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when the boiler man came to dawson

It's an unobtrusive derelict on a quiet section of Third Avenue in the heart of Dawson City. Most people don't notice it because their attention is drawn to more photogenic features on the avenue, such as the "Tiltin' Hilton," the popular term for what is known as the old Minto Block.

It’s an unobtrusive derelict on a quiet section of Third Avenue in the heart of Dawson City.

Most people don’t notice it because their attention is drawn to more photogenic features on the avenue, such as the “Tiltin’ Hilton,” the popular term for what is known as the old Minto Block.

Farther down at the corner of Third and Princess, there is Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop, designated a national treasure, and across the street, there is the reconstructed Red Feather Saloon and adjacent buildings.

So the presence of a decaying frame building in the middle of the block, surrounded by grass and trees hardly registers on your consciousness. It’s the old boiler shop that used to be operated by Jesse West.

I talked to Annie Granger about it recently, and she provided me with the background on this marvellous little building. Granger works in the curatorial section of Parks Canada’s Dawson operation and probably knows more than anybody about the old boiler shop.

Sadly, this nondescript building is not designated as nationally significant as are 18 other treasures in the historic gold rush town, but it is one of a collection of old structures owned by Parks Canada that enhance and contribute to its ambience as a community steeped in the past.

The old shop has suffered from neglect, ever since Jesse A. West, its owner, died, of a heart attack at the age of 85 in 1953, while still hard at work. The walls are sinking into the ground and the roof sags, but as the small number of old derelict turn-of-the-century buildings dwindles, this building and its neighbours become more and more valuable as historical relics.

Granger told me that Parks Canada is planning to do something to preserve this legacy building. This fall, they installed a perimeter fence of historic design to protect the public from danger, and vice-versa. Further plans are being formulated to document the building and the impressive array of industrial material inside and around it.

In addition, Parks Canada plans to stabilize the structure and deal with three surviving out-buildings. This way, the property will continue to contribute to the remarkable sense of place that enhances Dawson City’s charm.

Unlike the common blacksmith shop, which is found in practically every historical village across the country, the boiler shop and its importance to the industrial development of the country are hardly recognized. Fortunately, due to a convergence of circumstances, we have gained a remarkable insight into the significance of the shop, and the trade that it housed.

In 1981, while working for Parks Canada, I interviewed a long-time Yukon resident, Henri Thibault, about the boiler trade. Thibault, who operated the Shannon Motel in Whitehorse, had, in the 1930s, worked for Jesse West and knew the boiler trade intimately. Thibault was kind enough to take us on a tour of the building and demonstrate how the numerous tools scattered about inside the building worked.

Not only that, but when my tape recorder malfunctioned, he generously returned and conducted the tour a second time. The day of his interviews, Henri arrived bright and early at the old building, clad in cover-alls, and ready to get started.

Though well into his 70s, he seemed to have the energy of a much younger man. This became more apparent as the day progressed. As the energy of the youthful entourage of Parks staff flagged, he continued, with the stamina of the Duracell bunny.

As we followed him from one tool to another, he patiently and fully explained their function and demonstrated their use. Following him around with a tape recorder, I attempted to ask intelligent questions about how things worked. One member of the party took photos of his demonstrations, while others tagged and recorded each tool as he moved on to the next.

Thibault was a young man in 1935 and eager to learn the boiler trade. While holding down a job at the mining headquarters of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation at Bear Creek, 10 kilometres up the Klondike valley, he also worked for West in his spare time.

West was an interesting man. He was stone deaf, which was an asset for someone doing boiler work. West probably learned the boiler trade working in the navy, and he was exceptionally good. He was a master at shaping and improvising his own tools (he kept all sorts of scrap metal for that purpose).

West never took offence if someone made comments about his deafness (he was known as “Dummy” West), but would be deeply offended if his skill in his trade was not respected.

He built and repaired boilers for many Dawson businesses, and provided inspection service that ensured that boilers operated according to the standards of the day.

For years, nobody knows for sure how long, Jesse West worked in Dawson in the summers, and then went “Outside” for the winters with his wife.

West might have come to the Klondike during the gold rush, but is known for sure to have been in Dawson by 1900, and mined until 1904. After returning from a brief stint in Fairbanks, he worked for several different firms in the Dawson area before establishing his own business in 1914.

A decade and a half later, likely in response to the changing trends in industrial technology, he purchased a two-storey building across the street, which he converted into a machine shop, as well as the Red Feather Saloon at the corner, which he is believed to have used as a warehouse or garage. Both the old machine shop and the saloon were later revived as part of the reconstruction of the buildings at the corner of Third and Princess, which now comprise the liquor store and government agent’s office.

The old boiler maker’s shop is important because of the unique trade that was practised inside, but also for being part of an assemblage of buildings that survive in this section of town, which was once the industrial heart of the community. Nearby were blacksmiths’ shops, a foundry, a harness shop and stables.

The clientele at the old Red Feather saloon nearby reflect this profile. They included blacksmiths, carpenters, teamsters, firemen, saddlers and tinsmiths. Also included were engineers, a machinist and a brewer. As Parks Canada historian Rick Stuart said: “All of these provided the services, both personal and industrial, that gave this part of Dawson its character.”

What remains now to tell us about this important function are a number of restored and stabilized historic structures. In the heart of this old district are the derelict buildings and the amazing array of industrial bits and pieces that lay scattered around the old weathered shell of Jesse West’s enterprise.

The incomplete, but fascinating story of “Dummy” West really represents the stories of the many tradesmen who worked here and kept the wheels of industry turning in the old days.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.