A cluster of tents dotted a strip of frozen earth at the base of a massive glacier in Skagway, Alaska. Beyond the solid layer of ice was a thick forest that followed the contours of a mountain. The numerous trees that covered the ridge were like deep-pile carpet and the grassy scruff under the timbers were red and yellow with the coming of autumn. A clear, cold stream flowed swiftly from the white peaks, spilling over the layers of compacted snow. Pieces of the iceberg broke off and fell into the freezing water.
Frances Noyes, a pretty, determined woman dressed in a heavy wool coat, thick-soled, knee-high boots, and wool gloves traveled along a gravel trail running parallel to the stream. She stopped momentarily to plunge a gold mining pan into the rocky creek bed and sift through the pebbles. Like hundreds of other miners that rushed to Alaska in 1898 looking for gold, Frances was confident she would discover a fortune. The biting wind and snow flurries that cut across her path did not deter her from her work. She glanced around at the setting and smiled.
She was invigorated by her surroundings. “If there ever was a woman prospector, it was Frances,” Frances nephew William Simonds recalled of his aunt. “She was never as content in her life as she was mining in the Alaskan wilderness.”
Frances and her husband, Thomas C. Noyes, searched for gold along Otter Creek near Skagway from September 1899 to February 1900. She was one of a handful of women miners who dared to brave the sub-zero temperatures of the isolated Klondike. The intrepid female pioneer actually chose mining as her second career. Her first job was as a stage actress. Beautiful and talented, she spent years entertaining audiences in boomtowns across the Old West. One audience member was Thomas Noyes, a man she fell in love with and wanted to marry in spite of his family’s objections. Had he not stood up to his parents she might not have accompanied him on his mining expedition and might never realized her true calling.
“I shall conduct no training school for actresses,” Montana mining tycoon John Noyes declared. He sent his son Tom a withering glare. The boy had obviously been taken in by a pretty face. Mrs. Allen was not the type of woman he had in mind as a wife for his son. She’d been married and divorced, and that scandal had hardly quieted when a new one had erupted.
The full weight of his father’s displeasure only strengthened Tom’s resolve. “You have $2,500 in a trust fund that you are holding for me, have you not, Father?”
“Well, give me that. I will start out for myself, and you can cut me off without a cent.” Tom had loved Frances Allen ever since he first saw her in a theatrical production. His father thought Tom was too young to marry and Frances too infamous to be his bride, but Tom intended to marry her, and soon. Frances clearly was in danger, however, as another would-be suitor from New Orleans was stalking her from state to state and might soon appear in Butte.
Tom did not change his mind, though his father continually dredged up the infamy of Frances’s past, starting with her divorce from Samuel Allen earlier in 1897. The newspapers had reported every titillating development. According to one account Samuel Allen had told his friends that his ex-wife “is a good woman, but has a passion for money, a siren who uses her charms to infatuate men to the point where they lavish their wealth upon her, but she never strays from the straight and narrow path.”
A report in Spokane’s Spokesman entitled “She’s An Actress, Ex-Prosecuting Attorney Objects to the Life,” claimed, “ The wreck of this family commenced about the time of the society circus at Natatorium Park in 1895, when Mrs. Allen rode two horses bareback. Mr. Allen did not enjoy this exhibition, and the family was never a happy one.”
Tom suspected his father had seen that article. He was certain the electrifying accounts had convinced his father to forbid him to marry the woman he loved. The newspapers, in Tom’s opinion, wrongly made Frances sound like a beautiful but heartless, money-hungry tease. Tom’s father certainly believed this and reminded his son that no respectable woman would flaunt herself on stage unless she was out to snare a rich husband. Tom knew Frances did not care about money. She would marry him with his small trust fund and no prospects of inheriting his father’s huge fortune.
What worried Tom was the threat hanging over Frances’s life. A would-be suitor, Alfred Hildreth, was stalking Frances, and his actions had steadily become more dangerous. At the Leland Hotel in Chicago, Hildreth had lain in wait for five days. The Southerner confronted Frances in the lobby, and witnesses said Frances agreed to dine with him at a downtown restaurant, only to have the impassion man
brandish a carving knife while declaring he would do something desperate if she wouldn’t have him. He had followed Frances through several states, and his ardor increased every time he caught up with her. Tom knew Alfred could show up at any time.
Newspapers in Chicago and New York recorded the tales of Hildreth’s obsession. The Chicago Chronicle carried one story that made Tom’s blood boil. “Alfred J. Hildreth loves Mrs. Frances Allen with such true and ardent affection that he has followed her 5,000 miles to prove it. Even though Mr. Allen secured a divorce from his wife because she rode bareback at a charity circus in Spokane, Wash., attired in the reddest of red silken tights, Hildreth says she is dear to him. Mrs. Allen, however, does not return the feeling of young Hildreth, and she has spent many weary hours moving from one city to another to escape the devoted lover.”
The tights had been pink, but Tom didn’t bother to correct the story. Frances Allen belonged to him, and neither Alfred Hildreth nor Tom’s own father was going to stand in the way of a wedding, Tom decided.
Arabella Frances Patchen Allen did not care that Tom’s father disapproved of her life on the stage. She intended to marry his son.
Of all the men who had pursued her since she had left Spokane after the fateful circus ride, Tommy was the one she truly loved. Her first marriage had been troubled from the start. On the day of her wedding to Samuel Allen in 1892, when she was barely eighteen, the groom had disappeared. His drunken companions had held a “special session” and voted to continue the wedding anyway, with a different groom. After several good-natured votes were taken among the unmarried men, each of whom had voted for himself, Samuel had finally reappeared, and the vows were spoken.
For a few years she had enjoyed the social life that was part of being married to a prominent lawyer. Samuel had even given his consent for her participation in the charity circus at Natatorium Park, since half the money would go to the family of a boy who had broken his back in a barrel slide. Her husband had stalked out in a rage when he discovered his beautiful young wife in form-fitting tights and short blue skirt, riveting the attention of every person in the place.
Samuel’s outrage had resulted in a huge quarrel, and she’d left his fine home for good that August. By April of the following year, she had succeeded on the stage. If she hadn’t ridden in the society circus, she might still be married to Samuel and living well, she knew, but by leaving
Spokane and taking parts in productions in Bradford, Pennsylvania, she’d achieved some success of her own. And her acting career had allowed her to meet Tom Noyes, whom she had fallen in love with and was prepared to marry.
The 1897 wedding of Tom Noyes and Frances Allen did not compare in any way to Tom’s sister’s wedding, which linked two prosperous mining families and was celebrated as the most brilliant wedding ever held in Montana. Tom and Frances were married in a small, quiet ceremony. By the time Tom’s sister, Ruth Noyes, married Arthur Heinz, Tom and Frances were already mining together in Skagway, Alaska, at the foot of a glacier on Otter Creek.
Tom knew he was a lucky man. Not many women would have smiled through the bitter cold and long darkness of an Alaskan winter. Unlike the California Gold Rush, few women had hurried to the rush in the frozen northland. But his petite, flirtatious Frances was one of a handful of women truly interested in mining. She loved the open country and the freedom from the society that had scorned her.
Frances was as eager as Tom to move on when Otter Creek didn’t provide the wealth they were seeking. They headed for wide-open, lawless Nome, located at the edge of the Seward Peninsula on the Bering Sea.
Gold had been discovered at Anvil Creek, and by the spring of 1900, somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand “stampeders” had come to Nome.
Camped above the tide line with thousand of others, Frances, who stood approximately 2 inches shorter than 5 feet tall, helped shovel sand into the portable rockers used to sift out the fine gold. Many people believed that the ocean was depositing gold at high tide. Tents and rockers stretched for miles along the beach.
Tom was appointed to a four-year term as a U.S. Commissioner for the Fairhaven District of Alaska, and soon Frances and Tom were again moving in the upper circles of society, albeit a much more flamboyant elite than the stuffy and conventional social strata they’d left behind. Tom’s knowledge of mining and his impeccable character, dubbed “pure gold” by one of the men he worked with on several claims, earned report in lawless Nome.
Tom wanted to find the Alaska mother lode, and Frances always followed where he led. He learned from one of the native people in the area that gold was easier to get on Candle Creek. Frances put away her silks and lace and followed Tom hundreds of miles north to Candle Creek, where they staked several claims.
Frances experienced “mushing” by dogsled and began to learn more and more about prospecting.
Alaskan newspapers covered some of the adventures of the prospecting newlyweds, reporting that they endured “perilous trips, lost trails, climbs over glacier fields, where steps had to be cut with an ax.” More than once Frances was credited with saving her husband’s life. Their claims paid off, and Tom became known as “King of the Candle.” He started a band and built a home for himself and Frances, where anyone was welcome.
In 1902 Tom’s father died, and Tom inherited an interest in a hotel in Seattle. Success piled on success, and Frances and Tom began to alternate between harsh conditions and adventures in Alaska and society teas and balls in Seattle and Butte.
In 1905 Tom and Frances adopted a half-Eskimo girl, Bonnie who was approximately five years old. During the winter she attended school in Butte; in the summer she often returned to Alaska with her parents.
As their success in Candle grew, Tom conceived of a plan to bring water to the rich placer diggings. In the autumn of 1907, he left for New York to obtain $200,000 to finance the completion of the Bear Creek ditch. Frances stayed at Candle to manage their interests.
He’d barely arrived in New York when a financial panic hit, jeopardizing the nation’s economy. No bank would loan him money for a project in Alaska, and funds were so tight Tom had to pawn his watch and jewelry to pay his hotel bills. Tom’s bank in Candle and the bank in Nome were threatened with a run by frightened customers eager to get their money into their own hands.
In an unprecedented feat of courage and strength, Frances once again came to her husband’s rescue, only this time she saved his financial life. Pawning her jewelry to raise ten thousand dollars, Frances mushed across the frozen Artic tundra in the dead of winter. The story was printed in the Seattle Times and many other newspapers. “With only a driver for her team of malamutes, she started out across the hundreds of miles of ice and snow, the thermometer so low it almost faded from view. Through the short days and into the nights this brave woman trudged on through the snow. Many days were needed for the journey, but the news that the money was coming had spread a better feeling in Nome and the bank was able to weather the storm until relief should arrive. The journey made by Mrs. Noyes was one of the most heroic ever attempted by a woman on her own initiative in the far North, and when she reached Nome she was accorded a welcome that was commensurate with her feat.
The bank was saved, and a woman had been the agent.”
Unfortunately, two years later Tom’s bank failed, and his claims at Candle were lost. Tom had made a critical mistake – failing to use his official bank title when he signed checks – that left him personally liable when the bank failed. Tom and Frances retreated to Tongass Island near Ketchikan. In 1913 Tom ventured out to try his luck during a stampeded to the Shushana gold strike. Shortly afterward, Frances joined him. There the harsh conditions of the Alaskan goldfields took their final toll.
Although they met with some success, one of the prospecting trips they took resulted in disaster. Days on the trail in temperatures as low as fifty degrees below zero with little shelter and poor food left Tom a “physical wreck.”
On December 15, 1915, Tom was hospitalized in Port Simpson General Hospital in British Columbia. Frances slept on a cot in his room, watching over and caring for him. Later, with Frances and his mother at his side, he was taken to a hospital in St. Louis, but he died of pneumonia on February 2, 1916.
Stunned and heartbroken, their fortune gone, Frances returned alone to Tongass Island. She received a letter that spring from one of their former partners who recalled Tom and Frances’s early days at Otter Creek.
“Nearly 17 years ago you said goodbye to me on the platform at Seattle and you knew that you were saying farewell to a friend who would have done anything for you. I have not altered. I am just the same William you knew at Otter Creek and in our little camp at the foot of the glacier.”
The letter goes on to remember Tom.
“I shall never realize that Tommy is dead. Since I left you I have been in many places and had dealings with many men, but I have never come across another Tommy, he was just pure gold. I was trying to think last night if I could remember him being out of temper or cross, but I could not, and we had some trying times. It is a great thing to have had a partner in life who you can look forward to meeting, to whom you can hold your hand out to and look straight in the eye and say “Tommy, I am glad to see you.”
Perhaps there may be another Klondike for us beyond the clouds; if there is I could ask for nothing better than my two dear friends of the glacier should be my partners again.”
The writer advised Frances not to return to Alaska, but the woman who had married at eighteen, divorced at twenty-three, and married again that same year to a man she cherished despite the scorn and anger of her father-in-law, returned to the northern land she loved.
She kept body and soul together by managing the Nakat Inlet cannery store, but her love of the Alaskan wilderness eventually lured her away from civilization. She went back to prospecting, where everything she’d learned from her beloved Tommy allowed her to prosper.
Frances married again at the age of forty-five, to William Muncaster, who was 15 years younger. Despite the age difference, Bill had been smitten for years with Frances. He’d sent her love letters and stopped in to visit her between trips to survey Alaska for the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Bonnie accompanied Frances and her new stepfather on their honeymoon trip to Alaska’s goldfields.
Frances and William lived in a cabin on Wellesley Lake. They prospected and often went on fishing and hunting trips even when the temperature dipped to fifty below zero. Tom’s memory, however, never faded from Frances. Visiting a place she and Tom had stayed during the Shushana gold strike, she wrote in her diary, “Everything looks different. Everything is different.”
One that never changed was Frances’s love of prospecting. She and William visited their claims until 1946, when Frances was seventy-two years old and living in Haines, a small town in southeastern Alaska.
The woman who scandalized Spokane with her daring ride in pink tights, the actress who caused a mining tycoon to shun his heir, the woman who saved her husband’s bank with a grueling trek across the frozen northland, the unlikely prospector who loved Alaska so much she spent fifty-four years there, died on October 28, 1952. William Muncaster provided the press with clippings and stories about her life in Alaska. He wrote a final letter for the local newspaper.
Please publish this letter, for I wish to thank with all my heart all the people, young and old alike, in the town of Haines, Alaska, and the adjoining vicinities North, South, East and West for the unbelievable 100 percent respect shown by them as Mrs. Frances Mucaster’s final rites. I thank you.