DAWSON CITY, the Yukon Territory — The first tourists to Dawson City arrived in July of 1898, a few weeks before the boomtown’s second birthday.
Mrs. Mary E. Hitchcock (widow of a U.S. Navy officer) and Miss Edith Van Buren (niece of the former U.S. president) swept into the new gold-mining settlement, 170 miles south of the Arctic Circle, with opulent cargo: a zither, a parrot, canaries, a portable bowling alley, crates of fancy foods (pâté, truffles, olives), a movie projector, an exhaustive wardrobe (silks, furs, starched collars, sombreros), two Great Danes and a 2,800 square-foot marquee tent for their lodgings.
Their arrival was strange — and strangely appropriate.
Dawson had been hastily founded in 1896 after a party of four prospectors (a Tagish and Tlingit woman named Shaaw Tláa, her brother, her nephew and her white husband George Carmack) discovered a promising amount of gold at nearby Rabbit Creek, filled an empty shotgun shell with the stuff and registered their claim, telling people as they went. Soon, swarms of hopefuls poured up and into the Yukon — over mountain passes, through rapids, across glaciers, with sometimes-fatal results — to get in on the action.
Much of that action involved mining the miners, selling goods and entertainments to the insta-rich and aspiring insta-rich: roulette, exotic-dance revues, Champagne, porcelain chamber pots, Persian carpets, mahogany furniture. The summer Hitchcock and Van Buren showed up, Dawson’s population was pushing 40,000. They were just two more spectacles in a bizarre kaleidoscope.
Dawson City historians (and resident writers like Robert Service and Jack London) often characterize the place as a romantic phantasmagoria of toil, desperation and fantasies fulfilled and shattered — sometimes one after the other, in quick succession.
Dawson’s first tourists were high-class rubberneckers, and I have to admit my intentions weren’t much different. The bull’s-eye of the Klondike Gold Rush seemed remote, interesting — I wanted to see what it was like. “The Yukon,” historian Pierre Berton wrote, “was just far enough away to be romantic and just close enough to be accessible.” It still is.
A few weeks ago, exactly 125 summers after that discovery at Rabbit Creek, a little airplane (half full of people, half full of mail) touched down at 7 a.m. in present-day Dawson City, population 1,400-ish. Dawson’s one taxi was out of commission, so I mooched a ride partway and walked the rest along the Yukon River to the Whitehouse Cabins on the north edge of town.
From Seattle to the Yukon
We’ll probably never know who first spotted that gold at Rabbit Creek. One version of the story says George Carmack saw it sticking out of the ground. Another says Shaaw Tláa’s brother noticed it while washing dishes in the river — and Carmack was napping under a tree.
Either way, the news spread quickly. In 1897, the S.S. Portland steamed into Seattle with the first wave of miners carrying sacks and suitcases full of gold. Headlines around the country declared a rush and people promptly quit their jobs — doctors, cops, seamstresses, the mayor of Seattle — to head north.
Seattle’s economy was depressed in the mid-1890s: bank failures, closed businesses, mass layoffs, land values falling by 80%. People were ready for a financial miracle and, to some, the Gold Rush delivered.
Tens of thousands of people passed through Seattle, which branded itself “the Gateway to the Klondike,” and spent money on the way. The National Park Service estimates Seattle merchants sold around $25 million in goods between July 1897 and March 1898, up from $325,000 in all of 1896. A 1900 article in the Seattle Daily Times reported that since 1894, bank clearances (how much money moves around banks during a day) had jumped 400%. A driving factor, a banker explained, was “the immense trade of the Klondike.”
Dawson City today
At first glance, Dawson doesn’t look like it has changed all that radically since those days of “immense trade” — give or take 38,000 people.
The town isn’t big on paved roads; worn, wooden boardwalks connect the old-timey storefronts. Massive, blue-black ravens still surveil the streets. Mining remains a major and obvious presence, with bold, yellow-black signs announcing: “This business supports placer mining. Placer mining supports this business.” (The word, pronounced plass-er, refers to using gravity and a lot of water to separate minerals from sand or gravel, as opposed to crushing rock.)
Dawson’s buildings look either vintage and authentically falling-down or vintage and fixed-up, with two exceptions: the big, new-looking Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government building and, down the street, the modernist design of Dänojà Zho, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in cultural center.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (tron-dek hweh–chin) is the First Nation in the area, and archaeological evidence suggests they’ve been there for at least 11,000 years — though almost certainly longer. Their situation is one thing that has changed in the past 125 years, from relative autonomy to displacement to a growing political and cultural force.
When people talk about the nitty-gritty of how the community runs — zoning, land use, mining regulations, even some trails non-Indigenous people must ask permission to hike — the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government is usually part of the conversation. And Dawson’s freshest-looking buildings are centers for its original inhabitants.
A quick walk from Dänojà Zho is Jimmy’s Place, a shuttered VHS/DVD store recently leased and DIY-renovated into nine studios and a darkroom for Dawson’s disproportionately strong artist population — some homegrown, some who’ve migrated from London, Berlin and other more hectic scenes. “There’s only 1,400 people here, but there are a million artists,” said Aubyn O’Grady, artist and program director of the Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson. Her best-known project so far was the League of Lady Wrestlers, a series of feminist performance-art satires of pro wrestling.
Justin Apperley, co-founder of Jimmy’s Place, is another artist-adventurer: prestigious gallery shows in London and Leeds, a hitchhiking trip across Canada, motorbike road trips from the Yukon to Mexico and back. He’s also wintered over in West Dawson, an off-the-grid community across the Yukon River where people have to cache whatever they need (food, fuel, everything) during the fall freeze-up and spring breakup, when ice floes make the river too dangerous to cross. His first winter, he said, he felt like an idiot for not stockpiling enough food — a neighbor gave him half a moose.
“A lot of artists are living here and making rad work,” he said. “It’s so supportive, not pretentious, so many people here living their authentic lives as miners or trappers in the bush.”
The gold mine
Most of the gold around Dawson these days goes into jewelry and computers, geologist Jeff Bond explained as we bounced out of town in his truck to visit a present-day mine. Placer mining doesn’t rely on chemicals anymore, but the current debates are over wetlands, restoration and how strictly local governments — including the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in — should regulate where miners dig.
Bond, who has been working for the Yukon Geological Survey since 1997, is on his periodic rounds, visiting placer miners, looking at their operations and chatting about what they’re finding. In exchange, while standing in the big pits and cuts miners have carved out of the landscape, Bond answers questions and might offer a little professional insight: What this layer of gravel here indicates, what that vein of quartz over there might mean, what was going on a million years ago in the ancient riverbed where we’re standing now.
“Placer gold is notoriously difficult to evaluate and determine what you have,” Bond said. (Gold is heavy and often deposited here and there by long-ago rivers and floods.) “The gold may be sitting on the bedrock, but it’s erratically distributed.” Drilling test holes only goes so far — you don’t really know what you’ve got until you dig and wash the dirt.
That makes placer mining part geology game and part guessing game — which, Bond said, is why it’s attracting more nimble, family-type operations these days, while hard-rock mining draws larger corporations that can raise the capital to crush acres of rock, but want more predictable returns.
The miner we’re going to see, a big, friendly guy named Marty Knutson, came to Dawson in 1980 looking for work. Along the way, he discovered mining — and Diamond Tooth Gerties, Dawson’s gambling hall. (Gerties is a nonprofit run by the Klondike Visitors Association. If you go bust at roulette and blackjack, you at least know you’re losing money to the community.)
“The price of gold was high, around $1,000 per ounce,” Knutson said. “I was 20 years old and thought: ‘This place has gold, gambling — what’s going on here?’ I never left!”
Knutson let us hike around his cuts — which looked huge to me, but were modest compared to mines we’d see later — while Bond took measurements and gave me a crash course in local geology. We scrambled up one sheer face to peer at (and smell) a thick, black layer near the surface: “muck,” organic-rich silt where miners and paleontologists find fossils and sometimes mummified remains. It’s permafrost, Bond explained, like taking an entire landscape and throwing it in the freezer.
“See this wood?” he asked, pulling at a forearm-sized stick embedded in the muck. “Could be 50 years old, could be 20,000 years old. The fine silt, and the freezing, leads to incredible preservation.”
Mammoths, scimitar cats, 80,000-year-old ground squirrel nests full of cached seeds that help paleobotanists reconstruct ice-age ecosystems — some paleontologists spend years cultivating relationships with the goldfield workers.
But scientists aren’t the only ones cozying up to miners.
Earlier, the Red Mammoth Bistro had been packed with people ordering coffee, pastries and an excellent split-pea soup and a few miners talked shop: “You working Parker’s claim?” “Equipment or hauling?” “Big operation? Making much money?”
The answers were terse, and a man who is working “Parker’s claim” demurred altogether, saying he’d signed a nondisclosure agreement. “Parker,” it turns out, is Parker Schnabel, a 20-something from Alaska and star of “Gold Rush,” a popular reality TV show on the Discovery Channel — a landlocked cousin to “Deadliest Catch.”
“Gold Rush,” which Discovery says is highly rated among men age 25 to 54, has brought another pack of conspicuous strangers to town, lugging their own strange cargo and looking to hit another kind of jackpot.
Some evenings, TV crews (mostly young men, many with British accents) clump together at Dawson bars and restaurants with the knowing, confrere vibe of soldiers in a faraway land. Occasionally during the day, you can spot them operating cameras and remote-control drones, taking footage of bearded men in grimy hoodies.
The Red Mammoth crowd agreed that TV doesn’t pay much, if anything, to the nonstars. Then why were people agreeing to be filmed? “I guess,” one guy offered, “some people just want the exposure.”
Mining the miners is still a going concern.
Protecting the culture
The Gold Rush spawned a well-known cosmology of characters and legends — but for me, the most poignant hero of that time was a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in leader named Chief Isaac who had to figure out how to deal with all these adventurers stumbling onto the land.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had a centuries-old summer fish camp near what was about to become Dawson City, and knew trappers and miners had been tromping around nearby rivers and hills for decades. But after the Rabbit Creek discovery, Chief Isaac saw a storm coming.
Drinking, land theft, outsiders taking all the game and trees — it was going to be a mess. “My dad saw that they’d get civilized with that gold rush and was afraid his people would learn bad habits from the white people,” Chief Isaac’s daughter Patricia Isaac Lindgren said in a 1977 interview. “Drinking and trouble like that.”
So Chief Isaac made two momentous decisions. First, he arranged a relocation of people a few miles downriver, in a place called Moosehide, to keep them away from the worst of the Dawson catastrophe. Second, suspecting that wouldn’t be enough, he organized the transfer of critical cultural knowledge (including songs and dances) to neighbors in other remote corners not overrun with miners.
Over a series of social gatherings and potlatches, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in entrusted knowledge to others for safekeeping.
By the summer of 1898, when Hitchcock and Van Buren came to Dawson City, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had largely relocated to Moosehide — and their longtime fish camp had become a slummy Dawson neighborhood known as Lousetown.
Now, generations later, things have shifted again. It’s a long story I wouldn’t pretend to understand, but there were a few landmark moments: In 1973, the Yukon First Nations submitted a land claim to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by many years of negotiations. In 1998, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the federal government signed the Final Agreement, recognizing the First Nation’s territory and self-government.
According to folks at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, the songs and dances are slowly being returned.
Shortly before leaving Dawson, I walked — once again — to the Yukon River, this time to meet a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in river guide and former ferry pilot named Tommy Taylor.
Over the days, I’d kept wandering back to stare at the Yukon, a mesmerizing waterway so forceful, the town’s tiny ferry sometimes heads almost directly upstream to get across. The surface looks fast but placid until whirls and eddies erupt, seemingly from nowhere, then vanish. There is a powerful, complicated physics at work beneath that river’s skin.
After launching the boat, Taylor talked about the river (a 1979 flood submerged three-quarters of the city), its salmon (the biggest catch he knows of was 94 pounds), a guy who lives in a cave nearby (“Caveman Bill is very educated, very book smart”) and his family summer fish camp just downstream.
At one point, Taylor cut the engine and we listened to a loud, constant hiss: the Yukon’s glacial silt, boiling upward against the hull. The boat floated awhile downstream, hissing.
Then he looked around and said: “Fresh air, freedom, all kinds of wildlife, fish in the water. Why would you ever want to leave?”
The question was rhetorical — almost pointedly so. He started the engine and motored back to Dawson. It was time for this visitor, just another in a long line, to go.