1909 Yukon Nuggets
Big Alex McDonald (King of the Klondike)
"Don't look so sad, I know it's over. But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning." (Song - For the Good Times - Ray Price)
He was a huge, seemingly uncoordinated character who sported a preposterous mustache that, at times, hid half his face. His speech was slow, deliberate and exasperating to some who thought it meant that he was not too bright. They called him the Big Moose from Antigonish. Yes, he was big. Yes, he did hail from Nova Scotia, but the King of the Klondike was anything but dumb.
Alex McDonald lived his Klondike days by the Robert Service maxim: "taint just the gold that I'm wanting so much as just finding the gold." He had little regard for gold. To him it was trash.
McDonald was seasoned as a miner before he arrived in the Yukon. He had spent a few years working in the Colorado gold fields without much luck. Then, in the late 1880s, he headed north to Juneau, Alaska, where one of the first northern gold rushes was underway.
In 1896, he made the perilous journey over the Chilkoot Pass during the earliest days of the Klondike stampede. He was able to pick up some odd jobs as a labourer until one day in the winter of 1897, in one of the truly lucky breaks that came to the early gold seekers, he bought Claim 30 on Eldorado, from a Russian immigrant named Zarnosky, for sack of flour and a side of bacon.
McDonald leased the claim to two miners in a business arrangment known as "letting it out on the lay,". The men agreed to split any profits equally with McDonald. Claim 30 turned out to be one of the richest gold finds of the Klondike. In just over a month after working the claim, the men paid McDonald $16,000 though he did not lift a shovel.
This set the stage for his rise from a labourer to a millionaire almost overnight. As his Eldorado fortune rolled in, McDonald began a claim-buying binge. By the end of 1897, he owned twenty-eight claims on Eldorado, Bonanza, Hunker and Dominion creeks.
Though skilled in mining methods, Big Alex didn't bother working his claims, instead hiring others to do the work. He paid wages as a percentage of the profits and reinvested the rest in land, thus becoming the biggest single employer and land owner in the Klondike mining district. Such was his meteoric rise to riches that by the time most of the Cheechakos arrived in the Klondike in 1898, big Alex McDonald was an authentic Dawson "aristocrat".
At the height of his corporate career, it was estimated the Klondike King's fortune reached ten million dollars, a mind-boggling sum by any world standard. In a suite at his McDonald Hotel, Alex kept a box of gold nuggets that he would casually offer to visitors, often suggesting they take only the big ones.
McDonald had his hand in almost every business venture in the Klondike. On July 1, 1898, the Yukon Telegraph Company strung phone lines from the Dominion Hotel to its main office in Louse town. McDonald and the famed Belinda Mulroney were the company's most celebrated shareholders. Though he owned the building that housed Dawson's first bank, the Bank of North America, he was also one of the first customers at the newly arrived Bank of Commerce. When he registered his account with the Commerce, it took him endless, tedious hours to remember and list all the properties he owned.
His wealth seemed like a bottomless pit. His personal fifteen mule train was a familiar sight on the dirt roads between the Klondike diggings and Dawson, its heavy wagons filled with nuggets. Paper transactions between various companies, the banks and Alex McDonald usually recorded astounding sums. One personal payment by cheque made to the A.T. and T. Company was for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Today, that would translate into millions.
Dawson's genuine luminary also had a benevolent side. When Father Judge, who became known as the "Saint of Dawson", needed support to rebuild his Catholic Church after the original was levelled by fire, McDonald donated thirty thousand dollars, which more than covered the construction costs. And when Father Judge began building St. Mary's Hospital, the Big Moose from Antigonish was again the major benefactor.
All this philanthropy did not go unnoticed in the higher echelons of the Catholic church. Since visiting Europe was trendy for many of Dawson's Klondike millionaires, big Alex too made the long journey in late 1898 and spent the winter of '98-'99 touring Europe's capitals. While in Rome, he was granted an audience with Pope Leo XIII and was made a Knight of the Order of Saint Gregory, in recognition of his donations to Father Judge's church and hospital. In London, he met and married Margaret Chisholm, the daughter of the Superintendent of the Thames River Police. The couple returned to Dawson in the spring of 1899.
So quickly and successfully had McDonald made his mark in the Yukon that he was by now Dawson's leading citizen and likely its most respected. Of him, in the summer of 1899, the Dawson Daily News waxed eloquently: "His business keeps him busy from morning til night, and though he is called the King of the Klondike", he is approachable in all affairs socially and financially as the humblest miner in the Yukon." Financial affairs notwithstanding, his social graces may have needed a little work.
One of the endearing anecdotes about the King of the Klondike occurred in 1900 when the Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Minto, and his wife paid a stately visit to the Yukon. The vice-regal couple wanted to see first-hand the country where unbelievable fortunes were being made. Class-counscious Dawson spared no expense for this official visit of Queen Victoria's representatives. The highlight of the tour was to be a presentation to Lady Minto.
A Dawson jeweller created a handsome gold-laden brooch, featuring a miner hoisting a bucket, out of a piece of ivory filled with gold nuggets. Who better but the King of the Klondike himself to make the presentation? Tour organizers spent endless, worried hours rehearsing McDonald's formal speech. It had to be perfect. After all, those were the days when the Governor General was lord and master of all he surveyed in the British colony called Canada.
At the appointed hour, McDonald paraded up the podium to address the regal couple in a fashion that would hail their noble virtues. McDonald, turning to her Ladyship, handed her the brooch, and said:
"Here, take it. It's trash."
Of the fiasco, the Dawson Daily Newspaper wrote:
"The presentation was made in simple but eloquent language."
It was this casual approach to gold that eventually led to McDonald's downfall. He continued to buy up claims that by now were regularly proving to be worthless. Many ended up costing much more than they were worth. At one time he owned and tried to operate up to forty claims on far-off Henderson Creek in the Stewart River mining district. None paid much though they helped to drain his bank account.
He attempted to bolster his dwindling fortunes in 1903 by acquiring an expensive, state of the art water system to divert and sell water to miners. But the easy gold was becoming harder to find and the big companies were taking over. The water system mostly diverted cash from McDonald's rapidly dwindling bank account.
By 1909, twelve years after buying his first claim for a sack of flour and a side of bacon, the one-time millionaire was living in a small cabin near Clearwater Creek, obliged by the cruel fates of the Klondike to work his claims himself.
One frigid winter morning, the Big Moose from Antigonish, awoke to find his wood box empty. While wielding an axe on a block of wood just outside the front door, he keeled over. Days later, a nearby prospector found the lifeless body. Alex McDonald, the King of the Klondike, had died of a heart attack.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.