Shady Ladies and Bright Golden Nuggets

The dance hall girls – those shady ladies that added colour to the Klondike Gold Rush – have become legends. Like the miners they so gleefully “mined”, they came from all over the world, but mainly from the United States and Canada.

Mostly young and pretty, they hiked up their skirts or put on men’s trousers to climb the same steep summits and to hurtle through the same breathtaking rapids as the men. And they came for the very same reason as the men they followed: to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible.

The men, those intrepid Klondike stampeders, recognized that simple fact and they respected them for it, and they adored them. For mucking about for gold is a cold, serious, tedious undertaking requiring odious backbreaking labour.

To go into town on a spree, and lose themselves in the bright lights and tinkling pianos of the dance halls, was the safety valve that kept them sane.

We remember them by their names, rarely the same as on their birth certificates. And some went by pseudonyms, providing a shield of anonymity. Some had inspiring names like Sweet Marie and The Belgian Queen.

Two slick operators, sisters named Jacqueline and Rosalinde, whose surnames are long forgotten, made a fortune running a dollar-a-dance house and became popularly known as Vaseline and Glycerine.

Others had titillating names like The Oregon Mare and Nellie the Pig. Nellie – clean, svelte and beautifully attired – was named for her turned up nose. The Oregon Mare neighed like a mustang on the dance floor and kicked like a colt at anyone who declined to buy her a drink. (Other attributes we won’t list between the sheets of a family magazine.)

The pianos tuned up and the lights turned down in the dance halls around 10 p.m. The men from the creeks were ready and the dance-hall girls were waiting. The dances were fast in tempo and lasted scarcely more than a minute. Each dance cost a dollar or a pinch of gold dust, and the girls took their pinch directly from the miner’s moosehide poke.

One enterprising dancer carried a dried pea in her pocket, which she squeezed very tightly between her thumb and her forefinger until it left an indentation, giving her a little bit extra. She, of course, was known as Pea-Hole Annie.

Each dancer also received a percentage of the drinks that she steered the lucky fellow to the bar to buy. Each kept track of her nightly take with tokens that the bartender gave her tucked into the top of her stockings. Many became as rich as the Klondike Kings.

The stampeders, in their gumboots and rough clothes, adored the dance-hall girls, but mostly they gave their affection to the bartenders and gamblers. Their lives were rough, and often their hearts got broken. But, as Robert Service wrote, “There is a heap of goodness in their glee, and kindness in their wonton ways.”

But oh, of the wiles

And the gold-tooth smiles

Of a dance hall wench beware!

Robert W. Service

This submission may be printed in the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Festival Program as part of the Legends of the Klondike series.

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