Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dawson, the Destination of the Klondike Gold Rush

Even today, the Yukon, Dawson and the Klondike River, as well as tiny Rabbit Creek, are remote.  A hundred years ago, it was an arduous trek just to get in or out, accomplished largely on foot.  It took nearly a year for word of the strike to reach the outside world.  Once it did, though, tens of thousands of people world-wide simply stopped what they were doing and headed for the Yukon.  One of the most popular points of embarkation was Seattle, where people could board ships headed north.  Almost overnight, all sorts of more or less seaworthy vessels were converted to carry passengers.  For the vast majority, the destination was either Skagway or Dyea.  There were other routes, but they were either much longer or prohibitively expensive.

So prospectors, mostly people with absolutely no mining experience who were ill-prepared for the rigors of the far north, streamed onto the ships, headed out over the Chilkoot or Whitehorse trails, floated down the Yukon in hastily made boats, and arrived in Dawson.
The Yukon River, full of glacial silt, which gives it a brown-gray color and gritty texture.
On the left is the Klondike River.  Fed by mountain run-off and springs, it is sparkling and clear.  In the top right-hand corner, it meets the Yukon River.  Interestingly, the two rivers don't mingle easily and a clear line of separation can be seen between the two waters for quite a distance down the river after they join.
The water on the bottom of the picture is the Klondike, with the Yukon above.
When the Klondikers reached Dawson, they were in for a devastating surprise.  The Yukon was not empty.  Even before the Rabbit Creek discovery, there were many people there, both from the First Nations and pioneers from other parts of the world.  Virtually all of the claims along the Klondike and its associated creeks had already been claimed.  There was nothing left.

Dawson today survives chiefly by selling its history to tourists.  As such, it has been preserved in its 'glory days', making the entire town a living museum.  A walk around outdoor Dawson reveals almost nothing (apart from vehicles) that is new.  The streets are spread with fresh sandy soil, rather than being paved, for example, although this may have more to do with climate than history.  The harsh conditions imposed by periodic deep freezes alternating with warming make asphalt and concrete buckle.  Packed earth and raised, wooden walkways actually make more sense.

We didn't have any alternate excursions planned, so spent a great deal of time simply walking around town enjoying the photographic 'eye candy'. 

Above three pictures, The El Dorado Hotel, a photograph inside the hotel taken in around 1898 and the way it looks now.
The Masonic Lodge (above) just looks like it's built of stone.  However, stone doesn't do well in a land where the temperature goes between -80 degrees F and +90 degrees F.  This building, and one other less well kept building in town, are faced with sheet metal that has been formed around wood to give the appearance of stone.
The local radio station.
A mural on a wall.
Many establishments consisted of bars on the ground floors, with a brothel above.  To give the same feel, one finds provocatively clothed manikins in the upstairs windows of several buildings around town.
A shop window.
Diamond Tooth Gertie's puts on a really fun 1890's musical review.  Note the woman and little girl on the left -- they were practicing Tai Chi.

Diamond Tooth Gertie
The old post office is only open to people who sign up for the tours that start from the Palace Grand Theater.  The same is true for the original British bank and the El Dorado Hotel.
 The residential area shows signs of both the past and the present, along with a lot of northern ingenuity and whimsy.

The poet Robert Service (perhaps most famous for "The Cremation of Sam McGee") lived in this cabin on the edge of town.  The cache above is adjacent to his cabin.

Being a photographer, I insisted we spend a little time inside the camera obscura, letting our eyes get used to the dark and viewing the world outside in full color and motion, but upside down.

On our second day in Dawson, we took a walk up the road leading out of town, looking for the old cemeteries.  There is one right on the last street before one heads into the woods, but there are also several more along the roadside higher up.  They include two Masonic cemeteries and a Jewish cemetery.  Most of the headstones and wooden markers are now quite old.  However, the air in Dawson is so dry that a lot of the wooden markers can still be read.   Here's a brief glimpse.

People came to the Klondike from all over the world.  This stone was erected in memory of a man born in 1855 in Denmark.  He came to the Yukon in 1886, well ahead of the gold rush, and died in 1900. 

Our hike up the hill and a short hike out to Crocus Bluff gave us a breathtaking view of Dawson, the Klondike, and the Yukon. 

From Dawson, we flew to Beaver Creek, which gave us an amazing view of the Klondike River and the results of all of the mining that's gone on there to get the gold.  The piles of earth are 'tailings' from mining operations -- the residue as dredging equipment moves along the river in the quest for gold.  It was so extensive, that they are visible from very high altitudes, as you can see.

The view from our little plane.
A shot from Google Earth.
And still higher up (also from Google Earth).  The Klondike is the dark line just above the massive, worm-like piles
We landed in Beaver Creek and were immediately transferred to our coach, which would take us on to Tok.

Next installment:  Tok, The Hermaphrodite Moose, and The Great Toilet Paper Scare.

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