Dawson City rose out of the boggy moose pasture at the mouth of the Klondike river in 1896. At first, just slowly, but as word spread of the tremendous wealth being torn from the frozen gravels of streams like Bonanza, Eldorado and Hunker, there was a steady stream of new arrivals through the summer of 1897. Which turned into a torrent in the spring of 1898.
Within months, the population of Dawson had exploded from 3,000 to nearly 16,000. As many as 40,000 were scattered throughout the territory. The city struggled to keep up with the rapid expansion, with constant building, a lack of sanitary facilities, and constant coming and going under the midnight sun. The smell of sawdust mingled with the sound of hammers pounding, of music playing and the jumble of a dozen different languages.
Among the early arrivals the summer of 1898 were Polly and Lottie Oatley, veterans of the theatrical circuit in the mining towns of the southwest United States. Both were said to be the best buck and wing dancers anywhere. Within a few days of their arrival in Dawson, they were open for business. Their first dance hall in Dawson was nothing more than a wooden platform with a frame, covered with canvas back of Front Street.
Here, accompanied by a fiddler and a big German-American with a pompadour hairstyle and a portable organ and two or three other girls, they started their business.
The sisters would start to sing, and when a crowd had gathered, the makeshift orchestra would strike up a tune and the girls started dancing. One young stampeder would remember their performance 50 years later, and the words to one of the tunes:
Within a humble cottage sits a broken-hearted man,
His little girl is sobbing on his knee.
A letter on the table tells the same old plaintive tale,
She left her home with all its poverty.
He holds his darling in his arms.
Looks at her tear-stained face.
Perhaps, my child, your mother’s not to blame
The path to sin she’s taken, her loved ones all forsaken.
Don’t cry, my child, I love her just the same.
(“I Lover Her Just the Same”, words and music by Charles K. Harris, 1896)
They were pulling in $500 a week each, and soon they had enough to establish themselves in the Horseshoe Saloon, on Front Street where they were attracting large crowds and singing the latest songs to the throngs of homesick miners.
They had competition. A block away, on King Street, the Newman children, especially little Margie Newman, were packing them in at Charlie Kimball’s Pavilion Saloon. Little Margie became the most revered child actor to perform in the Klondike, singing familiar songs that plucked the heartstrings of the hordes of homesick stampeders.
Front Street quickly took on the air of Broadway with theatres intermingled with saloons and a variety of other businesses. A few doors down from the Horseshoe was the Combination Theatre, which, by the fall, had transformed into the Tivoli, where a new act appeared after arriving on one of the last riverboats before freeze-up. Cad Wilson quickly became the most popular act in the Klondike, featuring her signature song, “Such a Nice Girl, Too!”
She told me that she was a ‘Miss’
And scarcely had turned 20,
She said she never cared to wed
Tho’ offers she had plenty.
Last week they took her up to court,
She said, ‘Judge be forgiving.’
He answered, ‘Yes, if you can prove
You’ve not three husbands living.’
Such a nice girl too,
Such a real nice girl;
So affable and full of animation.
All who know her must admit,
She’s a lady every bit!
Yes a lady with a spotless reputation.
(“Such a Nice Girl, Too”, words and music by Arthur Seldon, 1892)
Wilson’s repertoire contained a wide variety of popular songs, some risqué enough to scandalize the ladies who attended a fund-raising concert where Cad Wilson performed one evening.
All the favorite songs played Outside were performed in the Klondike: Stephen Foster tunes like “The Old Folks at Home,” and “Some Folks” were popular. So were “Turkey in the Straw”, “Annie Laurie”, “Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt”, “The Girl I left Behind Me” and “Buffalo Gals.”
At the same time, musicians far away from the Klondike were composing songs with catchy Klondike titles to capitalize on the interest in the gold rush. “He is Sleeping in the Klondike Vale Tonight,” (M.J. Fitzpatrick, 1897) is one composition that made its way to the Klondike, as reported in the Klondike Nugget newspaper on Dec. 10, 1898.
But many others may never have reached the golden north: “Klondike Gold” (Phelps and Bruck, 1898), “The Dawson City Dude March” (Harry Jones, 1897) and “To Klondyke We’ve Paid Our Fare” (H.J. Dunham, 1897) are good examples.
As I look through examples of sheet music in our personal collection, I see the names of two Dawson residents, J.H. Dixon, and J.(ohn) Dines written or stamped on them. Dixon was listed as a machinist at the McDonald Iron works on Turner Street in a 1902 directory, while seven years later, he is noted as the engineer on the steamer Lightning. Dixon remained in Dawson for at least the next two decades. Dines was a member of the Dawson fire department for many years and his name appears in the newspapers frequently as a musician or orchestra leader at numerous Dawson functions over the ensuing decades.
Local talent composed some memorable music too. In the autumn of 1901, the Klondike Nugget offered a $50 prize for the best locally written song. Emogen Coleman (lyrics) and Arthur Boyle (music) took home the prize money and the words and music for “Yukona” were published in the Daily Klondike on Feb. 10, 1902.
Gedeon Pepin came north during the gold rush and remained in Dawson City until 1912, when he relocated to Edmonton, eventually starting a sales and service business for pianos , organs, accordions and violins.
While in Dawson he worked as a clerk in the gold commissioner’s office. He formed one of the first bands and became the organist at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. During the week he performed in one of Dawson’s theatres. While in the north, he composed about 15 songs, one of them dedicated to the Mounties who perished on a patrol to Fort Macpherson in 1909, and another, “The Arctic Two -Step”, composed in 1909, dedicated to a local merchant and senior member of the fraternal order the Arctic Brotherhood.
According to an article in the Edmonton Journal in1948, Pepin was once approached by poet Robert Service, who had heard one of Pepin’s compositions, and wanted to put words to the music. It does not state what happened to that music, nor could I track it down, but Service’s name pops up in a different musical context. Jean Murray, in her book Music of the Alaska-Klondike Gold Rush credits at least the refrain to the song “When the Ice Worms Nest Again” to Service. That stanza can be found in Service’s 1910 novel The Trail of ’98. She credits
Frank Young with composing the music. Service later wrote a poem titled “The Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail” which was inspired by an event that happened in Dawson in 1906.
The Klondike seems to have inspired the writing of a variety of songs during the gold rush and in the years that followed – a lasting reminder of the tumultuous events surrounding the great stampede of 1898, and its impact on the world’s perception of northern Canada.
Michael Gates was the Yukon’s first Story Laureate from 2020 to 2023. His latest book “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org