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Dawson City Burns - April 21, 1899

Klondike gold Rush

An Explorer's Guide to Dawson City, Yukon

The New York Times, Monday, May 22, 1899

The New York Times of Monday, May 22, 1899

Dawson City Burned - Entire Business Section Destroyed on April 21, 1899

    SEATTLE, Washington, May 21. - The long-expected catastrophe at Dawson has occurred, and three-fourths of the town lies in ashes, while hundreds of miners and shop keepers, gamblers and saloon men, are living in tents, sleeping on the snow in blankets, or moving up the creeks into the settlements at the mines.

    Stark Humes, son of Mayor T. J. Humes of this city, brings a direct and circumstantial story of the loss. He arrived at Victoria this morning, and wires details of the story here.

    According to Humes, a veritable panic reigned in Dawson the day after the fire, because hundreds of tons of provisions were burned up, and it will be at least five weeks before any considerable amount can be obtained from the outside.

    An area of ground three-quarters of a mile long and four blocks in width was eaten over by the flames, leaving absolutely nothing but ashes. One hundred and eleven buildings were destroyed.

    The Fire Department, so-called, was practically unable to cope with the conflagration. The firemen brought out the only engine, but the lack of all facilities for handling the apparatus, and of an insufficient water supply, made the efforts of the force of fire fighters almost ridiculous.

    The heaviest losers by the fire are McLellan & McFeeley of Victoria and Vancouver, who had an immense stock of iron and tinware and miners' supplies, taken in at heavy expense, and the Bank of British North America, whose rather filmsy vault did not withstand the heat, the papers in it being destroyed. The bank also lost a large amount of gold dust. A rough estimate places the loss in gold and paper money alone at $1,000,000.

    Dawson's curse, its low women, caused the conflagration. This is the fourth fire that has resulted from a drunken debauch, in which the demi-monde of the place have figured. Twice before drunken women quarreling overturned lamps, and started fires that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This fire had its beginning in the same way, an apartment over a saloon being the scene of the first blaze. This was at 4 o'clock on the morning of April 21, according to Humes. A saloon adjoining McDonald's Theatre, on the water front, was first consumed, and then the flames spread rapidly to the main buildings, and thence across Second Street into the very heart of the business section. Humes describes the incidents of the fire as some serious, others tragic, and some bordering on the grotesque.

    The small shopkeepers and restaurants were the greatest sufferers. Some thought only of their stock of provisions. Others saved their hidden buckskin sacks of gold dust at the peril of their lives. As the flames ate their way up Second Street, the women of the disorderly houses fled before them, carrying their treasures. Many were scantily clad, and suffered much from the biting gale that blew from the river's edge.

    Dawn found the conflagration unimpeded in its career of destruction, despite the fact that dozens of houses were blown up by giant powder. Martial law was declared by the mounted police, and the men were patrolling the burned district day and night. The owners of some of the ruins claimed that there was treasure beneath the ashes. Thieves were plentiful, and an improvised dungeon was reported full of accused persons when Humes and his companion left on their outward trip. Humes says:

    "The fire is the worst that Dawson ever saw, but, notwithstanding that fact, there will be no material interruption in the work at the mines, for most of the mine owners had plenty of provisions stored in their cabins. The gambling houses, saloons, hotels, and restaurants are the greatest losers. There are some people at Dawson who will regret the fire because it has put a total stop to all forms of vice. Saloons that saved some of their goods were doing a great business, and the price of all drinks was doubled and sometimes trebled.

    "In estimating the loss at $4,000,000 it must be remembered that an exaggerated value was doubtless placed on the property destroyed in many instances. For example, stores that would cost but a thousand dollars to build here are rated at $5,000 there on account of the high price of labor and material.

    "The destruction of great quantities of provisions is the main incident of the fire. Fortunately a fairly early Spring is promised, and barges and steamers laden with goods can be sent from the lakes above Skaguay. The merchants of that place were preparing to send rafts laden with supplies down the river as fast as the ice gave way."

    VICTORIA, B. C., May 21. - An extra edition of The Skaguay Alaskan, received by the steamer Tees at midnight, contains the following report, wired from Bennett to Skaguay, just previous to the sailing of the steamer:

    "Another disastrous fire has visited Dawson City, this time fairly wiping out the entire business centre of the town, creating losses that will aggregate $1,000,000, with not a dollar's worth of insurance. The news was telegraphed from Bennett this afternoon by the special correspondent of The Daily Alaskan, who received it from a man named Tokales, who had just reached Bennett from a long and perilous trip out from Dawson over broken trails, open rivers, and dangerous lakes.

    "Mr. Tokales reports that the fire occurred on April 21 in the very heart of the business centre of the city, commencing near the Opera House, on the water front, and spreading with unusual rapidity, driven by a strong wind, destroying everything in its way on that street down to and including Donahue & Smith's establishment, and taking in all of the water-front buildings abreast of the same blocks. The fire crossed the street, burned through, and spread over to Second Street, covering the principal business portion of Dawson. leaving it in ashes, with the firemen helpless and powerless to do anything. The fire consumed everything from the Simmons Royal Cafe down to and opposite the Fairview Hotel.

    The fire was the most disastrous that has ever visited Dawson. The bulldings burned like tinder, due to the fact that they had been standing for nearly two years, and the logs were as dry as powder. The fire spread with such great rapidity that the people were unable to save anything in the way of furniture goods, and clothing, so that the losses when footed up promise to be even greater than at first estimated. Among the most prominent firms burned out were:

    "The Royal Cafe, Donahue & Smith, McLellan & McFeely, the Parsons Produce Company. the Aurora Saloon, the Bodega Saloon, the Madden House, the Hotel Victoria, the McDonald Block, aad the Bank of British North America.

    "This fire came at a time when the mills and dealers in building materials had exhausted their Winter supplies, and were waiting the opening of navigation to replenish their stocks. The results are that there is a famine in all kinds of building materiai and furniture, such as sashes, doors, locks, hinges. &c. The few articles still remaining outside of the burned district have quadrupled in price. Doors are selling for $35 each, door locks, $8 each, and everything else in prepettion. The town is paralyzed, because nothing can be done until the opening of navigation, which will not be for several weeks."


Extraordinary Rapidity of Its Growth In a Single Year

    Dawson City, named after the great Canadian explorer who discovered the gold in the Klondike regions, was mainly built in 1897. It was situated on the north bank of the Yukon and close to the mouth of the Klondike River, being erected on a low, boggy site between the hills and the river. Joseph Harper of Fort Selkirk and Joseph Ladue of Sixty Mile put up the first cabin on the site, having removed their trading stock immediately on the receipt of the news of the discovery of gold, in August, 1896.

    In less than a year after the entry of the town site, Dawson had over 2,000 inhabitants, with hotels, stores, and wharves. Its boggy soil caused much ill-health, and the two hospitals which were erected there were not able to accommodate all the tyhoid patients of the first open season.

    The managers of the Alaska Commercial Company of San Francisco, of which Louis Sloss is the President, and which had offices at Juneau City, Alaska, saw that there would be a ready market for lumber in Dawson City and thousands of feet were sent over Chilcoot Pass for the erection of buildings. The town was soon a thriving one and streets were laid out by the Canadian police. Third Avenue was one of the principal thoroughfares. The Alaska Commercial Company erected a large warehouse on this street, as also did Thomas Magee of San Francisco, who, with his sons, Walter Magee and Thomas Magee, Jr., started a large provision business.

    Some of the other prominent concerns on the same street were William B. Styke, ("Stillwater Bill") who conducted a large sporting place; G. W. Kent & Co., dealers in mining equipments; the Dawson City Hotel, the Vaudeville Theatre, which was owned and operated by H. B. S. Marcus, who was in New York City in November last, and the Post Office, which was destroyed by fire in October. Near the Post Office was the Green Tree Saloon, the scene of many revelries, and also the office of The Klondike Nugget, Dawson's only paper.

    The Oregon Navigation Company, the Klondike Development Company, A. T. White & Co., the Alaska Trading Company, Watson & Co., all had large buildings in the business section.

    The Fire Department of Dawson City owned only one engine, worked by hand, and on several occasions when it was dragged from its shed to be used in extinguish small biazes, it was found to be next to useless. Many attempts were made to raise funds to secure engines from San Francisco, but these schemes fell through.

    The last big fire in Dawson, on Oct. 16, 1898, when forty buildings were burned, including the Post Office, caused a loss of $500,000. It started in the Green Tree Saloon, where two women were quarreling. One threw a lighted lamp at the other, setting the place on fire. On this occasion 2,000 men turned out and worked with wet blankets, buckets of water, and axes, and with the aid of the fire engine succeeded in preventing the whole city from being destroyed.

    John P. Barrows, a theatrical man of Juneau, Alaska, who is in this city, said: "I am not surprised to hear that the whole town has been destroyed, for, if the inhabitants of Dawson were ever careless of anything they were of fire. All the buildings were of wood, and bullt pretty close together. When I was in Dawson, some three months ago, I noticed that many new buildings were being erected on the site which was destroyed by fire last year. There was plenty of lumber in the city at the time, and if that has not been destroyed there is still plenty with which to build again. At that time a friend up there said to me: 'This piace will go up in smoke some day.' And I guess he was right.

    The worst feature of this fire in Dawson lies in the fact that there is no insurance and the losses will all have to be sustained by individuals. Every one was careless about the coal-oil lamps which were used at night, and it was not uncommon to hear of two or three being overturned in saloons every night. The Canadian police often told the saloon keepers they should keep buckets of water ready, but they paid little or no heed to the warning."