1930 Yukon Nuggets
Gene Allen - Newspaperman
He was a salesman, from the American Midwest, who moved to Seattle to sell goods for a local printing company. In 1897, when he saw miners coming off a ship on the Seattle waterfront carrying their life's possessions and wealth with them, he knew there was a fortune to be made. These early Klondike miners had dug for gold and won. Gene Allen, the salesman, decided he could win too, not by digging for gold, but by telling the Klondike story.
He had to be there, in the Klondike, where the miners and the gold were. Allen struck a deal with his friend Zach Hickman, and with his employer, to get enough money to head north with the tools of his trade - a printing press.
In the spring of 1898, Hickman and Allen set out with a grubstake, the press and other equipment needed to produce the first Klondike newspaper. They manhandled the stuff over the Chilkoot Pass and down the chain of lakes and rivers to Dawson. Allen arrived in the tent city known as Dawson some weeks before Zach Hickman showed up with the press. Allen knew there were competitors trying to mine the Klondike for its stories, competitors that might put him out of business. In the Klondike the only thing was to be first - and to last. The first edition of Allen's paper was a one-page hand-written sheet. He nailed it to a post on Dawson's Main Street. Miners lined up to read the first "posted edition". Their thirst for news convinced Allen he was on his way to riches.
When the presses arrived, Allen and Hickman printed a bi-weekly edition. It soon became a daily newspaper. Gene Allen played to the concerns of the miners and included, when he could, news from the outside world. Canadian officials in the Klondike saw him as an American upstart who went out of his way to look for scandals and sensation. Allen never denied that. He was American, first and foremost, and devoted his newspaper space and its clout to the concerns of American miners who vastly outnumbered those from Canada.
He wrote about booze - or the lack of it - and the court cases which often involved public drunkenness. He wrote of the Klondike kings paying for champagne with large gold nuggets and tipping with even larger nuggets. It seemed Allen was everywhere in that summer of 1898. He reported on a group of kids he saw sweeping up sawdust and rubbish from the back of a saloon. They were placing the junk in a box, then into a gold pan filled with water. When Allen spotted them, they had already panned seven dollars worth of gold from the rubbish.
He was ahead of his time as a journalist. He rallied against corrupt officials and laws they enforced often, he thought, to the detriment of the average miner - the average American miner, to be sure. He and his paper were the moving force behind sending a delegation to Ottawa to protest conditions in the gold fields. Gene Allen practiced activist journalism, which was well ahead of its time in Canada.
The Klondike Nugget under Allen covered it all - from a new find on some obscure creek to new entertainment in the local saloons. The Nugget covered murder trials and hangings. It wrote of the unsavoury ways of the prostitutes in Lousetown, and the upscale lives of the downtown dance-hall girls. Allen was quick to defend virtue if he thought it existed. One such story was that Myrtle Brocee, a 19-year-old dance-hall girl who shot herself in her small room atop a local saloon. Allen thought she was a victim of the ragged, rugged Klondike society. And he said so in the Nugget. Myrtle Brocee went to an early grave, but her reputation was intact, thanks to Allen's stories.
It seemed, for the brief 18 months of the Nugget's life, that it chronicled every aspect of life in this wild and wacky country. The Salvation Army came in for special praise from Allen, who he said were doing very good work serving 70 meals a week. He recorded the names of men who ran afoul of the law. Robert Russell, he said, got 18 months on the woodpile and he really deserved more. "Woodpile work at 50 below may help reform the thief".
Detail. Allen had a gift for detail. His paper carried the story of the first cow brought into Dawson to provide fresh milk, of the largest nugget ever found on the creeks, of barber's itch caused by soiled towels used in barber shops. "Cut your own hair", urged Allen, "and avoid this painful and annoying infliction".
Allen had done well financially with his paper but, in 1899, he decided to get out of the news business. He turned the Nugget over to his partner and tried to establish an express freight operation. He set up offices in many Yukon settlements. But the rush was over. By early 1900, Allen was broke. He moved to Nome, Alaska hoping to recoup his losses. He didn't. He finally left the north and finished his days as a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest.
When he died in 1930, Allen, who had kept a copy of every edition of the Nugget, turned them over to the University of Washington, where they exist to this day - one of the most detailed first-hand accounts of a tumultuous time - the Klondike gold rush.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.