October 2013


The life and times and romance of a mountain couple

By Correy Baldwin

The image most of us have of the gold rush is of crude, unhygienic shacks, likely full of crude, unhygienic men. The Klondike does not conjure up images of beautiful country homes surrounded by English gardens full of peonies and delphiniums. Yet this is the sight that greeted guests to the mountain home of Otto and Kate Partridge, former Klon­dikers, who by all accounts were excellent gardeners, exceptional hosts, and utterly devoted to each other.

Otto first came to North America in 1874 at 19. Having already worked in shipping for five years, he travelled to San Francisco, from the Isle of Man, to work with a schooner trading company at the request of his brother. But with his brother nowhere to be found when he arrived, he joined the U.S. army and served for three years before returning to England to collect an inheritance. It was then that Otto met and fell in love with Kate. The couple settled in San Francisco, where the newlyweds, both interested in horticulture, ran a fruit farm.

But in 1897, news of the Klondike Gold Rush reached them, and the couple packed up their worldly belongings to venture North. Kate stayed behind, waiting for Otto to send word that the tales of instant riches were true.

Otto’s interest wasn’t the placer deposits of Yukon but rather the transportation required to get there. He had heard about the arduous journey into the Klondike and knew that river boats would be needed. This opportunity would let him put his shipping background to good use. Stashing $20,000 in a bale of oakum, a fibre used in shipbuilding, he boarded a ship to Skagway, Alaska, crossed the Chilkoot Pass, and made his way to Bennett Lake, where the journey to Dawson City by lake and river began.

At Bennett, Otto oversaw the construction of the gold rush’s first three stern-wheel steamboats: the Ora, the Flora and the Nora. Launched in the summer of 1898, the ships were immediately indispensible, and for five full seasons remained the quickest and most reliable stern-wheelers shipping passengers and supplies into the Klondike.

Kate joined Otto later that summer and was one of the few women to cross the Chilkoot Pass. The couple ran a sawmill on Bennett Lake, supplying railroad ties for the railway being built into Yukon. Otto built the couple a houseboat, naming it Ben-My-Chree – Manx-Gaelic for “girl of my heart,” as a tribute to Kate. They lived on it for more than a decade, while Kate tended gardens on the lake shore. Together, they managed a life both rustic and elegant, full of tea parties and hunting trips into the bush.

When the railway was constructed, the Partridges shut down their mill. But in 1911, Otto met a local prospector, Stanley McLellan, who had found gold high up above Tagish Lake. Otto helped finance a mine, providing supplies in exchange for a stake in the operation.

The Partridges moved their houseboat to the site to help set up McLellan’s mine. The ore was good but the venture, which employed around 60 workers, would hardly last one season. That October, an avalanche and rockslide ripped through the site, burying the mine workings and killing several people, including McLellan and his wife, Anne.

The tragedy devastated the Partridges. But while they never attempted to reopen the mine, they couldn’t bring themselves to leave the area. Not far away, at the southern tip of the lake, they built a home, which Otto christened, once again, Ben-My-Chree.

There in a valley among the towering mountain peaks and glacier-fed streams, the Partridges returned to their first love: gardening. Together they nurtured two acres of formal gardens, including 40 varieties of flowers. Under their care, despite the harsh environment and short growing season, the garden flourished.

In 1916, tourists began visiting the increasingly impressive Ben-My-Chree, and soon it was an essential stop on any northern tour. The Partridges hosted such dignitaries as President Theodore Roosevelt, along with a throng of silent movie stars and other celebrities.

The gardens alone were worth the visit, but so too were the Partridges, whose generous hospitality had become famous. Otto was an exceptional storyteller, and Kate entertained on her harmonium – the portable organ she had carried on her back over the Chilkoot Pass. They were also generous with their homemade rhubarb wine. Winters were quiet, with outings on their dogsled to entertain them until the next summer.

This was their life for nearly 20 years. Both died in 1930 – Otto at 73 and, five months later, Kate at 77. Tours to their famous home continued, stopping only in 1956. The gardens of Ben-My-Chree now run wild.

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