Every year about this time, people start speculating on the break-up of the Yukon. Ice pool tickets are purchased with hopes of selecting the winning time for the ice to move in front of Dawson City.
People congregate along the dike around the perimeter of the community, and gather in small clusters to share their own insights, dredge up memories about past break-ups, and speculate about when the big event will happen this year. Old-timers told me that the Yukon River at Dawson usually breaks up three days after the Klondike is liberated from its icy shackles.
Nobody could have predicted how things turned out for the Klondike capital during the spring break-up in 1944.
It started routinely enough. Sale of ice pool tickets closed at midnight on April 25. Two days later, after a heavy frost, prognosticators were predicting that the ice would not go out until the middle of May. The community kept a close watch on the level of the river.
The Dawson News noted that the water was up 100 centimetres on April 29, and local “iceologists” stated that based upon the rise of water level, they could predict the break-up to within a few hours.
By May 2, the water level had risen two metres and was continuing to creep up. News reached town that Rock Creek, up the Klondike valley, was flooding. Two days later, water was up 2.73 metres, and ice had broken upriver at Fort Selkirk. The Stewart River was disgorging its ice too. The fire siren went off on May 2 and hundreds flocked to the waterfront, but it was a false alarm.
Finally, at 1:27 pm on Friday, May 5, the ice moved from the front of Dawson. The river ran free of ice for a few minutes, then jammed. All of Dawson turned out to watch the spectacle. According to the News: “Front Street resembled a boomtown with cars and trucks and excited Dawsonites lining the riverbanks in every direction.”
Charlie Mason of Moosehide was the winner of the ice pool, pocketing over $3,000, but he was away trapping and unaware of his windfall. Businesses all over town announced the winners in their minute pools.
But excitement turned to apprehension within 24 hours. Ice was jamming in the river below Dawson and by Saturday afternoon, South Dawson and the waterfront up to Queen Street, were underwater. A gravel berm around the power plant kept it high and dry and the power supply remained uninterrupted.
Massive blocks of ice were crashing into the wharfs behind the Bank of Commerce and the White Pass docks. Minto Park and the baseball field were now a lake. The manager of the Bank of Montreal, to be on the safe side, was removing bank records and valuables from the vault.
For a short time Saturday afternoon, south Dawson became an island, shut off from the rest of town. When the water reached an alarming level, Mr. McFarland, manager of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation sent a crew into town to help with “flood precautions” at the power plant.
Homes on Fifth Avenue were flooded. All basements were filled with water, including the basement in the public school, which was immersed to a depth of more than two metres.
The water receded on Sunday, but began to rise again on Monday, reaching a high point at noon. With water in the lobby, patrons of the Royal Alexandra Hotel on Front Street had to move to other accommodations, while the Arcade Café next door temporarily suspended service. The level dropped for a short while, then began to rise again Monday evening.
Tuesday, things were getting worse. The Dawson News building was flooded knee-deep and paper stock was damaged and with the power out, the paper could not produce an issue on Thursday.
Tuesday was day four of the flooding, and no end was yet in sight. The White Pass docks on the waterfront were destroyed. “The terrific force of ice cracked and crushed timbers, pilings, and planking like matchwood,” reported the News later.
The U.S. Army was called to the aid of the community, and sent in a giant four-engine Boeing Flying Fortress to bomb the ice below Dawson in hopes of breaking the jam, but it did not work. The bomber returned the following day and dropped nine tons of explosives onto the ice below Dawson, but the 25-kilometre ice jam still did not budge.
At its peak on Tuesday, the flood waters were flowing down Fifth Avenue “like a mill race.” Front Street was blocked by tons of huge cakes of ice, some three metres thick. Despite the heavy frost the night before, the water was rising and falling menacingly all day.
At 7:30 on Tuesday evening, to be on the safe side, the power was shut off in the power plant. Men fought a heroic battle to reinforce the gravel berm around the power plant with sand bags.
Just when it looked like they might save the plant, the water burst through like a roaring Niagara Falls, and the men sought refuge on the roof or in the second storey, until they could be ferried to safety by boat. A few minutes later, the water began to recede; the ice jam had unlocked and the water rushed quickly downriver.
When the water went down, it did so with determination, leaving behind scenes of carnage all over town. The streets were a boggy mess; the wooden sidewalks lay at crazy angles all over town. Firewood and other debris was strewn everywhere. Buildings and goods were damaged.
During the chaos of the flood, the people of Dawson showed their best nature. Those who were above the flood waters helped evacuate those who were threatened. They provided shelter for the temporarily displaced. “Never has the traditional hospitality and friendliness and sincerity of the Northern people stood out so plainly,” stated the Dawson News.
The following week, government and businesses were open as usual. The newspaper was operating again and children were back in school. Just like all the floods before and those that followed, Dawson City survived and rose from the mud.
Everybody had a story to tell, some tragic, many humorous; everybody was affected by the event. Stories would be told and retold in the years to come. Fortunately, nobody died in the turmoil and confusion of those five chaotic days in 1944.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.