Yukon Bonanza

100 years later: The Yukon Gold Fields and a Trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun

It's rustic. But there's nothing false about it.

Standing in the dirt street, I look up over a couple of dust-covered trucks at a sign saying it's the corner of 2nd & Queen. On my left is the weather-whipped front of the British Bank of North America, once the place to stash your nuggets or turn them into cash, now shut down and about 100 years old. Enormous ravens perch on its roof and look like they're studying me.

Ahead are the swinging doors of the Downtown Hotel's bar. I hear a fellow inside picking out an old tune on a mandolin. The hotel's not ancient, but built the way they used to - hand-turned banisters and white-painted porch posts put together in a place where, if they have nothing else, they have plenty of time, plenty of lumber and plenty of men used to working with it.

This is Dawson, Yukon Territory, queen city of Canada's frontier gold fields. It's mid-August, 10 p.m., and somebody's husky is curled up on the board sidewalk in front of me, sleeping in the fading sun. Looking around, I see plenty of smiling faces, but nobody celebrating yet. But the time is coming. Summer 1996 marks the 100th anniversary of the first great Klondike gold strike, the event that literally put this place on the map and in headlines around the world. The people of Dawson expect a second great Rush.

Go, and you'll hear the story. Probably more than a few times. But my host says "It's the privilege of the man telling it to blow up the part that interests him most." He's Si Mason-Wood and I'm sitting on the porch of his summer place near a tenacious silver-mining settlement called Mayo, far off the Klondike Highway about three hours south of Dawson. When it came to the story, I figured him for the man to tell it. A local entrepreneur of pioneer and Indian stock, his people were here at the beginning.

A white man from California named George Carmack, a fellow not employed at anything in particular, was hiking around northwest Canada's Yukon River area with his two Indian brothers-in-law "Skookum Jim" Mason and "Tagish Charley." On August 16, 1896, on Rabbit Creek, a stream that feeds the Yukon River near Dawson, the three found gold.

History records this as a happy moment. But the only witnesses were trees, large wildlife and the ever-present ravens, birds natives say know and see everything. Today, Canadian park guides call this find the kick-off of "The Last Great Rush." Indians claim the ravens call it something else. Most everybody agrees it was the start of North America's last large frontier adventure.

Carmack, Jim and Charley staked claims, filled backpacks with gold nuggets and walked hundreds of miles south to Alaska's coast. Their initial haul was about $150,000 in 1890s U.S. dollars; their claims later brought them almost $1 million. Other frontier characters jogged back in the way the three came out and scooped up more. Outside Canada's unorganized Yukon region and Alaska's wilderness, no one knew about the find. Then, in summer 1897 ships pulled into Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, with the first bits of the treasure. Newspapers claimed they carried "A Ton of Gold" from the Yukon, and the Rush was on.

About 32,000 people live in Yukon Territory today. Near its southern border, the town of Whitehorse, at 23,133 population, is the territorial capital and home to 72% of Yukoners. Dawson is the territory's second largest community; it has about 1,900 residents.

Here caribou outnumber humans five to one. But between the summers of 1898 and 1899 Dawson was home base to more than 30,000 fortune hunters, three-fourths of them Americans. Called "stampeders," many showed up in Skagway, Alaska, in autumn 1897 ready to hike the Chilkoot Trail, a steep ascending 32-mile footpath that would take them over the Canadian border to Bennet Lake, where they could travel down the Yukon River to Dawson and the nearby Klondike River, scene of more strikes.

Winter was approaching. Traveling unprepared in the Yukon in winter means death. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the famous "Mounties," set up a tent at the crest of the trail and demanded every entrant bring in one ton of supplies, by their estimate enough to support one stampeder for one year.

In prospecting, like much of life, timing can mean everything. Today, with air travel and paved or gravel roads, the best time to visit the Yukon is mid-May to mid-August; promoters claim locals enjoy 80 frost-free days a year. The first stampeders didn't know that and suffered accordingly.

Many prospectors paid Indians at Dyea, Alaska, 10 miles outside Skagway, to portage their goods up the trail. Once over the border, most found the rivers and lakes frozen. They waited for spring in this bitter place, then built boats and navigated rapids and whirlpools at the Yukon's headwaters until they reached the spot where Whitehorse sits today, then pressed on to Dawson. For the few with boating skills, probably their only lucky break was discovering the Yukon is one of the earth's north-flowing rivers.

Most survivors showed up in Dawson to find the best claims already staked out. The plucky saw other ways to make a profit, renamed the site of the original strike Bonanza Creek and filled up Dawson with supply stores, saloons, theaters, gambling halls, dance halls, brothels, banks and shipping offices.

Through summer 1899, these hustlers built personal fortunes, promoted new strikes along the Klondike River southeast of town, and created Dawson's brief reputation as the richest, roughest mining camp on the planet. Fortunately for lovers of history and good reads, the atmosphere also attracted a couple of stampeders with literary talent, novelist Jack London and poet Robert Service. Their popular work kept the Yukon mystique alive, even after a new strike in Nome, Alaska, lured away the bulk of Dawson's population.

Known ever after as the Klondike, this part of the Yukon lost its least determined fortune hunters. But they left behind a thriving mining industry and a tough core of pioneers willing to work in it. Si Mason-Wood will swear to that. His grandfather, father and uncles all made a go of it here. To reinforce the point and give me a history lesson, he takes me to visit neighbors Lowell Bleiler and his father Ed, men who've done well in the gold business. How'd they do it?

Built in Scotland for dredging rivers, it was shipped to British Columbia for some civic project that didn't work out. Lowell's grandfather bought it in 1919 and had it hauled to this wilderness near the top of the world. It didn't work well there either. Now they get their gold the way most others do, using explosives, high-pressure water hoses and Caterpillar tractors with ripper blades. It's a placer claim, meaning they literally wash the earth to find gold nuggets.

Early this century, silver was found about halfway between Whitehorse and Dawson. Si grew up in silver camps around Mayo and a company town called Keno. Today, Yukon travelers can get off the Klondike Highway at the settlement of Stewarts Crossing and follow a scenic two-lane, occasionally paved road connecting the communities. Called the Silver Trail, it leads you to a majestic view from the crest of a small (by Yukon standards) mountain humbly named Keno Hill. There you find a signpost. Main-tained by locals, it says you're 4,500 miles from Mexico City, 4,200 from Moscow, 3,900 from Helsinki and just 185 from the Arctic Circle.

I made this trip with my 12-year-old son. After looking at a couple dozen of these mileage signs, he calculated we were a lot of road miles closer to Helsinki than our Pennsyl-vania home. There was no quitting now. It was a lot easier to drive on to Dawson than to turn around and go home. If you want more than a hint of what the turn-of-the-century Gold Rush was like, you'll find it in Dawson. The look and feel of the town and the spirit of the people honestly haven't changed much in the last 10 decades. Climate and the gold won't allow it.

About a dozen blocks long and eight blocks deep, Dawson sits along a bend in the Yukon River at the literal end of the Klondike Highway, a paved and packed gravel road that reached the town in 1957. The drive up from Whitehorse takes a little more than five hours or seven from Skagway, depending on conditions. It boasts 25 preserved historic sites maintained by Parks Canada, the country's national park service, and more than 50 retail and service businesses of use to history lovers and travelers. But having noted that, it's sometimes hard to tell where the daily working life of Dawson takes up and its history leaves off.

The S.S. Keno, a large sternwheel steamboat, sits grounded near the Front Street dock. You can tour it, but it's not an excursion vessel. A life line for settlers and miners, the steamboat tied up for the last time in 1960. A few years later, Dawson's last brothel closed. With the arrival of the highway Dawson figured the world would make its way to the town's door. It wanted to spruce up and get modern.

To the delight of history lovers, the transformation didn't happen. This is a gaslight-era frontier town. For mainstream tourists there is the Palace Grand Theater and Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall, an accurate Parks Canada replica of a theater built by frontier impresario "Arizona Charlie" Meadows during the rush and a legal gambling establishment named after a well remembered Dawson dance hall queen who wore a diamond wedged between her front teeth. Proceeds from Palace Grand shows and the take at Gertie's fund historic preservation and restoration in Dawson. Each establishment must do a decent business because the amount of preservation in Dawson is significant.

The exterior of the old British Bank of North America is one of several preserved, photogenic, but closed frontier storefronts kept up by Dawson and Parks Canada. The old post office, the Dawson Daily news building, Lowe's Mortuary, Madame Trembley's and Harringtons - both mercantile stores, and Ruby's Place - that last brothel - are just a few of them, and they sit beside working, necessary community businesses such as the Hardware Store, businesses with authentic, tall frontier "false fronts" and wood or log posteriors.

The Mounties are in town. Not because they're photogenic or historic, but because up here, they are the law. Their working headquarters stands at the south end of Front Street, next to the preserved old Court House Building. Their old post, called Fort Herchemer, sits some distance behind headquarters off Church Street; their history is reviewed in the town's visitor center and touched on at the Dawson City Museum on 5th, between Harper and Turner Streets, a spot to see relics and photos from the town's peak Rush years.

Driving into Dawson you pass Bonanza Creek, formerly Rabbit Creek, site of the gold strike that started it all. Look for the historical marker. Off the Klondike Highway, down Bonanza Road paralleling the creek is Claim 33, a business where visitors are sold opportunities to pan gold. But farther along is Dredge #4, a huge power-driven bucket-and-shovel affair mounted on a barge - the whole thing four stories tall and half a block long - that pulled millions out of the creek until a generation ago. Parks Canada keeps it up and provides a good tour, filling you in on how this formidable contraption worked and on what still draws fortune hunters to Dawson; Yukoners placered, panned or found $37.5 million in gold in 1994 (the most recent figures available).

In Dawson and all the Yukon, the sun shines 24 hours a day through June and July. It's called the Midnight Sun. Jack London, who wrote Call of the Wild and White Fang, and Robert Service, who wrote the poems "The Cremation of Sam McGgee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," popularized the term and the romance of the Rush, and Dawson is grateful. The writers' cabins are local shrines and visits there are easily the town's biggest daytime tourist draws.

In the Yukon, Service's work is ubiquitous, printed on everything from napkins to brochures. But I finally gave it grudging respect on my last morning in Dawson, sitting in place called Klondike Kate's, eating breakfast.

Yukon Side Trip: Fort Selkirk

A community established by Hudsons Bay Company traders in the 1840s at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Fort Selkirk is near the present-day settlement of Pelly Crossing midway between Whitehorse and Dawson. It was abandoned by the entire population one day in 1952 when its only life line to the outside world - a steamboat - announced it was suspending service. Today, cared for as a historical and First Nations cultural site by Parks Canada and the people of the Selkirk First Nations Band at the settlement of Pelly Crossing, it was a post of the Canadian Army's Yukon Field Force, sent into the Klondike during the Rush to maintain order; it has a military cemetery and an interesting civilian one. An amazing frontier relic and ghost town, it is only accessible by water. Boat excursions to Fort Selkirk can be arranged at the settlement of Minto along the Klondike Highway, north of Carmacks, through Mr. Heinz Sauer and Pristine River Runs at Box 127, Carmacks, Yukon, YOB 1C0.

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