"The Flame of the Yukon"
“Klondike Kate” became the most famous dance hall girl in the Yukon’s Dawson City. At the young age of 22 she was reported to have danced to the tune of $750 per night for the “sourdoughs” who flocked there to spend their gold.
Klondike Kate's real name was Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell. Kate, like many others of the times, came to the Klondike out of necessity or to seek their fortune in the gold rush of the late 1800’s. Her mother had divorced leaving her saddled with the burden of their support. As a result she joined a travelling song and dance theater company headed for the Yukon. Her mother later remarried in 1882 to a prominent attorney and politician.
Kate was born on October 4, 1876 at Junction City, Kansas but was raised in Spokane, Washington. Her Father, John W. Rockwell worked as a railroader. Her Mother Martha Alice, eighteen years her husbands’ junior, was a waitress. Two months after her birth, the Rockwell’s moved to Oswego, Kansas, where her father had taken a job as freight and ticket agent on the Missouri and Western Railroad.
However, she obviously had a rebellious streak, as her parents sent her to a boarding school…where she was promptly expelled for flaunting the rules. Kate had little interest in education. In her formative years Kate was described as a "tomboy." She often impersonated boys and seemed to prefer their company to members of her own gender.
On the Road
By 1890, Kate was in New York City and later traveled with touring groups as a singer and dancer. However, an unsuccessful attempt at show business prompted her to head for the Yukon.
During those turbulent times the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had strict regulations concerning prospective miners and others trying to get to the Yukon. When Kate was refused entry, she is said to have donned men’s clothing and found passage on a boat headed for the Yukon.
She first found work as a tap-dancer in Whitehorse and later as a member of the Savoy Theatrical Company in Dawson City. Her act was very popular with the miners, who named her “Klondike Kate.”
When Kate first arrived in Alaska in 1899 she was an unknown, just another struggling actress. Kate became famous for her popular “flame dance.” For this dance she wore an elaborate dress adorned with red sequins and a large cape. Under the cape she carried a cane affixed to more than 200 yards of red chiffon. Removing the cape she danced and twirled the chiffon which resembled flaming fire. At the end she would dramatically drop to the floor. It was an instant success with the prospectors who named her "The Flame of the Yukon."
Klondike Kate traveled all over, performing her dance routines. It is said Kate would brag about wearing $1500 Paris gowns and gold bracelets. Audiences claimed she was able to mesmerize men with her dances.
However, Kate’s love life didn’t fare as well as her career. While she was in the Yukon she fell in love with a man named Alexander Pantages, who later revealed his true colors as a scoundrel. Although as a couple the pair was not above swindling unsuspecting miners…a trait which eventually affected their own relationship.
Pantages convinced Kate to help him buy a string of theaters in the Pacific Northwest and form their own theater company. Kate was willing, hoping he would marry her. Her love affair with Pantages would become the stuff gossip columns are made of.
In 1902 the couple left Dawson and Kate began touring a lot. During one tour she was saddened to discover her prospective husband had married a violinist…and in the process stolen all her money as well. Kate never forgave him.
By this time, the Klondike Gold Rush was panning out and Kate headed south, first to British Columbia where she established a store-front movie theater and then to eastern Oregon where she eventually settled.
In Oregon she worked odd-jobs but always clung to her former "Belle of the Klondike" reputation. She never again knew the fame she had held in Alaska. But she did regain a measure of it during "Sourdough" reunions in the 1930s and training young Hollywood starlets in the 1940s. Some remembered her passing out postcards and talking about her past everywhere she went.
Near the end of her life she married a miner named John Matson. Again it wasn’t an ideal marriage as he remained in Alaska for the most part while she stayed in Oregon. They were together for 13 years. Her last years were spent mostly as a visible reminder of a bygone era. Kate died on February 21, 1957, age 77.
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