Everything was thrown into turmoil as we mopped up after the waters receded. It was May of 1979 and Dawson was stricken by its worst flooding in the 20th century.
The recovery work on Parks Canada’s massive artifact collection took nearly 10 years, but as curator of collections at the time, I learned that even the direst situations can be blessed by an intriguing turn of events.
A crew was doing recovery work in Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop, which is a national treasure in the heart of the submerged area, at the corner of Princess Street and Third Avenue. One of the tasks that had been assigned was to clean out an old barrel heater located in the back end of the building.
Wet ash becomes very caustic and would eventually eat through the metal shell of the heater, so it became very important that the flood-soaked material be removed. Inside the stove, curiously, was a small cardboard box, and inside it were photos, untouched by the rising waters, that dated back to the early 20th century.
Perhaps it was my own Polish ancestry, combined with the large walrus moustaches on the men wearing sashes and standing in front of St. Mary’s church in one of the photos, that made me suspect that the people captured in these images were also Polish.
I photocopied the images and mailed them off to the United States, to the Kavet family. I had met them in Dawson the summer before, when they were investigating the family history of Joseph Walter Kavetski, a Polish-American harness maker who ran a business there in the early decades of the twentieth century.
It was a classic case of serendipity; in reply to my query, the family returned the photocopies to me, and they had written in the names of some of the people in the pictures.
More important than identifying the names of the people was the jarring realization that this coincidental discovery had revealed one of the hidden histories of the city of gold.
The story of post-gold rush Dawson City was created from the pens of Laura Berton, Martha Black, and others, who coloured it in a decidedly WASP-ish hue. These newly discovered photos opened my eyes to the fact that there was in the early days, a Polish ethic sector in the gold rush capital.
How many other communities, I wondered, lay hidden within the conventional portrayal of the Yukon?
This comprehension lay dormant for a long time until it was rekindled recently by archives librarian Peggy D’Orsay at the Yukon Archives. On a recent visit with her she took me on a paper journey through several hidden Yukon histories
Peggy’s interest in hidden history was sparked by a presentation she gave on black history to students at Hidden Valley School about seven years ago. At that time she had only a half dozen pictures with which to tell the story. At that time, the archives didn’t focus on ethnic history
Since then, she has amassed an impressive selection of photographs and a bulging search file. Her work also led to the development of a panel exhibit on black history, followed later by another on Asian history.
Historically, the black community in the Yukon was not very large. The 1901 census revealed 99 black people in the Yukon; that number rapidly fell, along with Yukon’s declining population. Through the years, the Japanese population was small, and the Chinese community even smaller.
These ethnic groups were marginalized by mainstream society, being denied access to leadership roles in the community, subjected to racism, and even denied the franchise.
There was one Japanese man, I was told, who decided to run in a local election in Dawson around 1910, but who experienced such vile personal attacks that he was forced to withdraw.
The worst treatment of all may have occurred during the construction of the Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline during the Second World War, when thousands of black soldiers were brought north to do the work.
They were exposed to systemic prejudice in the military. Even Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion felt it. When he visited Whitehorse during the war, lodgers from Texas and Oklahoma were horrified that he was staying in the hotel where they were billeted. Some of them even moved out while he was here.
Worse yet were the conditions under which these soldiers lived. Supplied with minimal equipment, much of their work demanded back-breaking labour. Most of them were from the Deep South; they found themselves in a place that was foreign to them, and experiencing a climate for which they were entirely unprepared.
During the summer, they were bogged down by incessant rain and melting permafrost. As the season progressed, the temperature dropped to levels beyond their comprehension. The winter the highway was first cut through the wilderness was the coldest in the Yukon since 1917. Local stories abound of some of these soldiers freezing to death on the job.
Then there is the story of Jujiro Wada, the legendary Japanese dog musher, who helped establish the Iditarod Trail. In February of 2007, the Yukon Archives, in partnership with the Yukon Human Rights Commission and the National Association of Japanese Canadians, launched an exhibit during the Yukon Quest sled dog race.
As a history sleuth, D’orsay has tracked the story of Massa Sakata, who lived in Dawson City for many years, and the Agees, a black family that followed the Klondike Trail north during the gold rush.
She has hunted down the first member of the Yukon’s small Baha’I community: Dora Bray, a black teacher in the school in Dawson City, who joined the faith in 1920. She has pursued the history of the tiny Russian Orthodox tradition, and the Jewish community as well. In fact, D’Orsay has been a champion of hidden history for years.
Some of this hidden history will be exposed during February, which is Black History Month in Canada. It will be launched on Tuesday, February 2 at 7 p.m. at the MacBride Museum with the opening of a temporary exhibit on blacks involved in the construction of the Alaska Highway. This display will include new photos uncovered during recent research.
The public is invited to attend.
Paul Gowdie will describe preparations by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for the recognition of the black soldiers who worked on the construction of the Alaska Highway.
The exhibit will remain on display through the month of February. If you miss the one at the museum, there will be a display in the window of the Mac’s Books on Main Street, and a display case and panel display at the Whitehorse Public Library.
For those who are more electronically inclined, you can view online exhibits at the Yukon Archives website at:
For more information on black history, go to:
An online exhibit on Asian history in the Yukon is also being prepared by the Yukon Archives.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.