Cooper & Levy store, 104-106 1st Ave. S. near Yesler Way, Seattle, 1897. The store was one of the major outfitters of the Klondike Gold Rush. (photo from Asahel Curtis Collection, University of Washington UW 4770)
The archival images and newspaper headlines contained in the Gold Rush exhibit now on display at the Jewish Community Centre of Victoria (JCCV) evoke a sense of the hysteria that gripped the West Coast more than century ago, in spite of the risks involved in traveling to a severe and treacherous terrain. And Jews were not immune from the mania, as the three-panel display, entitled “The Jewish Presence During the Klondike Gold Rush 1897-1918,” distinctly demonstrates.
The exhibit will be at the JCCV through January. It brings with it a number of revisions from the one that toured Canada from 2016 to 2018 and included a stop in Vancouver.
“During its previous run, we received a lot of additional information from people who visited the exhibit, so much so that we couldn’t include it all in the current display. We are seriously thinking about doing a book starting later this year,” Rick Karp, president of the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon (JCSY), told the Independent.
Once the previous display returned to Whitehorse, Karp followed up on the input he received and updated the three panels and the booklet accompanying the exhibit.
“As well, we revised the video that details the finding of the Jewish cemetery from the Gold Rush in Dawson, the cleaning and bringing it back to its original condition, and the rededication ceremony,” Karp said. “All the information about the cemetery in the accompanying booklet has been added, as well as the section entitled ‘The History of the Jews in the Klondike Gold Rush’ and the ‘Stories of the Gold Rush.’”
A significant addition to the Gold Rush stories is that of Joseph Barron, one of the first to open a mercantile store in Dawson. Barron came from Winnipeg and followed the stampede of 1898. He mushed into the Yukon via the White Pass route, bringing with him a stock of merchandise.
His beginnings in the north were not the most fortuitous. He lost his supplies on three occasions to fire between 1899 and 1901. Undeterred by adversity, he restocked and started over.
The Barrons would become a prominent Calgary family. Joseph’s son Abe founded the law firm Barron & Barron, which is still operated by the family today. His other son, Jacob (J.B.), was a leading businessman and theatre owner in the city, building Calgary’s first high-rise, the Barron Building, and breaking ground on its first Modern Orthodox synagogue, Shaarey Tzedec (which was demolished in 2013).
Joseph Barron’s wife and children did not come to Dawson until 1902. The younger Barrons only stayed for two years before they left to complete their education. The senior Barrons eventually left Dawson to join their children in Calgary in 1915.
Henry Isaacs was another entrepreneur who ventured north. He earned the moniker “the Butter King of the Klondike” upon learning about a technique using sea water to re-churn a shipment of what others had considered rancid butter into something edible.
Among the most enterprising adventurers was David Gross, a Russian immigrant and dropout trained as tailor, who, not yet 20 years of age when he made the journey north, found ways to make money selling groceries, stoves and other provisions, though his primary business was a clothing store. His ingenuity led him to see opportunities where others did not. For example, if butter had turned rancid and was unsalvageable for food purposes, he would sell it as axle grease for squeaky wheels. After learning that water can only penetrate an inch or two into flour, he would purchase large sacks of flour other merchants thought had been drenched and, therefore, ruined and then sell the flour that the water had not reached at a much higher price. Gross also became active in the nascent movie theatre business in Dawson City.
Yet the prize for the most daring Jewish seeker of fortune would have to go to Max Hirschberg. After losing his supplies en route and then finding, in 1890, that many of the good claims in Dawson had been staked, Hirschberg pushed on to Nome, where more gold was reported to be, on a bicycle!
Later in life, before his passing in 1964, he recounted the 11-week journey in which he made his way along a two-inch trail, confronting snow-blindness, exposure and exhaustion, nearly drowning in the Shaktoolik River and losing $1,500 in gold dust. When his bike chain broke, he made a sail from his coat and rigged it to his bicycle, then crossed the Norton Sound to Nome.
Interest in the Jewish community during the Gold Rush was ignited after the discovery of the aforementioned Jewish cemetery in Dawson City in 1995, and its ensuing restoration in 1997 and 1998. “The discovery of lives lost inevitably leads to questions about lives lived,” the exhibit booklet reads.
“The Jewish Community Centre of Victoria is excited to host the mobile exhibit. We would like to thank Rick for making it possible,” said Larry Gontovnick, president of the JCCV.
After it completes its current tour around Canada, the exhibit will be on permanent display at the Dawson City Museum in the Yukon. A duplicate copy will tour various communities in the United States.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.