On Christmas Eve, 1900, the Monte Carlo Saloon in Dawson City was the place to be. Men from all over the world crowded the dancehall, and an air of manic festivity pervaded.
At the centre of it all was dancehall girl Kathleen Rockwell, “Klondike Kate.”
Kate was on fire that night, performing her famous “Flame Dance” and winning the miners over to the extent she was declared “Queen of the Klondike” that very night.
Meanwhile, a lonely miner, Johnny Matson, looked on. Matson was a non-drinker, non-smoker, didn’t care for dancing or gambling, and was notoriously silent. Being Christmas, though, Matson was celebrating. His life changed forever that night.
Matson went back to his cabin and Kate continued her career. The pair never even spoke to each other, but the spark was lit in Matson. He spent the next three decades thinking of the Queen of the Klondike.
Kate carried on, completely oblivious of the man whose heart she’d accidentally won.
She married Alexander Pantages, a Greek waiter, and financed his purchase of Dawson’s Orpheum Theater. She wore ornate jewelry and the latest fashions from Paris.
Her fame increased until the name Klondike Kate became synonymous with the excesses of the gold rush.
Things in Kate’s life didn’t stay great for long. In 1905, Pantages took off with a violinist and a large chunk of Kate’s money, leaving her broke and heartbroken.
He went on to make a fortune starting up theatres all over North America. She launched a breach of promise suit for $25,000, but never received a penny from him.
Adrift, Kate performed as a vaudeville entertainer throughout the western United States, attempting to recapture the magic of her Klondike days.
She had mixed success, sometimes bringing in the crowds while headlining shows, but often resorting to washing dishes in a restaurant, or washing clothes in a lumber camp. The woman who had dazzled the Dawson crowds toiled in obscurity.
But Matson hadn’t forgotten her. In 1933 he wrote a letter to her describing the night he’d first seen her, telling Kate that he had thought about her every single day since. At the end of it, he proposed.
They were married on July 14, 1933.
The pair had a honeymoon in Dawson, and then proceeded to live apart – Matson in his cabin and Kate on an estate in Bend, Oregon.
When asked about this arrangement, Kate explained, “I couldn’t live in a cabin with the nearest neighbour 30 miles away and Johnny couldn’t live anywhere else.”
Kate travelled to Dawson to see her husband once each year, and they’d visit for four or five days. Matson returned to his cabin and Kate went back to Oregon, though not without Matson’s gold poke in her possession.
Somehow this relationship worked. In a 1944 interview, she said that “I know I have made my Johnny completely happy. And in doing so I am happy myself.”
Matson made the trip down to Oregon only twice in 13 years of marriage. He sent her letters twice a year, making the trek, or long mush in winter, to town to get them out.
He included jewelry made from gold nuggets with his letters each Christmas, although he could hardly afford them – he never struck it rich in the gold fields.
This steady stream of letters ended abruptly in 1946. When Matson’s expected second letter failed to arrive at her home in Bend, Kate decided to make the trip up to Dawson to see what was up.
She was right to suspect the worst. A prospector from a neighbouring claim, Joe Sestak, discovered Matson’s body in pieces, partially eaten by wolverines, in and around his cabin. Kate learned the news when she arrived back in town.
After learning of her husband’s death, Kate declared that “Johnny would never want me to grieve.”
She took the news in stride, taking charge of having a tombstone inscribed for him and ordering him buried in the hills in front of his cabin.
Kate lived another 11 years, remarrying again along the way.
However, it seems safe to say that she never knew anyone who loved her like Johnny did.