Writer George Burden says that the real Klondike Kate was not, in fact, a vaudeville performer, but an early feminist and trained nurse who was swooped up into the gold rush fever.
Who was the first female Mountie? You might be surprised to learn it was a nurse by the name of “Klondike Kate” Ryan, who was appointed special constable to the Royal Northwest Mounted Police in 1900.
Back in the wild and wooly days of the Klondike Gold Rush, the Mounties found themselves in need of a constable of the female persuasion to help manage the prostitutes brought into custody and to have someone to shake-down female gold smugglers without befouling the pristine reputation of the Northwest Mounted Police. Who better than Kate Ryan, a trained nurse with an unsullied reputation – a rare commodity in women of the Gold Rush?
Kate Ryan started life in the small town of Johnville, New Brunswick. Her major ambition in her youth was to marry handsome Simon Gallagher of the prominent Gallagher family, with whom she had become smitten. Alas, Momma Gallagher considered this member of the destitute Ryan clan an unsuitable match for her son and saw him entered into the seminary.
Heartbroken, Kate fled and boarded a west-bound train in 1893, eventually arriving in Seattle, Washington. There she spent two years at the Nahomish Hospital perfecting her nursing skills, which put her in good stead for years to come.
Stricken with wanderlust, Kate moved to Vancouver and soon found herself caught up in the “gold fever” which was sweeping the continent with news of major gold finds in the Klondike River region. Boarding a steamer in 1898, she made her way the Alaskan boom town of Wrangell, where her cooking skills earned her the affection and protection of group of Northwest Mounted Policemen heading for the Yukon. They escorted her part way up the Stikine River until reaching their permanent camp.
Kate continued on alone, eventually reaching another boom town. It was here in the town of Glenora that she opened a restaurant to raise her own “grub” stake. From here she made her way by horse to Teslin City where she traded her horses for a dog team. The hard life style and many injuries of miners meant that her nursing skills were in high demand all along the trail.
Kate would only take money from those who could afford to pay her. In one case, she attended to a Swedish miner whose lip had been half torn off in a bar fight, sewing it back on right in the premises. Later a friend, Presbyterian minister John Pringle, told her that her healing skills were urgently needed in Atlin Lake where she spent a winter healing the sick and spreading cheer to the dispirited miners.
She eventually reached the Klondike and resided there many years, ministering to the sick, operating a restaurant, becoming a gold inspector and involving herself in politics and the suffragette movement.
Her life, however, was complicated when a young prostitute named Kate Rockwell, whom she had incarcerated while a special constable, also started calling herself “Klondike Kate”. The latter became notorious when he took up with future theater mogul Alexander Pantages, but her life style was the antithesis of the chaste Kate Ryan, who never married and devoted her life to raising her orphaned nephews.
Unfortunately, the sordid lifestyle of “Klondike Kate” Rockwell somewhat sullied that of the “real” Klondike Kate. Nevertheless, those who knew her and loved her were well aware of her sterling qualities, her healing abilities, her charity and her civic-mindedness. She moved back to Vancouver later in life and died peacefully there in 1932.