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Mystery object shines light on Dawson's history

This object is 203 centimetres long, 66 centimetres high and 33 centimetres wide. Made of painted metal and glass, it is awkward and difficult to pick up or carry.

This object is 203 centimetres long, 66 centimetres high and 33 centimetres wide. Made of painted metal and glass, it is awkward and difficult to pick up or carry. It will also be the centerpiece of a major revision that the Dawson City Museum is planning to make to its historical galleries.

The second-floor exhibit area in the planned makeover will focus on Dawson City during the 20th century. When I was told this last weekend by Alex Somerville, the acting director of the Dawson City Museum, I had not yet seen the object in question.

The gold rush might have been responsible for the birth of Dawson City as we know it today, but a century later, it is still a vibrant northern community. For a hundred years, Dawson has lived in the shadow of that one big event. It is a town like no other; a cluster of old buildings reminding residents of the momentous events that spelled its instant creation.

In many ways, this artifact reflects the unique character and personality of the town that by mid-century, was struggling to survive. It almost didn’t make it into the plans for the new exhibit; instead, it has become the keystone exhibit piece for the era.

Of course, Somerville didn’t come right out and say what it was; he wanted to keep me guessing.

“It is associated with a key personality from Dawson City,” he said. This person’s role in the community transcends a single theme in the history of the community. He is associated with mining; he is also associated with the preservation of Dawson City. He was one of the last to continue a tradition that began in the Yukon before the gold rush.

He was known beyond Dawson City - at Moosehide, and he was very popular.

Was it George Black, or perhaps Pierre Berton? Maybe it was Chief Isaac, or John Gould, I asked? Finally, I guessed - accurately - that the “who” was Fred Caley… but now the object? It was something from his store - something that everyone would immediately associate with the business. Have you figured it out yet? It is the neon sign, loudly proclaiming “Get It At Caley’s,” that was once suspended over the front door of the business.

Caley immigrated to Canada from England and arrived in Dawson City in 1922 at the age of 18. He worked for J.N. Spence, who ran a grocery store. In 1941, Caley opened his own business in the old Palace Bakery at the south end of Dawson; then he moved into the Third Avenue location in 1947.

The neon sign, the only one in Dawson City, which was purchased from Norm Chamberlist of Whitehorse, went up in 1950, and shone brightly for the next 30 years.

The stories about Caley’s store are legion, but one example makes the point. John Steins, artist and former mayor of Dawson, remembered that many years ago he purchased a box of breakfast cereal containing a coupon. He mailed off the coupon to the manufacturer for a promotional product and was rewarded, some weeks later, with a letter informing him that the promotion had occurred some 30 years before!

Caley supplied the community with food and dry goods for decades until he closed down shortly after I arrived in Dawson in 1978.

He was known as an entrepreneur, and grubstaked many mining prospects. One paid off for him. In 1957, he showed samples of asbestos from Cassiar, British Columbia to local trapper Art Anderson. “There’s stuff like that on my trapline, up on Snowshoe Hill, near Clinton Creek,” said Anderson. Caley grubstaked Anderson and George Walters, who subsequently staked claims on Clinton Creek. Caley and his son Bob did the same - and that was the beginning of the Clinton Creek asbestos mine.

According to Conwest mining official Alec Berry, there wouldn’t have been a Clinton Creek mine if it hadn’t been for Caley. “He grubstaked everybody, and lots of times he lost,” said Berry.

The Clinton Creek mine has been closed for many years, but one of his legacies lives on. Caley had the foresight to purchase many of the old buildings around Dawson City when the community was shrinking. Among those properties were the Dawson Daily News the Red Feather Saloon and Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop, which came with contents intact.

Caley eventually sold the buildings to Parks Canada, and they are now part of the impressive assemblage of Dawson buildings that has been recognized as nationally significant. Included in those structures of national significance was Caley’s Store. Caley even had the foresight in 1959 to allow the Public Archives of Canada to copy the old bound issues of the Dawson Daily News onto microfilm. They are now a vital historical reference for the history of the Yukon.

When the Dawson City Museum burned to the ground in 1959, it was Caley who quietly “grubstaked” the museum society to get the museum up and running in time for the Gold Rush Festival in 1962. He also donated large items like the coffee grinder at that time, and smaller items such as labelled tins, old letters, ledgers and ephemera. When he retired in 1978, Caley donated another 400 items from his store to the Dawson Museum.

Caley was recognized by the Dawson City Museum Society in 1981 when then society president Jan Brown presented him with its annual Yukon Heritage Award for his contributions to preservation. The following year, Commissioner Doug Bell presented a Commissioner’s Award to him at a family reunion.

Caley was inducted into the Yukon Prospectors’ Association Honour Roll in November of 1989. August 2 of 2008, he was once more honoured with a bronze commemorative plaque. Mounted on the front of the store which he had operated for so many years, it was unveiled in front of friends and family.

There is no doubt that Caley made a vital contribution to his community over the years, as an active citizen, as a foresighted sponsor of mineral exploration, and an even farther-sighted patron of preservation of the history of this “town like no other.” So it is fitting that the old neon sign that hung over his store entrance should be chosen to symbolize both the past - and the future - of Dawson City during the 20th century.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at