When the Yukon River broke up in the spring of 1898, Dawson City, which had been a bustling little gold rush town, was inundated by a tsunami of humanity. Day by day, the crowds on the streets grew. Hectic construction was constant throughout the summer days, when there was almost continuous daylight.
The denizens of this raucous Arctic Circle metropolis were about to indulge in a year-long binge the likes of which had never been seen before, and never would again.
The stampeders, who had been so intent upon reaching the goldfields, seemed to lose their sense of purpose once they arrived. Thousands milled about the streets that paralleled the river. Those who weren’t looking for gold were looking for amusement, and there were plenty of attractions to meet their needs. Front Street consisted of various retail stores, saloons, dance halls and theatres. Many of the establishments never closed their doors, and gambling continued 24 hours a day.
Dawson was a wide open town. One observer wrote “there is probably no city of its size in the world where there are so many orchestras and bands playing continuously as here, for all the dance halls and theaters, from 8 o’clock every night until 8 o’clock in the morning, are in full sway, with the exception of Saturday night, as they have to close at 12 o’clock then.”
Early in the summer, the Oatley sisters were entertaining capacity crowds from afternoon till early in the morning in their temporary location at Second Street and Third Avenue. Between their performances of the buck and wing, the hall was filled with lively music and dancing. The sisters quickly moved their operation to a larger venue in the Horseshoe Saloon on Front Street, where they opened July 26, again to full houses and appreciative audiences.
Their establishment was quickly joined by others. The Monte Carlo, which had been temporarily closed due to financial differences between partners Jack Smith and Swiftwater Bill Gates, was re-opened under the management of W.M. Wilson. It featured the talents of Freda Maloof, the “Turkish Whirlwind’ who demonstrated her Turkish Harem dances. The stage was graced for months by the Newman children, Willie and George, and their charming sister little Margie, who were especially popular among homesick miners.
Tom Chisholm expanded his Aurora Saloon to the rear and opened a dance hall Aug. 2 with “a first class entertainment of the best of music, dancing and a fine supper.” In attendance on opening night were such Klondike notables as Big Alex McDonald and Belinda Murooney.
The Combination Music Hall, which opened a few doors away on Aug.t 1, was “packed to suffocation, jammed clean to the doors, through the saloon and out onto the street,” featuring the talents of Dick Maurettus, Lucille Elliott, Emma Hull and Nellie Lamore (one of a well-known trio of sisters), John and Carrie Linton and John Mulligan. “When Mulligan and Maurettus put their heads together,” proclaimed the Klondike Nugget, “then Rome howls.” Mulligan wrote and starred in The Adventures of Stillwater Willie, a satire based on the exploits of the notorious Swiftwater Bill Gates.
Two months later, as winter approached, West Coast impresario Robert Blei arrived on the steamer Ora with a stable of talented performers, including the remarkable Cad Wilson (Such a Nice Girl Too). Wilson was hugely popular in American variety halls despite not having much of a voice, and became the queen of the Klondike dance halls that glorious winter of 1898-99. Blei immediately took over the Combination Theatre, which was renamed the Tivoli and opened on Oct. 5.
The theatre circuit in Dawson was a whirlwind of activity and highly competitive. Acts were changed frequently and new stars advertised, at least until the river froze solid for the winter. The first snow fell in the middle of September. It didn’t remain on the ground for long, but the Yukon was sealed with ice and snow for the winter by the beginning of November.
Special boxing matches were arranged and heavily promoted and masquerade balls were a popular attraction. Establishments were regularly upgrading their premises with new fixtures, finishes and mirrors, and advertising the fact. Another attraction was the installation of electric lighting. The Monte Carlo saloon and dance hall and the Oatley Sisters’ concert hall were among the first buildings to be illuminated early in October. The Monte Carlo proudly announced that 75 incandescent bulbs had been installed. The Tivoli had followed suit. By Christmas, the entire block on Front Street between King and Queen Streets was brightly illuminated.
Unlike similar boom towns that sprang up across the American West, Dawson City, wild and uninhibited as it was, was overseen by the North West Mounted Police, who imposed an element of civility to the proceedings. All of the bars, dance halls, gambling parlours and theatres shut their doors at midnight sharp on Saturday night, and did not reopen until Monday morning.
To skirt around the Mounted Police restrictions on operating such establishments and selling liquor on Sundays, the theatres started putting on special benefit concerts to raise money for charitable purposes. The Oatley Sisters, for example, put on a “sacred concert” one Sunday afternoon, and netted $400 for hospitals in the community. There was no drinking or rowdy behavior at these concerts, and many upstanding women in the community attended, although the performance of Cad Wilson at an Elks’ benefit in October scandalized the more respectable ladies in attendance.
“There were only in 1898-99 only two music halls, 2 or 3 music halls and some gambling joints in Dawson, all very well conducted,” stated one Mounted Police report. “Indecencies were stopped. People were as safe in Dawson as in Ottawa,” announced another. The morals of the time were quite clear. A lady’s hemline that exposed her ankles was scandalous.
Thus Freda Maloof, the Turkish Whirlwind, who had been performing at the Novelty Theatre, was brought before Superintendent Sam Steele on charges of committing an immoral act in June of 1899. Maloof claimed that there was nothing wrong with her performance, and offered to demonstrate in the courtroom. Steele refused the opportunity. Corporal Wilson, who had seen witnessed the performance stated that she didn’t dance with her feet, but instead used the muscles of her stomach. Constable Dick, who also saw her dance, said he considered her performance to be indecent.
Such was Dawson City the winter of 1898-1899.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org