Few episodes in Canadian history have captured the imagination like the Klondike gold rush, and few places have remained as evocative of their past as DAWSON CITY, the stampede’s tumultuous capital. For a few months in 1898 this former patch of moose pasture became one of the wealthiest and most famous places on earth, as multitudes struggled across huge tracts of wilderness to seek their fortunes in the largest gold deposit of its kind of all time.
An ever-increasing number of tourists and backpackers are drawn here to explore the boardwalks, rutted dirt streets and dozens of false-fronted wooden houses; others come to canoe the Yukon River or travel down the Dempster or Top of the World highways into Alaska and the Northwest Territories. After decades of decline, Parks Canada is restoring the town and has designated its relics into four National Historic Sites: the SS Keno, Dredge No. 4, the Dawson Historic Site (comprising 26 buildings in town) and the Territorial Courthouse. That said, in a spot where permafrost buckles buildings, snow falls in late September and temperatures touch -60°C during winters, there’s little real chance of Dawson losing the gritty, weather-worn feel of a true frontier town. Yet Dawson City has become somewhat of a cosmopolitan meeting place for the arts set. The Klondike Institute of Art and Culture has a contemporary art gallery and an artist-in-residence programme that brings over eighteen international artists to town each year. In mid-July, the city hosts its annual Dawson City Music Festival (w dcmf.com), attracting scores of local and international musicians.
The city also comes to life in mid-August during the annual Discovery Days Festival, which marks the discovery of gold in August 1896. Activities include a parade and arts festival; book accommodation well in advance if visiting at this time. Check w dawsoncity.ca for more information.
You could easily spend a couple of days here: one to explore the town, the other touring the old Klondike creeks to the east.Read More
Top of the World Highway
Top of the World Highway
You can snatch broad vistas from the Top of the World Highway (Hwy-9), a summer-only gravel road reached across the Yukon River by the George Black ferry from Front Street (mid-May to mid-Sept daily 24hr; rest of year 7am–11pm, depending on whether the river is frozen; free; T867 993 5441). After 5km the road reaches a great panorama over the area and after 14km another viewpoint looks out over the Yukon Valley and the Ogilvie Mountains straddling the Arctic Circle; in late summer, many people pile out of their cars around here to pick wild blueberries. The road continues above the tree line as a massive belvedere and can be seen switchbacking over barren ridges into the distance. It hits the Alaska border 108km from Dawson, where you can cross only when the customs post is open (mid-May to mid-Sept 9am–9pm). Be prepared to do only about 50km/hr, and ask at the Dawson tourist office about local difficulties and fuel availability. Set your clocks back one hour when entering Alaska.
The Klondike gold rush
The Klondike gold rush
There was nothing quite like the delirium of the 1898 Klondike gold rush. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have left home for the region, the largest single one-year mass movement of people that century. About thirty thousand made it, with only four thousand finding some gold. A couple dozen of these made – and lost – huge fortunes.
The first to prospect near the Klondike River was dour Nova Scotian Robert Henderson, the very embodiment of the lone pioneer. In early 1896 he panned 8¢ worth of gold from a creek in the hills above present-day Dawson City. Considered an excellent return at the time, Henderson thought the creek would yield more and he panned out another $750 before returning downriver for supplies.
Henderson set about finding a route up the Klondike River to meet the creek he’d prospected. At the river’s mouth he met George Carmack and two of his aboriginal friends, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie. Henderson told Carmack of his hopes, and then uttered the phrase that probably cost him a fortune: “There’s a chance for you George, but I don’t want any damn Siwashes [aboriginal people] staking on that creek.” Henderson wandered off, leaving Carmack to prospect a different set of creeks – the right ones, as it turned out. On August 16, Skookum Jim found $4 of gold on Bonanza Creek. The next day Carmack staked the first claim and rushed off to register the find as Henderson prospected almost barren ground over the hills. Two weeks later, all of Bonanza had been staked. Almost all the real fortunes had been secured by that winter, when the weather effectively sealed the region off.
In the spring of 1897, a thousand-odd miners from the West Coast arrived, drawn by vague rumours of a big find. The headlong rush followed the July 1897 docking of the Excelsior in San Francisco and the Portland in Seattle. Few sights could have been so stirring a proof of the riches up for grabs as that of battered Yukon miners coming down the gangplanks dragging bags, boxes and sacks literally bursting with gold. The Portland docked carrying two tonnes of gold – all taken from Klondike creeks by just a few miners. The rush was on.
Thousands embarked on trips that were to claim hundreds of lives. The most common route was to take a boat to Skagway, climb the dreaded Chilkoot Pass, pick up the Yukon River at Whitehorse and then sail 700km to Dawson City. The easiest and most expensive route lay by boat upstream from the mouth of the Yukon River in western Alaska. The most dangerous were the “All Canadian Route” from Edmonton and the overland trails through the northern wilderness.
The largest single influx came when the ice melted in May 1898 and a vast makeshift armada drifted down the Yukon River. For most it was to have been a fruitless journey, every inch of the creeks having long been staked – yet in most accounts it’s clear this was a rite of passage as much as a quest for wealth.
As for the gold, it’s the smaller details that hint at the scale of the rush: the miner’s wife who wandered the creek by her cabin picking nuggets from the water; the Great Depression destitutes who panned $40 a day from the dirt under Dawson’s boardwalks; the $1000 panned during the Orpheum Theatre’s rebuilding in the 1940s – all taken in a morning from under the floorboards where it had drifted fifty years before; or the $200 worth of dust panned nightly from a Dawson saloon’s beer mats in 1897.
By about 1899 the rush was over – not because the gold had run out, but because the most easily accessible nuggets had been taken from the creeks. It had been the making of Alaska, Edmonton sprang from almost nothing and Vancouver’s population doubled in a year. It was the first of a string of mineral discoveries in the Yukon and the far North, a region whose vast, untapped natural resources are increasingly the subject of attention from multinational corporations as rapacious and determined as their grizzled predecessors.