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Belinda Mulrooney: The Richest, Toughest Woman of the Klondike Gold Rush

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 18, 2024 3:03 am

Belinda Mulrooney: The Richest, Toughest Woman of the Klondike Gold Rush

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 18, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, no woman figured more prominently on the Yukon and Alaskan frontiers than Belinda Mulrooney. She gained international fame as the richest woman in the Klondike and made and lost more than one fortune. She became a character in novels and her dog the inspiration for "Buck" in the Call of the Wild. Here to tell the story is Roger McGrath, author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier.

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Here's McGrath. No woman figured more prominently on the Yukon and Alaskan frontiers than Belinda Mulroney. She gained international fame as the richest woman in the Klondike and made and lost more than one fortune. She became a character in novels and her dog the inspiration for Buck in The Call of the Wild. Belinda Mulroney is born in Ireland in 1872, but she's reared partly in Pennsylvania when her father leaves Ireland to work in Scranton's coal mines.

Here's Melanie Mayer, author of Staking Her Claim, The Life of Belinda Mulroney, Klondike and Alaska entrepreneur. Belinda's early years in Ireland have a big effect on her personality. She doesn't know her father, John, because he leaves for America shortly after she's born, then after two years of bonding with her mother, Mary. Mary disappears, too.

Belinda is left in the care of her loving grandparents on the farm in Ireland, and she does have some young, rough-and-tumble uncle playmates who help her learn to stand up for herself and not whine. But losing her mother is traumatic. Who can she really trust?

Who can she really love? This will be an issue the rest of her life. As a child, she turns to her trusty donkey. She calls him her twin because he was born on the same day she was.

When Belinda is almost 13 years old, her parents send for her to come to America. She says, leaving my uncles was bad. Leaving my grandmother was worse. But leaving the donkey?

I threw my arms around his neck and I cried and cried for hours after I left him. Belinda leaves home in 1893 to open a small restaurant at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Before the Exposition closes, she has accumulated $8,000 in profits, something like a quarter million in today's money.

Mulroney's next stop is California, where she opens an ice cream parlor in San Francisco. The money is rolling in again, but a fire destroys the parlor and leaves her broke. She ships aboard a coastal steamer, City of Topeka, as a stewardess. She quickly gains a reputation for resourcefulness, business acumen, quick wit and spirit.

When a snobbish passenger condescendingly tells her to black his boots, she tells him if she sees his boots outside his cabin door, she will throw a pitcher of water on them. When a baby has to be delivered, she does the job, while the ship's captain stands discreetly outside the cabin door and reads instructions from a medical text. The captain is so impressed by Mulroney, he soon puts her in charge of purchasing supplies for the ship. For her extra duties, she receives a 10% commission on the cost of the supplies, but so can he as Belinda that the captain still reckons he gets a bargain.

When news of the gold strike in the Klondike region of the Yukon reaches the Alaskan coast during the spring of 1897, Mulroney has saved $5,000. She says goodbye to the captain and uses her money to buy all the cotton goods and hot water bottles she can find. With the help of hired hands, she packs her goods from the port of Dai'i over treacherous Chulkoot Pass and then floats on a raft hundreds of miles down the Yukon River to Dawson, a mining camp that is fast becoming the great boomtown of the far north.

Stepping ashore, Mulroney throws the last coin in her pocket into the river and exclaims, never again will I need such small change. She's right. She sells her cotton goods and hot water bottles on Dawson's main street at a 600% profit. Here's Charlotte Gray, author of Gold Diggers, striking it rich in the Klondike. In her packing, she has these long aluminum tubes, and she won't tell anybody what's in them. She gets to Dawson. Within six weeks, she has a restaurant going, she is supplying men with outfits, and she has a construction business going.

Because what was in those aluminum tubes was incredibly wonderful silk underwear, lingerie, nightdresses. And she knew that there were women in Dawson, and she could sell this stuff to them at a huge profit. She opens a diner that's crowded with men daily and builds cabins that are sold before they are finished.

Here's Melanie Mayer. Belinda reaches Dawson in the early summer of 1897, when she's 25 years old. She's been clever enough to get there before most of the stampede of gold seekers, but she knows they're coming. So she explains, I started buying up all the small boats and rafts that were arriving, hired a crew of young fellows who had nothing to do. They took apart the boats, salvaging the lumber and nails. I had them build cabins. I wasn't thinking of the money I'd make.

We just had to shoulder those people. But of course, Belinda does make money from those cabins. And even old timers who've been mining in the Klondike for a while end up wanting a cabin for when they come into town. One old timer, Swiftwater Bill Gates, comes into Dawson with a load of gold. He's so eager to buy one of Belinda's cabins, he pays $6,500 for it.

In today's money, that's like $117,000. Mulroney takes another gamble and opens a hotel and store in the heart of the mines, where El Dorado Creek pours into Bonanza Creek. Here again is Charlotte Gray. It's the city of whiskey, women and gold. Everything was paid for in nuggets and gold flakes, and every commercial establishment had a set of scales on its counter. By the fall of 97, her Grand Forks Hotel is open. Prices for meal and lodging and for whiskey and cigars are the highest in the Yukon.

No matter. Sourdoughs throw gold nuggets onto the Grand Forks bar. Mulroney is also in a location to get the first word on every new claim. By winter, she's an investor in several valuable mining properties. Putting a hotel 15 miles from Dawson at the junction of Bonanza and El Dorado creeks, the forks, isn't everybody's notion of a good idea. One old timer explains, boys, there's a new woman up to the forks with a bit of an Irish brogue and the tongue of a dryer that's going to show us old mossbacks how to get rich. Hanged if she ain't got so much money to lose that she's going to build a two-story hotel bigger than any in Dawson, right up here on the creeks. But that's Belinda's genius. She can see possibilities where others see only muck.

And she has great energy and self-confidence, even when only 25 years old. She builds the Grand Forks Hotel using construction skills she learned at the Chicago World's Fair five years earlier. And the Grand Forks Hotel is a huge success, not only as a hotel, but also as a restaurant, a bank and a social center during the long, bitterly cold nights of the Yukon winter. And when we come back, we'll hear more of Belinda Mulroney's story, the richest woman in the Klondike. America not reimagined, but America's story simply retold. Our American stories continues after these commercial messages.

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Big Alex stands over six foot seven and weighs nearly 300 pounds. He began his stay in the far north as a laborer and worked his way up to managing an Alaskan trading company. Through the acquisition of one mind after another, he is becoming a multimillionaire.

He will soon be known as the king of the Klondike. Mulroney and McDonald have a crew salvage the cargo, but McDonald has the goods divided before Mulroney arrives. McDonald takes crates full of foodstuffs for himself and leaves cases of whiskey and boxes of rubber boots for Mulroney.

With winter approaching and starvation a real possibility, foodstuffs will be at a premium. You'll pay through the nose for this, Belinda tells Big Alex. Here again is Melanie Mayer, author of Staking Her Claim, The Life of Belinda Mulroney, Klondike and Alaska entrepreneur. You can understand Belinda's relation to Alex McDonald if you think of her rough and tumble days with her uncles in Ireland. They like each other, but they're competitive, very competitive. Their so-called practical jokes are tricks where the jokester sets up the other person to be duped.

But Belinda is determined to not be anybody's victim. Early in the spring of 1898, there is an unusual heat wave causing a sudden thaw. The rapidly melting snow and ice floods the Klondike country. Work in the mines is impossible without rubber boots. None other than Big Alex arrives at Mulroney's pleading for rubber boots for his men. Belinda sells the boots alright, but makes him pay $30 a pair, the equivalent of $900 in today's money.

Mulroney uses the profits to build the Fairview Hotel on Dawson's Main Street during the spring and summer. Nearly everything that goes into the Fairview has to be freighted from the Port of Skagway. Belinda makes the long and dangerous journey to the Alaskan coast to personally supervise the operation. She arrives there only to learn that Joe Brooks, the packer she has hired, has moved her goods just two miles up the trail before dumping the cargo when getting a better offer to transport whiskey from Bill McPhee.

Joe Brooks is now about to learn what Big Alex learned. Don't cross Belinda Mulroney. Belinda marches to the Skagway wars and hires the roughest men she can find. Legend says she instigates a fight among them and makes the last man standing her foreman. Whether that's true, she's soon leading these men up the trail.

They catch up with Joe Brooks and his crew and beat him and his men into submission. Belinda mounts Joe Brooks' own horse and leads the pack train over White Pass and down to boats waiting on the Yukon. The Fairview Hotel opens by the end of summer 1898. It's the most elegant hotel on the far north. It has 22 steam-heated rooms, electric lights, Turkish steam baths, and dining tables spread with fine linen and set with sterling silver and bone china. Cut glass chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and an orchestra plays in the lobby. The Fairview is a cash cow from the day it opens.

During its first 24 hours of operation, the bar alone takes in $6,000, something like $180,000 today. By the fall of 1998, Belinda is known internationally. Scribner's Magazine calls her the richest woman of the Klondike, and others christen her the Queen of Grand Forks. She becomes a character in the novels of James Oliver Curwood, and her dog Nero becomes immortalized as Buck in Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

Here's Melanie Mayer. Belinda St. Bernard Nero is just a big pup when she adopts him in Dawson, and he immediately captures her heart. He grows to be as big as she is, and Nero goes everywhere with Belinda, on the trails, into her cabins or hotel, onto boats. When there's snow on the ground, he proudly pulls her in a sleigh basket.

He is her best friend. One day during the spring thaw, they're coming back to Dawson loaded with gold taken in at the Grand Forks Hotel. Belinda has a heavy backpack of it. Nero carries two bags of gold across his back, like a saddle.

They come to a place where they have to cross Bonanza Creek on a log, so Belinda goes first. But when Nero tries to follow, he slips and falls into the icy rushing water. His load of gold is so heavy, he sinks to the bottom. He can't swim.

Can only sometimes bob his head out of the freezing water for a gasp of air. Holding onto the tree with one hand, with the other, she manages to grab Nero's collar on one of his bobs for air. But now they're in a dangerous fix. The tree is swaying. Belinda can't lift Nero out. He's too big, and the gold makes him even heavier. All she can do is keep his head above the water and hope that she can keep hanging onto the tree. Eventually, some miners come along. One miner starts to climb out on the tree with Belinda in an attempt to reach Nero.

But then the tree abruptly sags. Both Belinda and the miner are dumped into the water with Nero. Eventually, with everyone hauling and pushing, Nero, Belinda, and the helpful miner are rescued. Once his packs are off, Nero shakes off the excess water and is set to go again.

Belinda, of course, is soaked, and with no dry clothes on hand, she has a very cold hike into Dawson. Yes, Nero is Belinda's best friend in the Klondike. Even decades later, in 1962, when interviewed on her 90th birthday, tears come to Belinda's eyes when she remembers her faithful, beloved Nero. In 1900, Belinda Mulroney marries Charles-Eugène Charbonneau, purportedly a French Count with the states in Europe.

He is bold, dashing, and handsome, but French-Canadian rather than French, and no Count of any kind. Before Belinda learns the truth, the couple honeymoons in Europe as the Count and Countess. Upon their return to the Klondike, Belinda becomes the manager of the Gold Run Mining Company. When she takes control of the company, it's bleeding red. Within 18 months, she has it, making millions again. Her husband, meanwhile, is losing millions of Belinda's money in European business ventures. She divorces him in 1906. Through hard work and daring gambles, Belinda recovers much of her fortune.

One of her new businesses is the Dome City Bank of Alaska. When an investor accuses one of Belinda's sisters of embezzling money from the bank, Belinda collars the man and horse whips him until, in the words of the Fairbanks Times, he cried like a baby. Embarrassed, the man later claims Belinda had two men help her.

I needed no help, she replies. Twenty friends, all old sourdoughs of Alaska, begged to be allowed to take the work off my hands. But it was a family affair, and I attended to it to the best of my ability.

A blackmailer simply received a little Alaska justice. Sue Taylor, a woman who plays the role of Belinda Mulroney for visiting tourists at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City, shares what brought her to the area and explains why people are still drawn to Dawson to this very day. Belinda Mulroney was a fabulous character, and I feel very honored to play her. Every time they told her she couldn't do something, she went and did it even bigger and better than they said she couldn't do. And now that's the spirit that's still here.

Oh, you bet. So I came up here and thought I'd see what happened and moved into a tent. The town was full of mud, bought a brand new pair of rubber boots, and that was my first day. Walked down to the Westminster Hotel. The boyfriend, he stayed outside. He was afraid to go in. I went inside with my bright, shiny boots on, and these big, hairy guys took one look at my boots, picked me up by my boots, shook me until I fell out of it. Then they poured the jug of beer into the gum boot, and they passed it all around. And when it got to me, I had a drink, too, and I guess I was just accepted. I liked it fine. My boyfriend never did come in, and he left town very quickly. But I stayed.

It's just this place has a calling for people who just want to be themselves and be who they want to be, be who they are. Belinda Mulroney eventually leaves the far north and builds a grand estate near Yakima, Washington. It becomes known as the Charbonneau Castle and is today a historical landmark. She lives there until shortly before her death at the age of 95 in 1967, making her the last of the legends of the Klondike Gold Rush to die. And what a story. Great job as always by Greg Hengler. And thanks, as always, to Roger McGrath, author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes. Also a special thanks to Melanie Meyer, author of staking her claim the life of Belinda Mulroney. Belinda Mulroney's story, The Richest Woman in the Klondike, here on Our American Stories.

The Richest Woman in the Klondike, here on Our American Stories. And this is Matt Carey, documentary editor at Deadline. And welcome to TalkTalk. John, we've got a hard hitting episode today. A lot of controversy. Well, maybe we should put the word controversy in quotes in the documentary field about the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. We're going to get into that with some amazing panelists. You get a shot of the documentary.

But the individuals behind every one of those images, they're complicated and they are human. All your favorite apps built in, you can stream straight out of the box. You can even sing along to all your favorite music and radio on the iHeartRadio app. Looking for a smaller or bigger screen? Vizio offers unbeatable prices on all these series 4K smart TVs. Head to Walmart.com today and score the 4K TV you've been waiting for.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-18 04:35:05 / 2024-03-18 04:44:11 / 9

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