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FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION
A part of our heritage...
Superintendent Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police was no stranger to action. The big, burly Mountie had helped rid the west of whisky traders, policed the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and averted war between natives and white settlers in British Columbia. At last, as commanding officer at Fort Macleod, married, with three children, he thought he might settle into peaceful retirement.
But the discovery of gold in the Klondike changed that prospect. Canada needed someone to control the thousands of miners [mostly American] who flooded the Yukon. They also needed someone to hold the territory for Canada. The man for the job was Sam Steele.
Steele arrived in the American port of Skagway, Alaska in February 1898. Skagway was a wide-open town, dominated by a suave killer named Soapy Smith. Smith controlled the saloons and dance halls, where gamblers and prostitutes parted miners from their gold. Steele was determined to keep Smith and his type of corruption out of Canadian territory.
He scaled the passes of the St. Elias Mountain that terrible winter. With parties of Mounted Policemen, he set up border posts flying the Union Jack. The Mounties collected custom duties, confiscated handguns, and arrested men who mistreated their pack animals. It was clear that Steele was in charge. Soapy Smith's desperadoes were met at the border by Winchester rifles and Canadian law.
In the spring, Steele moved down to Lake Bennett, a tent city of more than 10,000 people. Here, prospectors saw two sides of Steele. He was known to lend his own money to men down on their luck, and to write personal letters to the families of those who died in the territory. But he could also be tough. One American caught with marked cards protested that he had rights as a U.S. citizen. Steele confiscated all of his goods and had a Mountie escort him on the 50 km. climb to the border.
Once the ice cleared, Steele and the other stampeders of Lake Bennett rode the wild Yukon River down to Dawson, with many hazards and fatalities on the way. Dawson was a chaotic boomtown of saloons, gambling dens, dance halls and a population of 14,000, including a number of veterans from Soapy Smith's gang. With a force of only 13 men, Steele cleaned up the town. He knew that he could not prevent the gambling and other vices, but he made sure that the games were honest, and he dealt swiftly with those who disturbed the public order. He also formed a board of health that stemmed a raging typhoid epidemic.
Unfortunately, it was political corruption that ended Steele's posting. Politicians in Ottawa wanted their friends to get a share of the Yukon gold, and Steele stood in their way. The crooked minister in charge of the Mounted Police relieved Steele of his command, despite the pleas of the citizenry of Dawson.
When Steele tried to leave quietly in September 1899, the prospectors, gamblers, ragtime piano-players, and dancehall girls of Dawson poured down to the wharf to give Steele "such an ovation and send-off as no man has ever received from the Klondike gold-seekers," in the words of a local newspaper. They cheered Sam Steele until his steamboat was out of sight.
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