If you have read Pierre Berton’s account of the Klondike gold rush, you probably have an impression of the harsh climate and isolation, the ordeal experienced in getting there, and the excitement of the gold rush town at its peak.
The Klondike was transformed overnight from an isolated extension of the Dominion of Canada into a remote region overwhelmed by the influx of humanity. Tens of thousands of people flooded into the Yukon basin, changing the complexion of the landscape forever.
Consequently, the government had at first a hard time keeping up with the changes, which led to heroic efforts and creative improvisation by some officials, but also to well-founded allegations of incompetence and corruption against others. As a result, amidst the carnival-like atmosphere of Dawson City was a festering seam of discontent.
During the confusion of the stampede, the North West Mounted Police extended their authority into areas beyond their mandate simply to save lives and to keep a lid on the temper of the rough and ready mob.
The Mounted Police found themselves not only acting as law enforcement officers, but as judge and jury, postmaster, and in some cases, as social workers too.
They made it mandatory for each person entering the Yukon bring a year’s supply of food with them. They registered everybody who entered the Yukon to keep track of their progress, and invoked rules for passage through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids. They even enforced a Lord’s-Day provision on the town of Dawson, the violation of which led to a term on the government woodpile.
There were no laws requiring that these things be done, but a sense of common practicality required these actions to save lives, help people in need, and prevent mass starvation.
Thus, Dawson City at its peak is remembered as a colourful, but safe and orderly place.
Yet behind the apparent order, there was trouble brewing. Ottawa failed to anticipate the scale of work that would be created by the flood of humanity. Overwhelmed by the volume of paperwork, many civil servants during the gold rush exhibited confusion, incompetence and outright corruption.
Thomas Fawcett, transferred from a backwater sinecure in British Columbia to serve as Gold Commissioner, was not up to the job before him. With as many as 100,000 pieces of paper to process, he was swamped by the demands of the job. He slept in his office to prevent theft, and literally sprinted from his office at lunch time to keep ahead of the mob that wanted to talk to him.
Honest, and painstakingly careful, Fawcett focused on the clerical work but failed to grasp the demands of the bigger situation. Until the arrival of Commissioner James Walsh. Fawcett was the senior man in the gold rush town. Meanwhile, Walsh was encamped up the Yukon River four hundred and 50 kilometres away for the winter of 1897/98, seemingly afraid to face the pandemonium that existed in Dawson.
Miners were disgruntled for a number of reasons. First, they resented the steep royalty rates taken by the federal government off the top of the gold the miners recovered. Secondly, they were angered by changes in the mining regulations that, among other things, reduced the size of claims to 30 metres from the previous one 150. A petition signed by 2500 enraged miners even was sent to Ottawa protesting this change. Third, they were angered by the obvious corruption and incompetence of the civil service.
According to Tappan Adney, noted gold rush chronicler, the staff at the mining recorder’s office ran a side door business, “selling to individuals, for cash or interest in claims, information on unrecorded claims,” and then, “emboldened by the impotency of the Gold Commissioner to correct these abuses, favoured ones began to be admitted during office hours, upon passes, and recorded claims ahead of men who had been waiting often for days in line outside.”
Lineups at the post office were just as bad. People had to wait for mail for as long as three days. Others were paid to stand in line to hold the place for impatient wealthy miners. Delivery was slow and disorganized. American miners had another beef: the already slow US mail addressed to Dawson City was first directed past Dawson down river to Circle, Alaska, before being sent back up river to its destination, adding weeks to delivery.
Flora Shaw, a British journalist on assignment from the Times of London reported on the situation in letters she sent back to her newspaper. She stated bluntly that government officials were on the take. “A half or quarter interest is frequently quoted as the price at which good claims can be recorded,” she said, and “Scarcely a day passes in which some fresh story does not become current of the number of dollars which it has cost to obtain letters.”
But it was the Dominion Creek scandal that provided tangible proof of what had long been known but could not be proven. In the spring of 1898, Dominion Creek, which had been closed to staking, was reopened. Acting on insider information, with leave granted by his boss, Commissioner Walsh’s cook, Louis Carbeno snuck out of town and staked on Dominion ahead of the crowd. He then worked out a deal with Walsh’s brother for a share in the mine.
Sadly, it was the hapless Fawcett, not Walsh, who became the target of much criticism, especially by the Klondike Nugget newspaper. The Nugget’s editor, in retaliation for the embarrassment of once being ejected from Fawcett’s office, mounted a campaign against the overworked official, who was eventually demoted and then removed from the Yukon.
Commissioner Walsh was quickly out of a job as well, replaced by William Ogilvie, who journalist Shaw praised as “the symbol of disinterested integrity.” Ogilvie was also appointed to head an inquiry into the whole corruption affair. Working within restricted terms of reference, Ogilvie exonerated both Fawcett and Walsh of seeking any personal gain. Only one clerk was found guilty of accepting bribes, while others were acknowledged as having accepted money for work done outside of regular working hours.
Clifford Sifton, minister of the Interior in the Laurier government, was the continuing target of much criticism from the Opposition over the whitewash of the affair, even receiving dissent from within the ranks of his own caucus.
Yet when the smoke cleared from the federal election of 1900, Laurier’s government was re-elected to another term in Parliament. It appears that the electorate was much more satisfied with Laurier’s action with the economy than it was dissatisfied with any mishandling of affairs in a remote nether region of the Dominion.
In Dawson City, the civil servants had displayed some of the finest and worst aspects of human character as the unscripted drama of the gold rush unfolded.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org