The crew and passengers aboard the steamship the City of Columbia stood huddled together on the flooded deck of the vessel. Night was all around them and an awful moment of peril and suspense hung in the wet air. A perfect storm had overtaken the steamer and raging winds had driven her into a mass of rocks. She was stranded in the Strait of Magellan and plans were underway to off load a group of women fortune hunters on their way to Alaska to the rocks that flanked the ship on either side.
Mrs. Hannah S. Gould, the matriarch of the group of women travelers, anxiously waited for instructions about what needed to be done from the City of Columbia’s captain, E.C. Baker. Forty-five ladies surrounded Hannah, all wearing anxious expressions. They pressed in closely to her, waiting. They were ready to put into action the command passed from the captain to them from Hannah. All the women with Hannah had responded to an invitation she issued in the New York Times in early 1897. The fifty-year-old, Long Island native had organized the unusual expedition in which the primary focus was to support miners stampeding north to the Klondike River. More than five hundred ladies applied to take part in the expedition, but less than fifty were selected to go. Several of the women hoped to find husbands among the prospectors in Alaska as well as their own gold strike.
Hannah, who assumed responsibility for her husband’s many business ventures when he passed away in 1891, was an ambitious woman eager to prove herself capable of adding to the fortune she had acquired. “I received all my business training from my father,” she told a reporter with the Leslie Illustrated Weekly magazine in December 1897. “He trained me the same as though I had been a boy, not only in finance and mathematics, but in firearms.”
Hannah’s experience in the business field included ventures in real estate investing and the building of rail lines. In 1892, she supervised the building of the Middleton, Georgia, and Atlantic Railway. The construction of the one hundred thirty-eight-mile line included bridges and trestle work. Fascinated by her efforts, the Leslie Illustrated Weekly magazine reporter inquired how she managed to accomplish such feats as a woman. “If a woman is practical and has the physical strength of a man, she can build a railroad as well as a man can,” Hannah informed him. “I believe I must be the only woman to date who became a railroad contractor, and I ran an iron car and worked with the men. If it were necessary for me to take hold with the men, I did it.”
Dealing with men on any level than that of professional was all Hannah had in mind when she conceived the idea of joining the Alaskan Gold Rush. “Some women who will be accompanying me on this expedition want to marry,” Hannah confessed to the Leslie Illustrated Weekly magazine, “but they have been told this trip isn’t like that.” Regardless of the purely economic reasons which the mission was designed, bachelorettes on the journey were determined to find a mate. Members of her group had responded to ads from eligible men seeking wives. One of the ads posted in a San Francisco newspaper that caught the attention of a few of the ladies traveling with Hannah read, “Wanted – lady of good social standing temporarily in reduced circumstances wants to meet honorable gentlemen bound for Klondike ward. Object business and ultimate matrimonial partnership.”
Among the ladies of good social standing selected to be a part of the expedition was Hannah’s own unmarried daughter, Kate and Miss Margaret Henderson from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Using the riches Margaret inherited from her father, she planned to open a hotel and supply miners with mining tools. Four other affluent women with the party were trained nurses who would take charge of the hospital Hannah planned to build. According to the December 30, 1897, edition of the Leslie Illustrated Weekly magazine, Hannah was a “capital physician, as well as an expert nurse.” “Our hospital department will include everything from stretchers and medicines down to bandages and surgical implements. And if there is no use for a hospital, we will convert it into a boarding house.”
Hannah would not consider any woman over the age of fifty-one or under the age of twenty-one to join the expedition. “Neither will I take a woman who has marriage in primary view. To such I say there is degradation enough there already.” She made that statement in part as a response to merchants in Dawson City who thought the expedition was a bad idea. Those who earned a living auctioning off willing women as wives felt Hannah’s group would threaten their business. Emphasizing the true intent of the voyage calmed their worries.
The women Hannah selected to travel with her to Alaska had to meet a physical requirement as well as an age perimeter. “They must possess strength and courage and be able to withstand the hardships in store for them,” she shared with the New York Times in August 1897.
The forty-five women in Hannah’s party were each charged $800 to make the trip. Once in the Klondike the expedition’s leader promised to back the travelers financially if needed, until they stake a paying claim: at which point half of the proceeds would revert to Hannah as custodian of the capital. All were supplied with clothing designed for winter in the Arctic region. Their outfit consisted of bloomers lined with lamb’s wool, a fur coat, fur leggings, and fur hood, a rubber coat and boots, hats, gingham gown, sunbonnet, shirtwaist blouses, and linen shirts. Whatever fineries party members felt they needed to attract a husband were left up to them. Except for one long dress to be used for state occasions, Hannah tried to discourage such frivolities as well as the notion of finding a husband through advertisements. “I cannot possibly forbid such mail-order unions,” she told the Leslie Illustrated Weekly magazine, “but I cannot recommend it. Do I expect them to marry? There may be some marriages, but in no case have I looked with favor upon a woman whom I suspected might be seeking adventure in that direction. They are, without exception, all earnest, right-minded women on this expedition, whose aim and purpose are simply that of gaining a fortune in exactly the same way as the men do.”
The Steamship City of Columbia set sail from New York with Hannah and her female party on December 17, 1897. One hundred and thirty-six days later the vessel arrived in Seattle. Stops had been made en route at St. Thomas, Barbados, and Rio. At the various anchoring locations, the passengers amused themselves with the wild natives that gathered around the ship. On February 8, 1898, a storm overtook the Columbia and forced her into the rocks close to Valparaiso, Chile. The ship was hopelessly stuck with several hooks in her hull from other vehicles that had tried to rescue her. The cost to repair the ship and get her on her way again was estimated to be $25,000. Hannah eventually paid for the repairs to be made and after twenty-two days of being grounded, the crew, staff and passengers were off on their way again to the Washington Territory.
Hannah and her party arrived in Seattle in early May 1898. From there, two of Hannah’s cousins who were living in the area provided the women with the steam launch to transport the group the Yukon. During the stopover in the Washington Territory some members of the expedition had managed to acquire copies of newspapers containing a variety of ads posted by Alaskan gold miners seeking wives. When word reached Hannah that the subject of marriage was a popular topic among the ladies, she reiterated of the true purpose of the trip. “We are going to help succor the starving miners in the Klondike and add to their stock of worldly possessions,” she told the women. “We are grub-stakers foremost. If a miner has no money to live on, we will provide the necessities, receiving in return a certain percentage of his ore.”
Unbeknownst to the women in the expedition, Hannah had already declined a marriage proposal from a persistent Chilean hired by her to repair the City of Columbia. No matter how tempted she might have been she refused to allow herself to be distracted from the goal she had so heavily invested.
The expedition arrived in Alaska in late May 1898. Dawson City’s population grew that day from 3,011 to 3,056 – three thousand men and fifty-six women. Although many of the ladies in Hannah’s party successfully provided miners with the funds to locate and stake a claim, a number of these same women married quickly including Margaret Henderson. Hannah concentrated on the hospital and mission she established. Her position on marriage gradually softened and confessed to a reporter in 1899 that she would “consider a gold millionaire’s proposal to wed, if made, and his disciplines echoed the same view as her own.”