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The History of Dawson City, Yukon Territory

by Ken Spotswood


A Guide to Modern Dawson City, Yukon

      Following the historic discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek in August of 1896, Dawson City grew out of a marshy swamp near the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers.

      In two years it became the largest city in Canada west of Winnipeg with a population that fluctuated between 30,000 and 40,000 people--not as large as Seattle, but much larger than Victoria or Vancouver.

      Its founder was Joe Ladue, a former prospector-turned-outfitter who was on the scene early. He knew from experience that merchants in gold camps prospered more than miners. He had a sawmill at the mining camp of Sixtymile and, while miners staked their claims, Ladue staked out a townsite instead.

      Anticipating the coming building boom, Ladue rafted his sawmill to the new townsite, which he had already named Dawson City, in honour of George M. Dawson, a government geologist who helped survey the boundary between Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

      "I commenced erecting the first house in that region on September 1st, 1896," Ladue wrote later. "Within six months from that date there were over 500 houses erected, which included stores, supply stations, hotels, restaurants, saloons and residences."

      Fortune smiled on Ladue. Everyone bought his lumber. He owned 160 acres, the government owned 22 acres, and his home doubled as Dawson's first saloon. He sold the first lots at prices ranging from $5 to $25 to $300. Town lots later fetched as much as $40,000 each. On paper, Ladue's fortune grew to $5 million.

      It happened fast, and the pace never let up as wave after wave of gold-seekers arrived. With them came the characters who transformed Dawson from a mining camp into one of the most bizarre cities in all of North America.

      Dawson's reputation as a booming, bawdy frontier town was largely the result of over-zealous writers. The rush was a phenomenon that they all hyped and exploited to sell their newspapers, guide books and magazines as gold fever swept the continent and abroad.

      Some reports contained accurate facts and descriptions while others were embellished, exaggerated or contained complete falsehoods. Later in their memoirs, many sourdoughs coloured their experiences and observations the way some miners 'coloured' their pokes of gold dust with brass filings.

      There were miseries and tragedies along the various trails as thousands of stampeders rushed to the Klondike. Rags-to-riches stories of miners were popular subjects. Dawson had plenty of dance halls, saloons and brothels. It had tons of gold, vats of whisky, and it had gamblers and 'scarlet women' caught up in a riotous swirl of social activity with an international cast.

      Dawson could have been a wide-open town where 'anything goes', but it also had the North-West Mounted Police. The reality is that the period of chaos lasted only for a few months in 1898.

      To many early writers, Dawson City was a great curiosity. It was a 'boomtown in a bog'. It had miners who wore filthy clothes caked with mud, miners who were also filthy rich. In contrast, some dance-hall girls wore $1,500 gowns imported from Paris.

      Some of its residents dined on champagne, oysters and caviar for breakfast, while others existed on stale bread, lard and tea. While many ate beans three times a day, many more went hungry. Society matrons held lavish tea parties and served canapes on Limoges china, while the poor and indigent perished in nearby hospitals from scurvy, typhoid and dysentery. There were plenty of doctors in Dawson, but at $200 a visit, few people consulted them.

      More fortunes were won and lost in the gambling halls of Dawson than in the gold fields.

      Constables of the North-West Mounted Police earned $1.25 a day. They worked long and hard to maintain law and order through the rush. Dance-hall girls and prostitutes also worked long and hard, and they earned ten times more money.

      In its early years, fire was the greatest threat to the town. Dawson was made of wood and canvas and it was built in a hurry. Its buildings, cabins and tents were heated with primitive wood stoves, and they were lit by candles and coal oil lamps.

      The town was only a year old when its first major fire occurred on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1897. The temperature was 58 degrees below zero when a blaze broke out in the M & N Saloon after a dance-hall girl threw a burning lamp at a rival. The blaze destroyed two saloons and the Opera House.

      The second occurred on October 14, 1898. Ironically, it was started by the same dance hall girl who had left a candle burning on a block of wood. Flames consumed two hotels, the post office and most of Front Street. In all, 26 buildings were destroyed.

      In February of 1899, fire destroyed nine buildings, but the worst inferno erupted in April--during a strike by firemen--when the temperature was 45 degrees below zero. It started in the Bodega Hotel on Front Street and spread along the waterfront. The entire business district was destroyed and damage was estimated at $1 million.

      On January 10, 1900, the business district was wiped out again by a fire that started in the Monte Carlo Theatre and spread through the saloons and music halls on both sides of Front Street. By 1900, the danger of fire diminished through improved fire protection and equipment, and the fact that more buildings were made of galvanized iron and tin.

      Prior to the heyday of 1898, a community of cabins and tents had begun to take shape. Reactions of newcomers varied, but their first impressions were the same: Dawson City's name was a misnomer. They expected a city, but found only a camp.

      After the river ice went out in May of 1898, the first small boats appeared in early June. The trickle became an armada as they arrived by the hundreds. In the weeks that followed, the hundreds became thousands as riverboats arrived on the scene, all loaded down with supplies and equipment.

      As people poured into Dawson, their boats were crowded three to six deep along two miles of waterfront. Tents congested the riverbank and spread up the hillside behind the town.

      Lydia Clements wrote the following description for National Magazine:

      I never wearied of the constant and feverish excitement which dominated the people here, and my friends in Dawson seemed like everyone else. They didn't know one day, what their plans would be for the next.
      The people, or at least most of them, seemed to have lost their reason, and would go walking aimlessly up and down the street, making plans one hour for their future, only to change them the next.
      The greatest excitement was caused by the sound of a steamboat whistle, when 10,000 people would surge down to the landing to see the boat come in, and scan the faces of passengers for a familiar countenance. The passengers would be just as anxiously looking for a familiar face, and for an encouraging word of welcome.
      Ethel Anderson Becker was five when she arrived with her family from Seattle in 1898. As an adult she recalled that "Dawson cared nothing about who you were or where you came from. Dawson asked, 'What can you do?' There was wood to cut, logs to haul, and cabins to build. There was food to cook and dishes to wash and--spittoons to clean. Miners fresh from a clean-up tossed nuggets into the cuspidors and laughed as 'down and outers' fished them out of the 'snoose' and tobacco juice."

      Corner lots sold for as much as $20,000. The price of Front Street lots along the river often went for more than $40,000--in a community of tents and log cabins that was built on a bog.

      Agents of the Bank of British North America arrived and began doing business in a tent in May. David Doig, the manager, lived lavishly. He enjoyed whisky, cigars and women, dined on oysters and caviar and habitually drank a pint of champagne at breakfast.

      The Bank of Commerce opened its doors a month later with one million dollars in bank notes which they exchanged for gold dust and nuggets. The million lasted only two weeks, when the bank shipped out $750,000 in gold.

      The banks also gave loans at 24 percent or more, even though they could legally charge no more than seven percent.

      By summer more than 20 saloons were operating, which prompted the American consul to quip that they were the only businesses that could afford the astronomical rents and real estate prices.

      Part of their success was due to their armies of 'percentage women' or 'box rustlers' who, according to resident Luella Day "wore dresses abbreviated at both ends, thus displaying their neck and arms and their legs up to their knees."

      They encouraged patrons to buy over-priced liquor which they consumed in private boxes, for which they received a percentage of the house receipts. Unfortunately, it also encouraged drunkenness and gave some women opportunities to commit theft and fraud.

      Newspapers were among the first companies to establish themselves. Other smaller businesses included butchers, bakers, grocers, clothiers, tobacconists, blacksmiths, brothels, gambling halls and no less than 22 saloons. Six sawmills couldn't keep up with the demand for lumber.

      A meal that cost 15-cents in Seattle was $2.50 in Dawson and much inferior. Five dollars usually bought a meal of beans, stewed apples, bread and coffee.

      It was inevitable that the new arrivals became disillusioned when they learned that the gold-bearing creeks had all been staked. Speculators had claimed the rest. Many had come expecting to find nuggets on the ground. They had spent everything and exhausted themselves getting there. When they looked for work, the surplus of labourers had driven wages down, while the demand for food and clothing had sent prices soaring. Hundreds began selling their outfits in a 24-hour bazaar along the waterfront, to pay for their passage home.

      By the summer of 1898 the carnival atmosphere gave way to the raw reality of heat, mosquitoes, mud, filth, stench and disease. Horses got stuck in the muck of the streets and wagons sank up to their axles. Pedestrians waded knee-deep through what writer T.C. Down described as "this festering mass of putrid muskeg."

      Typhoid broke out in July and was rampant throughout the summer. The town's two small hospitals were filled to capacity.

      By this time the federal government had created a separate Yukon Territory. Commissioner William Ogilvie headed the new territorial council and the cleanup began.

      A fire department was organized, a city engineer was appointed to construct drainage ditches, regulations were made for garbage disposal and drinking water. Squatters and their debris were evicted from the waterfront and action was begun on public works, nuisances, hospitals, burials and the licensing of theatres and other businesses.

      The churches of Dawson had already established hospitals and social welfare programs, which generally improved the quality of life in the community, but they needed help.

      The North-West Mounted Police instilled law and order, which confounded many Americans. They expected the anarchy of American mining camps, and were shocked to learn that handguns were illegal in Dawson. Others openly resented having to behave themselves and obey Canadian laws.

      Environmental laws, however, hadn't been invented yet. In the spring of 1899 when the river ice was due to go out, government officials ordered the town's garbage piled out on the ice. At breakup the Yukon River swallowed what it could, and delivered the rest downstream. Dawson residents thought they had discovered a novel and efficient means of garbage disposal, but no thought was given to the people who lived downstream.

      Just when order was being created out of all the turmoil, a major gold discovery was made in Nome, Alaska, and an exodus began. News had filtered into Dawson during the winter of 1898, prompting hundreds of gold-seekers to head out along the frozen river. Many more waited until the opening of navigation, and the first steamboats of 1899 left Dawson crammed full of passengers.

      As the Klondike gold rush subsided, the drain continued throughout the following two decades.

      A solid core of permanent residents refused to leave. They stayed on to supervise the town's continued, if sporadic, development. That same core exists there today, with a year-round population of about 2,000 people. To them, Dawson may be a city with a past, but its future still looks bright.

© 1998-2013 by Ken Spotswood


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