While there may be a Bill Gates very famous at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, there was an equally notorious character with the same knack for making money, who went by the same name at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.
"Swiftwater" Bill Gates or Swiftwater Willie was one of the most colourful of the colourful and legendary crowd that amassed in the arctic reaches of the Yukon when gold fever struck the Klondike. He was, it is said, an unassuming, round-faced man of about five feet, who was working as a dishwasher in Circle Creek, Alaska, when gold was found around the Klondike river. His origins and date of birth are unknown but he claimed to be from Idaho where he had
supposedly been a boatman on the Coeur d'Alene river, hence his nickname. He never did prove that he actually could steer a boat safely through any rapids.
It's hard to separate myth from reality in the often unbelievable life of this man and assembling all events in a coherent timeline is a task in itself. There was more gold than paper and more brawlers than scribes in the Dawson City of the late 1890s so what did make it onto the record was part fact, part frontier lore. Such was his legend and the nature of his exploits that the first publication about him was by a disgruntled mother-in-law in 1908, while he was still very much alive and kicking. A consummate swindler and given to extravagance on a grand scale, gold and money managed to flow through his hands faster than the rapids of the Idaho river he called home.
Being in Alaska when gold was found he managed to get to Dawson City and make good money long before the mass of fortune-seekers arrived from the south. He never staked a claim himself but obtained rights through shrewd trading and working others' claims for a share of the gold, ending up with enough money to lease a stake in a claim another prospector did not want to work himself, along with six partners. When his group of diggers hit the motherlode they hid it and bought the claim which so far they had only leased for 50% of the gold found. Thus they cheated its owner out of at least $45000 (unethical business practices, anyone?). The claim on the tributary stream of the Klondike named Eldorado #13 was not only lucky but one of the richest claims of the gold rush. Gates and his friends became Kings of the Klondike but none, it seems, conducted himself less regally than Swiftwater Willie.
After that big hit, he went on and bought more claims, paying newcomers to dig them in return for a parcel of the claim, and made even more money, becoming possibly the richest miner in Dawson City. And while his pockets were literally lined with gold, his mind was a dungeon of moral depravity by the standards of those days and not much better by today's. He lost immense amounts gambling, challenging people to seven-thousand dollar wagers and blowing thousands more at the poker table, where his charm helped him little. In a town where gambling was everyone's favourite pastime and conducted with deadly seriousness, Gates still stood out as a prince among losers. In the end he bought a share in the Monte Carlo gaming parlour and helped elevate it from tent to unsavoury Mecca of gambling. When he was broke, he borrowed money at astronomical rates and blew that too before he made enough from his claims to pay it back. His gambling philosophy was simple: "The sky's the limit! Raise 'er up as far as you want to go, boys, and if the roof's in your way, why then tear it off!"
Nowhere though were his exploits more infamous than in the realm of romance. While he was one of the few prospectors who didn't engage in the other sport of the times--drinking--he was definitely into young girls and promised himself and the Monte Carlo the prettiest dance-hall girls that money could lure to the frozen north. He had already demonstrated his fondness for these girls by letting them gather gold on his own claims and went on a trip to San Francisco to find both the girls and the fancy booze and trappings that would make the Monte Carlo dazzle one and all. With him went one of the girls, by the name of Gussie Lamore.
Gussie was only one of the three Lamore sisters Gates courted. Gussie was the real prize and she figures in the most famous of all Klondike tales--the "Egg Story." The year was 1897 and the exact circumstances of the event are unknown but the basic idea was that Bill Gates bought every single one of the scarce fresh eggs in Dawson City at a dollar a piece because of her reputed fondness for them. According to different versions of the story, he did it to impress her, to make her come to him to get them or after seeing her order them while with another man. Nobody knows exactly how many eggs there were and reports vary enough to cast doubt on any figure. He certainly did corner the market. Sound familiar? What he did with all those eggs is also uncertain but he may not have given them all to Gussie as it was said. By some accounts he fried them himself and tossed them to the dogs, by others he gave them away to all the other girls.
In San Francisco he truly lived like a king and squandered his capital on eccentric luxuries like champagne baths in first-class hotels, tipping people with gold dust and blowing $15000 on the Oakland mansion that he and Gussie's sister, Grace, would spend three married weeks in, after which she kicked him out. Having thus been rendered once again single and skint he went in search of someone who would fill his purse. Gussie had, in the meantime, dumped him and returned to her husband (after promising to marry Swiftwater Willie, she wasn't much of a saint herself).
On his way back north a lady by the name of Iola Beebe sought him out in Seattle. At the same time the man he had borrowed $20.000 from in San Francisco, money which he used to buy furnishings and hire girls for the Monte Carlo, a certain Dr. Wolf, was having second thoughts and was also pursuing him to recover his cash. Dr. Wolf would eventually catch up with him in Dawson City and get his money back, leaving Bill Gates $20.000 in the hole with his Dawson City creditors. Now, Iola Beebe was a widow infected with the gold fever of the times and had $35.000 at her disposal with which she intended to build an inn in Dawson City. More than her financial assets though, our man Bill was attracted to her teenage daughters. He did try to elope with both but was caught before the ship left port. Although he had to leave alone this time, they would meet again in Skagway.
The second time he succeeded in running away with a girl and getting married in Dawson City. By the time Mrs. Beebe caught up with them it was a fait accompli. Bill did not only manage to charm himself out of his new mother-in-law's doghouse but also talked her into investing her fortune in a mining concession called Quartz Creek which turned out to be a dud. In debt to the tune of $100.000 he decided it was a good time to disappear. Their child was left with grandma and he and his wife took off for Nome where gold had been found. This is where he dumped his young wife Bera and ran off with his sister's seventeen-year old stepdaughter, Kitty Brandon. With his own sister in hot pursuit, he made it back to Washington State and there he married the girl. A few months later he would abandon her too.
He hadn't done too well in Nome, blowing the few thousand dollars he made gambling. Incidentally, he was not the only man to head for Nome in 1899. In the same gold rush in the same town there was another Bill Gates, who would later be Bill Gates Sr. of Bremerton, Wash., great-grandfather of none other than William
Henry Gates III. It's not known whether Microsoft's 'Yukon' project codename has anything to do with the Bill Gates of old.
Bill now had not one but two mother-in-laws after him. Iola Beebe caught up with him once and he miraculously got away with her confidence and money once again. This time to Fairbanks where he managed to strike it rich yet again. Once back in Seattle, Mrs. Beebe found him again and this time was taking no prisoners... or rather, she was and had him thrown in jail for bigamy. He once again demonstrated his extravagant ways by presenting the lawyers, a judge, sheriffs, and court reporters with gold nuggets wraped in twenty-dollar bills and, to top it off, talked Mrs. Beebe into posting his bail. After that he got himself out of the jam by divorcing both women.
Very little is known of his whereabouts and activities after 1908 but one is inclined to believe that he continued to make money and blow it like nobody's business, though on a less grand and documented scale. He died in 1935 while negotiating a huge silver mining concession in Peru. Of all the odd characters digging their way through the fortunes of Alaska and the Yukon, he was certainly one of the oddest. While the women in his life may have disagreed, to anyone who takes interest in the madness of those times "Swiftwater" Bill Gates was one unforgettable fellow.
Factual and rumour sources:
"Klondike Fever" by Pierre Berton