In its heyday, Dawson City was a wide open town. Liquor, gambling and prostitution all flourished during and shortly after the gold rush. At its peak, Dawson had 80 saloons operating day and night. In fact, the social life of Dawson revolved around the drinking establishments, which became social centres and havens of warmth and light for the hordes of men housed in tiny dark, cold cabins or drab rented rooms.
Establishments such as the Monte Carlo, the Aurora, the Original, the Sourdough and the Arctic gained a reputation that exceeded their worth. In 1902, a total of 30 hotel and 21 saloon licenses were issued by the government. They were merely continuing a tradition that had started well before the onslaught of the gold rush.
The first mounted police officer to remain in the Yukon for a winter, at Forty Mile, reported the operation, by a “whiskey gang,” of 35 illicit stills the winter of 1894/95. Notable among these were Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten, and Thomas W. O’Brien.
O’Brien fared well as a consequence of the discovery of gold in the Klondike, securing claims, or shares of claims on both Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks, one of which yielded him $250,000 in one year. He began re-investing his new wealth into various ventures in the Klondike. He and six other investors incorporated the O’Brien Brewing and Malting Company in December of 1903, with O’Brien as the majority shareholder.
This new company did not wait long to take action. Within weeks, the new company was making alterations to some property owned by O’Brien and his partner, Billy Moran, in Klondike City, on the opposite side of the mouth of the Klondike River from Dawson. “Dawsonites May Tipple Before Spring” announced the headline of an article in the Yukon Sun on January 24, 1904. George Mero was awarded the contract to turn three buildings into a modern brewery.
Work began on January 21. Fourteen skilled carpenters were set to the work of modifying the retail complex into a brewing operation. In a whirl-wind of activity that lasted only 17 days, Mero remodelled the buildings: “making inclined floor and several steam-tight compartments he will also construct two beer vats… one of 4,000 gallons capacity.”
Tinsmiths Blair and Johnson were making a brewing kettle, using a tonne of copper, and contracts were being let for engines, pumps and steam fittings. Brewmaster Charles Bolbrugge arrived in town about the same time. Soon, predicted O’Brien, they would be producing 1,200 gallons (5,400 litres) of locally brewed beer a day. This home-brewed beer, he said, would: “make the Pabst article taste like soda water without any soda in it.”
The brewery was officially opened April 14, and immediately started producing two brands of beer: “Blue Label Lager,” and “Red Label Steam Beer.” The latter was a San Francisco specialty. A half century before in the Golden Gate city, where it was costly to maintain the low temperatures for the traditional slow-brewing lager beer, they developed a “steam beer” process that worked at room temperature and took only 10 to 12 days from start to finish.
Since steam beer came out flat, it had to be subjected to krausening – a process intended to add the necessary carbon dioxide to make the beer bubbly. The beer sold for $24 a barrel, $18 a keg, and $3.50 per dozen. In 1907, the territorial legislature even passed a tariff of “50 cents per gallon” on the imported competition.
In addition to the two main brands of beer, the brewery also introduced “Genuine Bohemian Bock,” and “Special Brew,” “Champagne Cider,” a porter and a ginger beer. Soft drinks produced included aerated water, ginger ale, cream soda, and sarsaparilla. From the beginning, sales of the local beer took off. Imported beers declined by more than 50 per cent in the market place, while the O’Brien Brewery products sold 55,570 gallons (250,000 litres) in 1904, and increased by 24 per cent to 68,748 (309,000 litres) the following year. In 1910, the brewery was employing 15 men.
After 1905, a number of factors caused beer production to taper off. The declining population reduced the market, and thus the production. Attempts to export the product to Alaska failed as well. Social trends made the situation worse. Pressure to direct the liquor trade to hotels and away from saloons, plus partisan political chicanery reduced the number of saloon licenses from 21 licences in 1902, to 13 licenses in 1905, to 6 in 1909.
In 1909, the company started to advertise heavily, focussing on three main themes: celebrating the Klondike mystique (“the beer that made Milwaukee Jealous”), appealing to the local economy (home-grown beer) and finally, promoting its healthful properties by suggesting that beer was necessary for proper digestion of food. By 1910, the O’Brien Brewery beer production had fallen to less than half of its peak year.
In 1915, the brewery tried one more marketing ploy: direct sales. In the Discovery Day issue of the Dawson Daily News, they ran an advertisement announcing that they had taken over the operation of one of the surviving saloons, the Red Feather, to “sell directly to the customer, thus cutting out the middle man and giving his profits to our patrons. All Drinks and Cigars 2 for 25 cents.” That attempt failed.
The prohibition lobby was out for total abolition of liquor sales. In a plebiscite on August 30, 1916, they almost got their way, losing to the “wets” by a mere 3 votes. By that time, however, the last of the saloons had been closed down. In failing health, T.W. O’Brien had sold his holdings in the brewery to Joseph Segbers in 1915, and passed away just days before the votes were cast for and against prohibition.
The outcome of the plebiscite didn’t matter anyway. Two years later the federal government placed a wartime ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor. Liquor licenses in the territory were terminated. Ottawa offset the devastating loss of revenue with an additional subsidy.
At the conclusion of the war, the ban on liquor was lifted, but two years later, in 1920, another plebiscite on the issue went in favour of the “drys.” But Prohibition lasted less than a year. When Ottawa reduced the subsidies to the territory, Yukon electors quickly voted to reinstate the sale of alcohol to save the Yukon’s public budget.
By that time, the O’Brien Brewery was history. The last meeting of the shareholders was held in the fall of 1919. The buildings were maintained for a few more years, but in 1933, the production line was dismantled, and shipped to Fairbanks, probably for the opening of the new Pioneer Brewery in that city. All that remains today is an archeological site where the once-proud brewery stood.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org