Blog 283 Dawson City June 2013


Current News – We will probably spend the Christmas period in San Francisco house sitting for friends before we move off again in the New Year.

This blog marks the last of our time in Canada before we traversed the aptly named Top of the World Highway into Alaska where new adventures awaited.

Dawson City’s origins come from the Tr’ondek Hwechin native people’s who used the area as a traditional fishing camp at the meeting of the Yukon and Klondike rivers for millennia but that all changed when gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek. By 1898 the town was home to 40’000 souls and bore no resemblance to the virtual wilderness that had existed there just a few years earlier.

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Dawson was a legendary boom town with wooden boardwalks, false-fronted dance halls, stores and warehouses, it grew so fast that accommodation could not keep up and tent cities sprang up around the outskirts. Not everyone was here for the gold, some enterprising people made more money servicing the miners needs than the majority of miners made from months of backbreaking work.

The town literally grew up as fast as people could build it. Many fortunes were made but many endured unimaginable hardship for little or no reward.

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The rush only lasted a few years and by 1899 the population had plummeted to 8,000. During the boom years Dawson was the largest city in Western Canada and capital of the newly created Yukon Territory. Dawson achieved city status in 1902 with a population of 5,000 but lost it in 1980 when it failed to meet city criteria. It is still called Dawson City to this day partly to differentiate between it and Dawson Creek which is another town in the Yukon. Confusingly it is sometimes officially referred to as The town of the City of Dawson.

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The town/city had its wilderness years, after WWII the population declined yet further as the newly completed Alaska highway bypassed it 300 miles to the south and Whitehorse replaced it as the territorial capital. It was only linked to the rest of Alaska by road in the 1950′s and to Whitehorse in 1955, previous to this the only way in or out was by boat or dog sled. The population bumped along the 600 to 900 mark in the 1960′s and it wasn’t until more recent times that its fortunes began to turn.

The increase in the price of gold made placer (loose gold mining) viable again and tourism began to be Dawson City’s most profitable venture.

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Today Dawson has a year round population of around 1,800 which increases in the summer months due to tourism, (the other mainstay is mining) it now attracts more than 60’000 visitors a year. It is a fascinating and charming town and the main infrastructure has been remarkably well-preserved. Any modern building now has to be built-in period style to preserve the ambiance. Wandering the streets felt like stepping back in time and we both loved its unique character. 

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Fire was the number one destructive force in Dawson with all the buildings made from and heated by wood.

There was however another destructive force, permafrost, these buildings on 3rd Ave dating from 1901 illustrate what happens when heated buildings are placed on frozen ground. The frost melts, mixing water with the soil to form a very fluid muck into which the different footings settle at different rates.

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The frozen ground caused many problems, graves had to be dug in the fall (Autumn) when the ground could be worked and the occupants of Dawson had to walk by the rows of yawning holes wondering which of them would rest in them before the long winter was over. One December the mercury hovered at fifty below for the entire month and coupled with a flu epidemic there were so many deaths the frozen bodies were stacked in the undertaking parlour until the horses could brave the snowy ground with the coffins.

Those souls who did make it though a northern winter were then referred to as a sourdoughs, cheechako was the name for a green horn or newbie. The reason they were called Sourdoughs is because that was the only kind of bread that could be made in the freezing temperatures. Only sourdough yeast could survive the cold but even then the starter yeast would be kept inside the clothing, close to the body to keep it warm.

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This was the commissioner’s residence built in 1901 it was home to the vice-regal head of the Yukon and last occupied by a Commissioner in 1916. A few grand buildings were constructed around this time the second photo is the museum.

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At the other end of the scale there were the scarlet women they flourished during the rush but when that was over and the town became more settled they were forced to move outside the city sometimes across the river in West Dawson. With the closure of the dance halls and general economic decline prostitution was no longer a significant issue. You can just make out the “lady” in the upstairs window of Flora Dora’s hotel. The red feather saloon and Diamond Tooth Gertie’s were popular dance halls.

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We spent some time in Dawson’s library which was attached to the local school and had to laugh at the no shoes rule which we were informed in winter was essential but apparently the worst culprits for breaking this rule were not the students but their teachers.

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Looking at this river now it’s amazing to realize that it once flowed in the opposite direction! About three million years ago advancing ice blocked the drainage to the south and east and shifted the flow of the Yukon to the northwest. The river carved a new route to the ocean through Alaska and into the Bering sea. This is the route still followed by the river today.

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In the winter the temperature outside largely dictated the day’s activity. Most early traders and prospectors didn’t have access to thermometers so they improvised. Various products froze at different temperatures.

  • Quicksilver freezes at -40deg F (-40 deg C)

  • Coal -50deg F (-45 deg C)

  • Jamaica ginger -55deg F (-48 deg C),

  • Perry Davis Painkiller -72deg F (-58 deg C)

  • St Jacob’s Oil never freezes.

The bottles would be lined up outside the cabin door or window and by looking at which were frozen or thawed the people of Dawson could plan their day according to the cold.

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Glass was expensive and difficult to come by so many cabins had windows made from the ends of glass bottles held in by mud chinking. The cabins were small as they were built quickly but this meant they were easier to keep warm in winter.

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As we have mentioned before gold was the basis of the currency and in the early days many items were purchased with gold dust, dishonest bartenders would keep their fingernails long to trap gold dust and would periodically clean the gold out from under their nails by running their hands through their well oiled hair to ensure it stuck. At the end of the night they would rinse their hair out and collect their ‘tips’. When recent refurbishments were made on the local bars gold dust was found under the floorboards where it had dropped through the cracks.

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Mural inside the Westminster hotels bar

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Mural inside the Westminster hotels bar

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These days with tourism booming there are many hotels to cater for all needs.

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Even Jack London had a cabin here.

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Dawson has all the amenities that one could need and we enjoyed the company of the locals whilst we caught up on the washing.

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 We rode a couple of laps around town to get the lay of the land and then parked up in the street to explore and take pictures on foot. As always happens people came over to take pictures and ask questions about the bike. One of the people Kev got talking to surprised him by telling him that he was a designer for BMW in the 1980′s and designed the BMW C1. For those who don’t know this was a fully enclosed scooter style motorcycle with a hard top, windscreen and seatbelts. He introduced himself as Carmelo and explained that he also went on start his own company making exhausts for Ducati, Moto Guzzi and MV amongst others. He now lives in Dawson in the summer and heads south for winter. We have been aware of the C1 for many years although Kev has only ever seen one in the flesh (metal) but really did not expect to meet its creator in Dawson City, Yukon.

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Next up – Travelling the top of the world highway into Alaska

 

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