Early photographers captured the essence of Yukon history

If you hear the word Klondike, you can conjure an image of the thousands who laboured over the Chilkoot trail. You may imagine the makeshift armada of gold-seekers slowly floating across the lakes, through the rapids and down the rivers to Dawson City.

If you hear the word Klondike, you can conjure an image of the thousands who laboured over the Chilkoot trail. You may imagine the makeshift armada of gold-seekers slowly floating across the lakes, through the rapids and down the rivers to Dawson City. You may see the hundreds of boats tied up along the Dawson waterfront, or visualize Front Street, with its hastily built false-front buildings, and dense crowd of people on the Fourth of July.

The thousands of photographs taken during the Klondike gold rush helped make it famous. The pictures from countless cameras, big and small, captured the highs and lows of the event.

The images of the climb up the “Golden Stairs” of the Chilkoot Pass may be the most iconic. They capture the struggle of the gold rush ordeal that was, as Pierre Berton said, “…a rough approximation of life itself.”

The Klondike gold rush came at a time when the technology of the photograph had evolved to be available to the mass market. Everybody with a small Kodak camera could be a photographer, and many were in 1898. Each image they captured chronicled the experience of its creator. At their worst, they were fuzzy, out-of-focus and poorly composed. At their best, they were masterpieces.

The best images came from the professional photographers, of whom there were several during the gold rush. These artists were challenged by the climate and terrain. In addition to the food and other supplies that the Mounted Police required them to pack along, they had all their photo gear to tote over the trail. Their kit included large box cameras, heavy, yet fragile glass plates, tripods, chemicals, paper and other paraphernalia.

Amid the crowd, moving inexorably toward the Klondike, these masters of the shutter had to mix chemicals daily, and prepare their glass plates along the trail. They had to lug their equipment through deep snow to the right viewpoint, which was often on a mountainside. They had to contend with heavy wind or bitterly cold temperatures while they set up their camera and snapped the shutter. They then processed the images, and if they were lucky, they produced one that was good enough to sell to the stampeders.

They were businessmen, and had to select views that would have commercial appeal, yet the best of these pictures transcended commercialism and captured the very essence of the epic adventure. Perhaps the best of these photographers were E.A. Hegg and P.E. Larss, two Scandinavian Americans from Washington State.

Hegg, and Larss, his employee, followed the horde to Dawson City in 1898. With their lens, they immortalized the heavily-laden stampeders plodding up the trail through mud and snow, setting up camp in the most inhospitable locations, building sawpits and whipsawing lumber to construct their boats. Images of the perils of the lakes, rapids and Yukon River were taken from every possible vantage point.

When they arrived in Dawson City, these graphic chroniclers recorded the drama of places and events, even venturing into the red-light district to capture the ladies in provocative poses. They toured the goldfields and clambered to the bottom of mine shafts to record, for posterity, the men at work. Hegg followed the stampede to Nome, but Larss remained in Dawson for several years before leaving in 1904, running a photo shop with his partner J.E. Duclos.

After the gold rush had peaked, the miners continued to dig for gold. Their work was documented by two different photographers, the brothers Clarence and Clarke Kinsey, who set up their business at Grand Forks, on Bonanza Creek. For several years, the brothers lugged their equipment all over the gold fields, recording people, places and events. Their images captured the human face of the gold fields, and the energy of the mining that flourished until the dredging companies displaced them.

The best work of the Kinsey Brothers was assembled in two excellent photo books put together by editor Norm Bolotin.

Klondike Lost and Klondike Scrapbook present the details of ordinary life on the creeks surrounding Dawson City after the gold rush.

The post gold rush period might have become a photographic black hole had it not been for the efforts of a few determined individuals who remained in the Yukon. Most took photographs out of personal interest, but a few continued to produce commercial pictures, most notably E.J. Hamacher, of Whitehorse. But one of the best collections of photographs documenting the period between the two world wars was taken by an amateur – and a Mountie to boot: Claude Tidd.

For Claude Tidd, photography was more than a hobby, it was a calling. Tidd was a passionate photographer, and a visual story-teller, who had an eye for subject and composition. He also mastered the challenges of photography in the North, like setting up a tripod in a metre of snow and adjusting the settings at temperatures of minus 25 degrees or colder. He improvised, chopping ice to melt it and mix it with chemicals, and modifying a cast-off kerosene can for making paper prints.

Tidd and his wife Mary traveled the Yukon, carrying his equipment with them, recording the lives of the working people in the North as they went. You can learn more about his marvellous work, and the way he adapted his photography to northern conditions, by going to the following website: http://www.yukonromance.ca/

These photographers, and many others, captured the north on glass plates and film during a pivotal era of Yukon history. Today, their images still bring the past alive in ways that words cannot. The pictures take you to a place growing more distant with time. Some provoke your imagination and stimulate your dreams. The best of the lot stir you deep inside.

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

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