A mystery photo album and the dirt on Dawson City’s laundry business

My wife Kathy gave me a fascinating Christmas gift, something befitting a history hunter. It is a photograph album covered in leather with a fringe more than 40 centimetres long along the lower edge.

My wife Kathy gave me a fascinating Christmas gift, something befitting a history hunter. It is a photograph album covered in leather with a fringe more than 40 centimetres long along the lower edge. The front of the album is decorated with pyrographic art. Enclosed within a rectangular edge pattern, someone has burned the words “1911 Sketches of Klondike Life Dawson” into the leather.

It contains a collection of 78 photographs taken over a century ago in Dawson City. Included are steamers and other boats on the Yukon River, scenes of hiking and fishing around Dawson City and the surrounding creeks. Several photos include the Cascade Steam Laundry.

There is an abundance of photos of various unidentified individuals, including men, women and children. One of the most intriguing is of two women fashionably attired, standing on a rocky promontory, above Dawson looking toward the south. Clearly, this is a family album depicting domestic life in Dawson City. Nearly half of the photographs are of children.

The same two bungalows appear in 16 of the photos. One of the houses is surrounded by a large garden containing cabbages and other vegetables. Tomatoes are growing in a box along the south-facing side of the building. Men, women and children are posing in many of these images.

The vendor attributed the album to one Billy Johnson, who is described as the proprietor of the Cascade Steam Laundry. I started digging into the background of the Cascade Laundry and Mr. Johnson’s connection with it.

The business was established early in the gold rush. Kathy, who has researched Martha Black and the Munger family extensively, tells me that George Munger Jr. operated the Cascade Laundry during the winter of 1898/99 (Munger Sr. made his fortune by running a chain of laundries headquartered in Chicago). I make a note to myself to chase down the documentation for this and several other leads that come up during my research.

The Cascade was one of 12 laundries in Dawson City in 1899. Ten year later, that number had been reduced to nine, seven of which appear to have been individual operations. The Cascade bought out at least one other laundry operation, the Crystal Laundry, in 1903. In 1915, there were 6 laundries, and then the number diminished as the population continued to decline. By 1923, the only competition was a lady who took in laundry.

In 1902, the Cascade laundry was located on Second Avenue in Dawson, north of King Street, opposite the Regina Hotel. The building was an impressive affair that housed an equally impressive plant. The front part of the laundry was a log building, with a two-storey frame structure attached behind it that was covered by board and batten siding. A large sign that stated “Cascade Steam Laundry” was mounted along the crest of the roof.

The offices were located at the front. Behind them were the eight-metre by 11-metre mangle room, where the laundry was flattened and pressed, and two smaller rooms for flannels and starching. The Cascade boasted of matching the combined capacity of all the other laundries in the Yukon.

The laundry employed a staff of 30, working with the most modern steam and electrical equipment available at the time. Horse-drawn carts circulated about town collecting the laundry to be cleaned. In later years, the pick-up service extended to Bear Creek and Arlington, the latter being located near the mouth of Hunker Creek.

In 1902, it was owned and operated by W.A. Shinkle and Company, which consisted of Shinkle, W. H. Morrow, Martin E. Olson, and Gus Johnson. Morrow and Shinkle were the active members of the firm. Four years later, Morrow sold out his interest in the laundry to Gus Johnson, who assumed management of the business. Over the years, the business operated out of several different buildings, and was eventually moved to First Avenue and Dugas Street at the south end of town.

Shinkle, a native of Ohio, was 30 years old when the gold rush began. I haven’t yet tracked his historical footprint to see what happened to him, so I add his name to the “to do” list. Morrow moved to Vancouver, where he became the proprietor of the Star Laundry. He continued to operate the Vancouver business until he passed away, leaving a wife and three children behind, at 57 years of age, in 1922.

Gus Johnson continued to manage the Cascade Laundry in the ensuing years. As the population declined, and large numbers of men and women were drawn off to other gold discoveries, the Cascade vowed in the newspaper to remain in Dawson. It supported many community events and during World War I, donated money for various patriotic causes.

Gus Johnson, who was born in Sweden, was an active member of the community. He married some time in 1905 and a daughter was born in November of the following year. He remained in the Yukon until September of 1925, when he shut down the laundry and left town.

The following year, Alex Seeley was the new proprietor, and the newspapers suggest that he ran the business for the next 20 years. Seeley left for Whitehorse in 1946; the following year, the laundry is open again, this time under the management of Mr. and Mrs. Neilsen, operating under a new name as the Yukon Laundry.

It has been reported that the laundry was moved to Whitehorse after the war. If this is correct, where and when the move occurred have yet to be established. More items for the “to do” list.

The more I learn, the more questions that emerge demanding further attention. I vow to keep this as an open file to see what more I can uncover about the Cascade Laundry and the people connected with it.

As for the claim by the vendor that Billy Johnson was the owner of the Cascade Laundry, that doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny, although it can be confirmed that he and other people (presumably family) named Johnson worked at the laundry. Where did the vendor get this idea in the first place, I wonder?

Next week I will reveal more about the photos in this album, and Gus Johnson, who ran the laundry for twenty years. Meanwhile, my best to everyone in the New Year.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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