The man who saved the Yukon at the world’s fair

Any success in putting the Yukon's best foot forward at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 can be attributed to the efforts of one man: Arnold F. George.

Any success in putting the Yukon’s best foot forward at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 can be attributed to the efforts of one man: Arnold F. George.

Located in Seattle, the exposition focussed on the development of the Pacific Northwest in the afterglow of the Klondike Gold Rush. The Yukon operated in the shadow of the American Goliath, and the deck was stacked against it.

The Canadian government committed to construct a pavilion in which the Yukon was not to receive any special attention. The pavilion was one of the most remote at the fair. Furthermore, the American press paid no attention to the Canadian presence at the exposition. What is worse, most Americans thought the Klondike was part of Alaska.

Arnold F. George was an original Klondike stampeder, a veteran Yukon newspaperman and secretary of the Yukon Miners and Merchants Association in Dawson City when the exposition was being organized. Active in the Arctic Brotherhood as well, George was the ideal choice as the Yukon’s ambassador at the fair, but it wasn’t easy for him.

The decision to give the Yukon its own exhibit space in the small Canadian pavilion was made only a few weeks before the opening of the exposition. A nine-metre annex to be devoted to the Yukon was constructed at the rear of the pavilion to house a small exhibit space and a lecture hall. A door at the side of the annex provided access from outside, but there was no direct connection with the rest of the Canadian pavilion.

George scrambled to secure specimens for display in the tiny exhibit hall and the lecture theatre. Where the Alaskan pavilion had a spectacular display with more than a million dollars in gold, A.J. Beaudette, a territorial mining engineer, contributed samples of gold from 40 different creeks. Each vial contained a four-dollar sample.

Martha Black, wife of a prominent Dawson lawyer, dusted off 200 framed Yukon floral specimens she had created some years before and shipped them to Seattle. Before they could be put on display, George’s assistant had to paste some of the flowers back in place.

Other specimens displayed included 35 pyramids of ore samples from the southern Yukon. A slab of native copper was to be transported from the White River, but despite George’s frequent letters, the slab never reached the fair. There was a magnificent stuffed mountain sheep, two sets of interlocked moose horns, the skull of a fossil horse from Gold Run Creek and a mammoth tusk. Late in the season, agricultural samples from the Yukon were added to the exhibit.

In the end, the total expenditure for a Yukon exhibit was approximately $5,000. By comparison, in the Alaskan pavilion, which was three times larger than Canada’s structure, there was a single panorama that cost double that amount. In fact, the Canadian government was so cheap that George had to fork out $48 of his own money (a considerable sum at the time) to purchase a projector for his illustrated slide talk.

Because the Yukon display was relegated to a shed at the back of the Canadian edifice, Arnold George resorted to using signs to direct visitors to the rear door entrance. A cloth sign with the word “Klondike” on it was suspended over the side entrance to the Yukon annex. Three signs in the exhibit room announced the time of the lectures. Five similar signs were placed inside the Canadian pavilion. George coughed up his own money for one more sign he placed on the grass in front of the entrance.

Since the American newspapers made little mention of the Yukon at the fair, it was up to the Yukon to do that for itself. The Canadian government produced 200,000 pamphlets titled “Last Best West,” which mentioned the Yukon. The government produced a few hundred copies of a publication titled The Yukon – Its History and Resources, but they came late in the season and went quickly.

The Dawson Daily News produced a 76-page special edition on book quality paper containing dozens of articles on the territory and profusely illustrated with photographs. A few thousand copies were available for the last few weeks of the exposition, and it was by far the best literature provided about the Yukon at the fair. It sold out entirely at 25 cents per copy, but it was too little, too late.

Had it not been for Arnold George’s effort, the Yukon display would have been lost to all but the most determined seekers. As it was, he stated, “Fully nine-tenths of all the visitors to the fair, until they attended my lectures, supposed Klondike and Dawson to be in Alaska and quite played out.”

It was through the illustrated lectures rather that the exhibits that the Yukon best presented itself to the crowds that flocked to the Klondike display. George, who lectured tirelessly about the Yukon, only had one regret – that the tiny auditorium he used had not been larger.

He reported that there was a general recognition that his illustrated talk on the Yukon was by far the best at the exposition and that most of those who visited the Yukon’s display did so because they had heard about the lecture. He packed the tiny auditorium day after day, presenting the Yukon to as many as a thousand people a day.

His 50-minute talk made it clear to listeners that the Yukon was definitely not in Alaska, but in Canada. He went on to explain that the Klondike had not died after the gold rush, but was still a dynamic and productive mining region with plenty of potential to attract investors. In preparation for his talks, George had even travelled 3,200 kilometres through the Yukon by dog team the previous winter to visit the mines and gather information.

If his estimate of a thousand visitors a day is accurate, then during the course of the four and a half months of the exposition, he presented the Yukon to 135,000 visitors. That represents only a small percentage of the 2.7 million people who attended the world’s fair, but without George’s voice, the Yukon would have been all but mute.

In recognition of his efforts, once the fair was concluded, the Government of Canada recognized Arnold George’s contribution with a medal and a certificate “for the installation of a biograph, and lecture exhibit at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.”

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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