I didn’t know what to make of Dawson City when I first drove into town. It felt like I was entering a Hollywood set, all old buildings with larger-than-life façades. Dirt roads with wooden sidewalks. People walking around in gold-rush-period costumes. Felt a bit kitschy at first. Very touristy.
Main Street, back in the day. [La rue Main, à Dawson City, au Yukon, Credit: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA-044675, original photo can be found here]
But when I began to delve deeper, I developed a healthy respect for this town and all that the residents have done to restore these old buildings and celebrate its history. In fact, Dawson City was the highlight of my Yukon trip, an oasis at the end of a long drive from Whitehorse. I enjoyed the place so much that I hung around for the Canada Day celebrations.
The Cancan dancers during the Canada Day parade in Dawson City
Dawson City (named after Canadian geologist George M. Dawson) is a small town now with fewer than 2,000 permanent residents. But at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, more than 40,000 people occupied this small area of the Yukon.
Panning gold during the Klondike Gold Rush [Credit: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / C-005389, original photo can be found here]
The numbers dwindled over time, of course, once most of the gold was gone. 8,000 residents by 1899; 5,000 when the town was incorporated in 1902; and then fewer than a thousand during the 1960s. Dawson City was the capital of the Yukon up until 1952. The economic damage suffered by the townsfolk as a result of the Alaska Highway bypassing them forced a relocation of the territorial seat to Whitehorse.
All along, most of the old buildings from the gold rush sat vacant. They had simply been abandoned over 100 years ago when most of the gold was gone. But once the tourism industry started to improve in the Yukon, the town leaders made a concerted effort to attract investors that would restore some of these buildings.
They have done a fabulous job so far; they are a credit to their community, to the tourism of the Yukon, and to the historical record of Canada. I am grateful for their efforts.
Come along on my walk as I show you a sample of the restored (and not restored) buildings this town has to offer. This is just a teaser for the multitude of buildings you will see when you visit. 🙂
This beautiful structure was built in 1899 by ‘Arizona’ Charlie Meadows, a showman and ‘self-made heroic figure’. It was a very successful business while the gold was abundant, offering vaudeville acts, melodrama, music, and comedy for a single price. One could also gamble until dawn and pay a dollar-a-dance for the dance hall girls after midnight.
• Parking is free everywhere in Dawson, and there is usually plenty of it on the main street along the waterfront.
• Pick up a free copy of Dawson City (South) Historic Buildings Walking Tour from the Information Centre. This will give you the locations and details of the buildings on the south side of town, although the town has yet to produce one for the north side. You can still tour the north side buildings of course; it’s just that you will need to wander up and down the streets looking for the information kiosks.
This was originally a boarding house and laundry when it was built in 1903. But when Mathilde ‘Ruby’ Scott bought it in 1935, she operated a brothel out of here. It was illegal, of course, but she had tacit approval from local officials until 1961, when she was finally charged with keeping a bawdy house. She was tenacious, though, maintaining the building as a boarding house once again until her retirement eight years later at the age of 84. During the day, the prices for favourites, such as Liberty or Cecile, were “five dollars a time or twenty dollars a night”.
This is St. Andrew’s Church, just after it was abandoned in 1901. [St. Andrew’s Church, 1901, Dawson City, Y.T. boarded and abandoned it is a reminder of the Gold Rush Era of 1898. Credit: Allen, P.E. / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022464, original photo can be found here]
This is St. Andrew’s Church today. It was built in the Gothic Revival style, representing morality and goodness. It seated 600 and had a pipe organ of such size that it was the envy of all other Yukon churches.
This is the Old Territorial Administrative Building, built in 1901. It has always been an icon of the town, first housing the government offices and territorial legislative assembly, and then later used as a post office, public school, and radio station. Since 1962, however, it has been home to the Dawson City Museum. 100 years after it was built, it became a National Historic Site of Canada.
The Court House has an interesting history. Built in 1901, it housed a library, offices for judges, barristers and sheriffs, a judge’s chamber and rooms for witnesses and the jury. But by 1910, the cost of heating the place was exorbitant, so functions were transferred to the Administrative Building in winter. In 1914, the Mounties took it over after their headquarters burned down, and then in 1954, after St. Mary’s Hospital burned down, it was transformed into a 35-bed hospital, including operating rooms.
The Commissioner’s Residence. J.H. Ross, Yukon Commissioner in 1901, wanted a building of suitable grandeur that reflected the significance of this position. It started out with classical lines, but after a couple of years, it was modified into a Victorian mansion. The last full-time residents of this building were George and Martha Black, who lived here from 1912 to 1916.
Straight’s Auction House and Second Hand Store. This building was abandoned in the 1920s and was slated for demolition in 1971. A local artist, Albert Fuhre, pulled a group together to buy the building for $600. It was later donated to the Klondike Visitors Association, which braced the building but left it tilted to show how the permafrost influenced Dawson construction. The auction house was bought again by a local businessman in 1998.