Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
DAWSON CITY, YUKON TERRITORY — America’s issues, you could argue, are rooted here, on the muddy banks of a thin tributary whose gelid flow of water would be innocuous if it wasn’t once so thick with the most coveted metal known to earth that it ignited a phenomenal wave of human exploration whose ripples continue to impact the world today.
On August 16, 1896, three members of an indigenous family from the Tagish and Tlingit First Nations and one of their in-laws found gold in Rabbit Creek, a waterway that had been passed over for years by previous prospectors who headed south and toward larger lakes and rivers. Rabbit Creek, though, had so much gold that the prospectors who first snatched the auriferous deposits from it could nearly load up a steel pan with the stuff. Soon, Rabbit Creek was renamed Bonanza Creek as word reached Seattle and San Francisco that gold — which is far heavier in mass than water (19.3 grams/millilitre vs. 1 g/mL) — could be plucked from a lightly travelled wilderness region in Yukon. The Klondike Gold Rush was on. A massive chase for audacious wealth, the gold rush was over in a blink — with the population in the area booming from a scant few who lived in camps and aboriginal longhouses to about 40,000 after the discovery and then back down to less than 8,000 before 1900. It changed lives, took many and left a legacy that endures.
Among the benefactors were business elite, such as the New York-based Guggenheim family, who could afford to finance large digs around Bonanza Creek and elsewhere in Yukon, dredging lakes and rivers, and reaching deep into the earth in hopes of finding every possible nugget or speck of gold. The Guggenheims owned the largest gold-mining operation in the Klondike at the start of the 20th Century. Some others who did not have major stakes in the gold industry could still become rich, thanks to the ripple effect of wealth. Those lucky entrepreneurs included Friedrich Trump, a German immigrant who worked as a barber in New York before heading west to Seattle, setting up a hotel and brothel to cater to many in the gold-prospecting industry. In 1897, when a boat carrying a motherlode of gold from the Klondike — the area of Yukon that takes its name from a river close to Bonanza Creek — arrived in Seattle, it made headline news, with one newspaper’s front page screaming: “Gold! Gold! Gold!”
Trump was among a stampede of people who got the idea they could get rich quick. He first sent two prospectors up to the Klondike to stake claims — a process where a company or individual would purchase a plot of land and possess the rights to mine it for a short period of time; the land itself belonged to the Canadian government. According to the biography, “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built An Empire” by Gwenda Blair, Friedrich Trump would also join the rush himself, making the arduous trek to northern British Columbia and Yukon to do what he did best — run hotels with restaurants and brothels inside.
His Arctic Hotel operated in Whitehorse, now the capital of Yukon, and added to the fortune he amassed during the Klondike Gold Rush era. Soon after the hotel closed in 1904, Trump left the west coast and did so with enough wealth to sustain himself and future generations of his family, including a grandson who would become the 45th president of the United States.
Dawson City’s Boom Days Aren’t Over
More than a century after it started, the effects of the Klondike Gold Rush can be felt in Donald Trump’s America as well as in the town the stampede created. Dawson City — with a population of 1,375, according to the 2016 census — grew out of the camps around the Klondike and Yukon rivers. It reached a height of more than 30,000 in 1898 before the gold became harder to find and the frenzy shifted to Alaska and elsewhere in the north. There’s still gold, however. In fact, some believe the biggest deposits have yet to be uncovered. Finding it would require lots of money, time and expertise. Amateurs, though, can search the old-fashioned way, panning for gold in Bonanza Creek, whose gentle waters will cool your skin as it splashes your ankles while you squat for fortune. One site on Bonanza Road offers a tutorial on proper panning technique as well as rentals of pans and shovels to see if you can strike it rich. (Don’t get your hopes up.)
Experiencing Dawson City is far more than reliving one of the most iconic boom-and-bust stories in history or chasing your own financial gain. It is a remarkable destination because of its isolation, quirkiness and staggering natural beauty. The last outpost in western Canada before you hit the Arctic Circle, Dawson City keeps alive the mythology of Canada’s wilderness and what it can do for the soul.
It is cold in winter — with temperatures routinely falling to minus-40 degrees — but blissfully hot in summer. I visited in the first week of June and was amazed by the warmth (approaching 30 Celsius degrees, or 86 Fahrenheit) and the surreal sensation of witnessing and standing in adoration of sunlight at 2 a.m., closing time at The Pit, the bar at the Westminster Hotel that still sees plenty of raucous nights and unique socializing. Workers who toil at the number of mining pits still operating near Dawson City mingle with hospitality industry employees who are often from out of town and debating whether to stay for longer than a season, or they chat with tourists who stream into the bar after watching the midnight cabaret show at Diamond Tooth Gerties, the non-profit casino and saloon whose revenues go back into improving the town, boosting its marketing budget and assisting development in other Yukon municipalities.
The show at Gerties includes salacious themes as actors play up the sordid history of Dawson City, where gold diggers mixed with prostitutes who were entangled with booze smugglers who were connected with nefarious figures from “outside” — the colloquial term used by residents to describe anything not in or from town.
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While Gerties, Canada’s first casino, revels in history, The Pit and its patrons do their best at the bar or on the dance floor to reenact some of the activities at the end of the 1800s that made the place famous. Whether its mining for love or prosperity, enough people have found what they wanted in Dawson City during the years that its reputation as a place you have to venture to remains. The temptation, for many, is irresistible. Come here once and there’s no doubt you will understand why.
MORE ABOUT VISITING DAWSON CITY
Getting There: The town operates a small airport and has daily flights from Whitehorse, which is 535 kilometres (332 miles) south. Many travellers also drive between the two centres that are connected by the North Klondike Highway. You can also drive from Alaska on the Top of the World Highway.
Where to Stay: Bombay Peggy’s Inn (2nd Avenue and Princess Streets; see map below) is a beautifully appointed Victorian-style hotel with delightful touches that evoke the city’s past, including glamorous photographs of the women who used to work in town. Among them is the hotel’s namesake, Margaret Vera Dorval, whose aviator boyfriend reputedly dropped gifts for her out of the bomb bay of his aircraft while both lived in Shanghai, China. When she returned to Canada in the 1940s, Dorval opened a hotel and brothel in the house that is now named after her. Room Rates: In the summer, private rooms start at $195 per night; rooms with shared baths start at $99 per night. Website: bombaypeggys.com.
Where to Dine: The Drunken Goat Tavern (950 Second Avenue) serves Greek and Italian fare, including gourmet pizzas. The Aurora Inn (5 Avenue) serves steaks, seafood and schnitzel. Alchemy Cafe (3, 878 Third Avenue) has good breakfast options, including dishes with organic eggs.
What to Do: Parks Canada — which owns 32 of the historic buildings in Dawson City — operates daily 90-minute walking tours out of its downtown visitor’s centre. The Klondike Spirit is a paddle boat that provides two-hour cruises along the Yukon River. Diamond Tooth Gerties is a must-see attraction; entry is $12 per person. The casino includes slots, table games and card games, including poker.