Dawson City

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At first sight, Dawson City looks like a western movie set but what makes it so magnetic is it is a living museum, with real people. The building facades are elaborate and ornate, much in keeping with a Gold Rush town although the humble weatherboard is king here, now painted in rainbow colours from subdued pastels to brilliant oranges and reds.

This colourful ‘movie set’ provides the backdrop for the many interesting things to do in Dawson City. 

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Dawson City

Things To Do In Dawson City

1- Learn about the Klondike Gold Rush

dawson city canada
Dawson City is known for the Klondike Gold Rush. Photo: Destination Canada / F. Mueller.

Arizona Charlie was a charmer but I wasn’t buying any of it. “You’re one of those bad boys that my mother warned me about,” I said. He was one of three contestants in “The Greatest Klondiker Contest” at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City. I was one of three judges.

On an August afternoon, costumed interpreters portraying Arizona Charlie, land surveyor William Ogilvie and businessman and Dawson City founder Joseph Ladue each shared tales of their adventures during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and made their pitch to the theatre audience about who made the greatest contribution to Dawson City.

But perhaps it was George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley when they uncovered gold while fishing on Rabbit Creek on August 17, 1896.

When word of the find seeped out, thousands of people headed north to the Yukon seeking their fortunes.

Dawson City’s population skyrocketed from 1,500 in the spring of 1897 to an estimated 30,000 people in 1898.

But not everyone got rich digging for gold.

The stories of some of the larger-than-life characters, including Arizona Charlie Meadows, continue to be told through Dawson City’s buildings.

2- Visit the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre

Dawson city museum
Check out this Dawson City Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre for First Nations history. Photo: Government of Yukon

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation lived in the area long before the Klondike Gold Rush.

When thousands of people from around the world streamed into the area after the gold strike, their leader knew that his people would be deeply affected by the changes.

In 1897, Chief Isaac moved them from their ancestral home of Tr’ochëk to the village of Moosehide, on the Yukon River’s east bank, five kilometres downriver from Dawson City.

He continued to play an important role as a bridge between his people’s traditions and the new ways until his death in 1932.

The story of Chief Isaac and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in is told at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.

3- See the Palace Grand Theatre

Arizona Charlie Meadows, a flamboyant sharpshooter and showman, arrived in the Klondike in December 1897 with his wife Mae.

He bought shares in many claims but was more interested in entertainment than mining. He used the proceeds from his investments to build the Palace Grand Theatre in 1899.

The place became a popular venue for a variety of entertainment including theatre, comedians, knife throwers and even boxing matches.

Meadows would introduce the evening’s program before the curtain was raised. He would sometimes demonstrate his own skills with weaponry by shooting at a target that his wife Mae held – until he accidentally shot the tip off one of her fingers.

It’s here that Parks Canada hosts The Greatest Klondiker Contest during the summer.

Costumed interpreters portray a rotating cast of three contestants from Dawson City’s past, who make their pitch to the audience and a panel of judges.

Visitors can also take a backstage tour.

4- Recite poetry at Robert Service Cabin

dawson city attractions
Robert Service was a Dawson City poet of some note. Photo: Brian Atkinson

British-born poet Robert W. Service had adventure in his heart when he immigrated to Canada in 1895 at the age of 21.

He landed in Montreal and travelled by train across the country to Vancouver Island.

He worked on farms learning to milk cows, make hay, use an axe and saw, ride horses and pick apples.

Then a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce sent him to the Yukon in 1904.

He penned the poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” after hearing a story about a prospector who cremated his partner.

The Bard of the Yukon’s career as a writer was established after a publisher snapped up a collection of poems that Service had planned to send to family and friends as gifts.

The two-room, Gold Rush era log cabin where Robert Service lived and wrote in Dawson City from 1909 to 1912 is nestled amidst alders and fireweed on Eighth Avenue.

Peek inside the rustic cabin that’s an example of an early miner’s cabin.

Listen to the dramatic readings of Service’s poems at the site or during a guided walk in the woods behind the place that he once called home.

5- Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site

dawson city dredge
Dawson City historic dredge. Photo: Government of Yukon

The first dredge was built in 1899, soon after gold was discovered in the Klondike. Dredge No. 4 was built in 1912 and operated from 1913 to 1960.

It’s two-thirds the size of a football field and eight storeys high. But it’s Joe Boyle, the dredge’s builder, whose story was worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Boyle returned to Canada after spending three years at sea from the age of 17. Then hit the road again to promote Australian boxer Frank Slavin.

The two men went to the Klondike, where Boyle made a fortune from his claim on a large stretch of the Klondike River. He made his money from gold, sawing timber and generating electric power.

During World War One, Boyle spent his own money to equip a machine gun company, was appointed on a private mission to Russia’s provisional government and took command of the southwestern front’s chaotic transportation system.

He fell in love with Queen Marie of Romania after meeting her in 1918.

He was awarded the Star of Romania for saving the lives of 50 Romanians that the Bolsheviks were holding hostage in Odessa.

Boyle died in England on April 14, 1923. Although Boyle is long gone, visitors can take tours of the dredge.

A Local Perspective

When Carolyn Wong’s daughter left home to join ‘Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Can-Can Girls’, Carolyn didn’t know how her daughter’s move was going to change her own life. Moving from conservative Winnipeg to a Gold Rush city like Dawson City, Yukon was a big leap for a young girl like her daughter, but Carolyn was not lacking in a wild streak herself.

20 before, she’d married a Chinese-Canadian ranger who’d given her a summer job at a National Park where – until then – only men worked.

Dawson City, however, was no National Park and ‘Diamond Tooth Gertie’, was a gaming hall with a reputation to match.

dawson city dream
dawson city dreams

Dawson City history

Dawson City, Yukon, is the stuff of dreams, literally.

Dreams of gold that conjured up a town in a place where for centuries the Hän-speaking people of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had used as a summer meeting spot.

From there they would launch their annual moose-hunting expeditions on the Klondike Valley.

The discovery of gold in the late 19th-century caused a massive influx from neighbouring gold rush sites, especially San Francisco and Alaska.

Dawson, located at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, soon acquired city status in 1902 after the original canvas tents were replaced by hotels, saloons, opera houses, churches and later on schools.

dawson city

The mining camp became the biggest city west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco. Today, at first sight, Dawson City looks like a western movie set but the difference is that it is real, with real people living in it.

The building facades are elaborate and ornate, much in keeping with a Gold Rush town although the humble weatherboard is king here, now painted in rainbow colours from subdued pastels to brilliant oranges and reds.

dawson cityDawson City can can dancers

When Wendy Cairns bought Margaret Vera Dorval’s house (from which she had ran a busy house for the ‘Daughters of Joy’ together with a bootlegging business in Dawson) Wendy didn’t expect the initial hardship it would bring her.

Dorval had an exotic story behind her with links to brothels in the East (some say Shanghai) and to an aviator lover who used to drop parcels for her from the bomb-bay hatch of his aeroplane in the late 1930s, events which earned her the nickname of Bombay Peggy.

yukon tourism

After she died, the house was abandoned and left derelict for decades, timbers rotting in the slowly sinking swamp of downtown Dawson. You’d be forgiven for thinking Carolyn Wong and Wendy Cairns are characters from the early 1900s, but they aren’t.

They are present-day entrepreneurs who decided to try adventure and embrace risk at a mature age.

When Carolyn Wong first came to visit her Can-Can dancing daughters in 1990 (‘there were two by then, as my second daughter followed the first’ – she says), she fell in love with Dawson city and proceeded to persuade a female friend back in Winnipeg to join her in a move to Dawson to try their luck with a Bed and Breakfast business.

After a few successful but hard-working years, Carolyn is now the owner of the Aurora Inn (a sizeable hotel) and the best restaurant in town, La Table.

dawson city

dawson city

Wendy Cairns – who is an ex Can-Can dancer herself – knew something about hard work when she bought Bombay Peggy’s bawdy house in 1998 but the battle with timber rot ‘left me practically broke’ she says, looking up from her glass of mineral water, her intense blue peepers beaming.

She had the entire house moved to higher ground; restored it at great expense and transformed it into a unique boutique hotel where all rooms are themed and furnished with period pieces.

The problems she encountered were the same the pioneers had: rotting timbers.

Except along the riverfront, the rest of Dawson was a frozen swamp.

The method for building was to lay timbers on the ground creating a base to put a building on.

The construction of streets followed the same pattern after wagons transformed the thawing frost into a quagmire mess.

Sidewalks are boardwalks raised well above street level.

Dawson’s streets remain unpaved to this day giving it that unique, authentic look.

What is it with Can-Can girls and Dawson? As a flourishing Gold Rush town, this was a place where successful miners could get anything money could buy: from a Can-Can troupe to a bride.

Women of the Gold Rush

In the early 1900s, at the height of the Canadian Gold Rush, Dawson was labelled The Paris of the North. Extraordinary tales of Gold Rush women abound in the Yukon.

Women that toughed it out; went over the treacherous Chilkoot Pass; shot the rapids and finally arrived at an isolated community in a harsh, cold climate.

They came as entertainers, madams and a few as entrepreneurs to fulfil their Dawson City dreams.

One example was Belinda Mulroney – a poor Irish girl – who on arriving in Dawson in the early 1900s threw all her coins into the river, bowing she would never need small change again.

She went on to build an empire. Twice.

She had to start all over again after her French husband squandered her fortune.

Life was hard for people who came out of their own will but worse for the animals they brought to achieve their dreams: horses and sled dogs.

Jack London immortalised the plight of the Yukon sled dogs in his novels Call of the Wild and White Fang but he also wrote about the fate of many horses.

Today Dawson City is a picturesque town where the ute is king.

The old Sour Doughs (as the first pioneers called themselves because they always carried with them a bit of ‘mother dough’ to start their loaves) now run boutiques, ice cream parlours, real estate agencies and restaurants while still keeping their passion for this harsh part of the world.

The Yukon is magnetic.

Just ask the locals.

For more exciting attractions in Yukon read:

Dawson City – 5 Things to do

Dawson City – 5 Things to do

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helena katz
I was born and raised in Montréal but moved to a small, subarctic community in Canada's Northwest Territories in 2006. My partner and I raise alpacas that are guarded by a pair of Thelma-and-Louise style Great Pyrenees who team up to keep wolves and bears away. My stories have appeared in magazines, newspapers and on websites in Canada and the United States. I've also published four true crime books because I didn't want to let my criminology degree go to waste. How I ended up a travel writer is a complete mystery to me.