Dawson City - More than Gold

By Susan Huebert   Trail Canada

Mention Dawson City, Yukon, and the first thought in many people’s minds will be the gold rush. The town no longer has fevered gold-seekers setting up camp like in the 1890s, but traces of the Klondike history still mingle with the new economy, with museums and historic buildings providing links to the past, while theatres, hiking trails, and much more provide a wide variety of activities for travellers. A visit to Dawson City takes visitors back to the past, showing them the sights and sounds of one of the territory’s most famous towns and the changing fortunes that turned the once-booming city into the small but dynamic place it now is.

Dawson City, 536 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, was at the centre of the gold rush. The discovery of the precious metal in Rabbit Creek, renamed Bonanza Creek, caused a frenzied influx of prospectors in 1896 as thousands of people travelled north, hoping to become rich. Dawson City was formed to provide the amenities of town life for the newcomers. With running water, telephones, steamboat services, and hotels, Dawson City was the most modern centre west of Winnipeg, and at its height in 1898, almost 40,000 people lived there. That all changed, however, when the gold rush ended in 1899; the city declined until there were only 5000 people in 1902, and it has remained small ever since despite sporadic periods of growth. In 2003, the population was just under 1800, but the vibrant culture that had grown up around the prospectors remained. Authors Robert Service, Pierre Berton, and Jack London all drew inspiration for their writing from the town with its rich history and quietly spectacular scenery, lit by the midnight sun in summer and the northern lights in winter.

Literary inspiration is only part of Dawson City’s cultural attraction. The Dawson City Music Festival, the Klondike River Arts Festival, and the Dawson City Film Festival complement the attractions of a writer-in-residence program, frequent poetry readings and talent shows, and art displays. The Jack London Cabin and Interpretive Centre recreates the winter of 1897, when the author of Call of the Wild mingled with miners. Historic photographs are also on display. Similar exhibits are at the Robert Service cabin; although the poet moved to Dawson city after the gold rush, his famous poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” vividly portrays the spirit of the era.

A more comprehensive picture of Dawson City in the late 1800s comes in the Dawson City Museum, where extensive genealogical materials can help tourists trace ancestors who visited the area. The Old Post Office is a good place to experience life at the turn of the twentieth century and to buy a package of commemorative stamps. Built at a time when people believed the north would continue to grow, the post office has stayed active despite Dawson City’s shrinking population. The town became a National Historic Site in 1960, and much of it history has been preserved in the buildings and displays around the town. The gold prospecting history is especially popular. Dredge No. 4 just a short drive up Bonanza Creek shows what the prospecting life was like, while visitors can pan for gold themselves at Claim 33. The gold rush will never be as real for visitors as it is in Dawson City.

Although gold rush history dominates Dawson City’s attractions, the town contains much more to interest visitors. A good place to start any tour is the Visitor Reception Centre, where information on everything from historic sites to accommodation and restaurants is available. The Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation Cultural Centre features cultural displays and weekly theatrical productions or exhibitions of song and dance, while the Palace Grand Theatre is a fascinating historic recreation of an old vaudeville and opera venue. The summertime Gaslight Follies plays are over for the season, but the theatre is still worth a visit.

Outdoor activities are essential to any visit to Dawson City. Riding along the river in the 100-passenger Yukon Queen II ship to Eagle, Alaska, can be a relaxing five-hour trip, while hiking the Crocus Bluff, Moosehide, or Ridge Road trails is good for active visitors. Canoeing, rafting, and boating are available in good weather, while dog mushing, skiing, and other winter sports can keep visitors occupied once the snow falls. Temperatures can be cold in winter, but thick parkas and boots are good protection against the elements.

The search for gold, a celebration of culture, and the varied landscape of the north are all part of the attraction in Dawson City, Yukon. For a long tour or a short visit, the site of the gold rush is a good place for people of all ages to see.

Dawson Features

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