There was a curious combination of circumstances that converged during the Klondike gold rush to create, for a few years, an extraordinary social experiment.
Tens of thousands of strangers converged on the isolated location at the mouth of the Klondike River. In less than two years, Dawson City was transformed from a small First Nation settlement and a scattering of a few log cabins, into a bustling metropolis of 15,000 souls (more if you added in those constantly coming and going from the goldfields). Multi-storey buildings and false facades stood shoulder to shoulder along Front Street.
Despite being thousands of miles from civilization, Dawson could boast of many of the conveniences available in the finest salons of Paris or London. Gold was the standard currency, and there was so much of it around that it seemed to lose some of its lustre. When famine loomed in the fall of 1897, for example, food became the most valuable commodity in the gold rush city. After all, you couldn’t eat gold.
There were thousands of new arrivals milling about with little to do and nowhere to go. They were a captive audience with the strict quarantine imposed by the Arctic winter. There was a carnival atmosphere, and Front Street was the epicentre of it all. On one block, between King and Queen streets, for instance, there were several saloons, including The Aurora at the corner of Queen Street, and The Pioneer two or three doors to the north.
A few doors farther up the street was The Northern, said to be the liveliest establishment in Dawson. A lengthy bar ran along the wall on the right hand side. Partitioned off from the bar at the rear of the building was a large room that bustled with gambling. Diversions included dice, roulette, draw poker and blackjack. Faro was the most popular game of all.
Walk a little farther down the block and one would find The Dominion, which was trying to outdo the neighbouring establishments. The Dominion had a patterned oilcloth floor; the walls were covered in dark wallpaper, “splashed with big wreathes of gold enclosing a golden torch.” The bar was all painted and varnished. Behind it, three large mirrors reflected the light and created a spacious feel to the room. Gambling took place at the back of the building, behind the saloon, and up a broad stairway on the second floor were billiard tables and poker games.
North of The Dominion were The Phoenix dance hall and saloon, and The Monte Carlo, which operated as a combined saloon, gambling hall, theatre, dance hall and restaurant. During the day, when things were quieter, these halls of entertainment held auctions to sell off the gear from disillusioned stampeders. They also featured special events such as benefit concerts, masquerade balls and boxing matches.
These establishments were open around the clock. You could have a few drinks (or more if you wished), play poker for a while, catch the floor show in the evening, and if you had the stamina, stay for the dancing that continued to the early hours of the morning. The women inhabiting the dance halls encouraged the men to dance and drink. These ladies collected a percentage from every dance and from every drink they sold. Out back, along the infamous Paradise Alley, prostitutes were plying their trade.
The Monte Carlo was not the only establishment to offer theatrical entertainment. To the north of this joint was The Horseshoe Saloon, where the Oatley Sisters operated a dance hall and theatre. A few steps in the other direction from The Monte Carlo was The Opera House, with its impressive two-storey facade. A few paces farther along the boardwalk was The Combination Theatre, which in October was renamed The Tivoli. It was here that Cad Wilson, the Klondike’s most popular chanteuse in Dawson, performed the winter of 1898. By the following summer, The Tivoli had been transformed into The Novelty Theatre, before eventually succumbing to one of the voracious fires that regularly swept through the downtown sector.
The mounted police provided strict oversight of the goings on in Dawson, imposing law and order upon the chaotic gold-rush street party. They charged extravagant license fees for all the saloons and dance halls. The money collected in this fashion financed other services provided to the community. The Mounties invoked a strict Sunday closure from the stroke of midnight Saturday evening, until 7:00 a.m. Monday morning. Even chopping wood on Sunday could land the offender in court.
The theatrical community worked around the Sunday restriction by offering “sacred” concerts on God’s day of rest. For those who thirsted after something livelier, groups would often charter riverboats to take them up or down the Yukon River where they could party to their hearts’ content.
The thousands of strangers divided their time between Dawson and the nearby goldfields. The population was fluid and unsettled. But those who were looking for somebody could probably find them, or get word of them, by making the rounds of the establishments on Front Street. It was in these saloons and dance halls that friends were found, deals were brokered and plans were made.
There were two classes of men inhabiting the saloons along the waterfront: those who had money in excess, and spent it on gambling, drinking and women, and those who had little and amused themselves by watching the spectacle unfolding. One of the latter was an aspiring author named Jack London. For those who could not afford the price of a drink of liquor, every drinking establishment supplied a barrel of fresh water and a dipper that anybody could use at any time.
The poor were as welcome as the most affluent in these places, for the poor man today might be the millionaire of tomorrow. And in the quiet hours of the early morning, when things were calm, as one observer noted, “one might see them lying on benches and tables, homeless, stranded men, half-sick and dependent from day to day on the charity of strangers, and who, but for this welcome bench or table, had no place to lay their heads. Something of the generous spirit of the old Yukon life made these men welcome.”
Life in the bustling gold rush town was something out of the Wild West, or should we say the Wild North? Instant wealth brought about displays of dissipation and excess. A close scrutiny was kept of the shadier elements by the North West Mounted Police, and strict rule of law was applied. Under the watchful eye of the Mounties, the hubbub was more orderly than that witnessed in neighbouring American gold rush settlements.
In my next column, I will describe what happened when the livelier element left town for a Sunday party, and didn’t make it back in time for the Monday opening, and how encroaching civilization brought the grand party to an end.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org