At the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City could be characterized as controlled chaos. There were all the sins associated with a mining boom town — vaudeville, dancing (for a dollar a dance), gambling, prostitution and drinking. There were eight theatres offering live entertainment in 1898, and countless saloons, and prostitute cribs lining Paradise Alley, just behind Front Street. The Mounted Police kept a firm hand on the proceedings, even imposing strict closures on Sundays. A form of licensing and fines was imposed upon these establishments that sanctioned their operations, while financing many vital services in the community.
But slowly, civilization crept in and the unfettered sinfulness was reigned in. After the fire that swept through the downtown core of Dawson on April 26th, 1899, North West Mounted Police Superintendent Sam Steele required that prostitution be moved from Paradise Alley to the swampy ground on Fourth Avenue, between King and Queen Streets, well back from the business district, and away from domestic housing. When the school was built across Queen Street, the cribs had to go. They eventually relocated across the Klondike River to Klondike City (commonly known as Lousetown).
Front Street was the social hub in the gold rush days, lined with playhouses and saloons. Some of these very profitable establishments combined several different amusements under one roof. Typically, there would be a saloon and gambling at the front, while at the rear was an area for live entertainment, and after that, dancing, till the not-so-early hours of the morning. Many remained open 24 hours a day, except for Sundays, of course.
The most serious of the vices in early Dawson was deemed to be gambling. In 1900, it was reported that there were eight gambling halls and two dance halls (with gaming tables) in Dawson, inhabited by 110 gamblers and forty-two dance hall girls. Early in 1900, complaints were sent to Ottawa from church congregations and temperance groups to put an end to the “shameful evils that are a disgrace to our Christian civilization” in the Klondike. Clifford Sifton, the government minister in Ottawa responsible for the administration of the Yukon, sent instructions to Commissioner Ogilvie demanding that the gambling dens be shut down.
Ogilvie, feeling that gambling was one of the necessary evils associated with the gold-rush town, first protested Sifton’s instructions before he finally relented. On Feb. 27, 1901, he ordered the dance halls and gambling palaces be shut down by Friday, March 15. In response to the public uproar, especially from the proprietors of the businesses affected (arguing financial hardship), Sifton postponed his order of closure to June 1.
In the meantime, Commissioner Ogilvie had resigned, and it was left to his successor, J. H. Ross, to put the second closure into effect. The protests to the second closure date were so loud that Ross came up with a compromise: roulette, faro and craps would be banned, but blackjack and poker would be allowed, provided that the dealers were not employed by the house, chips were used, and the games were removed from the barrooms. But this order was rescinded in November, and legal gaming was closed for good in Dawson City. In theory, that meant Dawson was now like most comparable Canadian cities.
Also in 1901, regulations were imposed by the Yukon Council that no liquor should be served in a dance hall, except from a bar. When that didn’t seem to work, the regulation was modified the following year to stipulate that no dancing was to be permitted in any establishment that served liquor. They doubled down on this by adding an additional clause that there should be “no connection between any licensed premises and any dance hall or room in which public dancing is allowed, by means of doors, windows, wickets, elevators, chutes or openings of any kind.” Fines would be imposed for dance halls or saloons renting rooms for immoral purposes, and women serving alcohol for a percentage was prohibited.
Enforcement of such laws was left to the discretion of the commissioner through his license inspectors. When Frederick Congdon assumed the commissionership in 1903, he used the licencing power as a form of patronage, and those who were sympathetic with his political cause could flout the law with impunity provided that kickbacks were paid to the Congdon machine. This all came to an end in 1904, when Congdon resigned his position as commissioner to seek the Yukon seat in the federal election in December of that year.
Dance halls were then targeted by champions of moral propriety, most notably Presbyterian Reverend John Pringle, who, in 1907, railed at the sinfulness of Dawson City. He launched a campaign of letter writing to politicians and newspapers outside the Yukon, describing Dawson as a “plague spot in our civilization and a deep disgrace to our country’s reputation.” His actions were condemned by almost every Dawson businessman. But other clergymen, most notably Methodist minister Reverend Robert Hughes, echoed Pringle’s sentiment, and numerous church groups of various denominations across the country launched a letter-writing campaign to their representatives in Ottawa.
A bill to amend the Liquor Ordinance was passed August 30, 1907 by the Yukon Council, taking effect, upon assent, making music halls dry establishments. There was an immediate exodus from Dawson of various music hall artists, including A.P. Freimuth, well known musical director. There were only two dry music halls left in Dawson, The M&N which quickly shut down due to poor patronage, and the Floradora, which carried on into the new year. On Jan. 13, 1908, Lulu M. Eads, the proprietor of the Floradora was fined $50 and costs for a violation of the newly amended liquor ordinance. A few days later, a handful of patrons danced for the last time and the lights went out, signaling the end of one of the most frenzied eras in the history of the north.
Less than a decade later, with wartime decline and heavy pressure from church and temperance groups, the last saloon in Dawson closed its doors. There had been 23 saloons in 1901, and this number had dwindled to 6 in 1915. Thereafter, liquor licenses were granted only to hotels. The community was divided over the issue of prohibition. In a plebiscite in August of 1916, the “wets” won by the slimmest of margins. A second plebiscite few years later, was won by the “drys,” but in light of the resulting loss of territorial revenue, the prohibition lasted for only a few months.
Today, there are liquor licenses in the Yukon for drinking establishments not associated with hotels. Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall was the first legalized casino opened in Canada in modern times. Alcoholic beverages are also served there. Alcohol is again served at venues where dancing takes place, but these days, you won’t see any ladies charging a dollar a dance for the pleasure. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books on Yukon history. His latest, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org