It was a wet Discovery Day holiday in Dawson City this year. In fact, though there have probably been quite a few damp ones over the years, I think that this will be the wettest summer since 1979.
That was the year of the big flood, and although Noah wasn’t present, long-time residents can quickly recount what happened to them on May 3 of that year. Eighty per cent of Dawson was submerged when the Yukon River, swollen with heavy spring run-off, combined with an ice-jam a short distance below the town, to create the worst inundation in more than a century.
Dawson was in transition at the time, undergoing the replacement of the old wooden sewer pipes of the turn-of-the-century sewer system, with a more modern insulated pipe network. The old system was characterized by square wood-lined access holes capped with wooden lids, but that’s all gone today.
I was walking down Fifth Avenue, in my ‘Dawson Oxfords’ (rubber boots), wading through one of the numerous ponds still filling the low-lying areas of the street a few days after the flood, when the man in front of me suddenly went up to his waist in cold, muddy water. The wooden access cover had floated away, and he had stepped into the hidden aquatic pit-fall.
If it hadn’t been for the other fellow, that could have been me!
This year, fortunately, there was a warm dry spell at the beginning of Discovery Day weekend that made the holiday an enjoyable event in spite of the rain that came later.
I attended Authors on Eighth Literary Walking Tour, which took place on Thursday, August 11. This event is the legacy of some of the famous literary figures associated with the gold rush town.
It is a walk-about where visitors and local residents start at Jack London cabin, move on to Robert Service Cabin, and conclude the event at Pierre Berton House. Dawn Mitchell delivered a polished presentation on Jack London to an overflowing room of more than 80 people.
Jay Armitage delivered an excellent and informative talk on the life of Robert Service to an enthusiastic crowd of 70, which concluded with readings of Good Bye, Little Cabin, My Lady Luck, and The Three Bears.
The tour ended at Pierre Berton House, where a short reading was delivered by writer-in-residence poet Jake Mooney, and winners were announced for poetry (Al Pope) and prose (Erica Rauguth).
On Friday, I walked around town to see what has happened to Dawson in the past year. The most noticeable change is the behemoth construction project behind the museum, where a new hospital is being built. As the massive structure of concrete and steel rises above the community, I try to imagine how it will fit in to the historic feel of the town.
Walking down Second Avenue, I saw some houses newly constructed or under construction and noted that they have captured the historic feel of the early days without compromising contemporary comfort.
It is possible to build modern homes or businesses so that they conform to the gold rush feel. This is encouraging; while it is a contemporary community, Dawson is also a town steeped in history. A World Heritage Site designation remains a strong possibility.
On Sunday, I planned to drive 70 kilometres to Gold Run Creek, a tributary of Dominion Creek, near the old community of Granville, with my friends Ed and Star Jones. Our plan was to spend some time at the small cemetery there, cutting back the vegetation and making simple repairs.
We know that several people died on this tiny creek in the early days, and a few of the graves are still visible within the confines of the picket fence that was put around the site by employees of Teck Corporation, who were mining there back in the 1980s.
With the heavy rain, the road was rendered slick and muddy in places, with the conditions getting worse the closer we got to our target. Starting the descent into Dominion Creek from the Hunker summit, it became too slick for my little Versa and their small pickup. After a roadside conference, we turned back.
Ed and Star Jones have waged a singular campaign to restore the historic cemeteries surrounding Dawson City. With the help of others, they have cut back the overgrowth, cut down half-dead trees, and devised methods of remounting fallen grave markers so that they are no longer rotting face-down in the dense, moist grass.
Later, as Ed and I walked through the Hillside Cemetery, we encountered the names and dates of the citizens who, in their time, contributed to the making of this little northern town. Some of the names are those of the earliest pioneers; others are of individuals whose families have lived here for generations.
Near the road is the section where the members of the now-defunct Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie Number 50, were buried. On the large cement obelisk beside a neat row of graves that are enclosed by pipe rails, is a newly mounted brass plaque that bears the names of the six Dawson members of the order who died during the battles of the First World War.
The six dead were honoured at a memorial service on Saturday, August 13, attended by members of the Royal Canadian Legion and a squad of Mounted Police in their scarlet tunics. These names are a few of the 65,000 Canadians who died in the faraway battlefields.
To walk among the graves scattered throughout the graveyard, is to take a history lesson. A few examples: one granite grave marker, now fallen, bears the name of Roderick L. Ashbaugh, who, while a member of the first wholly elected Yukon Territorial Council, died in 1910.
The neatly arranged and cared for graves of the Mounted Police remind us of the members who died in the line of duty.
Nearby is the grave of Jan Welzl, Czech folk hero, who lived the life of an eccentric for many years in Dawson City, while pursuing the dream of developing a perpetual motion machine. Welzl is an excellent candidate for the Colourful Five Per Cent. His grave is probably the most visited in the Hillside cemetery.
In the Dawson cemeteries rest the remains of those who lived, raised families, worked and died in town. Know them and you learn the history too.
My trip to Dawson was a reminder that no matter where you turn in that remarkable town, the history is there to tempt you.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book is History Hunting in the Yukon.