Sunday, 16 July 2017

On Dawson City

Dawson City is an odd place. It was a nothing place until the Goldrush which caused the population to reach 40,000 in 1898 (more than the current population of the whole Yukon). Yet within 5 five years, the population fell to less than 5,000. Moreover, within ten years or so, the nature of the place underwent a shift from a town of sourdough prospectors to a territorial capital with pretensions of grandeur, electricity and corporate bigwigs. Individual claims were replaced by large mining concessions using equipment on a massive scale. Yet the image of Dawson is that of the sourdough. However, precious little of that is actually around. The buildings, in various states of repair, are those of the Edwardian era Dawson which slowly faded as 20th century wore on. This process was hastened when Whitehorse became the capital in 1953.  Pierre Berton made an NFB film in 1957 called City of Gold which describes the fading town. Berton and his works have contributed heavily to Dawson City now enjoying a new life of tourism playing on the past, but the past being promoted is very much a sepia-toned one. Not that it is the only past being shown as if I see other pasts, then so might others, even if they don't have my background in history. For one thing, there is now a very conscious effort to get the First Nations version of events put out.

One example of this confused spirit might be where I stayed, Bombay Peggy's Inn and Pub. It is named after a brothel owner who was active as late as the 1930s if my guess about her picture is anything to go by. The inside of the building is done up in pseudo-Victorian splendour. The Inn offers complimentary private label sherry or port to its guests. The pub offers a list of cocktails which bears scrutiny as the names are often the only inventive thing about them. I give you the example of the "Bloomer Dropper" which consists of gin, vermouth and olive. This cocktail is better known as the Martini. When I pointed this out to the bartender, he shrugged and brought my attention to the "Spank me I'm naughty" which he said was in fact a cosmopolitan. I will give them credit for their Dark and Stormy which featured spiced rum and Crabbie's (alcoholic) Ginger Beer.
The down side of staying there was that bar patrons would exit the building for a smoke and have loudish conversations late at night. Or more accurately, very late in the evening as the Sun set at around a quarter to one in the morning. The above photograph was taken after I was woken up at half-past midnight.
The only paved street in town was the Klondike Highway and I couldn't help wonder if this was because it gave the place a frontier atmosphere and created a rationale for the wooden sidewalks! I was also surprised by the presence of a pedicab!
In the morning, I walked over to the ferry landing to bear witness to a line of some two dozen RVs waiting to cross so they could drive the Top of the World Highway to Alaska. My guess is that they were in for a long wait as the small ferry gave priority to other vehicles, such as those of the Transport Ministry. I got on the ferry just for fun and the only RV to get on was one that had been taken out of sequence as it was fairly small!
I spent the day seeking out various historic sights, including a Parks Canada tour of downtown which went inside several old buildings and included "chance" encounters with Mme Tremblay, a renactress of a past era.

One of the things on my list for Dawson was dredge Number 4. This is the largest wooden dredge in the world, which probably means less than it sounds. It was described as being 8 stories tall and the pins linking its buckets together in a chain were over a ton each. It was a floating factory with no means of propulsion (its position was controlled by cables attached to anchor points on land) or indeed power source (it was powered by electricity generated many miles away, supplied by wires). It was a study in contradictions. It only took 4 people to operate it, but required about a hundred to keep it going as in order to scoop up the ore-bearing gravel, there was a lot of prep work to be done. It was up Bonzana Creek (site of the initial discovery) and the stream I saw as I drove up was small. It seems that it sat in a pond of its own creation, one which it could bring with it by eating up the ground in front and spewing it out behind. Yet however massive it was, it worked on the same placer mine principle as the sourdough miners used. Gold bearing gravel was shifted, shaken and washed and the gold sank to the bottom. It operated until the winter layover of 1959-1960. In the spring of 1960, a dam broke upstream of the dredge and it was flooded with water, gravel and sand. The owners decided it wasn't worth salvaging and wrote it off. It is now property of Parks Canada.
 The shack housing the admissions booth for the Dredge featured a mining pan and a satellite dish on the wall! The tour showed us and let us handle a one-ounce nugget of gold.

There was a mining operation just up the creek that was re-shifting the gravel in the hopes of finding more gold, that which two previous efforts had missed. As I drove down past spoil heaps of gravel, I wondered if the gravel might be useful as "pre-mined" construction material. I then thought of the issue of the residual gold content which would have made it too valuable to use for road building! This prompted me to stop and gather up some sand for Dominique!

Back in town, I went on a tour of the former Commissioner's Residence (the Commissioner being the territorial equivalent of a provincial lieutenant governour). More Edwardian splendour and more Parks Canada reenactors giving vignets of the past, particularly the 1900s when Dawson City was transitioning from sourdough to corporate mining.
Like much of Dawson, it was a ghost of the past.

Me being me, I went to the museum and found out more about the odd history of Dawson. I was also fascinated by the railway annex featuring several old narrow gauge locomotives that had been used for a few years then abandonned for the amusement of children such as Pierre Berton. I was fascinated by the inner wheels of one of the locomotives which lacked the normal flanges seen on train wheels to keep them on the rails. The locomotive in question featured four linked driving axles. As the railway was probably quite winding, the relatively long, rigid wheel base would not have been able to cope with the curves unless the middle axles were allowed to shift. I had read about such arrangements, but this was first time I saw it.

All through the day, I kept on seeing and talking to cycle-tourists including a couple of young lads from Vancouver, a Japanese man about 7 years into his trip and an Italian.
I felt a little sheepish for not having invented a way to make the trip into bike expedition. However, que sera, sera.

While having supper in the Drunken Goat Taverna, I found I was sitting next to a colourful local character called Larry. He claimed he lived by hunting, trapping and piloting barges on the Yukon River. There is still commercial traffic on the River which as I expected consists mostly of heavy equipment for mines and fuel. Larry seemed almost too colourful to be real. He claimed not to have much education with the exception of a fascination for Robert Service. He asked me with a straight face if I knew any of Service's work. I answered "There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold."

I ended the day by going to Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall. This features gambling and can-can dancers. It was a surreal experience. The dancers were putting on a show that was obviously done for the tourists. Yet in this day and age, tourists know that such things are only done for their benefit. Compounding the mix is the fact that burlesque is now viewed as a feminist statement. So who was fooling who?
The confusion didn't prevent me from posing with the dancers. However, as I was standing at the back, I didn't get asked to join them on stage like some other patrons.

Later that evening, I stopped in the Downtown Hotel where the fabled Sourtoe Cocktail is served. I managed to avoid having one. In fact, I managed to avoid having anything there as the atmosphere was more akin to a themed bar on a cruise ship than anything else.

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