In 1898, Dawson City in the Yukon Territory was the heart of the richest gold country on the continent. To its theaters and dance halls the miners came for relief from the long, lonely hours spent working on their claims. They laughed, drank, and threw their gold dust recklessly about. The amenities offered in Dawson City were few, but basic: drink, a woman, and a place to unload his gold dust. Every other building carried the sign, “Gold Dust Bought,” while the rest catered to his sensual needs.
Mattie Silks, the notorious Denver courtesan, was on board the Susie on the last down-river trip of the 1898 season. She was leaving Dawson because her gambler-lover, Cortez Thompson, could not stand the bitter rain and snot of the Klondike. Mattie and Cortez had come to Dawson City figuring that the special merchandise Mattie offered was in far greater demand in the northern reaches than in Denver. The Dawson City Mattie found looked much the same as the towns of the American prairie and Rockies. Built on a flat in a bend of the river, Dawson was a collection of hastily erected log and frame shanties, a little larger than its neighbor, Lousetown.
Jenkins, proprietor of the Sourdough saloon, rented Mattie a good-sized frame building on Second Street for $350.00 a month. Her leading competitor was Beatrice Larne. Mattie’s expenses were high, but her total receipts were enormous. Each of her girls was earning about fifty dollars a day, even after paying Mattie her fifty per cent of the take plus board. Mattie’s sales of liquid refreshments brought huge profits, for she sold champagne for thirty dollars a quart with the boarder’s cut on each being only five dollars. Whiskey was fifty cents a shot, but there was no beer or gin in Dawson. Most of the whiskey was made from grain alcohol which cost sixty dollars a gallon; when diluted and colored and sold by the drink, the gallon brought in over $130.
Mattie brought along the old gold scales she once used at Georgetown and a little square of thick carpet to catch the dust which spilled from the scales. As usual, Cortez was no help with the business, because he spent most of his time playing faro at Joe Cooper’s Dominion Saloon. Late in the summer, Cortez developed a heavy cold and treated it with his favorite remedy, whiskey. Mattie, too, couldn’t stand the constant downpour which left Dawson’s streets ankle-deep in mud. All around her, Mattie saw evidence of colds which developed into pneumonia, and she dreaded the approach of the long Arctic winter. She wanted to go home to Denver, so she squared up Cortez’s gambling debts and booked passage on the Susie, taking back a net profit of $38,000 for her ninety days at Dawson City.