitty Rockwell, a book by Ellis Lucia published in 1962 by Hastings; Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, a book by Morgan Lael published in 1998 by Epicenter; “Klondike Kate,” an article by Nathan Pederson published in 2022 on the Oregon Encyclopedia; “History Hunter,” an article by Michael Gates published Dec. 1, 2018, in Yukon News.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Continued Next Week

 

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