Pete Menzies, member of the Order of Yukon, with pianist Andy Slade, accompany the Dawson City Youth Fiddlers at the recent Queen's Jubilee celebration in Dawson City. (Courtesy/Office of the Commissioner)

History Hunter: Dawson City is back in business

My wife Kathy and I spent several days in Dawson City over the weekend of June 11 and 12, catching up with old friends, and attending various events. There were road delays for construction on the way to Dawson, but the weather was fine once we got there. After two years on hold, Dawson is back in business, and a busy weekend it was.

First, there was the Dawson Daily News Print and Publishing Festival, sponsored by a host of organizations, including the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC), Parks Canada, Yukon Words, The Dawson City Community Library, the Klondike Sun newspaper, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Included in the events were readings by local authors, printing and publishing workshops, and print demonstrations in the historic Dawson Daily News building on Third Avenue.

Former museum director Alex Somerville (L) and Commisioner Angélique Bernard (R) lead a toast to the Queen during a Jubilee celebration at the Dawson City Museum. (Courtesy/Office of the Commissioner)

I dropped in on the Dawson Daily News on Saturday morning, just in time to catch a demonstration of Florentine marbling by ODD Gallery artist Alex Murphy. Even two decades after I last worked in the building as curator, the structure still speaks to me.

Many of the old printing machines, tools, type setting supplies and other paraphernalia from the original print shop remain in the Parks Canada collection. Some of the larger machines still sit in their original positions when the print office was active. Over several years, I interviewed a number of people who had worked in the building many years before. It was still easy to conjure up the variety of sounds, the rhythmical clanking of the presses, the chattering of the linotypes, and the bustle of activity.

In the afternoon, I walked amid the numerous Yukon Riverside Arts Festival booths along the waterfront, where various crafts were demonstrated, and I listened to live music from a portable stage in the midst of it all. The event was buzzing with activity, and I wondered what Dawsonites from a hundred years ago would have thought of it if they were transported through time to the present day.

On Saturday afternoon, at the Queen’s Jubilee celebration in the Dawson City Museum (hosted by Commissioner Angelique Bernard), I reflected on what was happening a century ago. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Councillor Clara Van Bibber gave an opening prayer, and short speeches followed by TH Deputy Chief Simon Nagano and Dawson Mayor Bill Kendrick. Commissioner Bernard gave the official welcome, and a toast to the Queen was given later in the event.

A fine selection of appetizing finger food was served in the gift shop, while Peter Menzies and the Dawson City Youth Fiddlers performed in the main floor gallery along with musicians Andy Slade and Steve Slade and Pianist Bob Hilliard. The spectacular new exhibits in the main floor and second floor galleries were open to public viewing.

New exhibits have been installed throughout the Dawson City Museum. (Courtesy/Kathy Jones-Gates)

Later in the event, I gave a short reading about royal and vice-regal visits to the Yukon, specifically one that took place in the Yukon precisely 100 years ago this summer. Governor General, Lord Byng of Vimy, accompanied by his wife and entourage, visited the Yukon the summer of 1922.

It was Byng, who with Canadian General, Arthur Curry, engineered the Canadian capture of the German stronghold at Vimy Ridge in France during World War I. Both the British and the French had failed to take the German position with a great number of casualties, but the Canadians, including several Yukoners, successfully captured the position in a matter of hours. Consequently, Byng was widely known by and popular with Canadians when he was appointed our twelfth governor-general in 1921.

At that time, Canada was still very much a part of the British Empire. Most Canadians still identified themselves as British subjects, first and foremost. It would be nearly a decade before Great Britain recognized Canada as being equal in status as a nation. In 1922, a vice-regal visit was therefore an important occasion.

When they arrived in Dawson, the vice-regal couple were greeted by a large crowd, then escorted through the streets, which were decorated with “flags, evergreens and other tokens of enthusiasm,” to Minto Park, where Lord Byng presented to Gold Commissioner George Patton Mackenzie, the battle flags of the Second Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, a unit that had consisted heavily of Yukoners.

New exhibits have been installed throughout the Dawson City Museum. (Courtesy/Kathy Jones-Gates)

The battle flags were then taken into the administration building (which now houses the museum) and mounted behind the Speaker’s chair in the legislature. They remained in the council chambers until 1948, when they were transferred to Dawson’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, where they can still be seen proudly displayed today.

When leaving the Yukon after the tour, Byng confided to Yukon Member of Parliament, George Black that the egalitarian nature of Yukon society was unlike anything he had encountered anywhere else. I think that a century later, Yukoners are still a unique society, living in a special place.

Sunday afternoon, I made a few brief opening remarks on the bow of the SS Keno National Historic Site before Commissioner Bernard announced author Tara Borin of Dawson City as the winner of this year’s Borealis Prize. Congratulations Tara!

We arrived back in Whitehorse late on Monday, tired, but satisfied by the weekend activities.

Correction to last week’s column

I frequently receive e-mails requesting historical information, but recently I received one that provided me with information regarding the column Kathy and I wrote (Martha’s Wildflowers and the Mayday Tree – Yukon News, June 10), in which we stated that Simon Mason-Wood of Mayo gave Martha Black the cutting from a Mayday tree.

A relative of the late Simon Mason-Wood provided some clarity regarding this statement.

It was actually Mason-Wood’s wife Rose who gave the Mayday cutting to Martha Black, after the Mayo resident had passed away mid-May of 1950 of a heart attack, on his way home for lunch.

Martha Black had helped Rose with some paperwork related to the estate after his death, so as a thank-you, Rose gave Mrs. Black a cutting from the Mayday Tree, most likely in the spring of 1951.

Further, I was told, “the original Mayday trees Sam imported to Mayo were Siberian May Day Trees. (He ordered three and two survived. They arrived all wrapped in burlap. Quite amazing 2/3 survived when you think about the logistics in the 40’s.) The trees were ordered from a nursery in southern Canada, either Manitoba or Saskatchewan, not the UK. The UK confusion may have come from the fact that Sam was born and raised in Bromley, Kent, UK, and immigrated to Canada at the age of 19 with his parents and younger sister.”

“When they did the dedication [of the plaque erected by the City of Whitehorse], Eileen Mason-Wood Shilleto and her sister Maggie Mason-Wood Wallingham attended and noticed the error on the plaque, but didn’t want a fuss made and have the city redo the plaque so did not correct the City of Whitehorse, but made sure that the grandchildren of Rose and Sam knew the actual order of events.”

Thanks for that information. I hope it helps set the record straight.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at

History Hunter