Katherine “Kate” Ryan (aka Klondike Kate), NWMP special constable, restaurateur, nurse (born 20 August 1869 in Johnville, NB; died 20 February 1932 in Vancouver, BC). Katherine Ryan earned the nickname ‘Klondike Kate’ for her escapades in Yukon beginning during the Klondike Gold Rush. On her journey to the Klondike and while settled in Whitehorse, Ryan made a name for herself by establishing several restaurants. She was one of the first women hired by the North-West Mounted Police. Ryan was first hired by the force’s Whitehorse division in 1900 to assist with female prisoners. Later, she was appointed as an inspector to search for smuggled gold.
Katherine Ryan was born on 20 August 1869 to Anne and Patrick Ryan. Her Irish Catholic family were farmers in Johnville, New Brunswick. After a failed courtship, Ryan moved to Seattle to help her mother’s cousin run her household. Beginning in 1894, Ryan trained as a nurse for two years at a local hospital. She then moved to Vancouver to work as a nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital.
Journey to the Klondike
When news of the Klondike Gold Rush broke in 1897, Katherine Ryan spent her life savings to purchase the supplies required to travel to the Yukon. The Canadian government mandated that anyone entering the area needed enough food and gear to survive for one year. Among the required items were 150 pounds (68 kg) of bacon and 400 pounds (181 kg) of flour.
Ryan departed for the Klondike in 1898. She was one of the first women to follow the Stikine Trail, considered one of the most challenging routes to the region. When she arrived in Wrangell, Alaska, Ryan struck a deal with a contingent of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP): she would travel with them in exchange for cooking their meals. After spending the spring at Dewdney Camp, an NWMP outpost, Ryan continued alone up the frozen Stikine River. Her progress was halted at Glenora, in northern British Columbia, where the promised roads and railways from the town had yet to be built.
In Glenora, Ryan spent a $5 gold piece to open a restaurant in a hotel. Her restaurant prospered for the first year, but after stampeders moved on and the settlement emptied, she sold it and continued to Telegraph Creek by horseback. There, she opened another restaurant, this time operating out of her tent. In the winter, Ryan reached Teslin Lake, on the border between British Columbia and the Yukon, but was unable to proceed because steamers were no longer running for the season. At the invitation of a friend, Ryan travelled for five days by dog sled to spend the winter in Atlin. Friends she had made in Glenora helped her get established. She pitched a 12 x 14 foot (3.7 x 4.2 m) tent, which had two windows but no floor. Ryan opened another restaurant and also took in washing and helped as a nurse.
In spring 1899, Katherine Ryan continued her journey, traveling through Caribou Crossing (now Carcross) before finally reaching Whitehorse. At that time, Whitehorse was little more than a tent town. She pitched her tent and opened another restaurant, which became known as ‘Klondike Kate’s Café.’ By the summer, her restaurant was successful enough that she had to hire help. Ryan also continued taking in laundry and acting as a nurse when needed.
Ryan obtained a Free Miner’s license, which allowed her to prospect for gold and other minerals. She also profited from investments in other mines and grubstakes. Grubstaking was providing a miner with supplies or funds in return for a share of their profits.
By 1900, Ryan had built a 12 x 16 foot (3.7 x 4.9 m) one-room cabin, one of the first wooden buildings in Whitehorse. It was the first time since she had left for the Klondike that she wasn’t living in a tent. She ran a restaurant out of her cabin before renting space in the newly built Whitehorse Hotel. When her cabin burned down in a fire that ravaged the town in 1905, she built a two-storey building that had a storefront on the ground floor with housing above.
North-West Mounted Police
In 1900, after lobbying by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Canadian government passed a law mandating that the NWMP hire a “woman special” to assist with women prisoners. Katherine Ryan was one of the first women hired under these regulations, joining the Whitehorse detachment of the NWMP that February. Earning $2 a day, Ryan was called upon to help with women prisoners at the jail. At six feet tall, Ryan struck an imposing figure. While she worked part-time with the police, she hired two women to help run her restaurant.
Gold taken out of the Yukon was subject to a royalty tax, initially 10 per cent. In 1906, this royalty amount was lowered to 37.5 cents per ounce of gold, which was valued at $15 an ounce (2.5 per cent). Inspectors were hired to ensure the tax was being paid, and the Canadian government mandated that female inspectors be hired to help search women. In 1903, Ryan was hired as a Constable Special to assist the Whitehorse ‘H’ Division of the NWMP. She designed her own uniform for this work. Riding the morning train out of Whitehorse, Ryan searched female passengers and their luggage for smuggled gold. Before reaching the Alaskan border, she switched and took the evening train back to Whitehorse. In one instance, Ryan reportedly found gold nuggets hidden in a woman’s chignon.
Milestones for Women in the NWMP/RCMP
- 1900: Katherine Ryan and other women are hired to work with female prisoners.
- Early 20th century: Women have limited opportunities within the RCMP. Some are hired as fingerprint and lab technicians.
- 1920s–40s: Frances McGill, a pioneering bacteriologist and pathologist, used forensic science to investigate suspicious deaths for the RCMP.
- 1960s: The RCMP hires women to conduct plainclothes surveillance work as civilian members of the force.
- 1974: The first cohort of women enters the RCMP. Women could receive the same training and postings as male officers. (See RCMP Troop 17.)
- 2006: Beverley Busson is the first woman to be appointed as commissioner of the RCMP, the highest rank in the force.
Katherine Ryan was an active member of her community, both in Whitehorse and in Stewart, British Columbia, where she spent the last 13 years of her life. In Whitehorse, Ryan cofounded the North Star Athletic Club, a social and sporting meeting place in Whitehorse. The club also raised funds to establish a hospital. She opened her home as the headquarters for the Yukon Women’s Protective League, working with the group to advocate for women’s suffrage. In Stewart, she was part of the Citizen’s Association, which opened the first hospital in the town. She also served as the hospital’s first nursing matron. Ryan was involved with the Catholic Women’s League, the Hospital Committee, the Liberal Association, Red Cross, Order of Yukon Pioneers and the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.
During the First World War, Ryan was active in raising funds for the war effort. She sold Canadian bonds and established an ongoing rummage sale in her home, with proceeds benefiting the Canadian Red Cross Disablement Fund. Ryan raised the most money of anyone in the Yukon for the war effort. For this work, she received a letter of thanks from Prime Minister Robert Borden and was made an Honorary Life Member of the Red Cross.
Along with her community work, Ryan helped raise some of her nephews after the death of her sister-in-law.
Word of Katherine Ryan’s escapades spread beyond the Klondike. While visiting her hometown in New Brunswick, Ryan was surprised to find that people had been following her story. In 1922, she was interviewed for a feature in Maclean’s magazine, “The Woman Called Klondike Kate.”
Ryan died on 20 February 1932 in St. Paul’s Hospital, where she had worked as a nurse before her journey to the Klondike. She was buried in Vancouver with an RCMP honour guard as a tribute to her work with the NWMP.
Did you know?
Katherine Ryan was not the only woman known as “Klondike Kate.” Kathleen “Kitty” Rockwell was a vaudeville performer from Kansas. Lured by the gold rush, she arrived in Dawson City in 1900 and quickly found fame as a dancer. Her performances earned her up to $750 a night, and she amassed a fortune of $150,000.