Why did Dyea disappear?

During the winter of 1897/1898, Dyea was the fastest-growing town in Alaska. At the peak of the Klondike gold rush, it was the second-largest settlement in the entire territory. Five years later, it was practically abandoned.

During the winter of 1897/1898, Dyea was the fastest-growing town in Alaska. At the peak of the Klondike gold rush, it was the second-largest settlement in the entire territory. Five years later, it was practically abandoned. How could a town rise so rapidly, and disappear almost as quickly?

That is the question addressed in Dyea, Alaska: The Rise and Fall of a Klondike Gold Rush Town, the new book published by Alaskan historian Mark Kirchhoff. I found this gem under the Christmas tree a few days ago.

Kirchhoff is a widely respected historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Jack Dalton as well as Clondyke: The First Year of the Rush. Kirchhoff tackles the overlooked aspects of Alaska and Yukon history and fills in the gaps in our understanding of the North.

Dyea, Alaska, is located at the northernmost tip of the Lynn Canal, 180 kilometres from Whitehorse. It is separated from Skagway by a point of land that juts out from the coast between the two places. Where Skagway is now a bustling coastal town with a thriving summer tourist trade, Dyea is an empty forested landscape today.

It wasn’t like that during the gold rush. Both towns were bustling communities that served as entry points to the mountain passes that gave access to the headwaters of the Yukon River, and the Klondike. They were fierce competitors for the title of “gateway to the interior.”

Dyea was occupied for centuries by the Chilkoot Tlingit people. It was strategically positioned for trade with the people of the interior via the Chilkoot Pass into the interior of modern day Yukon and northern British Columbia.

The first white man known to have reached the interior via Dyea was George Holt in 1874. A stream of gold seekers followed starting in 1880 and the partnership of Healy and Wilson established a trading post near the Chilkoot village in 1886.

Others joined in the trading business at Dyea as the number of travellers gradually increased until the Klondike was discovered in 1896. The gold rush commenced the following summer and stampeders converged on Dyea by the thousands because, despite its shallow harbour, it provided ready access to the most favoured route to the Klondike – the Chilkoot Trail.

The population of Dyea mushroomed starting in the fall of 1897, reaching 5,000, with thousands more passing through every week. At its peak, there were nearly 50 hotels operating, as well as 39 saloons, two breweries, two telephone companies, two undertakers and five photographers. For two years, a school educated the young.

The streets were filled with people “all mad with a common madness” and lined with a rapidly growing array of buildings to house the multiplying businesses. Tramlines were quickly constructed to haul freight to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass. Eventually, wharves were built far out into the shallow harbour to accommodate the thousands of tonnes of supplies being hauled ashore.

Yet within a few months, it all collapsed, and within a couple of years, Dyea was struggling for survival. Five years later, it was virtually abandoned. Fire took some of the buildings, while others were scavenged or demolished. Those that weren’t demolished were transported elsewhere before the Dyea River washed them away.

Today, one false store front survives to give witness to this gold rush town, and the only inhabitants are those who occupy the cemetery, which houses many of the victims who were swept away in the fatal avalanche near the Chilkoot summit on May 3, 1898.

The book is illustrated with an excellent selection of historical photographs. Laid out like a family album, the full-page photos portray the community, first as a native settlement, then as a bustling gold rush town, and then in decline, when the streets were empty and the streetscape reduced to rows of skeletons.

I had great fun going back to look at the photographs several times. There is so much detail captured in each view that there was something new to see on each occasion.

Healy and Wilson’s trading post, for example, appears in several photographs. You can see the expansion of the original building as the business increased, until the final view, taken in 1915, shows the abandoned building surrounded by tall trees that threaten to obscure it completely. The river has washed away the buildings that once stood on the opposite side of the street. How much longer, one wonders, until Healy and Wilson is also washed away?

In a photo, on page 38, The Red Front store is a small log cabin; in another on page 47, it has expanded to an impressive two-storey building with a clapboard facade. When the second photo was taken, the stampede was over and the merchants stood expectantly in front of their establishments, waiting for the customers that would never come.

On page 60, there is a photograph of Dyea’s main street in 1899 with only a few people visible. An identical view of the same street four years later, on page 68 shows an empty weed-clogged avenue. Many of the buildings have disappeared, leaving the boulevard with a gap-toothed appearance; many of the remaining structures are now only skeletons.

Carefully selected quotations enhance the photo captions and reveal the poignant moments in the amazingly brief life of this gold rush town.

There are other photo essays about abandoned gold rush towns in the North, most notably Norm Bolotin’s Klondike Lost, about the Klondike town of Grand Forks, which was published more than 30 years ago. Dyea, Alaska is another book in the same vein. It is said that every picture is worth a thousand words. If that is the case, then this book is highly undervalued.

Kirchhoff’s book charts the rapid decline of Dyea, and offers an explanation for the eventual death of this once bustling community, but you will have to read the book to learn the answer.

Dyea, Alaska: The Rise and Fall of a Klondike Gold Rush Town, by M.J. Kirchhoff, is published by Cedar Press, 506 W 9th Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801. It has 96 pages, 61 photos and three maps.

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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