When the 20th century began, the Yukon had a population that rivalled that of today. More than a third of the population was scattered along the creeks surrounding Dawson City. For every woman there were 15 men. In the summer, the men mucked in the mud fighting mosquitos. In the winter, they endured bone-chilling labour and cold, long hours of darkness and terrible isolation.
During the coldest, darkest part of winter, Christmas was a festive celebration that spiced up the tedium and continued for a month. There were cabins on every claim, of which there were six per kilometre. Parties were held in rotation in the larger cabins, and bigger events were held in the ubiquitous roadhouses.
On Gold Run Creek, a tributary of Dominion Creek only 15 kilometres long, with a population of 700, the festive season was always filled with activity. On Christmas Eve, 1899, several ladies on the creek arranged for a gathering in Palmer’s dining hall on Claim number 38, five kilometres up from the confluence of Gold Run with Dominion Creek. Sixty-five people attended from neighbouring claims.
Prizes were handed out for the best waltzing couple (Mrs. Sawyer and John Peterson) and the best jig (J.J. Dunlop). The only interruption in the proceedings occurred when everyone adjourned to the nearby home of William Sawyer, where, according to the Dawson Daily News, “the layout of good things for the inner man stood mountain high, and oh, didn’t we eat!”
A Christmas dance was held at Wheeler and Allen’s roadhouse in December, 1900, on Claim Number 36, followed by a dainty meal, served at midnight. At least fifteen women, half the total living on Gold Run Creek, were in attendance. The following year, on December 13, 1901, there was a well-attended Christmas dance at Lynch’s roadhouse on Claim Number 20.
The Gold Run Hotel offered more manly entertainment on Christmas Eve that year, with two boxing matches. In the first bout, Jeff Hanna lasted for three rounds before Caribou Sinclair knocked him out. In the second match, the Black Prince lasted less than one round before throwing in the towel.
Competition for the Christmas events in the roadhouses came from the Presbyterian Church. Reverend George Pringle tended to congregations in widely scattered goldfield communities. He held a spirited celebration on Christmas Eve, 1903, at Gold Bottom Creek, where Santa distributed gifts to the boys and girls, and everyone was treated to candy, nuts and apples. Gold Bottom was just the first stop on a circuit that Pringle organized at Christmas to tend to his other congregants on Gold Run, Dominion and Sulphur Creeks.
These events came to be known as Christmas tree entertainments, or “trees” for short, and they kept the young minister hopping throughout the festive season. In 1905, Pringle had set an ambitious schedule for himself, with “trees” to be held in the churches he had built at Last Chance, Gold Bottom, Gold Run and Sulphur Creeks.
Every creek community picked consecutive evenings at Christmas on which each of these celebrations was to be held, with the energetic minister hiking from one event to the next to officiate.
Pringle attended a small lunch party that served moose meat and grayling at Jordon’s Cabin on Gold Run on December 28, 1905. Corporal Haddock, the Mountie stationed at Gold Run, was making the rounds of all the cabins on the creek that day with a dire warning not to attempt to travel as the temperature had plummeted to -50C.
Pringle defied the Mountie’s order as he had committed himself to a final “tree” event at Sulphur Creek that evening. Since it was not a long distance, and because he felt he knew the route well, he was prepared to make the hike regardless of the cold. Anticipating this, Corporal Haddock had confiscated Pringle’s snowshoes in hope that the perambulating parson would get the message.
Instead, the reverend decided to make the 25-kilometre trek without snowshoes, reasoning that there was only one section of a kilometre and a half where the webbed winter footwear would be necessary. The trip would take him six hours, and he would arrive in plenty of time to preside over the evening.
He struck out over the trail making good time on the hard packed surface until he encountered drifts near the summit. It was growing darker by the minute, but he was confident that he knew the trail, so he strode on through the darkness and growing fog.
After three hours, however, he realized he must have made a wrong turn and ended up in an area strewn with dense brush, deadfalls and deep snow. He realized that he was lost, but he continued to struggle forward, conscious that should he stop for any reason, the cold would penetrate his parka with deadly effect. When his moccasin came undone, he retied the laces with rapidly stiffening fingers.
Even stopping to start a fire would be fatal, so he kept walking. “I was becoming exceedingly hungry,” he later wrote, “and felt the clutching, icy fingers of the frost getting through my clothes, and I knew there was no time to waste…hunger and ninety five degrees of frost…will soon club you into unconsciousness.”
He saw a faint flickering light in the distance, and this became his beacon of hope. He would reach that light even if he had to do it crawling on frozen hands and feet. “The lights of Paradise will not look so beautiful to me as did the Jo-Jo Roadhouse bonfire that night,” he later wrote. The innkeeper was melting snow outside in a big iron tank over a roaring fire, and it was this lifesaving light that guided Pringle through the cold and darkness to safety.
Pringle’s frozen fingers fumbled with the latch until Mr. Swanson, the proprietor, pulled him inside. He had won this round in the life-and-death battle against Mother Nature. The Christmas event at Sulphur Creek was cancelled when he did not arrive, and the following day, a search party set out to find him; when they did, despite the errant minister having disobeyed the Mountie’s warning, and having ruined the Christmas festivities at Sulphur, Pringle later wrote, he didn’t get a scolding from anybody.
I wish a merry Christmas to one and all this festive season.
Note: In my column Dec. 2, I provided the wrong link to Tim Green’s website devoted to Yukon licence plates. My apologies to Tim. The correct link is: http://platesyukon.ca.
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 email@example.com.