I blame this one on Patrick Singh, local musician and entrepreneur, who talked to me about the history of music in the territory. For some reason, this triggered a train of thought about the sounds and smells of the gold rush.
Remember, this was a time before computers, internet, iPods, MP3 players, CDs, LPs, TV and radio, sanitation and advances in medicine. Young readers will have a hard time imagining this world because it isn’t even described in text books. For some, a world without a computer within reach is almost inconceivable.
The truth is, the human spirit not restrained by technology. Before these modern advances in technology, the human race found many ways to create entertainment and to conduct its daily routines.
So why don’t we take a sensory journey into the past, with a walk through Dawson City during the gold rush.
“We came to a place where there was a sign that read ‘The Sky is the Limit’,” said one new arrival in the Klondike. “Incessant music greeted our ears … caused by a piano thumper who played on an old loose-keyed piano which obviously had seen better days. Baritone and bass voices burst into snatches of unsteady song as the musician improvised from one familiar tune to another. At intervals a tired-faced violinist played on a melancholy,
From the swamp behind Sam Bonnifield’s Bank Saloon came the sounds of a wheezy portable organ and the tap of dancing feet. The heavenly voices of the Oatley Sisters sang out tunes like Break the News to Mother, and
She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage to tearful, homesick miners.
Another young singer whose voice brought tears to the eyes of grown men far from home was nine-year-old Margie Newman, whom they showered with gold nuggets when she performed on stage at the Tivoli Theatre.
Ironically, decades after the gold rush, people remembered songs being performed in Dawson that weren’t even written until a decade or more after the great stampede. In the 1950s, in the name of tourism, the can-can dance, an act not present during the gold rush, was introduced into popular mythology.
What the miners longed for were songs that reminded them of their far-away homes, and entertainment that masked the fact that they were living in the wilderness, rather than in Paris, London or New York.
The saloons, gaming houses and dance halls, crammed claustrophobically together along Front Street, reeked of liquor, tobacco and sweat, and emitted the sounds of ratcheting gaming wheels, shuffled cards and clattering chips, raucus laughter, dancing and music.
Crowds roared at the boxing matches that were popular events at the time.
Along the Front Street of 1898, everything was in Technicolor, not the black and white of the faded old photographs of the era.
No car engine or boat motor intruded into the auditory landscape. No automobile exhaust assaulted the nose in this era.
Steam was the order of the day, and a much quieter form of energy production than those we are familiar with today. Yet even steam brought with it the crashing of cordwood and the slamming of firebox doors on dozens of steamers.
In the crowds that thronged along the waterfront, we might have heard the sound of feet trampling the boardwalk, or hundreds of voices engaged in hundreds of conversations. The voices would have spoken in many different
languages, though English was the primary choice. Men were advertising their wares in loud voices from their store fronts.
Flags flapped in the wind atop poles along the street.
Every special event held during the summer was accompanied by the sounds of hastily assembled brass bands and the shouts from the crowds. The celebration of the Fourth of July was accompanied by loud salutes of gunfire that terrified every dog in town. It was days before many of the frightened canines returned to their masters.
We would have heard the sounds of horses and the clatter of wagons, and the noise of freight being loaded and unloaded. Before the streets were well established, they turned into mud holes after every rainstorm. Wagons
were mired down to their axles, and I can hear the curses of the teamsters as they attempted to extricate their loads and the struggling beasts from their muddy confinement.
During the summer, we would have heard a chorus of howls from the countless sled dogs, tethered, underfed and bored.
To avoid the strictures about business on the Sabbath, enterprising entrepreneurs chartered paddlewheel steamers, filled them with gamblers and high-lifes, and took them down river to Alaska. When the boats finally limped
back to the Dawson dock days later, they were cheered by thousands of onlookers, combined with steamers’ whistles blowing and the howling of every dog in town.
The sound of chopping, sawing and hammering would have assaulted us from every direction as hundreds of buildings were rapidly assembled in the scramble to cash in on the business opportunities or to meet the demand for homes.
The sound was magnified by the flurry of activity at the government woodpile, where those convicted of petty crimes fulfilled their sentences by cutting wood.
The doors of the blacksmith shops would have opened onto the avenues behind Front Street, and the clanging of hammer upon steel and whoosh of forge would have flooded out into the street. Farther down the avenue, the
presses of the first newspapers would have been chattering away as the type fell into place and the presses turned.
The sawmills were operating around the clock, their blades whining and protesting under the strain.
Intermingled with the scent of fresh cut timber would be the smells of nature, masked heavily by the aroma of thousands of unwashed bodies, and mixed with the distinctive smell of horse sweat and manure.
There was no sewage disposal at the height of the gold rush. Dawson became a fetid pool of filth that cultured diseases and filled the air with the stench. The typhoid epidemic that resulted filled the hospital and kept the
martyred Father William Judge caring for them around the clock.
The air was thick with the pall of wood smoke, both from the forest fires and from the chimneys of thousands of stoves all over the Klondike.
It was a carnival-like atmosphere that permeated Dawson City for a brief exciting year during the gold rush. That sense of event was created in part by the sensory overload of sounds and smells generated at the time.
Close your eyes and give reign to your imagination. Conjure up in your own mind the sights, sounds and smells of the era. Marvel in how exciting a time it was and how these sensory details enhanced the feeling that
something special was taking place.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based