Thousands of adventurers tried to reach the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers during the next three years. They came from around the world -- driven by a passion for gold and the untold riches which the Klondike promised. But the real challenge was not mining the gold, it was getting to Dawson City. Most of the adventurers left from Seattle and made their way north by steamship. Some journeyed all the way to Dawson on the water: by steamer to the mouth of the Yukon on the Bering Sea, and on smaller boats up the river to the Klondike. Most began their overland journey in Skagway, Alaska. Here they were met by the most incredible collection of thugs and con men ever assembled in one place. Those who escaped the clutches of Skagway had to climb the ice steps of the Chilcoot Pass over and over again, carrying a ton of supplies and crossing into Canada, where they had to build boats and rafts to take them down the Yukon River system, passing through treacherous rapids and swift canyons, to Dawson City.
Those who made it to Dawson found the prime spots on the creeks already claimed. Many turned around and returned home. Some stayed to take advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush by setting up businesses, hotels, restaurants, theaters, dance halls and all of the other amenities which made Dawson known as the "Paris of the North" during the four years when 30,000 people lived in the frontier city.
Dawson City was the largest city north of San Francisco. The successful gold miners spent fortunes on grand living in the hotels, dance halls, saloons and other establishments, including those which offered the services of young ladies who were specially imported to the gold rush capital.
Most accouterments of civilization were available in Dawson. There were local daily newspapers. Arizona Charlie Meadows built the Palace Grand Theatre which offered high-class entertainment by world famous artists. "Fresh" eggs were rafted down the Yukon. Champagne flowed in the Eldorado Hotel and boatloads of whiskey arrived before freeze-up each year.
By 1903, more than $96 million in gold had been taken out of the creeks. Ten years after the discovery of gold, the rush was over. There were a few millionaires and many who left with unfulfilled dreams.
The Klondike Gold Rush is remembered as the greatest adventure of them all. It was a brief, exciting period of history that continues to live through memory and existing reminders of the gold rush period in Dawson City, Whitehorse, Skagway and places in between.
After the Gold Rush
The history of the Yukon since the end of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1903 is a story of ups and downs, decline and revival. The miners of Dawson City continued to take gold out of the Klondike gold field, switching to hydraulic mining which washed earth down from the hillsides. Then huge dredges traveled along the creek beds sweeping all in their paths, extracting what gold remained after the gold rush was over. These dredges, operated mainly by the Consolidated Gold Co., created the long tailing piles that remain today. Gold dredging was finally concluded in the 1960s when gold prices dropped and dredging became uneconomical. The population of Dawson City declined over the years. By 1960, there were only 350 permanent residents.
Other kinds of minerals supported the economy of the Yukon. Silver mines at Elsa, near Mayo, were an important factor. Later, the lead/zinc mine at Faro added to the importance of Whitehorse as the commercial center of the Yukon.
However, it was the Second World War that brought new people and money to the Yukon with the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942. Thousands of army engineers and construction workers flooded through the Yukon to build and maintain the highway as a military roadway to Alaska. Whitehorse quickly eclipsed Dawson City as the Yukon's major city. The Yukon territorial government was moved to Whitehorse in 1953. Whitehorse had become the trading and transportation center of the territory, with Canadian Army and Air Force bases and the train connection with Skagway, Alaska. While the military bases are no longer here, Whitehorse has expanded over the years and is now a modern, bustling commercial and government center.
Following the end of the war, the Alaska Highway was opened for public traffic and brought the first highway tourists to the Yukon. By the early 1960s, tourism had become a growing focus for Yukoners. The Yukon and Canadian governments realized that Dawson City provided a priceless heritage that should be preserved. With its decline in population, Dawson's original buildings had been abandoned and left to deteriorate. While some buildings remained from the gold rush era, several fires had swept through the community and quick action was required to preserve those structures that remained.
The Palace Grand Theatre was restored to its original glory in 1962. The paddle-wheeler "SS Keno" was moved down the river from Whitehorse, to become a historical museum on the banks of the Yukon. Dawson was declared a National Historic Site and the National Parks Service was placed in charge of the restoration of significant Dawson buildings and gold mining sites. Virtually the whole town and several places outside of Dawson are historic sites, and the work continues today.
Your car or RV will be useful in getting around the historic gold rush areas close to Dawson City. Aside from the downtown area, the most fascinating sights are slightly out of town, around Bonanza, Hunker, and Bear creeks. These old mining camps and the large dredge on Bonanza Creek (where it all began) take you back to the "Days of '98" and the most incredible and last great gold rush on earth.
The best place to go, as soon as you arrive, is the Visitor Information Centre on Front Street. This office has the answers for all of the questions you may have, from hotel rates to guided tours of the gold fields and the departure times of the daily river cruises. Here you'll find a useful map of the downtown area.
There are guided walking tours leaving from the information centre each day. Other guided tours take you by mini-bus to the historic gold fields. Panning for gold (helped by a bit of friendly cheating) is a popular activity.
One of several walking trails leads to the old Native community of Moosehide, downstream from Dawson. Should you visit this abandoned village, please respect private property. Another trail leads up the Midnight Dome for spectacular views of Dawson City, the Yukon Valley and the goldfields.
Dawson City is a one-of-a-kind experience. 286 KM (165 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, Dawson remains a living reminder of the greatest gold rush of all time: the 1898 Klondike Stampede.
For an immersion in history, Dawson has no equal with its dusty, sometimes muddy streets, boardwalks, sagging gold rush-era buildings, restored national historic sites, authentic 1890s gambling casino, working gold claims on the historic creeks, and the more recently constructed hotels, stores, and restaurants with false fronts. Over the past thirty years, Dawson City has been carefully preserved and restored and is, for our money, the outstanding tourist destination of the north. To catch the full excitement and romance of Dawson City, you should read Pierre Berton's book Klondike, published by McLelland and Stewart, the definitive book on the Klondike Gold Rush. It's available at bookstores in Dawson and Whitehorse and throughout the U.S. and Canada.
As viewed from Midnight Dome -- the round mountain which rises behind Dawson City---the townsite is a large, orderly grid. It was surveyed by William Ogilvie to accommodate the 30,000 people who lived here during the short gold rush period. Today, 1,600 people live in or near Dawson City, some of them mining for gold more than 90 years after the discovery. Dawson City was declared a national historic site in the early 1960s and significant buildings and gold mining sites have been restored. These locations are open for public viewing from June through mid-September. Accommodations and food are expensive in Dawson City, and visitors should plan ahead for the higher-than-average costs of a stay in Dawson.
The city's Visitor's Reception Centre is operated by the Klondike Visitors Association, a community group. The centre is located at Front and King streets, downtown. This building is a re-creation of an old Northern Commercial Co. store. This is the location for complete information on the Klondike area and the starting point for walking tours. The office is open daily from mid-May to Mid September. For advance information, call (403) 993-5566.
The Dempster Highway and Northwest Territories Information Center is found in the B.Y.N. Building, across Front Street from the town visitor centre. The building was the former home of the British Yukon Navigation Company. The infocenter is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. from June to September.
Dawson City Airport is located on the Klondike Highway, south of town. The government ferry crosses the Yukon River from Front Street, connecting with the Top Of The World Highway. This is a free ferry, operating daily through the summer months.
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