theres film in them thar hills

Sometimes, the strangest things can happen in life. They aren’t planned or expected, but they leave a lasting impression.

Sometimes, the strangest things can happen in life.

They aren’t planned or expected, but they leave a lasting impression.

I had just started working for Parks Canada as the curator of their massive artifact collection in Dawson City back in 1978.

It was the beginning of my first summer in the Klondike and there was plenty to do already when David Burley, a Parks Canada archeologist, suggested that I take a look at what they had uncovered in the empty lot behind Diamond Tooth Gertie’s.

This was the former site of the community hockey arena. At one time, the three-storey Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building stood there, complete with swimming pool (summer) and hockey arena (winter).

In advance of constructing the new hockey rink, a city crew had uncovered unusual debris: chicken wire, broken curling rocks, bottles, metal canisters and numerous reels of old film.

Finding things like these were not unusual in Dawson City. Every construction job, road repair or foundation repair exposed a treasure trove of items from the gold rush days.

The old films still contained the images that were once projected on the screens of Dawson City’s theatres.

By chance, I found an advertisement in an old issue of the Dawson Daily News for one of the reels that I had just examined stating that it was to be shown in the theatre in Dawson City in the fall of 1917.

That piqued my interest.

I started to phone contacts I had in Ottawa and Montreal to see if there was any interest.

There wasn’t, until I spoke to Sam Kula, who was the director of the National Film Archives in Ottawa. The next thing I knew, Sam was on his way to Dawson City to examine the site.

Hollywood had lost a big chunk of its early film history when warehouses containing the highly flammable old nitrate silent movie films burned to the ground.

Kula thought it would be worth looking at these old silent movies if they contained the lost work of the silent film era.

As we stood at the site of the excavation at Fifth Avenue and Queen Street, Kula, Kathy Jones, the director of the Dawson Museum, and I plotted out a plan to recover and identify as many of these films as possible. It was to be known as the Dawson Film Find.

Over the course of the summer, hundreds of reels of highly flammable film were salvaged and identified by workers hired by the museum, who were stationed in what we thought was the safest building to do such work, the old acetylene plant at Bear Creek, 10 kilometres from Dawson City.

The building had metal-lined walls and cement floors and seemed the obvious choice.

We even learned how the film came to be buried in the ground — when a retired banker, in a letter to the community newsletter, the Klondike Korner, described how 50 years before, he had the film taken from the basement of the Carnegie Library on Queen Street, carted down the street to the DAAA building and thrown into the no longer useable swimming pool inside.

This wasn’t the work my boss had in mind for me, so I found myself slipping out to Bear Creek at the end of the day to see how the museum crew were progressing.

To be clear, none of the footage recovered from this project contained anything to do with the Klondike, or even the Yukon, for that matter.

It consisted of Hollywood films of all types: comedies, westerns, serials and romance movies. Some of the most famous names in Hollywood were featured.

Also contained in the unearthed treasure were almost 200 reels of news footage of the day. Much of this was Canadian content, and therefore of considerable interest to the National Film Archives.

When the first list of titles reached Ottawa, the public relations department went into high gear.

The next thing we knew, newspapers from all over the world were announcing the discovery.

Both the Dawson Museum and Parks Canada were swamped with telephone inquiries from every corner of the planet.

Back in Ottawa, Kula was gearing up for the restoration of the dangerous and flammable, but extremely valuable footage. Special equipment was required to copy the reels, frame by frame.

The photo-processing equipment became clogged with rust particles and the work was painstakingly slow.

Kula contacted the US Library of Congress, and it too got into the act. Ottawa was interested in the Canadian newsreels; Washington was interested in the Hollywood content.

But first, we had to find a way to get the film to Ottawa. Storing the material in the Yukon was not an option because of its dangerous instability, but nobody would transport the tonne of films, which were classified as hazardous material.

Any attempt to sneak them onto a bus, plane or moving van was turned down by local firms.

The film find had become notorious and everyone in the territory seemed to know what was going on.

Fortunately, the Armed Forces work with explosives all the time, and we were able to arrange for them to fly the crates containing the film to Rockcliffe Airforce Base in the nation’s capital.

A year later, Dawson City was recovering from a devastating flood. Despite that, and amidst great fanfare, the first showing of the restored silent movies was made to an enthusiastic full house in Dawson’s Palace Grand Theatre in early September 1979.

Fred Bass, a retired pianist from Vancouver, who had started his career playing in the silent movie theatres, provided accompaniment.

The show was a success and lifted the community spirits a little after the trying summer it had just been through.

To this day, I still get inquiries about the Dawson Film Find.

It has been featured in documentaries, including an ambitious feature titled Popcorn With Maple Syrup.

It has been the subject of magazine and newspaper articles.

In 2004, it was featured at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.

Many times during my quarter century living and working in Dawson City, I heard stories of how loads of gold-rush artifacts uncovered from the earth, or taken from the old buildings, were taken down to the waterfront and thrown into the river in bygone days. This was one time that we managed to save the legacy.

If I had followed all of the government directives and policies on health and safety, or if I had just stuck to tasks listed in my job description, the Dawson Film Find would never have happened.

Being young and enthusiastic, and perhaps a little foolish, I followed it through, with satisfying results.

Others received recognition for their part in the discovery.

Frank Barrett, an alderman, received the Commissioner’s Award for having the foresight to stop a municipal crew from excavating the material and throwing it away.

Kathy Jones received the Yukoner Award from the Yukon Visitors Association, the predecessor of today’s Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon, for her role in publicizing the event and bringing recognition to the Yukon.

A little over a year after the whole thing started, Kathy and I were married. And we remain so today!

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.