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Madison Houseby Peter Donahue
MADDIE WASN'T ON THE WHARF when the S.S. Portland docked in Seattle that summer of 1897. Chester was, though. He was among the throngs down at Schwabacher's wharf to greet the newly wealthy passengers aboard the steamship from the northland. He even hired on with one of the prospectors to carry his bags of gold to the Scandinavian American Bank—the federal assaying office having not opened yet in Seattle—and was paid five dollars for his efforts. Which was good solid money, Chester told Maddie later that day, and not just some featherbrained pipedream, but good solid money! Maddie replied that she supposed it was.
The riches aboard the S.S. Portland that heralded new bounty for Seattle instilled in Maddie the exact opposite idea that it inspired in Chester. She thought they should stay in Seattle and set up shop supplying the stampede of gold-fevered prospectors racing north that was certain to follow—most of whom would stop first in the Seattle to stock up on provisions. She had a hunch that that's where the best business sense lay, and not in risking everything they had (scarce little at that) for a chance to pan a few ounces of yellow dust (if they were lucky) from an ice-clogged stream in the frigid and barren north. Besides, she had come to grow fond of Seattle in the short time that theyd been there, even if they did live below the Deadline, in one of the citys most notorious districts. She was occasionally able to get out into the other neighborhoods, where she could imagine a better life for them eventually, if they just stayed on.
To seek their fortune, however, was why they had ventured out to Seattle in the first place, Chester reminded her. Indeed, well before the headlines spread across the nation with news of the S.S. Portland's "ton of gold," Chester had already contracted gold fever. They'd gone to Cleveland from Trenton because he had heard that all the good manufacturing jobs were there and that a man could rise to floor manager in no time and, with drive and the right wits, even become company president. But in those depression years of the mid-1890s, every city in America was struck hard, including Cleveland, and the manufacturing plants werent hiring. Any work at all, even streetsweeping, was scarce. So after just one year on the shores of Lake Erie they packed up and came to Seattle on James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad all because Chester had heard there might be gold in the region, even as close as 50 miles north of the city, in the foothills of the North Cascades. Looking back on that time in her marriage to Chester, Maddie realized she couldn't have guessed just how desperate her young husband was becoming, and probably had been all along. Shed fallen in love with him because hed seemed like the stable, hardworking type that her father had been—her father had even helped bring Chester along with his railroad job—and because, well, he was darn good looking and knew how to sweet talk a girl, which she didnt discourage none. Losing her innocence to Chester just weeks before they were married had convinced her she was in love with him.
For two years after their departure from Trenton, they lived off the small inheritance and insurance claim from her parents—both of whom died in a train wreck only a year after Maddie and Chester wed—yet by their fourth month in Seattle this modest fund was nearly all gone. They moved out of the Providence Hotel and into a $7-a-month flophouse two blocks below the Deadline. It was a despicable clapboard tenement made up of a dozen flyblown rooms with paper-thin walls, dirt-smeared hallway commodes, scurrying baseboard rats, drunken vomiting boarders, and a savage proprietor who let rooms to anyone who could pay and booted out anyone who could not. Vacating this sorry excuse for lodging after six intolerable months was the one positive result of her husband's determination to head north for the gold fields.
The day the S.S. Portland made dock, Chester was already busy packing their few remaining household belongings into their steamer trunks when Maddie arrived back at the flophouse from one of her walks, bolted past the leering old man in the foyer holding a bottle in his lap, and rushed up to their room on the third floor.
"Look," he said the instant she opened the door and entered. He held something up between his thumb and index finger for her to see. Whatever it was, it was too small for her to make out in the room's dim light. She began unlacing the tie on her bonnet and set it carefully on top of the battered dresser drawers. She had been out looking for housecleaning work, inquiring door-to-door. Her knees ached and her ankles were swollen, and she was tired to the bone.
"What is it?" Then, looking about the room and seeing their trunks out and open, she stared at Chester and said, "What are you doing? Have you been packing?"
"It's gold," her husband declared and brought it up to her face for closer inspection. "Put out your hand."
Maddie laid open her hand and Chester placed a thin yellowish sliver with roseate tints and rough, uneven edges in her palm. Despite its course and tarnished appearance, the object was soft and seemed almost iridescent. As she held it, Chester told her how it was the very same stuff, just in the raw, that the delicate chain and locket her mother had bestowed on her on their wedding day was made of. (The same chain and locket, Maddie recalled looking back on that moment, that theyd pawned two months earlier, a detail that had slipped Chesters mind in his fascination with the gold sliver.) Maddie handed the piece of gold back to Chester without comment.
"One of the men off the boat gave it to me," he explained, almost whispering in his excitement, perhaps afraid one of their neighbors would hear him and try to steal his treasure, "along with five dollars for helping him carry the rest of his gold to the bank." He turned and motioned toward the four open trunks in the room, then put the gold sliver in his shirt pocket, buttoned it, and took hold of both of Maddie's wrists. "We're going to the Klondike, Maddie. That's where all the gold is. We're going to be rich, Maddie, just like that man I helped off the boat today." He produced a copy of the Post-Intelligencer. "Here, you can read it all for yourself. This is what we've been waiting for."
Maddie didn't know what to think—of the little sliver of precious metal, of Chester's fervency, of her wretched life in the Seattle flophouse, of their decision to leave Trenton for Cleveland, Cleveland for Seattle . . . any of it. She didnt respond to her husband, but just let him go on telling her how wonderful their lives were going to be from now on.
During the next several days she watched as the city worked itself into a frenzy to get to Alaska and the Yukon. Chester would have left that very afternoon if they could have afforded to, but they didn't have enough money to book passage on one of the many steamships that were now heading north, much less buy all the provisions people said were required for the overland trek to the Yukon gold fields once you reached Alaska by sea. For the next several weeks they had to work—Maddie cleaning rich folks' houses on First Hill, Chester down on the docks as a stevedore—and then they had to sell the last few items of furniture and jewelry that Maddie had held onto from her family's home in Trenton, and finally, within seven weeks, working almost eighteen hours every day, they had enough—by which time Maddie's initial doubts about the entire undertaking had grown into grave apprehension for their personal safety and welfare, as well as for their marriage.
It did not take a clairvoyant to see that not all the desperate souls pouring into Seattle ravenous to get rich up north would achieve this goal. Most would not. Most would likely come back more destitute, more physically ravaged and morally disillusioned than they had ever been before the gold rush news broke. Already, just one month after the S.S. Portland's fanfare arrival in Seattle, there was evidence of this—families split, marriages ruined, men begging on the streets, broken by their own misguided ambitions. Even to this day, eight years after the event and six years into the new century, secure now in her own home, Maddie took pride in the fact that she had recognized then the emptiness of the gold rush promise, that she could read the telltale signs—despite the fact that she could do nothing to stop the feveredness in her husband. Chester was simply too determined, and was going to have his way.
The three hundred dollars they scrapped together in the next seven weeks could have bought them a small (but pleasant) house north of the downtown. Already it was plain to see that the people profiting from the gold rush were the Seattle merchants. When she wasn't cleaning houses, Maddie was stitching tent canvas for Cooper and Levy, Pioneer Outfitters, at their warehouse several blocks south of their store on First Avenue. Outfitters throughout the city were finding it hard to maintain their stocks. When Maddie first broached with Chester the notion of their staying in Seattle and setting themselves up in business, he scoffed at her. When she mentioned it again the next week, he shouted her down for even suggesting such an idea, said she was a fool for not seeing the opportunity that lay before them plain as day, and accused her of disloyalty to her wedded husband. Then, after she tried to placate him, he seemed to plead with her. "This is our one big chance, Mads, dontcha see? Dontcha want to be rich and wear the fine dresses like those ladies you clean house for? Try to understand, Mads. It's now or never."
She wasn't persuaded. Yet she gave up trying to change Chester's mind. His intransigence on every consideration she raised made Maddie increasingly ill about the whole undertaking. At one point she even hinted that perhaps he should go alone, that she would only be a hindrance to him and would be better off waiting for him in Seattle. But he insisted on needing her with him in Alaska, and promised her they would be back in Seattle within a year. This was the one time she had ever regretted not being able to bear them a child. If they had had a child, she knew, she would never have gone north with him.
After selling the last of their few belongings to outfit themselves with the necessary equipment and provisions—a Klondike stove, blankets, parkas, knee-high boots, wool-lined mittens, a red Union suit each, beaver hats, and then (by way of food stuffs), 50 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of dried beans, 10 pounds of lard, sacks loaded with potatoes, cabbages, and acorn squash, and 10 pounds of cured beef (although Chester swore he would provide them with fresh meat—"You don't mind caribou, do ya, Mads?"—with the second-hand Remington rifle he bought)—they still came short of the year's worth of supplies the Canadian Mounted Police required of prospectors crossing the border from Alaska into the Yukon. In lieu of all her work sewing canvas for them, the proprietors of Cooper and Levy, the two Jewish merchants Aaron Levy and his son-in-law Isaac Cooper, let Maddie have a large tent, complete with poles and stakes, on top of her regular wages. This savings left her and Chester barely enough to book steerage aboard the steamship Rosalie, due to depart for Skagway on August 29.
On that morning Chester hired a horse-drawn wagon and, along with another man and his wife who had recently moved into
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