The Dawson Daily News was bustling with activity during last week’s Print and Publishing Festival. The doors to the century-old building were thrown open to the public, who came to witness contemporary print making in an historical setting. (Michael Gates photo) The Dawson Daily News was bustling with activity during last week’s Print and Publishing Festival. The doors to the century-old building were thrown open to the public, who came to witness contemporary print making in an historical setting. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

The Dawson Daily News comes back to life

The life and times of the Klondike’s longest-lasting newspaper

Last week, the Dawson Daily News came back to life – for a few days. It was the Seventh annual Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival.

The event is a collaboration between Parks Canada, who own and maintain the building (a national historic site), the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture, the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the Dawson City Community Library, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts and Yukon Tourism and Culture Arts Fund.

According to promotional material, the event “sizzles with cross-genre and cross-species creativity. Writers, printmakers, musicians and sled dogs will fill the festival’s 7th edition with literary readings, concerts, geocached poems, and large-scale printmaking projects.” Venues included the newly renovated Palace Grand Theatre (another national historic site), the Westminster Hotel, the School of Visual Arts and the ballroom in the Oddfellows Hall. And of course, the Dawson Daily News building.

I couldn’t take it all in this time due to other commitments, but for years, the Dawson Daily News building was one of my favourite haunts. Just outside, printmaking using a steam roller was being demonstrated. Yes, that’s right, one of those machines used to compact foundations and flatten asphalt on streets and highways.

The old building was abuzz with activity. People clustered in groups outside discussing their projects or watching the steamroller demonstration. Inside, prints were tacked up on the walls and laid out on tables in the printing area, while participants hovered over works in progress.

It was at least that busy in the early days. Before telephone, telegraph, radio, television and the internet, newspapers were central to disseminating information, and the gold rush drew them to Dawson like bees to honey. The first newspaper was the Klondike Nugget, which began printing in June of 1898, followed quickly by the Yukon Sun and the Klondike Miner and Yukon Advertiser.

The Dawson Daily News began production in July 1899. Other newspapers followed, including the Dawson Record, the Yukon World and the Dawson Freelance, but none of them lasted for long, except the News.

At first the Dawson Daily News operated in a draughty rented two-storey log building located at Third Avenue and Duke Street. From the outset, the News had the advantage of good equipment. The 11 staff employed at first could boast of having a cylinder press, two job presses, a Thorne Typesetting machine (soon replaced by Megenthaler Linotype machines), a boiler and an electrical plant (to operate the equipment and power the numerous electric lights that illuminated the print shop).

After a couple of fire threats, the News relocated, in 1901, to 311 King Street, a two storey building that formerly served as a sporting house. King Street became the Yukon equivalent of London’s Fleet Street, as both the Sun and the Nugget had operations located within a block of the News.

The business operated successfully for the next decade as the population declined and other printers went out of business. In 1910, it relocated to its current location. Photographs taken of the interior at that time show that the positioning of the three-tonne Cranston Press and other equipment is the same now as it was more than 100 years ago.

By 1910, the News had a monopoly on the printing business in Dawson, but it was a losing game as the population continued to decline to a shadow of its former size. It struggled after World War I, and in 1924 converted from a daily to three times a week.

Former pressman Harold Malstrom took over the business then and ran it on a shoestring for the next two decades. Aside from a new Linotype machine, he did little to recapitalize the printing operation. Malstrom, who had survived two divorces, moved into the News building, occupying a tiny room in the mezzanine overlooking the printing plant.

The building survived an attempted arson in May of 1940 and a flood four years later when water rose 45 centimeters above the main floor. Malstrom struggled on until 1946, but after 50 years in the printing business, 22 of which he spent as the sole proprietor of the News, he sold it to returning veteran and former employee, Helmer Samuelson.

Samuelson moved into Malstrom’s mezzanine penthouse and converted the News to a weekly, whose main focus was local news. He made repairs to the building, hired a reporter and acquired a new Dodson platen press, but despite a couple of good years, he relied heavily on government patronage, which he lost in 1953, when the capital was moved to Whitehorse. The business staggered forward for a few months, but shut down for good in March of 1954.

The task of relaying local news then fell upon the shoulders of the “Nutty Club,” a group of community women operating a Gestetner spirit copier, who produced the Klondike Korner until a renewed group started the present-day Klondike Sun in 1989.

Fred Caley acquired the building in 1957, and had the foresight to see that Dawson’s future lay largely in the tourism business, and that Dawson’s history would be at the centre of it all. Caley sold the building to Parks Canada in 1971, who proudly maintain it as a national historic site to this day. The bound issues of the newspaper remained largely intact, and Caley arranged to have them microfilmed in 1959, thus ensuring the survival of Dawson City’s tumultuous history.

When I began working as curator of collections at Klondike National Historic Sites in 1977, the Dawson Daily News building was one of the prime candidates for restoration, but in 1989, funding was given instead to restore the Commissioner’s Residence, which opened to public acclaim seven years later.

The News building was flooded once again in the devastating flood of 1979. The artifacts, including thousands of print job samples, survived the inundation, but the collection of print equipment was moved to storage in Parks Canada’s Bear Creek complex as part of the flood recovery program. In 2007, this collection was returned to modern humidity-controlled storage constructed in the rear of the News building.

Four years later, under sponsorship of the School of Visual Arts, the Dawson Daily News building was reopened to the public, if only temporarily each year, as the venue for the print and publishing festival. It’s good to see something going on inside that links so closely to its colourful past.

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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