In 1909, Joseph Kavetzki took over Brown’s Harness Shop, depicted here, reconstructed, 90 years later. Third Avenue in Dawson, south of Princess Street, was the heart of the blue collar industrial section of gold rush Dawson. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

In 1909, Joseph Kavetzki took over Brown’s Harness Shop, depicted here, reconstructed, 90 years later. Third Avenue in Dawson, south of Princess Street, was the heart of the blue collar industrial section of gold rush Dawson. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

History Hunter: The Yukon is rich in hidden history

I had worked for a few months in my new position as curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City, the summer of 1978, when an American couple walked into my office. Dick and Julie Kavet were searching for any historical evidence of Polish ancestor Joseph Walter Kavetzki, who had lived in Dawson in the early days.

Kavetzki first arrived in Dawson in March of 1909, with eight other relatives of Dawson City businessman Andy Rystogi. Kavetzki, a harness maker by trade, was married to Andy’s sister, Veronica. Within a few days, Kavetzki had bought out the harness making business of Austin Brown at 304 Third Avenue, south of King Street, the site of the current Dawson liquor store. Kavetzki remained in business in Dawson until his untimely death at age 50 in 1921.

The Kavets (whose surname had been Americanized from Kavetzki) were eager to learn all that they could about the Kavetzki and Rystogi families while in Dawson. I asked: did they know that his old harness shop, now a derelict building in 1978, still stood on Third Avenue? They did not, so I made arrangements with Dawson resident D’Arcy Braga to take them inside the building. There we found a trove of business records, and harness-making relics, the most intriguing of which was a shiny metal stud that had Kavetzki’s name on it, and reference to a US patent.

This was news to the Kavets, and they later obtained a copy of his patent for a harness breast-strap from the US patent office. I provided them with copies of documents relating to the buildings and the land upon which Kavetzki’s harness shop stood (after his acrimonious split from his wife, he moved a few doors down the street from the original shop, which he rented from in-law Andy).

During their stay, Dick and Julie found references in old city directories, items in the Dawson newspapers, Catholic church records, and various business papers that they found in his old harness shop. All in all, the time spent in Dawson by the Kavets was very productive, and they were later able to assemble all of these documents, nearly a hundred pages worth, into a binder which represented the family’s genealogical imprint while they lived in Dawson City.

In all my years working in Dawson City, I was able to provide more information to the Kavets than to any other visitors who came to me seeking historical information. Forty years later, we still exchange cards at Christmas.

A year after the Kavets’ visit, Dawson was inundated by the worst flood of the century; 80 per cent of the town was submerged when the Yukon River ice jammed, and the waters rose rapidly. Many of the old Dawson buildings owned by Parks Canada were underwater at the height of the flood, and remediation started as soon as the waters receded. One of the buildings affected was Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop.

I sent a crew to Bigg’s with instructions to take the water-damaged artifacts from the building. One of the first assignments was to remove the sodden ash in the large barrel stove that once heated the work area. If not removed, the caustic mixture would eat a hole in the bottom of the stove. They returned a short time later with a small selection of photographs which were found inside the stove, resting on top of the ash.

Fortunately, the water had not risen high enough to damage the images. The photos were a collection of group shots depicting mostly men, who had a distinctly eastern European appearance. I remembered the Kavets, who had visited Dawson the year before in search of their family roots. Could the people in these photos be Polish, I wondered? So, I mailed photocopies of the pictures to the Kavets.

In due course, the Kavets returned the photocopies, with individuals from the various pictures identified by name. It was remarkable that these two separate events should converge. Surprise visits from other people like the Kavets made my work rewarding.

I never knew when these visits would occur, and I always looked forward to them. Some left a powerful impression upon me and had a strong emotional impact upon the visitors. These encounters were profound lessons in humanity, and I learned that there was more to the Klondike experience than what was captured in history books.

Some of the people I met this way (mostly, but not exclusively men), had been in Dawson as young people and had come back to renew their connections with their youth. One man was reduced to tears as he recalled working in one of the dredge camps in the goldfields during the Depression. He had a job at a time when many others stood in unemployment lines.

Another returnee took me out to the site of the Granville dredge camp on Dominion Creek. There, he pulled out a harmonica and played a song as he once had in the evenings after his long shift working the points on the Granville flats. These were personal moments recalled by those who toiled in the goldfields that had not been captured in excellent books like The Gold Hustlers by Lew Green.

The truth is that the history of dredge mining in the Klondike was not just a large scale corporate enterprise, but also a collection of memories at the most basic individual level. That truth informed my perspective of the era of corporate industrial mining around Dawson from the 1920s through the closure of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Company in 1966.

I viewed the life of Joseph Walter Kavetzki from a personal perspective. He raised three children in Dawson – their names appeared occasionally in the newspaper describing various academic and social achievements while they lived in Dawson. When they grew up, they all moved away.

Most importantly, I learned that the accounts of Martha Black and Pierre and Laura Berton, though powerful and influential narratives of an unusual time in an unusual town, projected a strong, Anglo-Saxon protestant view of the community.

The story of Joseph Kavetzki taught me that there are many hidden histories that comprise the rich social fabric of this, and every other, community. Lives lived, families raised, happiness shared and all part of a larger community. It is a lesson I never forgot.

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. His latest book, Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at

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