At the turn of the century, as they do today, people of Dawson City would gather along the waterfront to witness an important rite of passage, the breakup of the ice on the Yukon River. (Henry Joseph Woodside/Library and Archives Canada)

The Dawson City ice guessing pool goes back to Gold Rush days

Breakup also used to be how Dawson got rid of its sewage and trash, which is gross

At this time of year, the residents of Dawson City are paying special attention to the condition of the ice covering the Yukon River. They do this because the breakup of the Yukon heralds the beginning of summer.

They also watch it with concern: would the river flood into town like it did in 1979? The dike was built in 1986 in hopes that there will never be another inundation like that. But the main reason that they stand on the river’s edge and watch for signs of movement, is the annual ice pool. It has been like that ever since Dawson began more than a century ago.

The breakup in 1900 was heralded with incessant gunfire. Word spread quickly and hundreds of curious onlookers flocked to the waterfront to assess the situation. The ice jammed just above Moosehide and the water began to rise behind it. Finally, the dam burst and the mighty Yukon carried away the ice, crashing and grinding as it went. The unsightly garbage and human waste that had been piled onto the river ice at the north end of town was finally flushed away to the Bering Sea.

In 1902 the flag planted in the ice in front of town moved only 150 metres in a rather lacklustre breakup, just enough to create controversy and dispute about the actual time. Hershberg’s, the clothiers at 115 Front St. had the biggest contest. The editors of the three local newspapers were called upon to count the 1,522 guesses to determine that J.A. Hubley was the big winner, having a ballot that picked 8:45 a.m. as the correct time.

In 1904, the correct time was only determined because a man, identified as Sergeant Major Tucker, happened to witness the movement and checked his watch to accurately record 11:38 a.m.

Thousands of dollars were bet on the precise time of the breakup. Captain J.P. Hubrick, the owner of the cable ferry won a suit of clothes and other men’s apparel from Hershberg’s. The Northern Commercial Company awarded Mrs. May Faulk a set of Rogers’ triple-plated knives and forks while R.A. McCluskey received a safety razor, strap and brush. Emma O’Grady, a little girl and a man identified only as “Curley,” of the Model Restaurant, shared the $945 in the ice pool run by George Butler at the Pioneer Saloon.

The breakup in 1907 was the earliest yet recorded, clocking in at precisely 6:52 a.m. on May 5. This was attributed to two weeks of prolonged sunshine that had preceded the fateful moment.

1907 was also the first year there appears to have been a determined effort to record an official time. Men working for the Northern Commercial Company attached a rope to the ice (the newspaper didn’t state how this was accomplished) 100 metres from shore, and attached the other end to a whistle in the Northern Commercial Company’s steam plant. From the whistle, a connection was made to the electric clock mounted on the wall over the vault in the N.C. Company office.

And so the tradition continued over the years. The ritual became an institutionalized part of the annual cycle in Dawson. Glaciologists everywhere cast their ballots for the winning moment. Great debates occurred regarding the deciding factors causing the ice to break up. Was it the thickness of the ice, the weather immediately preceding, or a set period of time after the ice flushed from the Klondike River?

Some people would place their bets in many ice pools, guessing the same dates in each, and one year, one of these individuals cleaned up when they guessed the right time. There were also minute pools, with much smaller prizes, where the contestants would pick a number from one to 60. There were dozens of such contests being run all over town. Side bets were made between individuals. Thousands of dollars were at stake. Even Martha Black had her own minute pool for the ladies in the community.

When the siren went off, announcing the breakup, the entire community was jolted into action. School was interrupted and the students made their way to the waterfront. Shops shut down and offices were emptied. If church was in session, the congregants stampeded to the water’s edge to watch. According to Laura Berton, one year the minister in the Anglican Church sermonized about the evils of gambling and attacked the ice pools. But when the siren announced the breakup, the church was emptied, she said, in the middle of singing the hymn, “We Shall Gather at the River.”

The numerous ice guessing contests continued over the years, but Dawson took a big step in 1928 when a special committee was established and The Dawson City Ice Derby was launched. People sent in their money — and their guesses — from all over the world. The prize that year was $7,500 (today, that would be the equivalent of $100,000).

In 1940, with the Second World War less than a year old, the Discovery Day Committee had taken over the running of the ice derby to raise money to liquidate the debt incurred staging the celebration in 1939, but in January, 1940, the committee turned the job over to the women’s organization, the I.O.D.E., to run it as a “patriotic endeavour” for the duration of the war.

Twenty-five per cent of the proceeds would be set aside for the comfort and benefit of Canadian soldiers overseas. The gross amount taken in exceeded $5,000, and the ice broke up at 1:54 p.m. on April 28 (the earliest date recorded up to that time) but the precise amount and the name of the winner is not known as the issue of the Dawson News containing the particulars is missing from the records.

The following year, 1941, the prize money could not be awarded as the clock did not stop and the official time went unrecorded. The committee decided to carry the money over to 1942, when the purse ($2,982.69) was split between Duncan McPherson of Granville and S. Papich of Prince Rupert. The 1942 winners, Anchor Hordahl of Dawson and R.L. Stewart, of Stewart, B.C., shared $1,865.88, while the I.O.D.E. received $621.96.

The I.O.D.E continues the tradition of sponsoring the Ice Guessing Contest to the present day. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the launching of the Dawson City Ice Derby.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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