A day in the life of Dawson City, 1899

For Christmas, my wife Kathy gave me an unusual gift that I have only just been able to examine in detail. It was an issue of the Dawson Daily News from December 27, 1899.

For Christmas, my wife Kathy gave me an unusual gift that I have only just been able to examine in detail. It was an issue of the Dawson Daily News from December 27, 1899.

At that time, the Dawson Daily News was in its infancy, having been established only four months before. The newspaper, which is one large sheet folded to produce four pages of copy, is yellow with age. Large creases divide the pages into quadrants. It is fragile and the edges are tattered so I exercised great care when handling it.

A careful examination of the content provides a remarkable insight into life in Dawson City at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Front and centre on page one, just below the banner is the headline: “Now in General Contempt – The Yukon Sun stands Uncovered as a Miserable Imposter – Feeds on Goods of Another.” The competing newspaper, the Yukon Sun, which was patronized by the Liberal government, was caught in a trap laid by the News.

It seems that articles being wired to the Dawson Daily News over the government telegraph were being intercepted and rerouted to the competing newspaper before delivery to their intended destination. As a result, news was being scooped by the Yukon Sun, even though it was being paid for by the Dawson Daily News.

So the News set up a trap for the Yukon Sun. They arranged for a false article about the Boer War to be sent by telegram, and when the false headline was spread across three columns on the front page of the Sun, the News jumped on it with a big “gotcha!” Newspapers then, as today, resorted to dubious tactics to scoop the competition, even if it meant cheating.

On one side of this article is a report from the Boer War, which announces the need for enough volunteers to send 10 regiments to South Africa. On the other side is an item from Manilla announcing the death of General Henry Lawton, who was killed in action while driving insurgents away from San Mateo during the Spanish-American War. Then, as now, war news grabs a prominent position in the newspaper headlines.

The front page had one news item you would not likely find in a reputable newspaper today. A couple, whose arrival in Dawson might cause a stir, may not have appreciated having their names in a front page article titled “Elopers Coming Here.” The estranged wife of Dr. Harding (of Seattle), who had most recently been “box rustling” at Clancy’s Theatre in Skagway was en route to Dawson with a man by the name of Chapell. The doctor arrived in Skagway with “blood in his eyes” for Chapell; pleas to his wife to return to him fell upon deaf ears. Thus the hasty departure by the couple for the Klondike.

Local news was not forgotten, however, and in this issue are several reports of activity in Dawson City and the surrounding creeks. Below the masthead on page two is a nice article proclaiming that everybody, including the needy, enjoyed a bounteous Christmas. Decorated trees were seen in practically every home in town where there were children. The Christmas bazaar was reported as a popular success, and only two small fires, both easily contained, were reported during the holiday. Crime was negligible.

The weather was clear and crisp, with the thermometer at minus 40, but that did not prevent hockey teams sponsored by the Alaska Commercial Company and McClennan, McFeely and Company from battling to a draw in the frigid weather. They used a rink across the river in West Dawson; perhaps this was the rink advertised on page two announced at the Villa De Leon of West Dawson, open afternoons and evenings.

Filler pieces on page two had content intended to appeal to the ladies of Dawson. The first described various women who have pursued careers outside of the home. Titled “An Era For Women,” it refers to Mme. Melba, who enjoyed rowing on the upper reaches of the Thames River. A lady doctor in the West End of London was reported to have earned close to $4,000 a year caring for her patients. In today’s numbers, that would be half a million dollars per year. The first woman to receive a doctor of philosophy degree in physics from the University of Berlin was mentioned.

The article also refers to ethnologist Alice Rollins Crane, of Dawson City, who is working on behalf of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.. She was described as “the most unique inhabitant of Dawson. She wears a buckskin shirt, bloomers of the same material, and leather leggings. She likes frontier life and expects to die with her boots on.”

For those men who did not have families to celebrate with (and there were plenty in the gold rush era) there was a good turnout for the masquerade ball held in the Pavilion on Christmas Day. Twenty couples made their appearance in costume; Dot Pyne was awarded top prize of $20 for dressing in an evening costume, while Florence Lamar received $10 for the best sustained character as a Scottish lassie. Eunice (no last name was given) received a bottle of wine for runner up; she came dressed as a tramp.

Christmas was trouble-free so 50 mounted police were able to celebrate Christmas at the barracks. Major Perry, Superintendent Primrose and several inspectors were invited to join in the festivities. Meanwhile, Reverend Naylor from the Anglican Church gave the prisoners the benefit of a Christmas meal. The prisoners appreciated the unexpected surprise.

The Salvation Army put on a meal for a hundred men at the shelter home on Christmas day and their services on Christmas Eve and Christmas were both well attended. Dinner was served to the patients at the hospital, and the ensuing entertainment was provided by Commissioner Ogilvie, Major Perry of the mounted police and other dignitaries.

Most of the names mentioned by the News have faded into the mists of the past, but a couple of names showed up that most will still recognize. Miss (Diamond Tooth) Gertie Lovejoy was reported to have given a handsome gold watch to Annie O’Brien. Beatrice Lorne, the soprano from Australia, and Gussie Lamore, former girlfriend of Swiftwater Bill Gates, were both mentioned performing at the opera house.

People were already looking forward to celebrating New Year’s Day. The opera house advertised a big wrestling match for the evening of January 1, featuring Charles Krelling and G. Reilly. A side bet of $1,000 was announced, just to make the event more interesting. Not to be outdone by the Pavilion, the Monte Carlo, who advertised a regular change of program every Monday night, announced a grand masquerade ball for the same evening. Obviously Front Street was going to be an exciting place on New Year’s Day.

So there you have it. The holiday as celebrated in Dawson City and the events reported in the Dawson Daily News.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based i n Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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