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Gold Rush in Dawson City, Canada

It came and went in a flash

How the Gold Rush shaped Dawson City, Yukon

TEXT: CHRISTIAN NÄTHLER

The population growth of any given city usually moves in a very binary manner. It starts with a scraggle of early settlers, followed by a few hundred more, and, if the economic conditions present themselves, maybe another couple thousand join them. A few decades later comes a railroad, the first multinational corporations, and official ‘city’ status. But every once in a while there’s an outlier moving in the opposite trajectory. Case in point:

THE ISOLATED TOWN OF DAWSON CITY, YUKON, IN THE NORTHWEST CORNER OF CANADA.

They arrived following word that local miners had found gold in the remote nothingness of northwestern Canada on August 16, 1896.

The high point of history for DAWSON CITY begins with 40,000 people showing up on the footsteps of the YUKON RIVER seemingly overnight. And they didn’t show up with gifts. In fact, they came to take them. The descendants arrived primarily from SEATTLE and SAN FRANCISCO following word that local miners had found gold in the remote nothingness of northwestern Canada on August 16, 1896. By early 1899, some 100,000 prospectors had rushed to Dawson City to slum it in the mines, service the new economy, or merely pass through as spectators. Among them was the famed American writer JACK LONDON, who wrote several of his first successful works in the ‘WHITE SILENCE’ of the Yukon.

JACK LONDON

An arduous journey

Indeed, the majority of those who trekked to DAWSON CITY in those three years – and it really was an arduous journey – were disappointed on arrival. There simply wasn’t the abundance of gold they had expected, and life anything but pleasant. Of course, it’s also a significant challenge to dig through permafrost (winter temperatures regularly dip below minus 30 degrees Celsius). In fact, it’s estimated that the total expense of those who travelled to Dawson City between 1897 and 1901 exceeded the output of the gold mines in the entire region. It’s no wonder most of those who came were in just as big a rush to get out.

By 1899, the gold rush was effectively over. Only 8,000 inhabitants remained in Dawson City, with the majority of those who had arrived just a few years earlier forced out by intolerable living conditions and encouraged by reports of gold elsewhere. Railroads that began construction shortly after the first settlers were obsolete before they even went into operation. What did last was the decimation of the Native Hän people, who were forced into reserves during the rush and suffered major losses in the following years.

Don’t make a scene should you be so lucky to discover gold

Today, DAWSON CITY’S calling is one inextricably tied to its past. Only 1,375 people live there now, many of them supported by the money brought in by tourists looking to catch a glimpse of an era gone by. And that they do – 8 NATIONAL HISTORIC  SITES OF CANADA are located in the city to commemorate the wonder that was the gold rush. Many of the buildings continue to boast facades in the style of 19th Century architecture, and there’s even a bylaw that states new buildings must adhere to this aesthetic. Allow the story of Dawson City to offer a lesson:

DON’T MAKE A SCENE SHOULD YOU BE SO LUCKY TO DISCOVER GOLD.