Two of the most ferocious dance-hall girls in Alaska’s gold rush region in 1898, were Oregon Mare and Grizzly Bear. Neither could be described as pretty; Grizzly’s appearance was really fearsome because she had one eye gouged out in a fight. The continued presence of these two in the dance halls was due to the simple fact that men were afraid to turn them down for a drink and dance. When annoyed, Oregon Mare kicked her antagonist repeatedly on the shins with sharp pointed shoes. Grizzly Bear’s technique was even more painful. A “mountain of a woman,” with arms and shoulders like a stevedore, she would grab and hug her victim until his ribs cracked.
It wasn’t hard to understand why these two terrors were so determined to hold onto their jobs, for a dance-hall girl raked in a lot of loot for swinging around the floor with the bearded, sweaty, and odiferous men. The lusty polkas, quadrilles, and waltzes were exhausting, but most of the girls were brawny amazons who could take the punishment. The dance halls paid the girls a salary of about $50 a week, in addition to which the dancers received twenty-five cents out of ever dollar spent by their partners. Thus, most girls collected about $200 a week. Besides, since the dance-hall girls had the first crack at the sourdoughs, there was always the possibility of marrying one who struck it rich out on the creeks. One prospector from Chicago became so enthused by the charms of one of the girls that he hurled a poke of nuggets at her as she spun around the dance floor. Unfortunately, the gold-filled sack broke her cheekbone. The contrite prospector lolled around his loved one during her traumatic illness and, when she recovered, found himself taking vows before a preacher.
The Klondikers were starved for entertainment of any kind, after the long hard months on the trail north. The actresses, dancers, and singers of Dawson were accorded all the respect they deserved or demanded. Female performers could be divided roughly into three classifications: the dramatic actresses, the flashier girls who simply sang and danced, and the variety girls who worked in the lowest-class music halls and visited with the customers after their turns on stage. The same men who made lewd suggestions to the skimpy clad girls of the rougher establishments would sit like obedient children for a sentimental act, then empty their pockets in appreciation. At one performance, Monte Snow and his sister picked up $142 thrown on the stage for their dancing and singing. Nine-year-old Little Margie Newman, “The Princess of the Klondike,” invariably stood heel-deep in nuggets after she rendered a sentimental ballad. One man was so moved by her performance that he wrote a poem about her which ended:
God bless you, Little Margie, for you made better men.
God bless you, Little Margie, for you take us home again.
On the day Margie left town, Frank Conrad of the claim Eleven Eldorado tore his solid gold watch and nugget chain and tossed them to her on the steamer’s deck. She smiled, so he pulled out a fifty-dollar bill, wrapped it around a silver dollar, and threw it to her. She smiled again, and he produced a hundred-dollar bill, wrapped a silver dollar in it, and heaved it to the deck for the reward of a third smile.
Looking for more Wild Women stories? Check out this story about Cattle Kate.