BOOK REVIEW Staking Her Claim: The life of Belinda Mulrooney, Klondike & Alaska Entrepreneur
Mayer, Melanie J. and Robert N. DeArmond, STAKING HER CLAIM : The Life of Belinda Mulrooney, Klondike & Alaska Entrepreneur Swallow Press, University of Ohio Press. Oversize paperback, 406 pp. + index. $19.95.
A episode of history as colorful, insane, grandiose and endlessly fascinating as the Klondike gold rush produced men and women to match its glory. Belinda Mulrooney, the poor Irish immigrant girl of steel, was among the best.
She arrived in the United States in 1885 at the age of thirteen, brought over by her parents who had emigrated earlier in hopes of work. The family was desperately poor and with new babies arriving regularly, needed her help. Taking care of the four younger ones was a job she detested. As soon as she could, she left for the bigger world.
When she was twenty she discovered real estate at the World’s Fair in Chicago and made enough money for another venture in San Francisco. That ended in fire and disaster so the resilient Belinda took a job as stewardess on a ship on the Alaska run.
In 1897 she was ready for the Klondike and its glittering prospects. She had a good head for business, enjoyed being the boss, and quickly acquired a name for herself in hotels and mining. She was in the right time and place and made the most of it.
The (mostly) honest and hard-working miners and merchants were, of course, joined by men and women dedicated to mining gold without work as the fame of the Klondike spread around the world. Among those was a Frenchman, Charles Eugene Carbonneau. As Belinda became a major player in the social and business life of Dawson this pseudo-Count, undoubtedly known as “dashing”, decided she was his new love. Unfortunately for Mulrooney, she believed him.
However, before she married him, she made a triumphal tour to visit her families in Pennsylvania and Ireland, fulfilling every immigrant’s dream. A new house for her parents, excellent boarding schools for her siblings, and a grand tour in Ireland were all accomplished. She also arranged for house improvements for her grandmother and treated her to a luxury tour of Dublin and London.
When Belinda returned to Dawson, against the advice not only of friends but the Catholic priest, she married the handsome Carbonneau. As long as her money lasted they led a luxurious life in the Yukon and France. Belinda continued her business while Charles engaged in shady deals and doubtful enterprises. Inevitably, the combination of absence from the gold fields, the expensive living, and Charles’s speculation led to problems. In 1904 Charles returned to Europe, never to visit the Klondike again, and Belinda went to work to salvage what she could from the debacle.
She was thirty-three. Although she didn’t mind bucking social mores and was not a practicing Catholic, she did not want the world to know she was divorced, never to marry again.
Things went downhill in the Yukon so Belinda raised some money from friends and went off to the new strike near Fairbanks. Once again, although she did well financially, especially after she founded a bank, her friends claimed she cheated on the agreement and lawsuits flew through the air.
At the end, Mulrooney moved to Yakima, Washington, to become an orchardist and take refuge with her family. She built a stone house that became known as Carbonneau Castle and faced her gradual financial decline with courage and strength. She moved to Seattle and even worked in a shipyard during World War II. She died at the age of 95 in 1967, forgotten by the world.
There are a few drawbacks to this lengthy account. The photographs are mostly small and inexcusably fuzzy, and the combination of a straightforward biography with a sociological overview of the woman’s world at the turn-of-the-century does not work well. Two separate books would have been better.
The strength of the book is the incredible detail. Every scrap of information is followed and verified if possible. The hours of poring over complicated legal documents from tangled lawsuits and countersuits are numbing to think about, yet the narrative is not slowed by this massive scholarship, which is confined to the footnotes. The reader is spared the details and given the results.
Because of the breadth of the research, this book is far more than an account of a major player in the Klondike, fascinating though that is, but it offers one of the most complete accounts of that time of want and riches, of need and greed the Klondike exemplifies to this day. De Armond is noted as a careful historian; this book establishes him as among the most meticulous researchers this reviewer has encountered.
If the Gold Rush period interests you at all, buy it. If you know anyone interested in the Klondike, buy it for them.