Most of the photographers who took the Klondike challenge of 1898 travelled all the way to Dawson City. When the rush was over, most left the land of gold forever. Ephraim Hamacher did neither.
He was born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1857, the third oldest in a family of ten children. As a young man, he moved to Washington State, where he learned the ponderous, almost primitive, art of photography.
In 1898, Hamacher answered the clarion call of the Klondike Gold Rush about the same time as another, more famous, picture-taker. Like his friend, Eric Hegg, Hamacher sailed up the Inside Passage to record the mayhem and madness. Unlike Hegg and others, who at break up hurried to Dawson City, Hamacher decided to stay in the tent town of Lake Bennett. However, by the spring of 1900, Bennett was a ghost town.
When the lakes and rivers opened, Hamacher packed up his awkward photography gear and headed down-stream for Whitehorse. Unlike other early-day photographers, he seemed to love the north and decided to stay in the tiny town of about four hundred people.
It did not seem like a place where a commercial photographer could make much of a living, but Hamacher turned out to be an inventive businessman. What he accomplished from his little clapboard studio on Front Street is the most comprehensive visual history of the early days of Whitehorse. He documented community scenes, sternwheeler construction, and mining scenes in the Kluane area.
Mundane shots of the White Pass operations, including the train and the river-boat era, have become a vital component of the city's colourful history, that would be largely forgetten had it not been for Hamacher and his heavy cameras.
In October 1906, the Whitehorse Star reported that: "Photographer E.J. Hamacher returned Sunday evening on the steamer White Horse from a professional trip along the river. He obtained some excellent views of the wreck of the steamer Columbian."
The Columbian had blown up near Eagle Rock Bluff, killing six crewmen. Hamacher was the first to photograph the sad spectacle.
Among his legacies are priceless photos of Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids as they were before they built the Whitehorse Dam.
He photographed the growing town from the clay bluffs overlooking Whitehorse. These photos have helped archivists identify the location of historic buildings in the early days. He shot sporting events such as ball games, tennis and curling matches.
He also specialized in portrait photography, and obviously has an eccentric sense of humour, since he would sometimes encourage his subjects to wear outlandish costumes. If they did, he would take 50 percent of the bill. Thus, we see some exemplary citizens of Whitehorse in highland dance regalia. Some photographs show women picknicking in voluminous dresses and feathered hats, while men in suits fish for salmon or hunt grouse.
When Ephraim Hamacher died in 1935, at the age of seventy-eight, his obituary told of the esteem with which he was held by the citizens of Whitehorse.
"A gentleman of the old school, Ephraim Hamacher was noted for his courteousness and affability in all circles and will be missed by the entire community, and by the old-timers of the town, who reverently bow their heads in tribute to passing of a grand old man."
Many photos take by E.J. Hamacher are now housed in the Yukon Archives, thanks to donations from Yukoners like Rolf and Marg Hougen as well as in the permanent collections at the MacBride Museum.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
The news spread around the world with the speed of a lightning bolt. Two of America's most beloved citizens were dead. In the wilds of Alaska, the picture of their crumpled aircraft was a sad sight, indeed.
Will Rogers was born on a Cherokee reserve in Oklahoma in 1879 and, as a youngster, became a cowboy. Wiley Post was born in Texas in 1899 and became a pilot at an equally young age.
Rogers joined the world famous Ziegfield Follies in 1915 and was an immediate hit as the cowboy philosopher, twirling his lariat with extraordinary precision while making salty comments about the political and social scene in America. "I never met a man I didn't like" was an often quoted phrase. He hosted a national radio show. Millions of listeners tuned in each week to hear such lines as "Everbody is ignorant. Only on different subjects". "They may call me a rube and a hick, but I'd rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it." Rogers wrote several books and starred in many motion pictures. Not surprisingly, he was one of the best known and highly paid entertainers in the '20s and '30s.
Wiley Post gained world-wide acclaim in 1931 when, with co-pilot Harold Gatty, he flew around the northern hemisphere in eight days, becoming the first to accomplish the feat. Two years later, Post became as well known an aviator as Charles Lindbergh when he made the same journey alone. It was an age when flyers were as famous as astronauts are today.
In August of 1935, Post and Rogers were bound for Alaska on board a float plane owned by Post. They stopped in Whitehorse and in Dawson, where they spent a few days on a sight-seeing tour. Their visit was big news in tiny Dawson City. Here were real-life celebrities.
They left Dawson and arrived in Fairbanks on August 14. The next day, they left Fairbanks but encountered heavy coastal storms. This used up more fuel than Post had planned for. Post landed on a lake near the small community of Wallatka. Here they learned that Point Barrow, their final destination, was just 14 miles away.
Post assumed he had enough fuel to make that short hop. The plane was barely air-borne when the engine sputtered and stopped. It plunged into a shallow lake, ending up on its back, a twisted chunk of metal. Both Rogers and Post were killed. The news stunned the people of depression-ridden America. Two of their most famous celebrities were gone.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
In Dawson City they called him Swiftwater Bill. He liked that. You see, Bill Gates was a little man with a big ego. He told everyone who’d listen that he earned his nickname because of his prowess in steering boats over river rapids in Idaho, whence he came.
However, in the Klondike, poor little Bill was never taken seriously by real miners. That is, until he reluctantly took a lay on claim 13 on Eldorado creek. Turns out it was one of the richest gold claims in the world.
Now Gates was rich. With more money than any man needed, "Swiftwater" bathed in champagne and was notorious for lusting after dance hall girls. He’d often be seen with groups of girls, heading for his Eldorado claims. There they helped themselves to the Nuggets.
To ensure female companionship, he co-owned the Monte Carlo dance hall on Front Street where booze and nuggets flowed freely.
In Dawson, he was a little man with a big heart and lots of cash. And his favourite companion was Gussie Lamore, a pretty nineteen-year-old who had come to Dawson from Circle City, Alaska in the spring of 1898.
Gussie was extremely fond of fresh eggs, but they were as scarce as hen’s teeth in Dawson . One day, Swiftwater Bill was holding court in his favourite restaurant when Gussie Lamore entered on the arm of a well-known gambler. When the twosome sat down and ordered fried eggs, Swiftwater Bill, in a fit of rage, raced around Dawson and bought up every egg in town.
One friend of Gates who witnessed the incredible scene said that Swiftwater had the eggs fried one at a time in the Monte Carlo and threw them through the window to the hungry dogs. Mrs. lola Beebe, one of Swiftwater’s several future mothers-in-law, wrote later that there were two crates of eggs and that Swiftwater paid for the eggs with a couple of coffee tins filled with gold.
The incident caught young Gussie Lamore’s attention alright. She offered to meet Bill in San Francisco that fall and marry him, failing to mention that she was already married. From there, his story gets increasingly vague. He ended up with a silver mining concession in Peru, where he died in 1935.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Swiftwater Bill Gates (No. 1)