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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An avalanche warning sigh along the South Klondike Highway. Local avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has risen during the pandemic as more Yukoners explore socially distanced outdoor activities. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News file)
Backcountry busy: COVID-19 has Yukoners heading for the hills

Stable conditions for avalanches have provided a grace period for backcountry newcomers

Several people enter the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Coast High Country Inn Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 26. The Yukon government announced on Jan. 25 that residents of Whitehorse, Ibex Valley, Marsh Lake and Mount Lorne areas 65 and older can now receive their vaccines. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Vaccine appointments available in Whitehorse for residents 65+

Yukoners 65 and older living in Whitehorse are now eligible to receive… Continue reading

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read