Mollie Walsh, seen here in "cabinet card" photograph from 1894 at age 25 in Butte, Montana, is the subject of a biography by Art Petersen who said Walsh's life is the story of the Klondike Gold Rush. But, Petersen said, there was quite a lot of fact to be sorted from the fictions recorded about Walsh's life. (James Schultz / Courtesy of Richard Gibson via Art Petersen)

Biography tries to sort fact from fiction in life of Skagway frontierswoman

‘Promised Lands’ chronicles one woman’s life in the Klondike Gold Rush

In 1979, Art Petersen was walking the streets of Skagway at night when he came across the bronze bust of a woman named Mollie Walsh. He took a photo that night of the bust and its inscription, and that was the point Petersen said his fascination with Walsh began.

Forty years later, Petersen finally completed his biography of Walsh, “Promised Lands,” last year and in an interview with the Empire, he said it was the inscription that really touched off his fascination.

“Alone and with help, this courageous girl ran a grub tent near Log Cabin during the Gold Rush of 1897-1898,” the inscription reads. “She fed and lodged the wildest gold-crazed men. Generations shall surely know this inspiring spirit. Murdered October 27, 1902.”

But as he looked into her past, Petersen said he ran into all kinds of conflicting stories about Walsh, including one of a supposed duel two men fought over her in the streets of Skagway. Another story had her as a founding member of the Union Church but when he looked into it, Petersen found no documents confirming that. Petersen said he spent several years working with the children of the former pastor searching through his personal documents for any record of her and while the pastor had met Walsh, there was no indication she was involved with the church’s founding.

The conflicting stories about Walsh drove Petersen to want to find out the true story. He found that even without the sensationalized stories about her, Walsh led an amazing life during an incredible time.

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“It’s an exemplary story of a person trying to take control of her life,” Petersen said. “Her story is the story of the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s a story of an extremely interesting time, gliding over the top of the events, as one detail after another would present itself, it tended to pull me on.”

Mollie Walsh was born Mary Welsh to Irish immigrant parents in Milwaukee in 1869, but spent her formative years in St. Paul, Minnesota, where her father worked in railroading. At 21, she moved to the mining town of Butte, Montana, where streetlamps were lit during the day to help see through the thick smoke from the nearby kilns. She worked in laundry for the thousands of miners there before pooling together money with a friend and setting out for the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897.

According to Petersen: Walsh proved to be an exceptional entrepreneur, and quickly established herself in Skagway. She made roughly $1,200 — nearly $96,000 in today’s money — in just over three months running a grub tent for loggers at the head of a lake. But her life took a downward turn in 1898 when she moved to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory and eventually married Mike Bartlett, who ran a successful shipping business with his brothers.

But Bartlett was a severe alcoholic whose mental health deteriorated over the course of their marriage. It was Bartlett who would eventually murder Walsh in 1902, shooting her in the back as she tried to escape one of his drunken rages. Bartlett was found innocent by reason of alcohol poisoning and that his wife had driven him to drink.

The true story of Walsh’s life was fascinating to Petersen, but so were the errors, and the sensationalized accounts of her life and how those stories spread and ended up in newspapers.

“In 1931, a man named ‘Packer Jack’ Newman became infatuated her,” Petersen said. “In revisiting his memories, in his imagination he became smitten with her again. He did all he could to promote her story, of course, he was promoting himself, too.”

Newman, a competitive marksman, made up a story about his dueling Bartlett over Walsh in the streets of Skagway which was picked up by the Seattle Daily Times which ran it as a love story, Petersen said. It was Newman who commissioned the bronze bust in Skagway.

In the 1960s, a woman researching the history of the Skagway church came across a never-published novel written by the former pastor based on his life. The forward to the book says specifically the book is a work of fiction and characters are amalgams of multiple real people. But Petersen said the forward was not included in the draft the researcher saw, and she read the novel as an extension of his diary.

In fact, Petersen said, even Walsh’s tombstone has the wrong dates inscribed on it.

“The tombstone says she was born in 1872, all records show that she was born in 1869,” Petersen said. “Friends of hers said she was 35 or 36 when she died — her friends were just guessing. That age was not the age that made it to the tombstone, that was an error.”

But Petersen feels his biography is as true a story of Walsh’s life as he could tell. The book was a passion project spanning decades of research in libraries and archives. But Petersen said the various elements of his research all began to line up and he feels confident in telling her story.

“Last June, I was amazed to discover I had reached the end of the story,” Petersen said. “To the point that I thought all the cogent answers were found. It took over 40 years to bring it to closure, I suddenly discovered there wasn’t any further to look.”

“Promised Lands” is a hefty tome, more than 600 pages, not including pages of footnotes and references showing where Petersen said he tried to correlate what the actual facts were. Petersen said he hoped people would find his book an interesting read about a fascinating time that was as true a story as possible.

“History is a living thing, it changes, it’s not over,” Petersen said. “The stories (about Walsh) changed every single time, retold with slight variations. What was said was quoted in the newspaper that added texture and color to the description, from little things to big things. That’s how the stories began magnified and outsized.”

The book is available in print and digital editions from Klondike Research, and can be ordered from klondikeresearch.com.

Art Petersen took this photo of a bronze bust of Mollie Walsh in Skagway in 1979, and it set off his fascination with Walsh, about whom Petersen recently finished a biography. (Courtesy photo / Art Petersen)

Art Petersen took this photo of a bronze bust of Mollie Walsh in Skagway in 1979, and it set off his fascination with Walsh, about whom Petersen recently finished a biography. (Courtesy photo / Art Petersen)

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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