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Story and Photos by Karoline Cullen
For Travel Writers' Tales

They lean into each other. With blackened windows and peeling paint they are obviously abandoned. Yet next door, a modern cafe is abuzz with patrons. The contrast between these buildings encapsulates the boom and bust cycle of a Klondike Gold Rush town.

Leaning Buildings

Four of us are exploring the many facets of Dawson City, Yukon. When Klaus can hardly find space to pin his hometown on the "Where are You From?" map at Klondike Kate's, we realize that many still flock to this northern outpost.

Klaus and the "Where are You From?" map

Dawson's first boom came in 1896, when news of gold discovered at Bonanza Creek started the Rush. In a single season, Dawson City went from a tent city outpost on a mud flat flanked by the Klondike and Yukon Rivers to a sprawling boom town with frame buildings and boardwalks. By 1898, it was the largest town west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle and known as the "Paris of the North." With over 300 businesses including grocery and dress stores, blacksmiths, saloons, and dance halls, it was the service and supply centre for thousands of prospectors. Now the town site is a National Historic Complex.

The Parks Canada guide behind the teller's cage in the restored bank tells us it was a safe town despite a rowdy population indulging in gambling and prostitution. Men readily brought their families to Dawson. The Northwest Mounted Police, well regarded for their integrity, confiscated firearms as stampeders came into town and thereby, order was maintained.

We have a sense of discovery while wandering the dusty roads. There are no paved streets or concrete sidewalks because the permafrost would cause them to heave. Buildings a century or more old are either decrepit, fixed up just on the front and a ruin otherwise, have sod roofs sprouting grasses and flowers, or are lovingly refurbished. Robert Service, bard of the Yukon, lived in a cozy cabin on a hillside at the top of town. The buildings constructed in the early 1900s reflect the high optimism held for Dawson's future. The City Museum is in an attractive, grey neoclassical structure that was the Old Territorial Administration Building. The Commissioner's House is an elegant, pillared, yellow and white mansion. Being invited there for tea was a social coup back in the day.

Commissioner's House

On the waterfront, the restored sternwheeler SS Keno holds pride of place. Paddle wheelers, with their shallow drafts, were ideal for plying the Yukon River. More than sixty paddle wheelers worked the route, transporting adventurers, ore, supplies and machinery. We take an evening cruise on the Klondike Spirit and pass the paddlewheel graveyard on the bank opposite Dawson. There, a number of paddle wheelers slowly disintegrate on the shore. Some hulls are so splintered, they look like pick-up sticks. We sail past dark, wooded hills and get an inkling of the vast untamed wilderness between Dawson and the next speck of civilization.

SS Keno

The SS Klondike Spirit on the river

To further explore some of that empty space, we head north on the Dempster Highway. This 750 kilometer gravel challenge runs across the Arctic Circle to Inuvik. From its start, the next services are a long 370 km away. We only drive far enough to traverse Tombstone Territorial Park with its rugged mountain peaks. At the North Fork Pass summit, we are surrounded by rolling, velvet green tundra. It is a treeless plain, spongy with a thick layer of lichen and moss over near continuous permafrost. It is so springy that keeping my balance as I walk across it is a challenge. At Two Moose Lake, we watch a moose leisurely feed on the underwater vegetation. As she wanders off over the alpine tundra, we retrace our route to Dawson.

At the North Fork Pass summit along the Dempster Highway

Overlooking Dawson City from Midnight Dome

Next day at the top of Midnight Dome, we have a panoramic view of the town, its rivers, and its many hillsides marked by mining. For a closer look at where the boom started, we follow Bonanza Creek Road past abandoned homesteads and massive tailing piles made by dredges. By 1905, machines had replaced men panning on the creeks. One such machine was Dredge No. 4. It is the largest wooden hulled bucket dredge in North America and it towers above us; two-thirds of a football field long and eight stories high. Dredge No. 4 could dig gold bearing gravel at the rate of twenty-two buckets a minute and in its forty-six years of operation, it unearthed nine tons of gold. This valley has been continuously mined since the 1890s and there are active gold claims still. Maybe we should give gold panning a try; but would it be boom or bust for us?

Dredge No. 4


Dawson City is about a seven hour drive on the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse. Stop at Lake Leberge to read or recite "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service. Enroute you could have the biggest cinnamon buns ever, and stop for lunch at Moose Creek. In July, there is about twenty hours of daylight so the drive can be leisurely.

Parks Canada Klondike National Historic Sites of Canada

Travel Yukon

Dempster Highway

PHOTOS by Karoline Cullen, Cullen Photos:

1. Leaning Buildings
2. Klaus and the "Where are You From?" map
3. Commissioner's House
4. SS Keno
5. The SS Klondike Spirit on the river
6. At the North Fork Pass summit along the Dempster Highway
7. Overlooking Dawson City from Midnight Dome
8. Dredge No. 4


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