Fields Of Gold

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Last summer I flew from Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, to Dawson City, center of the gold-rush Klondike. The plane was a bright yellow DC-3, the Lucky Lou , presumably named for a character in Robert W. Service’s ballad “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” It was early August, nearly ninety-nine years to the day since the huge find at nearby Bonanza Creek that, a year later, triggered history’s last and most frenzied gold-seeking stampede. The rigorous 1897 trek to the sub-Arctic reaches of these goldfields, made mostly by unprepared young Americans, was a drama that Service mined frequently:

Gold! We leapt from our benches Gold! We sprang from our stools. Gold! We wheeled in the furrow, fired with the faith of fools.

It began on August 17, 1896, at Discovery Claim, on Bonanza Creek. There the American prospector George Carmack and his Tagish friends (members of the native population) Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, following a tip from a fellow prospector, found the first nuggets. No one knows for sure whether Charlie, George, or his wife, Kate Carmack, discovered the gold that, as the Canadian historian Pierre Berton writes, lay “thick between the flaky slabs of rock like cheese in a sandwich.”

The strike, the world’s richest, gave rise to an odd community. As word spread, prospectors, known as “insiders,” who had been working these hills for years without much luck, rushed to Dawson, then a sparsely populated mud flat on the Yukon River. A letter one miner sent “outside” (as the rest of the world was called) on August 17, 1897, describes the town as a “collection of odds and ends of houses and habitations … a row of barrooms called Front Street; the side streets deep in mud; the river-bank a mass of miner’s boats, Indian canoes, and logs.”

The tent camp that letter portrays would soon burgeon into a gaudy metropolis of about thirty thousand. Eggs sold at two dollars each, fortunes were made from the ground and lost at the gambling table in the space of a day, and dance-hall girls sold themselves for their weight in gold. That party lasted little more than a year—from 1898 to 1899—until the newcomers found all the best claims staked and followed rumors of gold to Nome.

Dawson, named the territorial capital in 1898, started to calm down. Those who remained worked to carve out more respectable lives, building churches and concert halls, holding afternoon teas and formal dinner parties. But slowly most of the vigor leaked out of the town, as each year more and more people left for “outside” on the season’s last steamer. Inevitably Dawson descended into the realm of ghost town, and by early 1950, when its great chronicler, Pierre Berton, came back to his childhood home, the population numbered just five hundred. Wrote Berton: “The weeds grow rankly along the rotting wooden sidewalks … [and] there are great ragged gaps in the town now where buildings have been burned down or been torn down, or simply fallen down.”

Today’s visitor finds neither the first ragged tent site nor the circus of glittering excess. Time hasn’t stopped at those sad, later days of decay either. Even in the usual tourist allotment of a day or two, you’ll see Dawson through all these lenses, simultaneously and separately, and always among these multiple images, the present-day town asserts itself.

Though the commercial buildings here look as if they have stood for a century, almost none of them date from gold-rush days; over the years fires destroyed much of early Dawson. Everywhere, shops aimed at tourists alternate with those that still outfit fishermen, campers, hunters, and the slightly dazed-looking youth who, as spiritual descendants of those first gold seekers, plan to head out to test themselves in the dark, icy seasons of the wild.

History is built into the natural foundations of the place: the gold-bearing streams and mountains and the moody khaki-colored river that pushes north from here to the Bering Sea. But much of Dawson’s present-day appearance results from the excellent work of Parks Canada and local preservationists, who have found numerous creative ways to show the visitor what was here, what was lost, and what must still be saved.

All over town, fronting both abandoned buildings and those still in use, green wooden signs explain the roles these structures played in Dawson’s great days. Down by the river the former Canadian Bank of Commerce manages to radiate a sort of imperial pride, despite its blind-eyed windows and peeling paint. This tin-clad Dawson version of the Renaissance Revival style (so says the sign) is where Robert Service worked as a clerk in 1908, weighing out gold dust. Despite his ability to summon up all the drama and madness of the 1897 stampede in Kiplingesque cadence, the English-born and Scottish-raised Service arrived in the Yukon when the rush was over. Nevertheless his log cabin is a major shrine in town, and on summer weekends the performer Tom Byrne reads out Service’s verse on the front lawn with a fine Scottish burr.