Mystery album portrays family life in early days

Last week I wrote about a family photograph album and its connection to the Cascade Steam Laundry in Dawson.

Last week I wrote about a family photograph album and its connection to the Cascade Steam Laundry in Dawson. A gift from my wife for Christmas, this collection of photos is displayed in a moosehide-covered album that is decorated with pyrographic (burnt leather) art. What a story it conveys.

Information provided by the album vendor states that it portrays life of a prosperous family in Dawson City, possibly that of William “Billy” Johnson.” I am inclined to think that it belonged to the family of Gus Johnson, who was the owner and operator of the Cascade Steam Laundry.

Aside from a few images of the buildings in which the steam laundry operated, most of the images focus on the family home or homes, wives, gardens and children.

Gus Johnson was born in Värmland province, Sweden, in 1870, and moved to the United States when he was 16 years old. He first came north to Juneau, Alaska, from Puget Sound in a small sloop he manned with two friends. Two years later, he headed north to Cook Inlet to explore, but then returned to Juneau.

In 1897, Gus joined the first wave of stampeders to make their way into the Klondike. There, he mined successfully on Gold Hill, overlooking Grand Forks at the confluence of Bonanza and Eldorado creeks. Over the years, he continued to have an interest in mining in the region. By 1904, he had ownership of claim No. 7 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek, and in 1910, he is listed as the vice-president of the Lone Star (hard rock) Mine on Victoria Gulch.

Meanwhile, William Johnson established a laundry in partnership with Harold Stumer April of 1900. Stumer had founded and operated the Cascade Steam Laundry in Seattle before embarking on his stampede to the Klondike, and he and Johnson gave the Dawson business the same name. I have not yet established the relationship, if any, between William and Gus Johnson, but I strongly suspect that they were related.

By 1902, William Johnson and Harold Stumer were no longer associated with the laundry business. Instead, Gus Johnson was now in partnership with W.A. Shinkle, W.H. Morrow and M.E. Olsen. In 1906, Gus bought out Morrow’s interest in the business, and by 1915, he and Olsen are listed jointly as the proprietors of the business.

The Cascade Laundry business bought out the competition and prospered. In 1905, Gus married another Swede, Flora Harold, in Dawson City, and in November of the following year, they became the proud parents of daughter Virginia.

Both Gus and Flora were active in the community. Gus was a member of Yukon Masonic Lodge Number 45, the Yukon Order of Pioneers, and was a trustee in the Arctic Brotherhood. Never the leader, he was always an active participant and committee member in the Board of Trade (1909), and later the Yukon Development League (1919), as well as many other groups.

Johnson was one of the first automobile owners in the Yukon, acquiring a new Ford in 1913, and quickly becoming a member in the Good Roads Club. A dozen years later, it was Gus who was chosen as the chairman of the construction committee for the Pioneer Midnight Dome Road, and after selling his business and leaving the Yukon in 1925, he returned the following year to finish the road and build a shelter at the top of the Dome in time for the solstice celebration on June 21.

Gus was exceptionally proud of his prize-winning vegetable garden. His name appears frequently over the years as recipient of numerous ribbons at horticultural fairs and Discovery Day competitions. In 1907, he succeeded in growing a crop of corn, the first ever in the Yukon.

Both Gus and Flora were avid curlers. In addition to curling, Flora Johnson was active in organizing social events, like serving dinner at the League of Nations Ball in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall (now Diamond Tooth Gerties) in 1919. Mrs Johnson was also the hostess of a large afternoon reception on August 4, 1914, when a large contingent of Shriners from Victoria, BC, visited Dawson. As the more than 60 women posed on the lawn in front of the Johnsons’ comfortable two-storey home, little did they know that war would be declared by the end of the day.

The Johnsons were firmly committed to remaining in Dawson when others were drifting off to new discoveries and mining camps in Alaska. To affirm this, in 1911, they purchased the former home of Major A.J. Cunningham and moved it to a prepared space on their lot on Seventh Avenue, near Queen Street.

In the photos taken for this album, two adjacent bungalows were the focus of many of the images. The significance of these two homes is not clear, but the one to the south features a prominent vegetable garden; depicted are probably the prize-winning tomatoes, cabbages and lettuce of which Mr. Johnson was so proud. In the pictures featuring the vegetable garden, we see (I assume) a proud Gus Johnson posing with his vegetables, wearing a white shirt, suspenders, and sporting a distinctive white hat.

Other photos feature what has to be Flora Johnson and another woman who is seen standing in front of the adjacent bungalow. The relationship of these two homes, and of the families appears familial and it is known that several family members were involved in the operation of the laundry business.

In all of these photographs, posing in front of the two bungalows, or around town, the ladies are always dressed to the nines, conveying an image of a happy and comfortable lifestyle. In one such photograph where Mrs. Johnson and another woman are perched at a promontory overlooking Dawson, the ladies would have had quite a trek over rocky terrain in their fashionable gowns to reach this place.

Eventually, the Johnsons left town. First, Flora and daughter Virginia moved to Seattle where Virginia could attend school and study music. In 1925, Gus, accompanied by Miss Harold, his sister–in-law, who had been active in managing the business, joined Flora in Seattle. There, he became a partner in a funeral home located on Broadway.

When he passed away in Seattle on February 27, 1941, he would have been almost 71 years old.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, is due out in April. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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