History Hunter: The time that Dawson City died – for a day

During the Klondike gold rush, the dance halls, saloons and theatres of Dawson City were at the epicenter of social life.

For three years, “theatres, dance-halls and saloons multiplied, changed hands, died and were born again in a bewildering maze of speculation. There was, in Dawson, and almost overnight, development of a theater-saloon culture; along with the wild successes and failures of flamboyant entrepreneurs and entertainers,” according to a 1984 doctoral dissertation on the subject by Gary L. Stevens.

There were more saloons in Dawson than a man could stagger to in a single evening. Often the bar, the gambling, the dance hall and the theatre were wrapped up into a single establishment, and if you had just returned to town after a stint in the goldfields, you could probably find your friends in any of the dizzying array of such businesses that flourished along Front Street.

Many indigent stampeders slept on the benches of these joints to keep warm when it was forty below outside. If you couldn’t afford to buy drinks, there was always a barrel of fresh water in the saloons with a dipper to drink from.

The Mounted Police enforced a strict closure of these businesses from midnight Sunday morning until 7:00 a.m. the following Monday. Violation of this rule could lead to stiff fines or time working on the government woodpile.

Still, they were centres of social life, and this was never so clearly demonstrated as the time that Dawson died (but only for a day). The saloon–keepers and dance hall owners tried to work around the Sunday closure by putting on “sacred” Sunday concerts, but that was too tame for the high rollers. Instead, they would charter a riverboat and embark on a day trip up or down the Yukon River, where they could drink and carouse without interference from the authorities.

Social scientists might speculate as to how important the dance halls and theatres, the actors and actresses, box hustlers, gamblers and bon vivants were to maintaining the frenzied atmosphere of the gold rush town. One incident, provided the perfect test conditions to answer that question

It was late May, 1899, after the spring break-up, but before the exodus to the Nome goldfields was in full swing. Inn-keepers Cooper and O’Brien chartered the steamer Tyrrell, and at one o’clock on Sunday morning, 200 lively party-goers came on board and set off down river to Forty Mile for a big party.

A few minutes later, the Bonanza King, chaperoned by Tom Chisholm, owner of the Aurora, left with 368 more. Both vessels were equipped with orchestras and plenty of booze, to maintain the revelry, and those on board could party to their hearts’ content. They arrived in Forty Mile three hours later.

The real trouble began when the two steamers set sail on the return trip to Dawson. The Tyrrell soon halted because of a cracked cylinder in the engine room. The Bonanza King chugged past a short time later, beaching nearby to load more firewood. Meanwhile, 50 passengers transferred from the Tyrrell to the Bonanza King in hope of making it back to Dawson sooner.

As the Bonanza King set sail again, the orchestra on board played “The Girl I left Behind me,” and “Farewell My Own True Love,” while the orchestra on board the Tyrrell responded with “We’ll not go Home Till Morning.” But the overloaded Bonanza King did not get very far before it had to stop again for more firewood. The quality of the wood here was so poor that the Bonanza King could not build up enough steam pressure to make any progress against the strong current.

By now the revelers were dog-tired. They had fun while it lasted; they had almost all the women in town on the boat and plenty of booze. But by then supplies were running short, and everybody was worn out. According to old-timer Bert Parker when reminiscing about the escapade in an article he wrote for Maclean’s magazine many years later, “the girls were used to seeing lots of men, got tired of seeing the same old faces day after day and began to get peevish.”

The exhausted revelers lay on the decks and they filled the state rooms; one man slept on the top of the piano, while another dozed peacefully on a 35 centimeter-wide plank suspended two metres above the slumbering mob.

In the meantime, the damaged cylinder head on the Tyrrell was fixed, and the steamer made way again, passing the now stranded Bonanza King. This time it was the turn of the Tyrrell to rub it in. The orchestra on board tuned up and played “Hold the Fort for I am Coming,” “Rescue the Pershing,” and “The Rogue’s March.” They stopped long enough to take on 100 of the Bonanza King’s passengers, then steamed away, arriving back in Dawson about 9 p.m. on Monday, where they were greeted by thousands of Dawsonites, while the band played “Home Again,” and “My Country Tis of Thee.”

Finally, having loaded sufficient firewood, the Bonanza King steamed forward, arriving in Dawson about 2 a.m. Tuesday morning. Bert Parker described the scene: “During this time, Dawson was also completely closed up for there was nobody to run things. It was a dark period. Up to this time, I don’t think anyone realized to what extent the city was dependent on those people, who, in a very few years, were to be legislated out of business. The Bonanza King’s reception was as spontaneous as it was sincere. When her whistle was heard down river, it was the signal for everybody to get down to the waterfront.

“I will never forget the remarks that were hurled at the girls as they walked down the gangplank … or the retorts of the girls, who were all able to take care of themselves in any kind of company. Someone would shout, on seeing Nellie LaMore walking down the gangplank: ‘Hey Nellie, do you know that Dago Frank committed suicide yesterday? You ought to be ashamed of yourself; you didn’t have him half cleaned. Now all his money will go back to his mother. Why don’t you tend to business?’

“The next week actor and playwright John Mulligan had a show ready for the Monte Carlo Theatre showing what happened on the trip down river. There were no censors then and the word subtle did not have any meaning for Mulligan. He did not believe in leaving anything to the imagination.”

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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