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


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Mobile vaccine team Team Balto practises vaccine clinic set-up and teardown at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. Mobile vaccine teams are heading out this week to the communities in order to begin Moderna vaccinations. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mobile vaccine teams begin community vaccinations

“It’s an all-of-government approach”

The now empty lot at 410 Cook Street in Whitehorse on Jan. 19. As developers move forward with plans for a housing development that would feature 16 micro-units, they are asking city council for a zoning change that would reduce the number of required parking spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Developer asks for zoning change

Would reduce the number of required parking spaces

The Liard First Nation is preparing to enter negotiations for self-governance with the territorial and federal governments. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News file)
Liard First Nation preparing to enter self-governance negotiations with Yukon, federal governments

Chief Stephen Charlie seeking an agreement separate from “dead end” UFA


Wyatt’s World for Jan. 20, 2021

A Copper Ridge resident clears their driveway after a massive over night snowfall in Whitehorse on Nov. 2, 2020. Environment Canada has issued a winter storm warning for the Whitehorse and Haines Junction areas for Jan. 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Winter storm warning for Haines Junction and Whitehorse

Environment Canada says the storm will develop Monday and last until Tuesday

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Most Read