Return of rocks honors Bend’s beloved Klondike Kate

‘This is a triumphant return of something that was thought to be lost forever’

One of Central Oregon’s long-lost historical treasures is making its way back to Bend, piece by piece.

Last week, Nate Pedersen, the president of the Deschutes County Historical Society, retrieved approximately 600 pounds of agates, thundereggs, obsidian and petrified wood, the remains of the once marvelous chimney of one of Bend’s most famous early residents, Kate Rockwell, better known to the world as Klondike Kate.

“This is a triumphant return of something that was thought to be lost forever,” said Pedersen, who eventually hopes to bring back even more of Rockwell’s rocks.

Rockwell, who was born in Kansas in 1876 but grew up in Eastern Washington, made her name — and a small fortune — in Canada’s Yukon Territory during the Klondike gold rush. She eventually settled in Bend, where she had the chimney and fireplace at her home on 231 Franklin Ave., custom built with precious stones she had collected in the High Desert.

One of Oregon’s first rockhounds, Rockwell also had a fountain constructed near the Bend Fire Department with her semi-precious stones and a grotto at the original St. Charles Hospital. Rockwell died in 1957, and her stone structures slowly began to disappear from Bend’s landscape. In 1985, her home was demolished, and the chimney and fireplace were thought to be lost to history.

Until a fateful Craigslist ad, anyway.

In October 2013, Chuck Rollins, a passionate rockhound and historian in Latourell Falls, near Corbett — he’s the president of both the Columbia Gorge Rockhounds and the Crown Point Historical Society — received a call from a fellow rock collector who had been looking for petrified wood on the Internet. In his search, he saw a Craigslist posting for rocks from Klondike Kate’s chimney — $2,000 OBO — from a man in Bend.

“We thought they’d be great for us, the rocks of one of Oregon’s first rockhounds,” Rollins said. “Kate loved being a celebrity and loved to promote things. We’re trying to promote history. This is one more thing for her.”

Rollins jumped at the chance find and eventually hauled up 6,000 pounds of rock from Central Oregon to the Corbett area, where the Columbia Gorge Rockhounds were already planning to construct a rockhound memorial wall in dedication to Oregon’s unofficial state hobby.

“My understanding is that it’s all from the chimney,” said Rollins, who has given multiple lectures on Rockwell over the years. The wall he and the Columbia Gorge Rockhounds are preparing to build figures to be 20 feet long and 5 feet tall, with half the structure made up of Rockwell’s chimney remains.

“Kate loved sunsets, so her end of the wall will be facing west with a really nice view,” Rollins added. “Half the wall will be Kate’s rocks and the other half will be from all around Oregon. We’re still gathering the rock now, but we’re about 80 percent there.”

Pedersen became aware of the rocks in January while preparing for a Klondike Kate history pub lecture and got in touch with Rollins soon after he heard of their whereabouts. On Wednesday, he met Rollins in the Columbia Gorge and loaded his Subaru with as many rocks as he could take without sinking his car.

“When I showed up, I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is awesome!’” recalled Pedersen, who hopes to work with a local mason to build a replica of either the grotto or the fountain with Rockwell’s chimney stones. “These were legitimate good-looking rocks.”

Rockwell’s rock sculptures are just one chapter in a fascinating life. Arriving in the Yukon city of Dawson in 1900, she made as much as $750 a night dancing at the Palace Grande Theatre, according to Pedersen, who wrote Rockwell’s entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia.

There she met a young Greek American waiter, Alexander Pantages, with whom she fell in love and helped bankroll his career as a theater manager. The unmarried couple moved to Washington, but in 1904 Pantages secretly wed a teenage violinist who had played in Rockwell’s shows. Jilted and in need of money after supporting Pantages — he went on to found a chain of 80 movie theaters across the country, several of which have survived into the 21st century — Rockwell sued her former partner for breach of contract, eventually settling out of court for $5,000, but not before publicly airing their love affair in the Seattle courts and newspapers.

After her court battle with Pantages, Rockwell took her act on the road and toured the country, eventually settling on a 320-acre spread near Brothers around 1912.

“She’d seen a travelogue — those early style films — showing different parts of the world and saw one promoting Central Oregon in Seattle,” Pedersen said. “She thought it looked awesome and famously bought a horse and a six-shooter and took off from Seattle on her own.”

Rockwell remained on her homestead until 1917 and eventually found her way to Bend. (Between her time in Brothers and Bend, she had a brief marriage to a Prineville cowboy, Floyd Warner, who was 22 years her junior. The couple married around 1914, but according to U.S. Census records from 1920, Rockwell was head of her own home in Prineville with no Floyd Warner mentioned.)

While Rockwell thrived in Bend, earning the nickname “Aunt Kate” for her motherly nature toward local firefighters — she was known to follow fire engines with hot coffee and snacks — and charitable cases of all kinds, the rural High Desert always held a special place in her heart. Her ashes, as per her wishes, were spread near her old homestead, the place where she first started her rockhounding.

“She was her own woman. She lived her life on her own terms and had a kind heart,” Rollins said, explaining his interest in Rockwell. “Sometimes when you grab onto history, you become a part of it. Kate had started to fade away, but with Nate and your community’s efforts, they’re bringing her back. Nothing is more powerful than to see history come to life.”

“We can’t ever re-create her house or the chimney,” Pedersen added. “But hopefully with these stones, we can build some kind of memorial that honors the many significant contributions Kate made to early Bend.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829, beastes@bendbulletin.com .

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