A saloon in Forty Mile, taken before the gold rush. Though much quieter than the frenetic centres of gold rush entertainment, establishments like these were the social gathering places in the early days. (Courtesy/RCMP Museum)

A saloon in Forty Mile, taken before the gold rush. Though much quieter than the frenetic centres of gold rush entertainment, establishments like these were the social gathering places in the early days. (Courtesy/RCMP Museum)

History Hunter: Entertainment was at the heart of gold rush excitement

When the first gold seekers arrived in the Yukon River basin, the land was a harsh seemingly unforgiving wilderness to these newcomers. The tenuous water link by riverboat ceased with freeze-up, and these men were as isolated from friends and family back home as if they were on another planet.

Once the tiny settlement of Forty Mile was established, the prospectors would resort to all sorts of antics to liven up the dreary isolation they endured. The earliest prospectors had little else to do but share stories and tall tales until liquor arrived some years later.

Oppressed by boredom and close living, they resorted to playing the most outrageous jokes on each other. For example: one miner poured condensed milk into candle molds and inserted wicks, which quickly froze into place. Imagine the surprise of the saloon-keeper who bought them, when he opened the box and found a soggy mess and a few wicks left at the bottom.

The saloon-keeper reciprocated by selling the same man a keg of whiskey, but the only whiskey it contained was from a much smaller keg inside, carefully attached to the spigot of the larger barrel!

By 1894, Insp. Constantine of the North West Mounted Police noted that there were several saloons in Forty Mile selling drinks at 50 cents each. The worst was a home-brew concoction called “hootch,” or Forty-Rod Whiskey, because it was said to be so potent that it could kill you at that distance.

Sometimes miners indulged to excess in sprees that would leave them penniless and dependant on the traders to extend a line of credit to carry them through another year.

When they weren’t drinking, they were gambling in somebody’s cabin or in one of the saloons. With nothing better to do, a game could last late into the long northern nights. The stakes could be high. Sometimes it would cost $50 for the simple turn of a card and games with bets amounting to $2,000 were common. To appreciate the magnitude of such gambling, multiply those figures by 35 to appreciate the sums wagered in contemporary figures.

Some unfortunate souls lost their entire summer’s earnings in a single night of gambling.

Dances were arranged, but the dance partners were few and far between. Native women were frequently invited to these events to serve as dance partners.

In 1894, an actor named George T. Snow arrived in Forty Mile to add another attraction to the social mix when he opened a theatre. The miners were especially appreciative of this entertainment as there were several women from San Francisco in the troupe he brought with him.

These women had a hard time in the wilds of the subarctic, but they were amply rewarded by the miners. And as one observer noted: “Although they were noisy — often boisterously so — and there was a rough and ready unconventionality about some of the subsequent proceedings, I never saw anything the least bit objectionable take place.”

When the Klondike strike was made, the same conditions of isolation prevailed in Dawson City, but now everything went into overdrive. The population exploded from a few hundred to thousands. Some of the early-day sourdoughs invested in businesses in town designed to entertain the miners. Dawson City could boast 33 saloons and a half-dozen theatres and several dance halls. Most of them operated around the clock (except on Sundays) and offered an array of diversions.

At the front of these palaces of entertainment were bars serving liquor and gambling tables while at the rear on crudely decorated stages, actors of varying quality performed to music of equally variable quality, and when the variety acts were concluded, the orchestra kept playing, and dancing continued (the men paid for the privilege of a dance) until the early hours of the morning.

Some of the most successful people in the heady days during the gold rush were not the miners, but the businessmen who operated these establishments, but even some of these succumbed to gambling or alcohol and lost everything.

There were two factors that contributed to the success of their business model: one was the incredible amount of gold that was in circulation. In fact, for many years, gold from the creeks was so common it became accepted as currency in Dawson City. The other factor was a captive audience. For the long months during freeze-up very few of the thousands trapped there were capable of leaving town.

If someone could not afford the excesses of drinking, gambling and carousing they stood in crowds captivated by the goings-on. Over the passing years, stories of the antics during these times became legendary, if often exaggerated. People like Swiftwater Bill Gates and Gussie Lamore, Arizona Charlie Meadows, Cad Wilson, the Oatley Sisters and Little Marjie Newman fostered fabulous fables that grew with the telling.

Kate Rockwell, who was a bit player in one of the theatre groups that descended upon Dawson City, later cashed in on her notoriety and parlayed it into the persona of Klondike Kate, which she adopted in 1929, and embraced for the remainder of her life. Diamond-Tooth Gertie Lovejoy, after whom Dawson’s gambling hall is named, married one of the town’s most prominent lawyers, and after he died, spent her later years in the San Francisco area, where she remarried and became a Christian scientist.

Some of the stage performers cashed in on their popularity by marrying rich claim owners, which, in some cases, led to ruin, but in other instances, led to long lasting, stable relationships.

To illustrate the importance of the theatres, dance halls and saloons to the social life of Dawson, two large steamers were chartered for a Sunday cruise to Forty Mile one spring. Remember that all these establishments had to shut down at the stroke of midnight on Saturday evening. Hundreds went on the day trip.

When both steamers encountered mechanical problems on the return trip to Dawson and were delayed for a day and a half, gambling layouts were left unmanned, theatres lacked orchestras and several establishments could not open at all. Without this corps of entertainers Dawson was dead, but fortunately, for just a few hours.

If one ever wanted a case study of the impact of the entertainment sector on the economic and social vitality of the gold rush town, this was it.

Today, circumstances have changed. Dawson City is no longer the isolated community it once was (except perhaps, for some of those viciously cold days in the winter). There are entertainers who come to Dawson during the winter months, and don’t forget the annual short film festival, but most of the entertainment these days takes place when the placer miners and tourists return to town each summer.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net