Cusp of 20th Century Klondike Gold Fever


Boat on the Upper Yukon River, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite books of all time is Pierre Berton’s Klondike Fever, the Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. My father, Hans Pederson, a Danish Immigrant to Seattle, succumbed to the Klondike fever before he returned to Seattle to become a major early 20th century builder. The April 14 Delancey Place blog quotes one passage where Berton describes some of the characters who stayed.

“Who were these men who had chosen to wall themselves off from the madding crowd in (Fortymile), a village of logs  deep in the sub-Arctic wilderness? on the face of it, they were men chasing the will-o-the-wisp of fortune . . . But they seemed more like men pursued than men pursuing, and if they sought anything, it was the right to be left alone.

“They were all individuals, as their nicknames (far commoner than formal names) indicated: Salt Water Jack, Big Dick, Squaw Cameron, Jimmy the Pirate, Buckskin Miller, Pete the Pig. Eccentricities of character were the rule. There was one, known as the Old Maiden, who carried fifty pounds of ancient newspapers about with him wherever he went, for, he said, ‘they’re handy to refer to when you get in an argument.’ There was another called Cannibal Ike because of his habit of hacking off great slabs of moose meat with his knife and stuffing them into his mouth raw. One cabin had walls as thin as matchwood because its owner kept chopping away at the logs to feed his fire; he said he did it to let in the light. Another contained three partners and a tame moose which was treated as a house pet. , , ,

“Fortymile, in short, was a community of hermits whose one common bond was their mutual isolation. ‘I feel so long dead and buried that I cannot think a short visit home, as if from the grave, would be of much use,’ wrote William Bompas, a Church of England bishop who found himself in Fortymile. . .

“Fortymile’s residents enjoyed a curious mixture of communism and anarchy.”

Hans Pederson, Pioneer Seattle Contractor




I just spent a week in Seattle, joined by family and friends, to celebrate the coming publication of my memoir,

The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks The Search for my Father

The following link shows bits of the story, but only if you have access to Facebook, I’m learning.

It rained some—what else do you expect in Seattle in March— still, the sun shone brightly for three days!  We took in lots of northwestern eye candy. Especially snow covered mountains and glaciers— Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula.  First a ferry through the islands to Victoria, then a pre-season tour of the beauteous Butchart Gardens,  a convivial dinner with Canadian kin at a craft brewery. Many totem poles that made us wish we had more time to learn about First Nation culture,  and a celebratory high tea. Later, after brunch at the Seattle Space Needle, we wandered slowly through the other-worldy Dale Chihully Glass Museum. Two of our younger members went hiking.

Seattle’s “Boys in the Boat”


Unemployed men queued outside a Depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone — National Archives and records Administration, College Park, MD


The Boys in the Boat, a runaway 2014 bestseller by Daniel James Brown, features the iconic University of Washington crew that bested Hitler’s shell to win the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The story has been said to capture the spirit of an era.

The book describes the Depression years in Washington. Joe Rantz, one of the college “boys,” brings the story to life. After a grueling, rainy, afternoon workout in the shell, one memorable scene describes Joe’s dinner with his girl friend. The only meal they could afford: a soup made by mixing the table ketchup with water.

A frequently quoted  early passage follows:

“On the streets below the (Smith) Tower, men in fraying suit coats, worn-out shoes, and battered fedoras wheeled carts toward the street corners where they would spend the day selling apples, and oranges and packages of gum for a few pennies apiece. Around the corner on the steep incline of Yesler Way, Seattle’s old original Skid Road, more men stood in long lines, heads bent, regarding the wet sidewalk and talking softly among themselves as they waited for the soup kitchens to open.”

Set in 1930s Depression Washington this book captured my spirit too, although it took me seventy years to learn why.

My father, Hans Pederson, one of Seattle’s major early 20th century contractors, died a month after my 1933 birth. My mother, decades-younger,  misled me about their life together. Learning why she did this required research that helped me both understand the Depression, and unravelled the harm done to a family  by a lifetime of lies and secrets.

My quest has resulted in an upcoming memoir, The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks, the Search for My Father.

Can you always understand the ways that people who came before you influenced your life?

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