It was time to take a detour off the Alaska Highway, heading up the Klondike Highway toward Dawson City and the Top of the World Highway. Dawson City is located at the start of the Top of the World Highway near the confluence of the Klondike and the 2200 mile long Yukon River, the 4th longest river in the world. In 1898 Dawson City, Yukon was the heart of the world-famous Klondike Gold Rush and the end of a very long journey for those seeking gold in the Klondike.
On August 17, 1896, three Yukon “Sourdoughs”: George Carmack, Dawson Charlie, and Skookum Jim found gold on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek) a tributary of the Klondike River.
Word of this find quickly spread to the about 1000 prospectors, miners, Northwest Mounted Police, missionaries and others who called the Yukon home at the time. Settlements were quickly abandoned as a rush to stake the best ground commenced.
Two of these residents were Joe Ladue and Arthur Harper who had been trading in the Yukon for years. They were quick to purchase, stake and establish the town site of Dawson (named for Canadian Geologist George Mercer Dawson) at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, about twenty kilometers from Discovery Claim.
News reached the outside world in July of 1897 when the steamships Excelsior and Portland reached San Francisco and Seattle, respectively, with the successful miners from the previous season carrying the infamous “Ton of Gold”. News spread like wildfire of a land where “nuggets could be picked off the creek floor” to a recession suffering world and caused an unprecedented stampede of an estimated 100,000 people to set out to the Klondike.
In 1898 Dawson quickly grew as thirty thousand (some say fifty) pick-and-shovel miners, prospectors, storekeepers, saloon keepers, bankers, gambler, prostitutes and adventure seekers took over the town site (at the time nothing more than a glorified tent city).
“It is a motley throng — every degree of person gathered from every corner of the earth, from every State of the Union, and from every city–weatherbeaten, sunburned, with snow glasses over their hats, just as they came from the passes. Australians with upturned sleeves and a swagger; young Englishmen in golf stockings and tweeds; would-be miners in mackinaws and rubber boots, or heavy, highlaced shoes; Japanese, Negroes — and women, too, everywhere.” – Tappan Adney, Writer sent to cover the Klondike Rush 1897
Most arrived to discover the good ground had been staked in the previous two years. Many simply booked passage home but others stayed and made fortunes through other endeavors. Money was not an issue in Dawson, as gold was in abundance, and businesses that catered to the gold-strapped miners thrived. From 1896-1899 Dawson $29 million in gold was pulled from the ground around Dawson City.
During this period, Dawson became known as the “Paris of the North”. The largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle. Overnight millionaires roamed the streets seeking ways to spend their riches. The best food, drink and clothing were all available for purchase, at a very high cost (for the time). Dance and gambling halls, bars, brothels, restaurants and supply stores all made fortunes “mining the miners”. And it seemed that the folks making the money were not the miners themselves.
Dawson continued to thrive until gold was found on the beaches of Nome, Alaska in 1899. Many of the same people who came seeking fortunes in the Klondike left Dawson for the new rush. Today’s Dawson City thrives with a year-round population according to the 2016 census of 1375 residents. The streets (excepting the “highway” in town are all dirt and the buildings have to be maintained with their historic character.
The day I arrived in Dawson I was lucky enough to be there for the Canadian Arctic Aviation Tour. Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday 15 talented pilots are flying 16,000 nautical miles to perform air shows and flybys in all 97 communities in Canada’s North and set the world record for the longest series of air shows anywhere in the Arctic flying 30,000 kilometers. The whole town came out for the performance and it was a beautiful location for the show and the first time in history for an air show over Dawson City!
If you are visiting northern Canada this year be sure to catch one of these shows that seek to unite areas of the north often times locations with limited access.
Parks Canada operates the Klondike National Historic Sites that include several sites in Dawson. They also provide interpretive tours of some of the buildings and the town. I had the pleasure of going on the “Then and Now Walking Tour” and was entertained by parks staff portraying todays resident as well as “Arizona Charlie” who talked about living in Dawson City back in the late 1800’s.
Diamond Tooth Gerties provides evening entertainment for Dawson visitors with can-can girls dancing and singing for an appreciative audience.
Staff dressed in period costume serves drinks and work the gambling tables. It was fun to play blackjack after the show and even better when I learned that the business is a non-profit and all of their earnings goes back into the town. So the $20 I lost at the gambling table didn’t feel so bad!
Also in town is the Steamwheeler mentioned in the previous post and a very interesting Gold Dredge owned by Parks Canada that will be explored in the next blog post. Dawson City may not be the easiest to access (unless of course you are heading for the Top of the World Highway) but it is a great stop with very friendly and welcoming residents, lots of history and beautiful scenery.