The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
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From the Klondike muck to Madison Square Gardens

They were dreamers, quacks, salesmen, cowboys, and - mostly - gamblers. Some found gold but most did not. However, a few used their gold rush experiences to good advantages in later life. Such was the case of George Lewis Rickard. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri on January 2nd, 1871. When he was four years old, his family moved to Sherman, Texas, where they ran a cattle ranch. Rickard spent his youth working on the land. When he was twenty-three, he was elected city Marshall of Henriette, Texas.

From then on he would be known as Tex Rickard. As a lawman he established a reputation for tolerance and honesty and while Rickard may haven been an honest lawman, his favourite pastime in Texas was gambling. By the mid 1890s, Alaska was ablaze with news of gold strikes. Tex saddled up and headed north with his new partner Will Slack. They arrived in Alaska in November of 1895, two years before the big news of the Klondike Gold Rush reached the outside.

While awaiting the spring thaw in Juneau, Tex. Rickard and Will Slack spent their time playing poker. In April of 1896, the two partners pushed on to the Chilkoot Pass. Tex described their journey as the coldest and most difficult task of his entire life. Slack decided to return to Juneau, but Tex was determined to make it all the way to Circle City, a town on the Northern coast that was home to thirty saloons, gambling halls, and brothels.

Flat broke, Tex was hired as a dealer in a gambling joint owned by Silent Sam Bonnifield, the North's most famous poker player. He learned a lot from Bonnifield and in the months to follow, Bonnifield had won enough gold dust playing poker to buy the biggest saloon in Circle City. Then he gave it to Rickard. When news of a strike on the Klondike River echoed across the wilderness, the price of land dropped and the value of sled dogs rose. Overnight, Circle City became a ghost town.

Rickard and his new partner Harry Ash were amoung the first to make a mad dash to the Klondike and file claims along Bonanza Creek. They sold out for nearly sixty thousand dollars and Tex used his cash to open the Northern Saloon but his luck at the poker tables turned sour. He lost every cent he had, and his share in the Northern.

The following year, he worked as a poker dealer and bartender at the famed Monte Carlo, a club owned by Swiftwater Bill Gates. Wilson Mizner was a gambler who worked with Rickard at the Monte Carlo. Mizner convinced Rickard that they could make money in Dawson by promoting professional prize fights. Although they lost money on their first endeavour, the excitement of the boxing ring hooked Tex.

Then along came Frank Slavin, an Australian and former British Empire heavyweight champion who was called himself the Sydney Cornstalk. One night he got plastered in the Monte Carlo and was knocked silly by the town bully, Biff Hoffman. Mizner and Tex broker the fight up and convinced the two men to stage a prize fight for real money. Mizner and Rickard built seats in the dance hall and sold tickets for fifteen dollars general admission and twenty-five for ringside. Slavin floored Hoffman in the first. Rickard and Mizner paid the fighters and pocketed the rest of the cash.

Rickard's next fight-promoting efforts matched two friends, Frank Slavin and Joe Boyle, his Canadian sparring partner. With all the hype he could muster, Rickard billed them as bitter enemies who hated each other. Boyle, who later became one of the richest Klondike Kings, was advertised as the man who had defied the gangster Soapy Smith in Skagway. Slavin was dubbed the "Sydney Slasher". The match had all the phoney attributes of today's World Wrestling Federation and it made money.

Rickard left the Klondike in 1899 in the rush to the new goldfields of Nome. He had some success there then moved to Goldfield, Nevada where he again promoted professional boxing matches but this time on a grand scale. In September 1906, he staged a lightweight title fight in which he offered the astounding purse of thirty thousand dollars and convinced the country's newspaper editors that this was the biggest sports story of the century. Sports writers arrived in little Goldfield from as far away as San Francisco and New York. Miners left their diggings in the hills to place their bets on the fight. Trains rolled in all day carrying fight fans caught up in Rickard's hype.

Tex Rickard
Tex Rickard, 1871 - 1929.
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Madison 2
Monte Carlo front entrance First Avenue, opposite C.D. Dock.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society collection, #33.
Click for larger view.

It was the wildest day in the brief history of the gold camp called Goldfield. The fight took place on September 3, 1906 between two long forgotten foes, but it went on for forty-two rounds. Rickard pocketed thirteen grand. Then on July 4, 1910, he staged a heavyweight title match between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries, at Reno, Nevada. The purse was one hundred thousand dollars. Rickard paid the purse and made a profit. Now he was on a roll.

In 1916, he contracted a heavyweight title match between Jess Willard and Frank Moran at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The bout attracted a gate of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, a new indoor record. Buoyed by this success, Rickard promoted a series of five heavyweight bouts at the Gardens; all featuring the future boxing great Jack Dempsey. Each match generated more than a million dollars.

Rickard, now a wealthy man, bought the original Madison Square Gardens and, with the backing of famed circus owner John Ringling, launched the Madison Square Garden Corporation, sold shares and built a new sports palace that opened in December 1925.

He was now known as G.L. "Tex". Rickard, President of Madison Square Gardens. In 1926, the National Hockey League granted him a franchise to operate a hockey team for the 1926-27 NHL season. Sportswriters dubbed the club "The New York Tex's Rangers".

Today the hockey team that the former Yukon gambler Tex Rickard created is known around the world as the New York Rangers.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin