The empire begins with a brothel. It stands, sturdy and square, at the heart of a gold-rush boomtown in northwest British Columbia, a monument to careful branding. The windows of the Arctic Restaurant have no signs offering access to prostitutes—even in a lawless Yukon outpost in 1899, decorum rules out such truth in advertising—but Friedrich Trump knows his clientele.
Curtained-off “private boxes” line the wall opposite the bar, inside of which are beds, and women, and scales to weigh gold powder, the preferred method of payment for services rendered. Word of the restaurant’s off-menu accommodations spreads fast. “Respectable women” are advised by The Yukon Sun to avoid the place, as they are “liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings.” But among lonely prospectors, the Arctic is a hit. Before long, Friedrich is boasting, with a hereditary penchant for hyperbole, that his establishment serves more than 3,000 meals a day.
It’s true that he has plenty of customers. A hundred thousand men have raced north in search of gold at the twilight of the 19th century, hypnotized by a shimmering mirage that Friedrich himself must have recognized. He was chasing a similar figment when he left his German hometown at 16, crossed the Atlantic in steerage, and disembarked on the shores of Manhattan, poor, dirty, and emanating the signature migrant’s stench—widely known then as “ship”—which would cling to him for days no matter how hard he scrubbed. He made a living for a while as a barber, but a living was not what he’d come for. So when he heard about fortunes being made in the Pacific Northwest, he gathered his savings and boarded a train.
Friedrich sees that he can get rich in the Klondike not by digging for gold but by servicing the gold rushers themselves. This is its own kind of extractive business—“mining the miners,” his biographer, Gwenda Blair, will later call it—and it requires a distinct skill set. Quiet and wiry, with a handlebar mustache, he bounces from boomtown to boomtown, conning his way onto scraps of land by pretending to find gold there. Once a claim is secured, he hustles to make as much cash as he can before the local bubble bursts and the miners move on.