Charles Henson Meadows–”Arizona Charlie,” they called him–is not much remembered in Arizona. Too bad.
Charlie was tall, dashing, flamboyant. He wore a flowing moustache and long hair, in the manner of the Wild West showman he was. He had a dozen careers and a thousand schemes. Occasionally, one paid off.
He’s still celebrated in Yukon Territory, where he prospered during the Klondike gold rush. Charlie’s Grand Opera House, now called the Palace Grand Theater, is a landmark in downtown Dawson City.
For fifteen years, I had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to see the Palace Grand someday, but I didn’t figure it would really happen.
Three weeks ago, I was not only in the Palace Grand–I was on stage, playing the designated fool.
It has been maybe 30 years since I became aware of the pioneer Meadows family. Charlie was just 16 in 1877, when John Meadows moved his family from Missouri to Diamond Valley, northeast of Payson.
I wrote several articles about the Battle of Big Dry Wash, the last major battle between the U.S. Army and Apaches in Arizona, in 1882. En route to that battle, a band of Apaches raided the Meadows ranch and mortally wounded Charlie’s father and brother.
Charlie, 21, was away from the ranch at the time of the raid. Anger over the killing of his father and brother caused Charlie to sharpen his skills with his Winchester rifle. He already was a skilled rider and roper, and he got better.
He began competing in the “cowboy tournaments” that would become the sport of rodeo (including little contests at Payson and Prescott, each of which has claimed to have put on the world’s first rodeo).
Charlie Meadows was soon working in Wild West shows, including that of Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
In 1893, Charlie formed his own show. It opened to rave reviews at the Territorial Fairground in Phoenix (today’s State Fairground). Charlie hired local Native Americans to be “savages,” acquired a real stagecoach somewhere, and hired cowboy performers to fend off the attackers.
Charlie took the show on the road to California. Things went well at first, but the show started to fall apart. Some accounts say that a horse was killed in a performance in Stockton, and Charlie found some of his performers using live ammo. In Sacramento, he walked away from his own show.
Charlie went to Australia to head up a Wild West show attached to a circus. The circus went broke, but Charlie’s troup finished the circuit.
On August 17, 1896, gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek in Yukon Territory. It’s a pretty little creek that flows into the Klondike River, just before the Klondike flows into the Yukon at Dawson.
When news reached the outside world in 1897, the Klondike gold rush was on. “Stampeders” by the thousands risked all to fight their way to the wilds of northwestern Canada. A lot of them didn’t make it.
The rush spawned legends of wealth and hardship, and the enduring poems of Robert W. Service, about a land that was as alluring as the gold.
“No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?) It’s the cussedest land that I know, From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it To the deep, deathlike vallies below.”
Arizona Charlie Meadows organized a party of a dozen of his cronies. They gathered 200 feral burros from the Gila River bottoms. Charlie figured he could not only use them to pack goods into the Yukon, he could sell them for a good price when he got there.
The Arizona party gathered up a grubstake–several hundred pounds of provisions per man– and shipped out of San Francisco, bound for Skagway.
Like most who made the trek, the Arizona party had a terrible time making it over Chilcoot Pass and up the Yukon River to Dawson. At one point, a glacier “calved” and carried away much of Charlie’s wealth. Written accounts don’t make it clear whether Charlie made it to Dawson with any of his pack animals or worldly goods.
He apparently filed on some paying gold mining claims, and engaged in other profitable schemes.
Dawson was an instant city, clamoring for entertainment. Charlie hired a San Francisco architect, who modeled the Grand Opera House on the opera houses of Europe and the music halls of America. They built the theater in six months, at a time when lumber in Dawson was more dear than food or whiskey.
The music hall was an overnight success. Charlie was often a success overnight, and for not much longer.
The Klondike boom lasted only a couple of years. As it petered out, and Dawson shrank, gold was discovered at Nome, Alaska. Charlie toyed with the idea of putting his music hall on a barge and floating it down the Yukon River, through Alaska, and out to Nome.
Instead, he sold it in 1901 for $17,000, a third of what he had paid to build it.
In the 1950s and ’60s, conservatives in the parliament of Yukon Territory spent $750,000 to restore the Palace Grand as a historic shrine and tourist attraction. They did this over the objections of Yukon liberals, who thought Dawson would be better served by a hospital.
Charlie had left Dawson a wealthy man. In later life, he schemed a lot of schemes, including a plan to invade Tiburon Island and rid it of the “cannibalistic” Seri Indians who lived there.
But nothing ever panned out as well as the Palace Grand. He died at Yuma in 1932, after he operated on his own varicose veins with his pocket knife.
Last December, my brother Dean and his wife Jan asked Miss Ellie and me if we wanted to go to Alaska. They planned to celebrate Dean’s retirement with the trip they had dreamed of for years. We answered in unison, “Yes!”
Jan and Ellie went to a travel agency and put together an ambitious tour of Alaska and the Yukon. We traveled by planes, trains, buses, river boats and cruise ship.
We saw everything we went to see, and more. We panned for gold, and retraced the route of the stampeders. We skirted the marge of Lake Labarge, and dined on barbecued mosquito ribs.
Although Alaska is a U.S. state, and Yukon Territory a Canadian province, they seem more closely linked to each other than to their respective countries.