George Washington Carmack is credited with starting the Klondike Gold Rush. He filed the first claim on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Yukon's Klondike River. News of the find set into motion a series of events that helped to transform the Pacific Northwest, from Seattle to the Arctic. Some have claimed that the stampede turned Seattle from a depression-wracked frontier settlement into a thriving city, that it brought the city a new era of growth, prosperity and international fame. Without George Carmack, in other words, modern Seattle would not exist.
Carmack became a figure of prominence and folklore even during the Gold Rush, and he moved to bustling Seattle after his gold strike. He became a celebrity businessman who pursued local mining and hotel interests. He used some of his personal fortune and fame to back a patent-medicine cure, and relied on his reputation for having the Midas touch to find investors for schemes like tapping mineral wealth in the Cascades. He liked to live in nice hotels and spent some of his money on fancy toys, including one of Seattle's first motor cars. Carmack liked to chuff around town in a steam-powered Mobile runabout. Perhaps we can blame him for ushering in highway gridlock too.
Carmack's time in Seattle and his role in the Klondike madness is key to the current attempt to save and landmark Carmack's home of a dozen years, a turn-of-the-century Dutch Colonial-style house in the Central District's Squire Park neighborhood near the old Providence Hospital. Carmack lived there from 1910 until his death in 1922; his widow owned the house into the 1940s. The Carmack House has been deemed worth of listing on the National Historic register and its nomination for city landmark status was scheduled to come before the landmarks board on Feb. 18, but that has been postponed.
The house was recently vandalized, some of its original interior architectural elements having been stolen. Few would argue that it is a perfect gem: it's empty and in poor condition, and it wasn't built by a famous architect. Whether the recent damage will impact its landmark-worthiness remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely because condition aside, the house appears to qualify under at least two provisions in the landmark law. First, that it is associated significantly with the "life of a person important in the history of the city, state or nation," and second, that the structure is connected with "a significant aspect of the cultural, political or economic heritage of the community...."
Enter Art Skolnik, historic preservation's bad boy consultant who was one of the city's and state's pioneering preservationists, yet now has a reputation for taking on near-lost causes (the Kalakala, the Alaskan Way Viaduct), or taking the side of property owners in opposing non-owner approved designations that some consider "takings." Skolnik is a free agent, a preservationist renegade who marches to his own drummer. And he's not shy about taking an unpopular point of view. In this case, he is working for the Carmack House's owner, the Irena Jewdoschenko Estate. They want to sell the Carmack house and property. Skolnik does not think it is landmark worthy.
That's partly because Skolnik says he's concluded that George W. Carmack was a fraud. Myths and misinformation surround him, and Skolnik says the Carmack story is part of a larger propaganda campaign — a big sales job — that has given Carmack and the Klondike Gold Rush a status it doesn't rightly deserve. Carmack, he says, was a "charlatan," at best an empty suit like the character in Being There. Think of him, perhaps, as the Joe the Plumber of his time. George Carmack wasn't all he is cracked up to be.
A summary of Skolnik's beefs centers on the old prospector's character: Carmack went to the Yukon after deserting from the U.S. Marines. In his many years trapping and prospecting in the Klondike before his "instant success," Carmack was known among his fellow frontiersman as "Lying George" for his constant exaggerations, one reason few at first believed him when he said he'd found gold in 1896.
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