Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Wednesday, July 16, 1997

The Dawson City gold rush had its own Bill Gates

by Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

ON THE YUKON RIVER, approaching Dawson City - The current carries us steadily downstream, northward, ever closer to the Klondike goldfields.

For hours at a time, we paddle quietly, shifting across the ever-broadening river to stay in the current, then pausing periodically to drift and listen to the hissing and gurgling.

Mont Hawthorne, my historical companion, finally breaks the silence: "Ever tell you the story of Bill Gates?"

C'mon, Mont, everybody knows about Bill Gates. Microsoft and Windows and all that.

"Wouldn't know 'bout that. I'm talking about Swiftwater Bill Gates, craziest of all the Eldorado Kings . . ."

The Eldorado Kings were the original Klondike prospectors who staked out the richest claims and became wealthy men months before the steamer Portland arrived in Seattle and triggered the gold rush of 1897-98.

While they are separated by a full century, there are some curious parallels between the two Bill Gates. Like Microsoft Bill, Swiftwater was highly competitive, almost ruthlessly so. While still a young man, he amassed a fortune through an extraordinary combination of work, vision, personal charisma and sheer luck.

There the similarities end. Swiftwater Bill no sooner made his fortune than he squandered it on gambling and women, eventually landing in a Seattle jail cell.

Mont's story goes like this:

Swiftwater Bill was a small, moon-faced wanderer from Idaho who earned his nickname as a boatman on the Coeur d'Alene River. By 1896, he had worked his way up north to the gold country around Circle City, Alaska, where he was washing dishes when word arrived of the big Klondike strike.

Gates threw in with some other prospectors and took over a claim called "Thirteen Eldorado," a short distance from the original discovery. They sunk seven shafts in the river gravel before they hit paydirt.

Suddenly the Idaho dishwasher was a tycoon, wealthy beyond his dreams. He strutted the streets of booming Dawson City in a Prince Albert coat, top hat and starched shirt collar.

And then he set to the task of blowing his fortune. He lost hundreds of dollars at the gambling tables. He escorted dance-hall girls to his claim, inviting them to pan all the gold they wanted.

Klondike legend has it that Swiftwater fell in particular for one Gussie Lamore, a 19-year-old who had a special fondness for eggs, which were in especially short supply in 1897 Dawson. When Swiftwater learned she was being wooed by a competitor, he cornered the market - Microsoft style - by buying up every egg in Dawson City.

Meanwhile, Swiftwater teamed up with Klondike entrepreneur Jack Smith to establish the Monte Carlo Dance Hall and Saloon, most famous of the Dawson pleasure palaces. Swiftwater then set out for San Francisco to bring back furniture, booze and dance-hall girls.

But Gates' old habits caught up with him. He squandered most of his Klondike gold, then moved on to the 1899 gold rush in Nome, dug out another fortune, and promptly gambled it away.

He married a teen-aged woman named Bera Beebe, then left her for a 17-year-old named Kitty Brandon, whom he eventually married in Chehalis, Wash. However, he failed to inform Kitty he was already married to Bera.

His marital antics kept him on the run, pursued by Bera's mother, Iola Beebe. When she finally caught up with him, Swiftwater managed to talk her into pawning her diamonds so he could go back north - this time to Fairbanks, where he struck gold again.

The chase resumed, and Iola Beebe finally caught up with Swiftwater in Seattle, where she had him jailed for bigamy.

According to Iola Beebe's memoirs, Gates bought himself out of trouble by summoning key lawyers and deputies to present each with a $20 bill wrapped around a gold nugget.

And, remarkably, it was the angry mother-in-law who bailed him out of jail.

Swiftwater returned to Fairbanks and dug up another small fortune. From there, the story gets increasingly vague. He ended up with a huge silver mining concession in Peru, where he died in 1935.

Mont paddles on silently, immersed in memories.

Doesn't seem right, I tell him. While thousands of honest, hardworking folks struggle to reach the goldfields, the Swiftwater Bills are scooping up the gold and squandering it.

Mont shrugs and keeps paddling. "So who's this other Bill Gates feller?" he wants to know.

The river sweeps us around one last bend, presenting us with a broad vista of clapboard buildings perched on a ledge between the mountains and the mighty Yukon.

Dawson City, the end of the trail.

Back to Top
Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company