It can take me 45 minutes to walk a block in Dawson City, even longer.
When you lived there as long as my wife, Kathy, and I did, you get to know a lot of people and when you meet old friends on the street during a visit, it takes a few minutes to get caught up. At least, that’s the way it is for me.
Add to that, it’s Discovery Day weekend, and people converge on the Klondike capital, so the odds of chance encounters multiplies.
There are also plenty of people who once lived in Dawson City who choose to return for a visit around that time. Discovery Day weekend is a good chance to reconnect with old acquaintances. One such weekend when we lived there, we had more than a dozen guests staying with us over the three-day celebration. I recall it as a Woodstock moment. Meals got prepared, dishes got washed and plenty of hot water was used up supplying showers for all our guests. I think everybody had a good time.
Such times are also good opportunities to meet strangers who become friends. I learned over the years not to be surprised by the interesting people that we might encounter unintentionally. Often, it is people who are revisiting a place deeply imbedded in their memories. I could meet them through my job as curator of collections or by purely accidental encounter.
When I worked for Parks Canada in Dawson for more than two decades, I had many such encounters that led me to fascinating stories about the early days of the city. This was partly my job, but also my own curiosity at work. Part of the Parks Canada commemoration was the evolution of the early mining technology from the early days to the corporate industrial mining era.
For that latter part, read about the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, or YCGC, which included the cluster of industrial buildings at Bear Creek, the Upper Bonanza mining reserve, and the Discovery Claim. Throw in a couple of dredges for good measure (Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site and a second, smaller dredge — No. 12 — stuck out on Dominion Creek), and there was a lot for me to be curious about.
Over those decades, I had many opportunities to talk to retired dredge men. Also among them were — the oilers, the stern and bow deckers and winchmen who ran the machinery on board the dredges, as well as the men who worked on the ground crews (the bull gangs), the cooks and flunkies, the engineers and the tradesmen who worked at Bear Creek or at the power plant.
There were literally thousands of individuals who worked for the big dredging company over the years, and I got to meet and talk to many of them. Together their stories created a global picture of just how complex the dredge operation was to make it all work.
After the gold rush, giant corporate interests became involved in the mining of the Klondike goldfields. The Guggenheims invested big time, as did the Rothschilds, and they eventually got rolled together with several smaller operations into the YCGC, which to everyone in the Klondike, was known simply as “The Company.”
Dawson City became a company town, whose business community ebbed and flowed with the seasonality of the mining. Many people were carried on credit over the winter, as the businesses in town knew who was going back to the company to work in the spring. The Company provided electricity, water and sewer and the telephone system. You couldn’t turn around in Dawson City without bumping into The Company.
This past Discovery Day weekend was busy. Kathy and I were in Dawson City on assignment, but in between certain appointments and meetings, we had our share of encounters. The Fry Brothers — Daryl and Dal — were in town. I eventually tracked down a contact number, but was unsuccessful in making contact before we had to return to Whitehorse.
After breakfast the first morning in town, we got talking to a couple while we tended to our dog, who had patiently waited for us in our car while we were eating. It turned out that they were Peter and Diane van der Klok of Perth, Ontario. We knew that they were in town, but didn’t know that our paths would cross in this unexpected manner.
We arranged to meet at the Dawson City Museum, where Peter was donating some old photographs he had taken when in Dawson in the late 1950s. Plans were made to get together for breakfast the following morning.
Over breakfast the following day, Peter told me that back in the 1950s he was advised by a friend to come to Dawson for work. He couldn’t remember how he got hired, but soon found himself working for The Company out at Camp Six (Dredge No. 6) on Dominion Creek.
Peter could not get along with the foreman and was transferred to work on Dredge No. 4 after just a few days. But that didn’t last long either. He met and befriended Fred Berger and through him eventually secured work at Franklin’s garage. Together with a third man they rented a cabin from Bombay Peggy.
He remembers Peggy as nice when she wasn’t drinking. And yes, she ran a house of ill repute!
According to Peter, their rental unit had no heat, no water, no toilet and only a wood stove to keep them warm through the cold winter months. Water was delivered to a 45-gallon drum occasionally, which pretty much froze up in the winter months. They would walk downtown to one of the hotels if they needed to use a washroom or take the occasional shower.
“The Yukon has always been one of my favorite places,” he said, “You don’t remember the bad parts, you remember the good parts. We had a lot of good parties.”
When he wasn’t working for Franklin, he picked up work from Stan Rivers, driving dump trucks on the Dempster Highway construction.
Peter remembered Dawson as small and very quiet. When he later moved to Whitehorse, he shared a room with his brother, at the Alpine Hotel, south of Main Street. He remembered that Whitehorse, too, was much smaller, quieter and more wide open than it is today.
Before we left town, Kathy and I made a final stop at the Dawson Museum. There we ran into two more visitors, the Daily brothers, who had come back to visit the town where they had lived as children. Their father, Arthur F. Daily, oversaw the construction of Dredge No. 4 during the early 1940s.
Their sister Bobbie had visited some 16 years before when she was ill with cancer. I took her out to Bear Creek and she reminisced about living in the Klondike decades before. I met her brothers the following year when they returned for her memorial service. Of all the places she lived, it appears that Dawson was the place to which she wanted to return.
So, it seems that Dawson City holds a special allure for people who came to the little northern town even decades after the gold rush had subsided. Through them, and many others I have met over the years, I became aware that Dawson City has always been a place both of dreams and special memories, unlike any other place I have lived.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org