General Articles


Dawson, which saw strange sights under the northern lights, now dozes on the Yukon, hoping the wildest boom of all will return

PIERRE BERTON September 15 1948
General Articles


Dawson, which saw strange sights under the northern lights, now dozes on the Yukon, hoping the wildest boom of all will return

PIERRE BERTON September 15 1948


Dawson, which saw strange sights under the northern lights, now dozes on the Yukon, hoping the wildest boom of all will return


AN OLD home town is many things to many people: faces, memories, old buildings and vacant lots, climate and history and low blue hills, dust and gravestones and old, old men —a shifting montage of sounds and impressions that sometimes stray through your dreams like the sound of an ancient schoolbell or the bark of a dog, long dead.

To recapture some of these impressions, after an absence of nine years, I went back to my old home town, which happens to be Dawson City in the Yukon.

It is no ordinary town, this Dawson. There has never been anything conventional about it since the early days in ’97 when tents by the thousand began to bleach the swampy mile-and-a-half-long wedge of frozen ground (where the Klondike joins the Yukon) which Joe Ladue, a pregold-rush sourdough, named after his friend, geologist George Dawson. Everybody in the world seems to have been there at one time or another. It nurtured Tex Rickard the promoter, Wilson Mizner the gambler, Robert Service the poet, Jack London the adventurer. It played host to General Evangeline Booth and Lord Byng of Vimy. Dan McGrew coughed out his life here, so legend would have you believe, and legend has joined hands with truth in Dawson City.

It is my home town and it has all the things a small town is supposed to have—but it has them in a way that no other town has.

Certainly Dawson people are not ordinary people. Dawsonites used to say that every other woman you met on the street was an exprostitute and every other man an ex-Mountie. This is a fiction and a libel but the real people are just as extraordinary. There is something delightfully abnormal, for example, about a secondhand man who refuses to sell anything to anybody, then, when he dies, leaves a bottle of whisky each year to the indigents of the town.

Certainly the old false-fronted buildings are not ordinary buildings.

You will not see their like this side of a Tim Holt Western. Certainly a climate which allows purple asters to grow all night until they reach twice their usual size, then plunges to 60 below in the winter, is anything but ordinary. Nor is the cold, deadly Yukon, which slips silently past the town in the summer and piles elephant-sized ice cakes up on the banks in the spring, an ordinary river.

As for history, it was made in this dusty little town and you have only to look at the seven-foot oil paintings of nudes, which after 48 years still hang in the Royal Alexandra Hotel, to know that Dawson City had no ordinary past and to realize, too, that great chunks of the past are still with you.

It is, in some ways, a saddening experience to return as a stranger to a town which once belonged to you, because a stranger sees things difterently from a native. It shocked me, after a decade, to turn the Klondike bluff on the way into town from the airport and see once again the buildings of Dawson City.

Most of these buildings have been there since the days of the gold rush. Probably half of them are boarded up and empty. There is hardly one that does not slant at a wild angle. Perhaps half are log; the rest are frame with corruga ted-iron roofs. And through the whole town, for a mile and a half, runs a single school of architecture, the architecture of the false front, the rococo scroll, the ornate cornice, the bay window, the fluted pillar, the covered entrance, the ornamental balcony. It mocks you, this architecture, because it is crumbling away. Continued on page 58

Continued on page 58

Dan McGrew Died Here

Continued from page 9

There is street after street of these empty buildings— old hotels and gam! bling houses, once-gay dance halls, j saloons and grocery stores, with rotting I porticoes and sightless windows. Nature is never kind to frame buildings set in frosty soil. Even the lived-in structures stand drunkenly along the wooden sidewalks because the ground on which they are built continually heaves and sinks with the frost. After the first World War, they decided to build a flat, green little park in the heart of the town as a memorial. It stayed flat just one year. Ever since it has had the same roller-coaster texture as the rest of the terrain.

Threaded in between the old buildings are the cabins and cottages of the townspeople who still live in this shell of a city. In winter the population is reckoned around 800 in a city which once held 35,000. And the vacant lots are increasing, for the buildings are slowly coming down.

The famous old G reentree Hotel, where dance-hall girl Babe Mitchell was shot to death, is gone from Front Street, and so is the big frame structure on Third Avenue, where Hans Wurtzel, a Siberian refugee, used to work on his perpetual-motion machine. Hans now works in a cabin farther up the hill. The Nugget Dance Hall—which used to be the Savoy, or was it the Auditorium?—still stands, locked up, boarded, empty. Alexander Pantages, the theatre magnate, got his start there, slinging beer. And the faint lettering of the old Red Feather Saloon still shows on a building opposite Billy Bigg’s blacksmith shop now used for storage. It’s locked too, and the splintered old bar is smothered in secondhand machinery.

I checked in at the Royal Alexandra on Front Street, glancing again at the giant nudes in their ornate gilt frames which Murray Eads, the former owner, had had packed in over the trail, and at the black leather, Edwardian chairs in the lobby. Sam Broughton was at the desk, as always, a big man with a j generous black mustache and a familiar I green fedora tilted low over his eyes.

! Sam came to Dawson 50 years ago,

I intending to stay five years. He has j never been “Outside,” as the Yukoners I say. (The term itself is significant in j a town which, until the advent of the I airplane in 1928, was cut off from the I outside world when the river froze.) A i year ago some of Sam’s relatives wrote j in asking if he were still alive. Sam hasn’t got around to answering yet.

The Royal Alex—once the Flora Dora dance hall and Dominion gambling house—is rich in history, woven tight with legend. It was here that Chris Johansen, a rumpled, gangling Scandinavian, lifted a tiny, black-eyed dance-hall girl named Cecile Marion onto the great gold scales, weighed her out and paid her her weight in gold to go back with him to Whiskey Hill as his wife. She took the gold and skipped town. Here, in the days before the dance halls were closed down, you could hear the whinny of the Oregon Mare, who now keeps a staid boardinghouse in Fairbanks. Dance-hall girls like Diamond Tooth Gertie sang and J danced here. So did Cad Wilson, whose famous $30,000 belt of matched nuggets I is still remembered in Dawson. So did ; Babe Wallace, the Klondike Beauty, and Montreal Marie, and Nellie the Pig, who bit off her partner’s ear for a I keepsake.

Today, the Arcade Cafe (House of j Good Eats, Harry Gleaves, prop.) occupies half the lower floor of the Royal Alex. The old mahogany bar is

part of the Arcade’s counter. But the gold letters “Flora Dora” still stand over the archway into the kitchen, which used to be the dance hall proper.

Waiting for the Boom

“You must see a great change in your old home town,” the people of Dawson said to me. But the greatest change I saw was in myself. The town in which I played as a boy had never seemed romantic or out of the ordinary, nor does it to the residents today; yet it looked that way when I went back. The friendly, empty buildings I used to pass on the way to school, their paint long since washed off by the elements, never seemed shoddy or decrepit; yet they looked that way now.

Perhaps the buildings should be kept that way. Harry Gleaves thinks they should. Harry came to Dawson in 1911 with one dollar in his pocket, intending to stay two years. Now he owns hotel, restaurant, movie theatre and laundry. “Sure—keep ’em as a tourist attraction,” Harry said to me, over the Arcade counter. “Where else can you find old buildings like we’ve got? That’s what the tourists want.” Several hundred tourists tread Dawson’s sidewalks each summer.

If the town had changed at all, it had shrunken within itself. Another fire had swept Front Street, once again sparing the Royal Alex, now the oldest building on the street. The Royal Alex has escaped every fire since the day when Spanish Dolores and Golden Gut Flossie burned down a good section of the town by throwing coal-oil lamps at each other.

But Apple Jimmie’s place, two doors down from the Alex, was gone, and so was Jimmie, the pock-marked, whiteaproned little Greek greengrocer, who got his name from selling apples at $1 apiece in the golden days of Dawson. PIddie Rickard’s secondhand store, on the other side of the hotel, was gone too. But the townspeople were still talking about this eccentric, softspoken sourdough whose shop used to be jammed to the ceiling with everything from double-belled Seltzer bottleá to the ash trays he made from sardine cans. Eddie didn’t like to sell things, often refused point-blank. He was waiting for the boom to come again.

When Eddie Rickard died he did a great thing: He left six dollars a year to every penniless sourdough in town. The Government supports these old men, but the support doesn’t run to hooch. Eddie’s will stipulated that the money was to be used at Christmas time— for whisky if the old men wished. It is still in effect. You have to live in Dawson to understand how much this means.

The Front Street fire swept through the Y.ukonia Hotel, once the M&N, which Silent Sam Bonnifield, the gambler, lost and won back again in a single night. And the Orpheum Theatre was burned to the ground, too—the old Orpheum with its double tier of boxes, where 11-year-old Margie Newman once stood heel-deep in nuggets thrown to her by the men from the creeks who liked her singing. Now Harry Gleaves has built a new, whitepainted. Orpheum movie house.

I walked across the street to the fire hall, where the big polished steam pumper, which legend says was stolen from the Victoria E’ire Department in 1900, still sits. It’s mainly a tourist attraction now, though they used it as an auxiliary during the Front Street fire.

“Bull” Ballantyne, fire chief, is a tremendous granite slab of a man, who packed a record load of 250 pounds over the Chilkoot in ’98 and came to Dawson, like the others, intending to

make a quick stake and get out. He and his son Jimmy run the fire hall.

Jiimmy is now president of the Yukon Order of Pioneers. Once you Shad to be a sourdough of '98 to get [jn tihis lodge. Now the entrance date has moved forward to 1910. On Discovery Day, Aug. 17—the day that corrumemorates the finding of gold on ploraanza Creek—the Pioneers don Ithciir purple and gold sashes and march Ín a parade through town. The parade pnce stretched for blocks, but it is ^mailler now. Each year a few more pioneers die and the Y.O.O.P. pays for the funeral of the men who worked all their lives on the creeks and so often die penniless.

Dawson Boys Stay Home

Jiimmy is as big as his father and looks like him. Like his father, he will probably spend his life in Dawson. He .spent five years overseas, most of it in Italy. Then, like so many of Dawson’s native sons, he came back to the town where he was born. In the Dawson News Building there is a photo of the 1925 hockey team. Of the nine young players, six ai'e still in or aroumd Dawson. So are many of the boys I went to school with: Teddy Oimi and Charlie Williams working in the Northern Commercial Company’s stone; others on the gold dredges—Axel Nordling decking on No. 8 at Sulphur Creek, Howard Elliott winching on No. 7 at Quartz, Bobby Gould oiling on No. 3 on the Klondike.

I left the fire hall and walked up Front Street along the river bank in the hot June sunlight to St. Mary’s Hospital, which snuggles up against the Ihill just under the huge, fan-shaped slide which, so the legends say, buried ¡an Indian village when it fell away from the mountain. The hospital has been there for 50 years. Fiere the Sisters of Ste. Anne take care of the old men who have nowhere else to go. Ninety-four-year-old Fred Case, who used to drive the six-horse stage between Whitehorse and Dawson, lives here now. So do 32 others. Eight had died in the month before I arrived, of old age. Perhaps more have gone by now. Some of them, like lid Trana, live only part time at the hospital. (“I came in to this country in ’97, figuring to stay two years and I’ve never been Outside.”) A few go back to the creeks in the summer to work their claims. Some, like Albert Cripp, have lost their minds.

The next day I walked down the plank sidewalks of Fifth Avenue toward the Federal and Territorial Administration Building, a big, grey cottonwood-shaded structure in the centre of town. Although the sidewalks are wooden, the streets of Dawson are literally paved with gold. In depression days, unemployed men made good wages panning up the dust which had filtered from the pockets of the men from the creeks. Harry G lea ves panned $1,000 in dust from under the floor of the burned-out Orpheum. Two carpenters bought panning rights to the Bank of Commerce, when it was being repaired, and got $1,500. There is still good pay, they say, on north Fifth Avenue, where the sporting girls used to live.

The new controller of the Yukon is J. E. Gibben, a spruce well-groomed federally appointed civil servant, who acts as premier of the Yukon and mayor of all her cities and towns. Although Dawson is still an incorporated city, she has long ago ceased to elect a mayor and council. Once, when a delegation arrived from the Prairies bearing letters of greeting from prairie mayors to the mayors of Dawson, Keno, Mayo and Whitehorse,

the former controller, George Jeckell, gravely accepted them all. The Yukon is run as a sort of benevolent dictatorship. The three-man elected territorial council can only pass on things that don’t cost any money. The morning I saw him, Mr. Gibben’s tasks had included answering a-plea for a new fire hydrant, getting a ferry to take a missionary’s horse to the Indian village of Moosehide, and settling a dispute between two miners about water rights.

Milk—35c a Quart

There was plenty of talk about the First Boat when I arrived in Dawson. It had preceded me by a couple of days. The entire populace, as always, had turned out to greet the sternwheeler Casca as she pulled into the dock on Front Street, one week out of Whitehorse. The First Boat is one of Dawson’s four big events. The others are Discovery Day, the Last Boat and the ice breakup. In the old days, before the airplane, the First Boat meant more than it does now, for it was the life line with the Outside. But it is still important: when I arrived, the town was eating its first potatoes, fresh fruit and lamb in weeks. Dawson merchants order their food a year and a half in advance, but all of it doesn't last the winter. Freight by air is 16 cents a pound and, in wintertime, three bananas cost 50 cents.

The days when Swiftwater Bill Gates could win the hand of Bella Lamarre by buying up every egg in Dawson at $2 apiece and laying them at her feet are gone forever, but prices are still high in my home town, though the rise in the cost of living lags a year behind the Outside. Milk from Archie Fournier’s herd sells for 35 cents a quart, cream for 80 cents a pint. A loaf of bread, a newspaper find a kilowatt hour of electricity all cost 25 cents each. For years the two-bit piece was the smallest coin used in Dawson. Beer sells for 50 cents a bottle, soda pop for 35. Water costs $10 a month and in the wintertime half the houses buy it by the bucket. Coal from nearby mines is only $20 a ton, but oil is 28 cents a gallon and wood, which most people use, costs $25 a cord. A five-room house may burn 15 cords in a winter.

Phone service costs $5 a month in Dawson. When you phone, you don’t give a number but simply ask for your party by name. ‘‘Give me Mrs. Jeckell, central,” you might say and central might just as easily answer, ‘‘Well, I don’t think she’s in: I saw her go by the office a minute ago. I think she went up to Mrs. Nordale’s. I’ll try there.”

They were still talking about the ice breakup, too. There had been a snag in the big Ice Pool—the giant lottery in which Dawsonites pay a dollar to guess the exact moment of the breakup. For the second year in succession, the wire which is tied to the flag out on the frozen river had broken before it could stop the clock and mark the exact moment the big event occurred. The money in the Ice Pool had been held over for another year. Next year the man who guesses the exact time of the breakup may get as much as $10.000—provided he was in the two previous pools.

The Dawson people love their town, old and tattered though it may look to the newcomer. Even the young bank clerks, who come in for a twoyear stretch and learn to weigh out the dust on the gold scales, are sorry to leave. Some don’t. In the summer, when the sun shines to 11 p.m. and rises again shortly after 1 a.m., you can weed your garden at midnight and watch the fat pansies and the

green vegetable marrows grow up before your eyes. You can cast for grayling in Rock Creek or roam the hills above the old red-light district of Lousetown, across the river, on the hunt for red currant and blueberry and high-bush cranberry. In the winter you can curl, or ski, or drink overproof rum which is still sold legally in the Y ukon.

Dawsonites don’t pay too much attention to the news of the Outside which comes in about a week late. The weekly paper carries little except local items. The local Army-operated radio station gives what news it can get hold of three times a week. Short-wave reception is infrequent. The local programs come in on records through the courtesy of the U. S. Armed Forces radio program in Alaska which gets transcriptions from U. S. networks. They are usually three months old. So are the song hits. The New Look was just beginning to make itself felt in Dawson when I arrived and was so new that some of the ladies were still laughing at it.

What Lies Ahead?

Yet there was a strange restlessness about the town that didn’t use to be there. Dawson has never cared about being cut off from the Outside, but now it finds itself more or less cut off from the rest of the North. The Alaska Highway passes it by, several hundred miles to the south. So does the Northwest Staging Route—the daisy chain of airfields stretching from Edmonton to Fairbanks. Plane service into Dawson is only twice weekly. Dawsonites often find their mail diverted by mistake to the new boom town of Dawson Creek, 1,000 miles south at the start of the highway. The war, which turned the rival town of Whitehorse into a lusty, mushrooming community, merely cut down Dawson’s gold production. Now there is talk about moving the capital from Dawson to Whitehorse. Dawsonites, always proud, do not like to hear this talk.

And so the future looks clouded for my old home town. Dawsonites aren’t sure of what lies ahead. The newly formed Chamber of Mines is striving mightily to get a highway built into the town to connect with the Big Road, but the Government seems far more interested in connecting the healthy town of Mayo, now enjoying a silver and lead boom, with the Yukon River.

Each year a few more buildings disappear in Dawson, a few more sourdoughs die, a few more people leave. The untrodden wooden sidewalks on the edge of the town are reverting to the moss and the willows. Some of the names on the white slabs in the

Pioneers’ Cemetery have been erased by the elements until only the bright Golden Rule of the Order remains.

Is this then the fate of Dawson City, the mightiest boom town of them all —to cling tenaciously to life and then expire slowly and gracefully like the old-timers who sun themselves on the wide verandas of St. Mary’s Hospital?

If you ask this question in Dawson, as I did, you will get an abrupt “No.” No one gives voice to the thing so many fear. Like Eddie Rickard, everyone is waiting for another boom. There is still gold in the creeks and, before I left, I watched the steamer Whitehorse puff in with seven big bulldozers and tractors for the young men who are following in the old men’s footsteps and who prefer a machine to a shovel and pick. “Front Street is starting to look like the main street of a small Outside city these days,” the Dawson News commented cheerfully.

For Dawsonites still have the optimism of the men who crowded the Chilkoot in ’98. They live, as they always have, in terms of breakup and freezeup, last and first boats.

By the time this appears it will be autumn along the Yukon. The aspens and birches on the flanks of the hills will be a brilliant yellow-orange and the sumac that crowns the Dawson Dome will have turned a vivid crimson. The gay petunias and snapdragons in the Dawson gardens will be blackened by the frost and it will be potatodigging time. The smell of snow will be in the air, the Last Boat will be ready to leave, and, once again, many old men in Dawson and young men, too, will be faced with the decision that torments so many Dawsonites each year: Shall I take the Last Boat out, or shall I hang on another season and make a stake?

It is sometimes hard to decide. Once a Scottish bride came to Dawson and didn’t bother to unwrap her wedding presents because her stay was to be temporary. When she finally left, 30 years later, the presents still hadn’t been unwrapped. This would sound fantastic anywhere except in a town where a favorite expression is: “He’s missed too many boats.”

Many a sourdough has missed the fall boat out of Dawson and never regretted the spell that bound him to the strange little town on the Klondike. For the Spell of the Yukon, which Service wrote of, still hangs over the wooden sidewalks and corrugated iron roofs of the storied little city. And many a newly made sourdough will feel it, as he stands on the dock this fall and waves at the Last Boat as she swings out into the current and sends three long hoots echoing against the false façades of the gay, old buildings on Front Street. ★