Dawson City had once been a place of fabulous wealth and magnificent dreams, growing out of the Klondike Stampede in 1898. By the 1940s the lustre that had once emanated from the gold rush capital in Dawson City had been reduced to dust.
With a population of 16,000 during the height of the mania, Dawson had settled in at 9,000 by 1901. That number declined steadily to less than a thousand in 1921, and reached its nadir in 1951 with a mere 783 souls remaining in a one-industry town, supported by a dredging company in decline. Even the capital had been taken away, moved to Whitehorse in 1953.
For every habitable home in Dawson, there had to be at least ten that had been abandoned. To many residents, the derelict buildings that reflected the once-proud status of Dawson City as the Paris of the North became a millstone. Demolition of the old was viewed by Dawsonites as a move toward the future, and not many wanted to dwell in the past.
The surviving residents resigned themselves to an existence in the decaying remnants of the gold rush town. According to Jim Lotz, an Ottawa civil servant who became involved in Dawson City in the early 1960s, the surviving residents had become entrenched in their attitudes, and resistant to change.
But the winds of change shifted and blew a breath of life into the northern town in 1959. It was the year when John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative Party was elected by a landslide. One of the planks in the campaign platform was a vision of Canada’s future being found in the north. Diefenbaker had visited Dawson in 1959 and had seen for himself the decline.
The time was ripe to pump some energy into the old gold rush town. Tom Patterson, the man who had established The Stratford Shakespearian Festival in the Ontario town, envisioned the same thing happening to Dawson City. It was Patterson, according to Lotz, who came up with the idea of the Dawson Festival.
Officials in the Department of Northern Affairs jumped at the idea, and it took on a life of its own. The Palace Grand Theatre was rebuilt and made functional. It was to host the anchor event of the festival, the stage production of Foxy, which was an adaptation of Ben Johnson’s play “Volpone,” transported from 17th century Venice, to gold rush era Dawson City.
Stage and film star Bert Lahr (the cowardly lion in the film The Wizard of Oz) was selected to play the leading role during its seven-week run in the newly minted theatre.
The reaction from the community was mixed. Residents had favoured a small-scale event, but the view from Ottawa was a big celebration, attracting thousands. Announcements were made and press releases heralded the festival. Before Bert Lahr was selected, film star and singer Burl Ives had been touted as the big-name attraction to the theatrical production. Ives even captured headlines arriving at the Dawson airport, in October, 1960, carrying his trusty guitar case.
The Dawson Festival Foundation was established as a charitable society in October of 1960. Pierre Berton, noted television personality and author (and Dawson’s native son) was one of the directors. Governor-General Georges Vanier became a patron of the festival. And like it or not, the community was dragged into the heart of the action.
The festival blundered into 1962 and opened its seven-week run in the Palace Grand on the first of July, and continued through to its conclusion on Discovery Day, August 17th.
Aside from a huge turnout for the opening and the closing, the theatre only attracted 42% of capacity audiences through the bulk of the summer.
There were continuing financial woes. An executive secretary to the Minister of Northern Affairs took a mortgage out on his home to keep the money flowing. Territorial Council refused to accept the transfer payments from the feds, fearing that they would be tainted by the outrageous cost overruns. The theatrical payroll was not met, but a crisis was averted when both the M.P. Erick Nielsen, and Commissioner Gordon Cameron, insisted that Council cooperate.
There were other attractions in Dawson at the time. The Dawson Museum, which had burned to the ground a few years before, had reopened in the south half of the Old Territorial Administration Building, attracting considerable support and donations of artifacts, from the community.
For the duration, there were special displays in the museum of replicas of the British Crown Jewels, a Northwest Mounted Police exhibit, and a display of Hudson’s Bay Company pictures. In addition, famed English fashion designer Norman Hartnell loaned his entire spring fashion collection to Dawson, to be displayed in Madame Tremblay’s Store.
The people of Dawson did their best to clean up decades of decline and neglect. Brush was cut down along the streets; the ball park was redesigned to increase seating. Public rest rooms were installed; 169 truck loads of “debris” were hauled out of town to the dump. The hours of licensed premises were extended, and the liquor store operated on expanded hours.
The cabins on the SS Keno were adapted as accommodation for visitors, with a relaxing saloon lounge, and live entertainment on the freight deck. There were street banners, and displays set up at various locations throughout the town. Package tours to Bonanza and Hunker Creeks were arranged, and cruises took tourists downriver to the steamboat graveyard and Moosehide. Groups were transported to the Midnight Dome to take in the view. There was even a summer arts school planned.
Most businesses in town reported increases of trade from 30% to 100%, and though portable units had to be hauled in to accommodate the extra guests staying overnight, Dawson got through the summer without collapse of the infrastructure.
In his end-of-season summary, Alan Innes-Taylor, the conscientious and hard-working general manager of the event, stated that 18,545 people visited Dawson, more than 8,500 of them attending the show at the Palace Grand. The entertainment at the SS Keno made $10,000, and the Klondike Nights, sponsored by the Klondike Visitors Association, broke even by the end of the summer.
The federal government subsequently committed millions of dollars through its national historic sites program in the decades that followed, and many historic structures were restored and filled with exhibits, including Robert Service Cabin and the Commissioner’s Residence.
The business community took good advantage of the opportunities posed by the abundant history in the town. The Palace Grand remained the venue for a seasonal theatrical production for the next four decades. Today, add the thriving arts community, growing interest in indigenous culture and the ice age fossils emerging from the permafrost in the surrounding hills, and Dawson appears to have a promising tourist trade in the years to come.
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 email@example.com.