Exploring Dawson City, Yukon: Going Back in Time in the Home of the Klondike Gold Rush

Dawson City, officially the City of Dawson, is a town in the Yukon that was the headquarters for the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899). We Explore Canada contributor visited during Discovery Days to share what you need to prioritize on your next visit to Yukon’s second largest city.

Dawson City, Yukon
Welcome to one of the most unique towns in Canada. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

As my mind filled with visions of gold, I hardly noticed my wife, Ally, sitting behind the wheel of the enormous bright-red, 4-wheel-drive pickup truck, calmly dodging potholes on the long dusty drive from Whitehorse to Dawson City in the remote, northern Yukon Territory

We were heading for Discovery Days (typically held in mid-August), which is Dawson’s biggest party. But thoughts of gold occupied me, for I harboured a secret desire to strike it rich. The final approach to Dawson Piles was marked by rounded rocks and cobbles, neatly arrayed and stretching for miles. My pulse raced, for they are the remains of large-scale dredging for the magic yellow metal.

Dawson City notes that the Discovery Days Celebration is all about marking the anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush by offering a “weekend full of fun and excitement including exhibitions, an arts and crafts fair, an exciting parade of Dawson’s diverse history and culture, a golf tournament and much more!”

The Unique History of Dawson City

In August, 1896, Skookum Jim and his family, members of the Tagish First Nation (also known as the Carcross/Tagish First Nation), found gold near the Klondike River. Their discovery sparked one of the most frantic gold rushes in history and the remote, northern outpost of Dawson quickly became the site of the Klondike Gold Rush.

I imagined men, and a few women, feverishly seeking the elusive bonanza. Raucous saloons, gambling dens, and houses of ill repute sprang up, transforming this quiet bend in the river into a wild boomtown with a population of 40,000.

Those were exhilarating times. But mining is ephemeral. After two years, the gold and the frenzy petered out, the town’s population plummeted, and the gold rush was over. 

Today, the town has a population of around 1,500 but acts as though the rush is still on, especially during Discovery Days. Much of the town has been preserved and looks essentially like it did long ago. Unpaved streets lined by wonky boardwalks run between weathered wooden buildings that have a hang-dog appearance.

Dawson City is effectively a sprawling national historic site with 24 buildings as well as roads and other services, all maintained in 1890s condition by Parks Canada. 

What to Do in Dawson If You’re Looking to Wind the Clock Back

An actor in period costume led me to the Bank of British North America. My excitement peaked when the “banker” let me handle (real?) gold bullion. I even peered into the giant steel safe where at one time prodigious amounts of gold were piled high.

Entering Robert Service’s Log Cabin, I passed under impressive moose antlers over the door. The Bard of the Yukon‘s poems like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” captured the imaginations of the public in its descriptions of the era of the gold rush, the intense winter cold, and the mad desire for wealth.

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold.”

At the cemetery, enclosed by a white picket fence, old white wooden crosses bore the names of young gold seekers, a testament to the harsh times and long, cold winters. In the early years, the only access to Dawson City was via the Yukon River, making it too costly to transport stone monuments. Instead, all grave markers were white wooden crosses with names affixed with lead-based black paint. 

The Graveyard in Dawson City, Yukon
The Graveyard in Dawson City, Yukon. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Thirsty, Ally and I sought out the Sourdough Saloon and bellied up to the bar. Nearby, people were waiting their turn to drink a Yukon Jack whisky…with a human toe in it! We joined the queue and soon a bearded Captain explained how the original toe was from a claim poacher whose foot became frozen while evading the Mounties.

Dropping the blackened, rather gruesome toe into my glass, he smiled and warned that it would cost $2500 extra if I swallowed the toe. The original toe was long gone, he explained, for the braver – and presumably drunker – customers often swallowed the toe. Ally grimaced and knocked back the whiskey, making sure she left the digit behind. (I had to take photos.)

Later, learning the most recent toe had come from a lawnmower accident in Edmonton, I resolved to read my organ-donor card more carefully.

Diamond Tooth Gerties, named after one of the town’s infamous working ladies, is Canada’s oldest legal casino and it was jumping. And yes, Gertie’s smile twinkled for one of her teeth was replaced by a diamond. The noisy slot machines and poker tables took second place, however, as my gaze was fixed on a wooden stage where scantily clad chorus girls pranced, accompanied by Gertie’s humorous dialogue and the lusty hooting of the audience.

Stumbling back to our hotel at midnight was surprisingly easy, for at this northerly location dusk was just starting and it was still light.

Downtown architecture in Dawson City, Yukon
Downtown architecture in Dawson City, Yukon. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Dawson City’s Attractions Hit the Spot

I arose early next day and headed for the Westminster Hotel, where locals call its tavern bar “The Snake Pit” and its lounge bar “The Arm Pit.” A pretty tough place I reckoned, happy to be accompanied by a friend. We were lured by the Snake Pit, which claims to be the earliest opening bar in Canada. Sure enough, at precisely 9 am the first beer was poured. 

I leaned against the bar, wiped a line of foam from my lip and snapped a photo of my wristwatch next to my beer.

With Discovery Days in full swing, there was much to do. We dropped in at the Dänoja Zho Cultural Centre. From the video and in the Hammerstone Gallery we learned of the resilience of the Indigenous peoples. The exhibit shares history, photographs, artifacts and cultural objects of the First Nation’s long presence in this region and their connection to and respect for the land. 

The Klondike Spirit Paddlewheeler
The Klondike Spirit Paddlewheeler. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

A ride aboard the Klondike Spirit paddlewheeler took us past the paddlewheeler graveyard while the captain explained the area’s history. I was amazed at how this historic town and its golden shine had become a sought-after tourist attraction.

Our pickup carried us to the top of the nearby Midnight Dome, where benches and grand vistas greeted us. Below, the Yukon River and old gold workings were spread out like a patchwork quilt.

Particularly impressive was the drive along Bonanza Creek Road to the place where gold was first discovered. Nearby was Dredge #4, an enormous mechanical monster, now a historical site, that once scooped enormous piles of rock and silt from local waterways, creating piles like we had seen on arriving. And we passed a number of claims that were being actively worked, with men operating front-end loaders and hydraulic dredges. Our guide explained there are about 80 small, active mines today. Perfect, I thought, I can join them and make my fortune here. But Ally dragged me away.

Discovery Days in Dawson City Are One of a Kind

Too soon, the Discovery Days were over, and we faced the long drive back to experience the amazing things to do in Whitehorse, Yukon.

I loved Dawson City and planned to return soon. I would make my fortune, convinced my wife would then forgive me, and we would live happily ever after.

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