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A different sort of Klondike treasure

Coincidence and happenstance conspired to bring the world an unlikely gift from the Dawson City permafrost. “In 1897 they announced that a tonne of gold had arrived in Seattle; in 1978 they announced that a tonne of film had arrived in Ottawa.”

Coincidence and happenstance conspired to bring the world an unlikely gift from the Dawson City permafrost.

“In 1897 they announced that a tonne of gold had arrived in Seattle; in 1978 they announced that a tonne of film had arrived in Ottawa,” said Michael Gates, one of the key players in the great Dawson Film Find of 1978.

That’s when more than 500 silent-era film reels, dated between 1903 and 1929, were uncovered in the rubble beneath the old hockey rink.

This summer the old footage will have new life, thanks to a partnership between the Dawson City Museum and Yukon Energy.

The museum approached Yukon Energy a year ago to help pay for copies of the old footage to be digitized.

“Yukon Energy was on board almost before they finished reading the proposal, which was really wonderful,” said Laura Mann, the museum’s executive director.

Mann has edited the footage into three 20-minute programs: compilations of First World War-era news items, human interest stories, comedy shorts and selections from Hollywood features.

Local musician Barnacle Bob Hilliard was commissioned to add piano music to the silent movies.

“His piano is early-in-the-century vintage, so the piano actually sounds a lot like it would have sounded at the time,” said Mann.

The programs were debuted this week in Dawson City, and they will be shown twice daily at the museum over the summer season. The raw footage will also be available for viewing.

But how did the films come to be so well-preserved under Dawson City for so long?

The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association starting showing films at the old recreation centre in 1903.

Because it was cheaper to make a new reel of film than ship them back south, the films collected at the end of the line in Dawson City. They were being stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library building, now the Freemason’s Hall.

But over time people became aware of the explosive danger of the nitrate film. Stored improperly, it could decompose and ignite itself with incredible force.

Because the distributors did not want the films back, they had to be disposed of.

The local bank worker who co-ordinated with the distributors opted not to get the rid of the film in the style of the day, which would have been to take it out onto the frozen river and have it carried away with the spring melt.

“Even in those days, he had a sense of environmental awareness,” said Gates.

Across the street an old swimming pool had fallen into disrepair. The athletics association opted to fill it in, but continued to use the surface as a rink during the winter.

And so the solution presented itself: The films would be dumped into the pool as filler, along with other junk.

John Gould, who was born in Dawson and passed away in 2011 at the age of 92, once told Gates about skating on the rink as a child. Sometimes bits of film would come up through the ice, and they would light them on fire for fun, said Gates.

And so they lay, preserved in permafrost, until city crews began to dig under the site in preparation for a new recreation centre.

Gates had barely arrived in the Yukon and was working in Dawson as a curator with Parks Canada.

“One day I walked into the office and our archeologist told me that they had found something interesting down in the space behind Diamond Tooth Gerties,” said Gates.

Gates went to the site to examine the find.

“There were these tin containers, and in some of them were reels of film, and there were reels of film scattered about and loose pieces of film.”

By unraveling the spools, he could even make out some of the titles and captions of the film.

He sent a description of five of the films to Sam Kula, who was the head of Canada’s national film archive in Ottawa.

“The next thing I knew he was on his way to Dawson City.”

Gates, Kula, and Kathy Jones - then director of the Dawson City Museum - visited the site together to discuss what had been found.

“Literally on site, on some scrap paper that we had, we jotted down the particulars of a contract for the Dawson Museum to recover as many of these films as possible,” said Gates.

What had been found was indeed extraordinary.

Much of silent film history had been lost to massive warehouse fires.

The Dawson Film Find was significant not only to early Hollywood history, but also Canadian history.

The find contained newsreels, typically shown before the feature film, that included Canadian content.

It took a Hercules from the Canadian Air Force to get the reels to Ottawa, since no commercial truck or aircraft would carry the explosive material.

About half a million feet of film had to then be copied, one frame at a time, with special equipment. Originals now reside with Libraries and Archives Canada and the U.S. Library of Congress.

The first copies of the footage arrived back in Dawson in the fall of 1979, and it was screened to a full house at the Palace Grand Theatre.

“Dawson had been through a flood earlier in the year so the community was eager to do something that was rather positive,” said Gates.

Fred Bass, a retired pianist from Vancouver, played accompaniment.

He had grown up playing silent movie theatres, said Gates. He never got a chance to review the films before playing them and opted to play cold that night in 1979 as well.

“It just flowed out of his fingers, it was really the most amazing thing,” said Gates, remembering how he always played the right kind of song for the mood of each scene.

“In one of the newsreels, I remember they showed apple blossoms in the Annapolis Valley, and he played, ‘I’ll be with you in apple blossom time.’”

When the films were first screened in Dawson, they were the closest thing residents had to a connection with the outside world. Now they are one of the closest connections that remains to the past.

“People would begin by watching the newsreels, and for those that were in Dawson, that was the latest news of the day,” said Mann. “The idea that you could see, for example, the Prince of Wales - Prince Edward at the time - getting his chieftainship in Banff would have been really thrilling. And it’s, quite frankly, thrilling now!”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at