Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Thursday, July 17, 1997

Dawson City still gets a rush from gold

by Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

DAWSON CITY, Yukon Territory - The streets here are not paved with gold. Fact is, they're not paved at all.

The City of Gold that, 100 years ago today, lured thousands of otherwise rational people to do very irrational things, now fiercely resists any suggestion of concrete or asphalt.

Instead, folks here take pride in streets composed of Yukon River silt that turns to mud with every passing squall. Mud, they figure, is an important facet of their civic identity.

For my traveling partner Glen Sims and I, though, the mud comes as something of a surprise - just as it did a century ago to Mont Hawthorne, my historical companion.

"Dawson wasn't a bit like I figured it would be," Mont recalled. "I ain't sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it."

In a few months, a city of 30,000, with hotels, saloons, whorehouses and barber shops had risen from a swampy ledge between Midnight Dome and the Yukon River.

"Dawson was terrible crowded," Mont recollected, "with mountains on three sides and the river on the other. Folks didn't have no place to spread out. There was buildings and camps on every speck of level ground. We spread out over town looking for room to pitch our tents. On account of the spring thaw, the streets was all mud."

This week, Glen and I did much the same thing, pulling our boats onto the muddy bank, gathering our outfits, then setting off to see the gold-rush city that has been the object of our monthlong expedition.

At first glimpse, Dawson City presents itself as another frontier outpost, like Skagway, Alaska, or Winthrop, Wash., yearning to cash in on its colorful past. The city maintains wood-planked sidewalks along streets of teetering frame buildings and recent additions carefully designed to match.

They have all the obligatory tourist attractions: T-shirt shops and souvenir stands, store clerks in period costume, even a red-coated Mountie who happily stops to let kids pat the muzzle of his shiny black steed.

You can wander into Diamond Tooth Gertie's or the Gaslight Follies, where tourists park their Winnebagos to spend a few bucks on honky-tonk music and can-can dancers.

But Dawson is no Skagway. The Alaska counterpart is a one-industry town, wholly dependent on the huge cruise ships that drop anchor most mornings, disgorging thousands of tourists.

Dawson, 600 miles inland at the opposite end of the Klondike Trail, has another industry - the same one that has sustained it for a century.

The Klondike Gold Rush, as depicted by the likes of Jack London and Robert Service, was dramatic, romantic and extremely short-lived. It began with the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek in 1896, became a stampede with the arrival of the storied Ton of Gold in Seattle a year ago today, lured 100,000 people from around the world, and was essentially over by 1900.

By the time Mont and friends made it here, the richest placers had been claimed by a few hundred early prospectors who became fabulously wealthy. By 1899, most of the discouraged latecomers had moved on to golder pastures in Nome or had limped home.

The Klondike, meanwhile, was quickly being taken over by the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corp., which had attacked these famous placers with a fleet of enormous dredges. The City of Gold was essentially owned and operated by the Guggenheim conglomerate, known locally and not-so-affectionately as The Company.

Gold production peaked in 1900 at just over 1 billion ounces, worth $22.3 million. It declined gradually to a low of 4,000 ounces and a meager $250,000 in 1972, the 75th anniversary of the gold rush. The Company gave up and left town. Dawson was in danger of turning into another ghost town.

But it didn't. Spurred by the U.S. decision to allow gold prices to float on the free market, the Klondike has been brought back to life by scores of small-time miners - schoolteachers, civic servants and grocery clerks looking for a new life - and perhaps a fortune - in the far North.

Gold prices in the $800-per-ounce range drove people back into the old tailings. By the late 1980s, production exceeded 100,000 ounces per year, peaking with 132,000 ounces worth $58 million in 1989.

Dawson's comeback has been remarkable. The year-round population is about 2,000, swelling to 5,000 in the summer.

The centennials - one or two per year, it seems - have helped to attract money to repair those teetering wood fronts and to build new ones. There are new hotels with turn-of-the century motifs. There is a new library, where visitors leave their muddy boots at the door and stroll barefoot. The government is sparing no expense to restore the grand riverboat "Keno," perched on the riverbank. Events such as the Dawson Music Festival this weekend draw big-name entertainers.

While tourists flock to Gertie's, the locals hang out at the Midnight Sun or The Pit, where men take breaks from the gold tailings and women wear cocktail dresses with knee-high rubber boots.

Dog-mushing has become a local wintertime obsession. They say Dawson has three dogs for every year-round resident, and one stroll through town is evidence. Sled dogs doze on the boardwalks, in mud puddles and pickup beds. Barroom chatter revolves around breeds and feed and racing strategies.

In the summer, Dawson is once again terrible crowded with authentic miners, not-so-authentic hobbyists, music fans, summer workers, tourists and miscellaneous dropouts and passers-by from the Outside.

Dawson lives and tourists help, but it is still gold that drives the local economy. The recent drop in gold prices is a major topic of conversation and worry. Even a few dollars per ounce makes a dent in this town's collective pocketbook.

Tourism is off a bit, too, they say - perhaps due to Canadians postponing their long-awaited trips north until the "real centennial" in '98.

Either way, this place emits a sense of permanent pioneer spirit that will weather the inevitable downturns in either gold or tourism.

In fact, by this time of year, true Dawsonites become weary of the long days, frequently working two jobs or more. Summers evoke images of the gold rush, of something temporary and less than authentic. It is the time of year when people make money to get through the long, cold, dark winter when there are no tourists or gold to mine.

"I look forward to the end of August," says one longtime Dawsonite, "when you can sit on the boardwalk, smoke a cigarette and listen to the birds sing three blocks away. . . .

"And you know things are going to get normal again real soon."

Back to Top
Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company