The old Yukon newspapers are a fertile source of information for any researcher of Yukon history. The problem is that they are also literary quicksand.
I dive into them frequently in search of information on my current topic of interest. The problem is, they are too interesting, and before I know it, hours filled with fascinating reading have passed, but I haven’t progressed far in my research; I have become bogged down by the distractions. I have seen visitors to the Dawson Museum and the Yukon Archives experience the same thing.
To illustrate this, I refer to two Yukon newspapers that I looked at recently, one from Whitehorse, and one from Dawson, from the year 1904. Remember, the gold rush was five years past, and the territory had settled down to some degree of stability.
The headlines for both newspapers focussed on the war between Russia and Japan. In those days, the international news, rather than the local, grabbed the largest headlines, and the front page.
The Whitehorse Star reported on the pending resignation of the commander -in-chief of the Canadian militia after a dispute with a cabinet minister over appointments. Also, the budget debate in Parliament was expected to be short and uninteresting.
Similarly, a report on a kidnapping in Tangiers grabbed a front-page position, while in Victoria, Adjutant-General Bell of the militia was threatening to shut down the Portland Mine because of the unsavoury characters working there.
The only local content on the front page of the newspaper were the large Taylor and Drury advertisement spanning the bottom of the page and smaller ads for jewellery at Stoddart’s (no address listed), and for outfitting at Sieward’s, located on Front Street, opposite the Fire Hall.
The columnist, Stroller White, reminisced about a short stint as a teacher in Florida, years before. He told one of his female students that she was old enough to know something about algebra. She replied that she wasn’t that kind of girl, and that night, her father and two older brothers, all crackers, according to White, showed up and gave him a severe beating for the suggestion he had made to her in class.
Five years later, he goes on to say, she wrote him a letter of apology saying that she purchased a dictionary for 19 cents and looked up the definition for algebra. Many years after that, she wrote again. Her husband had left her, taking four of their children, but leaving her with the seven youngest. “I often think of my old teacher,” she wrote, “How I would like to see you, my…..”
White does not indicate if he replied to her correspondence.
The advertising represents a wide cross section of businesses from Whitehorse, Skagway, and even Vancouver. The biggest local advertisers are Whitney and Pedlar, who were promoting Stein-Bloch Smart Clothes and a line of “swell goods,” and Taylor and Drury, featuring Hanam and Son footwear.
Transportation is prominently advertised. The White Pass and Yukon Route proclaims access to all the goldfields of the Yukon.
White Pass was even planning to send a steamer up the Takhini River to Mendenhall Landing, at which point, travellers could transfer to ground transportation to the Kluane goldfields. Gold had been discovered in and around the Kluane region the previous summer and there was a small stampede to the region.
If readers wanted to take the train to Skagway, there was plenty to do upon arrival, according to the advertisements. Travellers could stay at the Hotel Dewey or the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and drink at one of several saloons. The schedules for three different steamship lines sailing from Skagway in June indicate a total of 13 departures during the month.
The front page of the Dawson Daily News featured an Arthur Buel cartoon skewering the delays in the completion of the new library, funded by Andrew Carnegie.
I know that my wife, Kathy, is interested in this topic, so I stop on this long enough to produce a copy for her, then email it to her.
There is no article to accompany the cartoon, so I ask myself if there was one in the days prior to the cartoon? I start looking in previous issues to see if there was something about this topic.
Now where was I? Oh yes, a half hour later, I returned to the research that I started with in the first place. How did I get distracted again?
In addition to the abundant coverage of the Russo-Japanese war, there were articles on diphtheria prevention in Chicago, Cape Colony election results and a short item from the French executioner in Paris.
“I am not a supporter of capital punishment,” the executioner stated, “but I must make a living.”
Mingled with the front page international news was the local: The cabin belonging to one A. Anderson, at Claim No. 17 Above Discovery on Bonanza Creek, burned to the ground, along with all his clothing. Meanwhile, J.T. Kearney at Grand Forks was finally able to take his three remaining horses out of isolation after they were exposed to glanders, a deadly communicable disease of horses, three months earlier.
The Dawson advertising reveals a less transitory population than Whitehorse. There are no ads for hotels in this issue, but there are others placed for Ivory Soap, eggs (50 cents a dozen) and Royal Yeast Cakes, all presumably available at such establishments as Butlers Corner, and Avery’s Grocery (open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturdays). Mutton was available at B.Y. Meat .
Dr. Varicle, a dentist with 25 years experience, placed a small ad for his new dental parlour on Queen Street. “Painless Dentistry” proclaimed the ad in large letters.
In their totality, these advertisements reflect the changing times, and the profile of businesses and products available to the community. It’s interesting stuff.
There is an article about the near demise of Dawson News courier E.C. Stahl at minus 60 degrees Celsius. Then there is a short article on Alice Rollins Crane, another person of interest to my wife. I stop again to make a copy of the article then email it to her.
I check my watch. I don’t know where the time has gone. I still haven’t found what I was looking for. It’s all too interesting to ignore. I turn my attention back to the newspaper, again scanning the headlines for all of the articles, hoping that I will not miss the articles of interest to me. They are like needles hidden in a haystack of news; unfortunately, the hay is more interesting.
Venturing into the old newspapers is like wandering through a garden of historical delights, and I want to stop and enjoy each one!
You should try it some time.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book is History Hunting in the Yukon.