Updated: Jun 6
One of the few pretty faces in the Klondike.
By Heather Frey Blanton Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Freedom. A true lady in Defiance cries out for it. Refuses to live without it. Pursues it at any cost. Society, propriety—even common sense—won’t stop her from wrapping her slender fingers around it.
In the end, she may only have her memories of it, but at least she tasted it. For a time, Kate lived free.
Kathleen Eloise Rockwell (1873-1957) came from an unstable home, growing up in at least four different states. Perhaps the shifting sand beneath her feet contributed to her headstrong ways and desire for adventure. Dubbed a tomboy by the neighborhood kids, Katie played better with the boys than with the frilly little girls. She was a bit sassy and, arguably, incorrigible—at least according to the boarding school that kicked her out.
In the early1890’s, Kate’s mother divorced her father and the two girls wound up in New York City. Kate got involved with the theater scene and learned to sing and dance, but eventually, even the Big Apple wasn’t big enough for the free spirit. The siren call of the Alaska Gold Rush reached her ears and Kate headed off for the Klondike.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, however, denied her entry. Because she was a woman. Alone. On the frontier.
Can’t you hear the wheels turning in her head? Kate lived to circumvent rules and live her life on her terms.
So she dressed up as a boy and waltzed right into the Klondike. (Well, actually she took a boat.) I can see her waving at the RCMP as she sailed by.
Now, it’s one thing to try to make it on the Great White Way. Lots of competition and all that. Kate had a suspicion that in Alaska she could be a big fish in a little pond. I mean, really, how many pretty girls could there be willing to face the wild frontier? Sub-zero temperatures, knee-deep spring mud, lawless towns? Sounded like her kind of party. Kate just wanted to sing and dance. It didn’t matter if the audience was comprised of desperately hungry, cold, mud-encrusted miners who hadn’t seen a woman, much less a pretty one, in months.
She intended to mesmerize them and had a grand plan. For her “Flame Dance,” she came on stage wearing an elaborate gown covered in red sequins and trailing an enormous cape. She took off the cape to reveal a cane that was attached to more than 200 yards of red chiffon. Kate leaped and twirled with the shimmering, floating fabric following her, spellbinding the hapless men. At the end, she would dramatically drop to the floor, as did the men’s jaws.
Yeah. She was a big hit. For three years, she was the belle of the ball. Parisian gowns, gold jewelry, diamonds, men falling at her feet. They called her Klondike Kate and Queen of the Yukon.
But the gold eventually petered out and Kate drifted around, along with a few different husbands. She ran a movie theater, even coached starlets in the 1940s. Time and age catch us all, though. Kate slowed down, then finally finished the ride in Oregon in 1957.
By no means an angel, Kate was a woman who defied conventionality, shook her fist at the lack of social mobility for women, and cut her own path through life.
I tip my hat to this trailblazer.
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