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 Yukon. I was one of three judges.
Klondike Gold Rush
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.
Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre
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.
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.
Robert Service Cabin
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.
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.
Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site
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.
Discover Dawson City Yukon
The Yukon is a fabulous destination offering a good blend of history as well as outdoor activities, such as dog mushing, hiking trails and the opportunity to see the Northern Lights. A memorable day trip from Dawson City is a light aircraft flight to the Arctic Circle.
For more information see Best of Yukon and Yukon Tourism.