Woman's rags-to-riches story relived a century later

Life of Alaska pioneer Belinda Mulrooney focus of presentation

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2000

When Belinda Mulrooney arrived in Juneau around the turn of the century, she was already a savvy businesswoman on her way from poverty to wealth. She was barely 20 years old.

The rags-to-riches story of Alaska and Klondike pioneer Belinda Mulrooney will be presented by author Melanie Mayer at 6:30 this evening at the downtown library. Mayer co-wrote ``Staking Her Claim,'' a book on Mulrooney's life, with historian Bob DeArmond of Sitka.

DeArmond has written numerous books on Alaska history. He said he was struck by Mulrooney's persistent dedication to succeed.

``She was a real entrepreneur. She saw opportunities and grabbed them,'' he said. ``She was born in Ireland. Her parents had to leave her when they immigrated - they were too poor to bring her - and she didn't come over until she was 12.''

Mulrooney started her life as an American in the Pennsylvania coal country. She worked her way across the United States, and in the mid 1890s she was working as a stewardess on the steamships between Seattle and Southeast Alaska. She started acquiring finery and goods, and selling them along the route of the steamship.

Mulrooney came to Juneau in the late 1890s and established a successful business providing supplies to miners and trading with Alaska Natives and frontiersmen.

In 1897 she brought a load of trade goods over the Chilkoot Pass and set up a dry goods store in Dawson, in the Yukon Territory. The business was a success and she parlayed her profits into a restaurant partnership. She was 25 at the time.

She then built and managed a hotel and bar, and soon the increasingly prosperous Mulrooney was staking and buying mining claims. She founded the Yukon town that became Grand Forks.

DeArmond said she received a lot of marriage proposals. When she finally said ``yes'' it was to a Frenchman named Charles Carbonneau. They moved to Yakima, Wash., built a lavish home and then left for Paris. Unfortunately, he proved to be a bad choice. He ruined her financially.

``He was a Mountebank. He even stole her furs and jewelry and hocked them,'' he said.

She left him in Paris in the early 1900s and returned to Alaska, living for a time in the young city of Fairbanks. She moved back to Washington and bought an apple orchard. During World War II she worked in a Seattle shipyard helping to build mine sweepers. She died in 1967 at the age of 95.

Mayer and DeArmond were independently researching Mulrooney's life back in the mid-1980s when their paths crossed. They decided to team up on the Mulrooney project. They interviewed members of Mulrooney's family and poured over volumes of historical material from Fairbanks to Yakima.

Mayer, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz, also wrote the book ``Klondike Women.'' Mayer's presentation will probably include a number of slides, DeArmond said. She was in transit between California and Juneau and unavailable for comment.

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