While the rest of the country take a civic holiday at the beginning of August, Yukoners will enjoy their August break a little later in the month, on Discovery Day.
Traditionally, it was celebrated on Aug. 17, but in more recent times, it has been shifted to the third Monday in August so that Yukoners are now guaranteed of getting the day off.
The event is especially significant to Dawsonites as it marks an important event that changed the course of Yukon history – the discovery of gold on Rabbit Creek (quickly renamed Bonanza) by Skookum Jim. The date has been pegged as Aug. 17, 1896.
In response to the discovery of gold and the sensation it caused when the news hit the front pages of newspapers around the world, tens of thousands of newcomers converged at the mouth of the Klondike River after an epic journey known as the Klondike Stampede. Dawson City was born out of this convergence. In less than two years, the Canadian government had created a new territory, with Dawson City as its capital. Whitehorse did not become the capital until 1953.
Overwhelmed by the enormity of rapidly developing events, First Nations people were overlooked, ignored and displaced. The other group also swamped by the newcomers was the group of prospectors and miners who had struggled and explored the region, looking for gold for nearly a quarter century before the Klondike gold rush.
Among these early prospectors were those who had come into the Yukon before 1888. These early arrivals formed an organization at the town of Forty Mile in December of 1894 called the Yukon Order of Pioneers. Sensing the changing times as the search for gold expanded, this organization consisted of men who had been in the Yukon watershed before 1888. In doing so, they became the first formal social group constituted by Europeans in the Yukon.
Nine years after the discovery of gold, this group decided to have a celebration to commemorate the original discovery in the form of a “smoker” held in the log building they called their lodge.
“The old-timers will be tuned to do some good yarning,” commented the Dawson Daily News, “in the reminiscent mood, and there will be a jolly good time.”
How good a time they had, however, was not reported in the newspapers.
There was no further celebration for several years, but in 1910, the Dawson Daily News reported that “incidental to the fact that yesterday was Discovery Day, a number of the Yukon Order of Pioneers cleared the small growth and grass out of the Pioneer cemetery…”
The small party was then treated to a meal at the home of lodge member George Brimston. It is interesting to note that the newspaper already referred to Aug. 17 as Discovery Day.
The following year, the Pioneers decided to celebrate Discovery Day in grand fashion for the first time.
Acting Commissioner Arthur Wilson declared Aug. 17 a half holiday and set about work at Minto Park in preparation. The celebration kicked off with a parade through the streets of Dawson, followed by various races for boys and girls of different age groups. Prizes were offered to the top three contestants in each category.
The children were then paraded down Fifth Avenue to the Arctic Brotherhood (A.B.) Hall (today known as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s), where they were treated to moving pictures, sponsored by the Arctic Brotherhood.
In the evening the A.B. Hall was filled to capacity for a dance for the adults.
“There was plenty of lemonade,” reported the Dawson Daily News, “and the [dance] floor had no vacant space.”
The pioneers were there in force, wearing their sashes of purple and gold.
The News editorialized the following day: “…Discovery Day has demonstrated that the Yukoners do have the hope and sunshine; that they are optimistic; that they believe in the land and its future. The great number of sourdoughs just now joining the Pioneers shows how long men remain with the land once they come. And the Yukon is yet young.”
The celebration expanded in 1912. On June 13, an ordinance was passed by the Territorial Council, making Discovery Day a territorial holiday.
Credit was given to the Pioneers for making that happen. Commissioner George Black was later to eulogize about the Pioneers, reminding his audience not to forget those men who forged the way for others to follow.
“Yukoners should not be content to see Yukon becoming a wage-earning community,” he said, “… but should assist in every way in their power the men who have the nerve to go in search of new [gold] fields where they … may stake claims, own the gold they dig and have for themselves the full benefit of their labours.”
The parade now included numerous floats, sponsored by Dawson businesses. There was a football game between the townies from Dawson and the miners from Bonanza Creek. The News did not report the winner; it did not seem to matter. In this parade was a large delegation of Pioneer Lodge members, wearing their sashes and marching together behind the elaborate banner they had spent so much to have fabricated in San Francisco.
Speeches were given by dignitaries at Minto Park, beginning a tradition that carried on for decades. During the First World War, these speeches took on a patriotic tone in support of the war effort. In later years, they became a reflection of the changing social and economic circumstances of the territory.
The Discovery Day celebrations followed the same format for the subsequent decades. In 1932, a bronze plaque commissioned by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorated the discovery of gold as an event of national significance. The unveiling took place on the steps of the Administration Building (now the home of the Dawson City Museum), and the plaque was subsequently mounted next to the entrance. Then the Yukon MP, Black pulled aside the veil covering the plaque, then gave a short speech in place of the one usually delivered in Minto Park.
In 1935, an optimistic business sector, working hand-in-hand with the Pioneers, made the event a three-day affair and invited residents of neighbouring Fairbanks to join in the celebration. A squadron of aircraft flew into Dawson carrying a large Alaskan contingent, including a baseball team that defeated the local Dawson team decisively in a three-game tournament. The event was a success. The three-day format continued for the following four years.
In 1936, a special raffle gave away two new automobiles to ticket holders lucky enough to have their numbers drawn. A car was then given away each year until the Second World War put an end to the exuberant celebrations. A Queen was selected to represent the Yukon when a contingent of Yukoners flew over to Fairbanks to take part in their winter carnival.
Things picked up again after the Second World War came to an end. The 50th anniversary of discovery in 1946, was a big celebration that introduced something new: a horticultural and industrial exhibition and swimming and diving competitions in Dawson’s new swimming pool.
The raffle for an automobile never came back, but was instead replaced by one for a gold poke in 1952. Also in 1952, the federal department of Indian Affairs sponsored prizes for garden vegetables grown at Moosehide. By the 1980s, there was a raft race in the Klondike River, a greasy pole climb, sawing and nail driving competitions, all testament to the adaptation of the holiday to changing times.
The celebration continues after 112 years as an acknowledgement of a significant event in the evolution of the Yukon to the community it is today, and a recognition of the contribution made by Yukon pioneers for more than a century.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at email@example.com