JOHN’S JOURNEYS: Cold, old gold John Burke recalls a visit to the Yukon
Midnight Dome behind the oldest Sourdough © JOHN BURKE
A couple of years from now will see the 125th anniversary of the most headlined event in the opening up of Canada. It should help Dawson City, a town only 125 miles below the Arctic Circle, to finally become a World Heritage Site.
This was the scene of the Klondyke Stampede between 1896 and 1898, when gold lured a hundred thousand fortune-hunters beyond the 60th parallel, of whom only one-third made it, mostly over the snowy 3,579-foot Chilkoot Pass out of Alaska. The thermometer can fall below -25ºF (-31ºC) North of Sixty, with ice forming on the Yukon and Klondike rivers as early as October.
Since this boom-town at their confluence has been frozen in time as well as through long winters, my own visit during the overlooked 75th anniversary has become history recapturing epic history that still comes alive today. For there is still gold in them thar hills, especially as the motherlode was never discovered, although big-time mining, using hydraulic power, continually stops and starts in line with the precious metal’s price.
Skookum Jim’s lucky find © JOHN BURKE
Similarly, Dawson’s population reached a peak of 30,000 during the gold-rush before slumping to 300, and it is only 1,400 today. So what nearly became a ghost-town looks not much different from what I saw or when it was built, hugging the eastern bank of the Yukon River while hemmed in by the narrow Klondike to the south and overlooked by the 2,911-foot Midnight Dome in the north-west.
There is the same grid pattern of eight streets running towards it with 15 streets crossing them. Although the Flora Dora where I stayed has been boarded up, several of the original timber have been preserved or restored, such as the Palace Grand music-hall where the Gaslight Follies played for 40 years. You can still hear ragtime played by a pianist at the clapboard Downtown Hotel whose Sourdough Saloon takes its name from survivors of a Yukon winter, with only the Northern Lights to soften 19 hours of darkness.
I met the oldest of old-timers, Black Mike Winnage, whose reputed age of 103 would have had him in the gold-rush. He must have registered at the Old Territorial Administration Building that for the last half century has housed Dawson City Museum. It may have absorbed the collection in Dawson Hardware Store, owned by a forest warden who collected myriad items such as pans and scales, oil-lamps and shovels, utensils and crockery from derelict shacks.
Even luxuries were imported © JOHN BURKE
The homes of two literary figures, however, are much as they were at the turn of last century. Poetry is read at the hut once inhabited by Robert W. Service, the so-called Bard of the Yukon who was born in Lancashire in 1874. One block away is a semi-replica of the cabin contains the books by Jack London from San Francisco whose books whose hard prospecting days are captured in a short film.
Talking of which, Charlie Chaplin’s monochrome movie Gold Rush includes some realistic scenes. And shortly after my visit, a bulldozer unearthed 530 nitrate reels of silents plus glass-plate negatives that have been edited into a documentary: Dawson City: Frozen Time.
It shows that the naughty-nineties in the sub-Arctic wilderness also attracted camp- followers, good-time girls and gold-diggers, the likes of Diamond-Tooth Gertie, who all prospered from the 4,000 prospectors who actually got a lucky strike. Yet if morals were lax and gambling rife, all fuelled by bootlegging, the crime-rate was relatively low. Dawson was patrolled by 285 members of the new North-West Mounted Police who, their reputation made, became the RCMP, the scarlet-coated federal force.
Sifting alluvial gold © JOHN BURKE
Police and militia guarded shipments worth $29 million during the stampede. That equates to a current 18 billion Canadian dollars, while continued mining means that
an estimated 20 million ounces have been extracted since that first find at Bonanza Creek. When I was there, an old Scotsman at Last Chance Claim was still finding enough through sluicing to take his family to Vancouver each winter.
He let me pan for a while, and I collected enough gold-dust to cover my thumbnail. Seasonal visitors, called Cheechakos by the Sourdoughs, can still pan for gold in Dawson, especially as a championship takes place each July when the temperature might just reach 81ºF (27ºC). The gold-price is now two-thirds of its all-time high, $1,895, but that ounce would still pay for a trip North of Sixty.
To reach Dawson City, I first flew to Vancouver by Air Canada which has since absorbed CP Air which made my connecting flight. Its Boeing 737 – with china and silver for inflight meals – was in stark contrast to the final leg from Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory.
Dawson’s airstrip in 1971 © JOHN BURKE
It took two hours on a pre-war Dakota (DC3) of Great Northern Aviation which no longer flies. The stewardess, whose earrings were gold nuggets, brewed coffee on a percolator for her husband, the pilot, and us six passengers who sat alongside parcels and packages. Today, it costs 630 Canadian dollars to fly from Vancouver to Dawson by Boeing 737, but jets too land on gravel while awaiting a paved runway.