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.
Whether he really discovered the Bonanza gold has been disputed since Day One: He was pointed to the gold-bearing creek by another prospector, Nova Scotian Robert Henderson, who was later given co-credit and a pension for the discovery by the Canadian government. Henderson never shared in the wealth, however, because Carmack went back on his word and didn't tell him about the strike. Others who were with Carmack later claimed to be the ones who'd actually discovered the gold: Carmack's estranged common law Indian wife Kate said it was she. Many believe the real discoverer was Carmack's hunting partner and Indian brother-in-law, Skookum Jim Mason. Carmack, they said, got the credit because a white man was needed to file and secure the claims.
In the years of riches and fame that followed, Carmack abandoned Kate to marry a white woman he'd met in the Dawson City, a frontier town that blossomed briefly as the "San Francisco of the north." Her name was Marguerite Laimee and she was a Gold Rush veteran who'd previously been an entrepreneur in the gold and silver fields of Australia, South African, and the Coeur d'Alenes. In Dawson, she ran a "cigar store," a common Klondike euphemism for a brothel or a front for one. Carmack's Indian wife Kate died broken, alcoholic and miserable, Marguerite wound up with all the assets.
So, George Carmack was no choir boy. Skolnik believes this aspect of his legacy should not be papered over. Carmack, he says quoting various opinions about the man, was a "liar," a "racist," a "cad," a "braggart," and a "cheat." "He doesn't deserve the attention that others still promote and give credit to," he says.
Another issue Sklonik raises is whether the Gold Rush itself was something of a con-job. Goldseekers, Carmack included, had been looking for the ore for years before it was found, and some had even gotten rich from earlier finds in Canada and Alaska, none of which triggered a Klondike-scale frenzy. Some wealthy miners had even returned to San Francisco with their pockets stuffed with nuggets and barely a ripple of publicity resulted. It wasn't until the steamer Portland arrived on the Seattle waterfront in Seattle in 1897 with its famed "ton of gold" that the world took notice. Why?
Most historians agree that it was Seattle's first great flack, Erastus Brainerd, who engineered the rush with the help of the eager Seattle media, especially the sensationalists at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who worked hand-in-hand with the Chamber of Commerce publicity machine to turn the gold discovery into a boon for the city. Seattle, the local business community decided, would be the jumping off point for the Klondike-bound. City fathers were determined to eclipse San Francisco, Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver and Victoria in competing to be the launch pad for prospectors, and they out-hustled them all. An estimated 100,000 people headed for the far North during the Gold Rush heyday, and 70,000 of them came through Seattle.
PR man Brainerd sent out tens of thousands of circulars, spent a small fortune taking out ads in national magazines, wrote articles for newspapers and magazines extolling the virtues of Seattle as the "Gateway to Gold." He wrote a piece for Harper's Weekly to that effect, then widely touted what the Harper's correspondent had said, never noting that he was the author of the original puffery. All this without the Internet. He also created an "astroturf" campaign of citizens offering written testimonials about Seattle's greatness — all folks had to do was sign and send a form letter drafted by Brainerd. Few of the prospectors who passed through (Mossback's grandfather among them) got rich, but many people in Seattle did, including outfitters, provisioners, shippers, developers, and saloon keepers. We hyped the rush and then, in the jargon of the HBO gold rush TV series Deadwood, we took "the hooples" for all they had.
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