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Joe Ladue, Founder of Dawson City, Yukon

by Murray Lundberg

      Although often referred to as a French-Canadian, Joseph Ladue was born in Schuyler Falls, New York, on July 28, 1855. The closest large city is Montreal, Quebec, only 60 miles to the north; that proximity is likely where the stories about Ladue being French-Canadian originated. His mother died when he was only 7 years old, and his father, a stonemason, died in 1874. Upon his father's death, Joe headed West, and in 1876 he arrived in the boom town of Deadwood, with $100 in his pockets.

      In Deadwood, he started working as a general labourer, but was soon hired as engineer at a mine, at a wage of $4 per day, despite the fact that he had never operated a steam engine before. A quick learner, within 18 months he had been hired as night shift foreman at the "Hidden Treasure" gold mine, and soon after was Superintendent of a 60-stamp mill, making the huge wage of $10 per day. He stuck with that job for a year, then went prospecting through Arizona and New Mexico. At one point he thought that he had discovered a good property in New Mexico, and turned down $25,000 for it, but it turned out to be worthless.

      By 1881 his adventurous nature had drawn him north. After possibly working for a short time at the Treadwell Mine at Juneau, he crossed the Chilkoot Pass into the interior of the Yukon. He was one of about 50 men who crossed over the Chilkoot that year. Testing creeks over a huge area, Ladue and several others spent the following winter at Fort Reliance; among the others in the camp was William Moore, who would later gain fame for locating the townsite of Skagway.

      In 1883, Ladue joined up with Jack McQuesten and Arthur Harper to conduct a trading operation along the river. During his travels that summer, he met the exploration party of U.S. Army Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka near the Alaska-Yukon border. Ladue tried to convince Schwatka that the party's raft couldn't proceed much further downriver safely, but after he was unable to sell them a small scow that he had, Joe joined them on the raft to drift another 350 miles down to Fort Yukon! There, they met the Alaska Commercial Company's steamer Yukon, and both Schwatka and Ladue were able to replenish their supplies.
Joe Ladue's house at Ogilvie, 1895
Joe Ladue's house at Ogilvie, 1895
from William Ogilvie,
Early Days on the Yukon
(London: Lane, 1913)
Click to enlarge

      In 1893, Ladue and his partners established a new post at the mouth of the Sixtymile River (60 miles upriver from Fort Reliance), naming it Ogilvie to honour William Ogilvie, the first government official that they met. When the trading business slowed down, Joe set up a sawmill next to the post. With this mill, he could supply the miners with the lumber they needed to build sluice boxes in particular.

      Ladue became well-known along the river for his imaginative reports of the mining potential of the district, and particularly of the unexplored Indian River, 20 miles downriver. In July 1894, a miner with many years of experience around the world arrived at Ogilvie. Intrigued by Ladue's stories, Robert Henderson arranged for Ladue to grubstake him, and spent the next 2 years on a solitary exploration of the Indian River and many of its tributaries.

      Henderson's work in the Indian River watershed produced little gold, and over the winter of 1895-1896 he made the decision to cross over the divide at the head of Indian. On the other side, he discovered respectable quantities of gold in a creek which he named Gold Bottom.
Robert Henderson
Robert Henderson
from William Ogilvie,
Early Days on the Yukon
(London: Lane, 1913)

      Returning to Ogilvie for supplies, he told Ladue, who had just returned from a trip to New York, of his discovery. Ladue was of course ecstatic that his prediction had come true, and that his grubstake of Henderson had paid off. Within a few days, though, Henderson's long-sought discovery would be eclipsed by the luck of a group comprised of George and Kate Carmack, Tagish Charlie and Skookum Jim.

      Joe Ladue was a man with vision, and he realized that he was in the right place at the right time. Loading a raft with lumber from his sawmill, he drifted down to the mouth of the Throndiuck (Klondike) River, and on August 28, 1896, staked the rather boggy flats to the northeast of the mouth as a townsite. Within a few days, the townsite of Dawson had been registered in the Mining Recorder's office at Forty Mile.

      By the first of October, Joe had his sawmill moved to Dawson, and a settlement had started to grow - there were 2 log cabins, a small warehouse, the sawmill and a few tents, with a total population of 25 men and 1 woman. Joe was able to sell all the rough lumber his little mill could produce, at $140 per thousand feet, to the miners working on Rabbit Creek (now renamed Bonanza). Although Joe priced his lots at from $5 to $25, there were few takers through the early part of the winter of 1896-1897.

      As word about the new discovery spread, however, the number of people grew more and more rapidly, and even before the ice had cleared from the river, the largest rush yet seen in the north was in full howl. By late July, there were 5,000 people in the district, and Joe had raised his lots in Dawson to prices varying from $800 to $8,000. Joe Ladue was always one step ahead of the rush - whatever was needed, he supplied, building a general store and saloon, expanding the mill continually, and then organizing the huge Joseph Ladue Gold Mining and Development Company Ltd. for further expansion.

      Joe's friends reported that he was overwhelmed by his own success - by nature a sociable but fairly quiet man, his fame unnerved him, and he left the Yukon. He went back to New York that winter, and in December 1897 married Anna "Kitty" Mason. Legend has it that she was his childhood sweetheart, and that she was the reason he had been searching for gold all those years. Neighbours in New York, though, say that Kitty was just a child when Joe left home. Whatever the details of their romance, their marriage made headines - they bought a 250-acre farm with extensive orchards in Joe's home town, and then adopted Francis Lamay, the son of Willis Lamay, who had accompanied Joe north in 1895. Joe was considered to be an excellent host, and his generosity was well known - at Christmas, he would deliver food baskets to the poor. Although he shunned publicity when possible, he and Anna did accept the honour of dining with President and Mrs. William McKinley.

      Although the money kept pouring in from the Yukon, the years of privation in the north had been hard on him physically. In 1900, his doctor ordered him to go to Colorado Springs, in an effort to slow the tuberculosis he had contracted. In the spring of 1900 he returned to his farm at Schuyler Falls, and on June 27, 1900, the founder of Dawson died at home, less than 3 years after obtaining his hard-won riches. He is buried the New Schuyler Falls Cemetery, one of 10 cemeteries located within the boundaries of the town (the term "New" in the title is rather misleading now - the first burial there was in 1829).

      Anna later married a Mr. Tyler, and lived until 1948.

References & Further Reading:

  • Joseph Ladue - Klondike Nuggets (American Technical Book Co., 1897)
  • M. J. Kirchhoff - Clondyke: The First Year of the Rush (Alaska Cedar Press, 2010)
  • Ed & Star Jones - All That Glitters: The Life and Times of Joe Ladue, Founder of Dawson City (Wolf Creek Books, 2009)
  • Michael Gates - Gold at Fortymile Creek (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1994)
  • William B. Haskell - Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898 (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska, 1998)
  • William Ogilvie - Early Days on the Yukon (London: John Lane, 1913)

©2004-2018 Murray Lundberg:
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