Parks Canada Banner
Parks Canada Home

Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 26

Grubstake to Grocery Store: Supplying the Klondike, 1897-1907

by Margaret Archibald

Swamp to Boom Town: Dawson from 1896 to 1898

It was not by accident that Dawson's founder and first resident was an entrepreneur and speculator and that within a month of the Klondike strike he had set up a general store and sawmill to supply the imminent throng of goldseekers. After 13 years as a Yukon River trader, Joseph Ladue realized that the most reliable way to profit from a placer camp was to provide it with the essential services of food and shelter. He had spent his Yukon days doing just that, first under the banner of the AC Company and later in an independent partnership with the veteran trader Arthur Harper at Sixty Mile (or Ogilvie) about 100 miles south of Forty Mile on the Yukon River.

It was from this establishment at Sixty Mile that Harper and Ladue had grubstaked Bob Henderson, the seasoned Nova Scotian prospector, who reputedly recommended to George Washington Carmacks and his party to try what was to be the richest creek of the Yukon valley, and who subsequently lost out himself. In 1896, having prospected for two years along the Indian River, Henderson was working a creek which issued from the same height of land (or dome) as did Gold Bottom and its famous tributary, Bonanza Creek, known before the strike as Rabbit Creek. It was on the latter that Carmacks, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, on Henderson's recommendation, panned out the gold which was to give rise to the Klondike stampede. The story goes that, contrary to prospecting ethics, Henderson was not immediately informed of the strike. Unaware until the best claims had already been staked on the creeks which lay over the watershed, Henderson never did become a rich man. Yukoners consider him to be something of a tragic figure.

Ladue, who had been a prospector himself, had been known to sit tight while others "rushed," impelled by the news of promising new finds. His years of stampeding experience had gained him a prospector's wisdom, if not the concommittant wealth.1 It was perhaps less his experience than his mercenary instincts which moved him to act quickly on this most recent strike. He hurried downriver to Forty Mile to stake his own claim — though not on any part of the gold-bearing creekbeds. Sensing the magnitude of Carmack's discovery, Ladue intended to outstrip the entrepreneurs by laying claim to the only land in the area which could serve as a possible townsite, 160 acres of swampy flats at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers some 10 miles from Carmack's claim. There is a story that, on his downriver trip to Forty Mile, Ladue met a Klondike-bound miner asking for lumber. Figuring that prices for timber would soon surpass anything yet seen in the Yukon, he immediately dismantled the Sixty Mile sawmill and shipped it, together with all the dressed lumber he could find, down the Yukon to the new townsite.2

By 1 September, a mere two weeks after the discovery, the 160-acre townsite had been patented and was ready for survey.3 The sawmill was reassembled immediately so that building materials would be available before winter set in, and a two-storey cabin was erected to serve as trading post and saloon. On what was known simply as Joe Ladue's townsite, these were the first stirrings of enterprise and civilization.

Although news of the Klondike strike spread like wildfire inside the territory that fall, the secret was kept well from the outside world. By January there were only four cabins beside Ladue's on the townsite. As spring came, eight more sprang up, surrounded by a collection of bedraggled canvas dwellings which increased daily.4 It was not until 2 June that the AC Company steamer Alice slid around the Moosehide bend.5 As the first steamer to reach the Klondike that year, she was to carry out with her the men whose arrival in San Francisco a month later was to trigger a worldwide scramble for Klondike gold. Among these men was Joseph Ladue. After spending half of his 43 years crossing the continent in search of his particular paystreak, Ladue had finally found it. He named his 160 acres of paydirt Dawson City, after George Dawson, the Canadian government geologist who had studied the territory in 1887.

There were some who, at the time, had suspected that Ladue had fabricated a grand rumour about a minor strike in order to set off a stampede in his region. But Dawson was no illusion, nor were the crates of dust that accompanied Ladue and the other on the Excelsior. While there were certainly those who thought that Joe Ladue was not above such things, it was hardly the time to voice their suspicions.

Before the hordes who would eventually pour into the Yukon valley had time to drop whatever they were doing and set out "Ho! for the Klondike!" the first steamers up the Yukon had already deposited two influential entities at the Klondike's mouth. While they were newcomers to Dawson, they were in a sense sourdoughs of long-standing reputation in the Yukon valley. No one was surprised to see them among the first arrivals. By early July, both the Alaska Commercial Company and the North American Transportation and Trading Company had erected stores and warehouses which became the focal point of Dawson's Front Street. The AC Company's two-storied store (40 feet by 80 feet) upheld the company's reputation along the Yukon for consistently putting up the biggest building in each town. Adjacent to it were three corrugated iron warehouses, another two-storey building which served as employees' living quarters, and an additional warehouse. The next block had a similar store, quarters and warehouse of the NAT&T Company.

Bearing in mind that newcomers from the outside did not reach Dawson until the late summer of 1897, it is understandable that the summer's commercial activity was relatively slow and stable, carried out mainly by the two mercantile monopolies to provide for the most recent placer congregation. Ladue himself recorded an absence of competition. In another description of the town's business in the late summer of 1897, there is no reference to any individual provisions merchant.6 (Ladue was dealing almost entirely in timber.) Prices were high, but neither inflationary nor unsteady (see Appendix J). Ladue explained them: "In the present conditions of trade things cannot be sold very much cheaper at a fair profit."7

The greatest problem facing the trading companies — and a serious threat to Dawson — was the potentiality of winter shortages and possible starvation in the new camp. During the winter of 1896-97, for example, the North-West Mounted Police contingent at Fort Cudahy, buying from both companies, had been forced to reduce the basic flour ration.8 Some mines finished the winter with flour and nothing else. Dawson itself had suffered one particular shortage that winter, although not an acute one; there were no eggs. (This shortage gave rise to a legend about Swiftwater Bill Gates. To spite his unfaithful lover, Bill bought up the town's entire supply of her favourite food, a very rare commodity, whole fresh eggs. If Swiftwater Bill was as thorough in his retaliation as we are led to believe, there was not an egg to be had in the entire camp.)

The situation in Dawson in 1897-98 was far different from that experienced by the isolated community which had wintered there the previous year. The community of 1896-97 had been made up entirely of miners and prospectors already inside, experienced men of the north, who knew the essential requirement of an adequate winter outfit. The local population explosion of the late summer of 1897 (though it hardly compares with that of 1898) was composed almost entirely of tenderfeet from the south, men so smitten with gold fever that they had not hesitated a moment before rushing north. Leaving on the first crest of enthusiasm, they had neither help from published guides nor realistic advice. They did not know how unwillingly the Yukon valley gave up its gold, and with what ferocity its winters could punish the improvident.

The very presence of these hasty and unprepared arrivals was enough to dismay the head office of the AC Company. Such impatience could easily lead to a "starvation camp," an irrevocable blot on the company's record. As early as mid-July, the company's president, Louis Sloss, made clear his concern to a San Francisco newspaper. For any outfitter or steamship company to encourage a rush that season would be both cruel and foolish. However sincere such promotion might be, it would be responsible for the resulting deprivation in the Klondike, and criminally responsible at that.9

Exactly how many ambitious Klondikers managed to enter the territory before winter closed in cannot be determined. Nor is it possible to know how many of them had winter outfits. Police estimated that by 1 January 1898 there were almost 2,000 people in Dawson and 5,000 in the Klondike region.10 At the beginning of winter, starvation, or at least severe suffering, did seem likely. Once again a dry fall lowered water levels on the shallow Yukon River, cutting supply traffic short and prematurely ending the provision of winter staples. By the end of September, the NAT&T Company had 400 orders yet to fill; the AC Company had received scarcely a third of its paid consignments.11

Both companies traditionally received their stocks on the basis of individual orders for outfits. Early in the season, the consignee entered his name with the company and deposited half the price of his outfit. While the two companies were faced with the same prospect of shortage, their methods of dealing with the crisis differed. The AC Company, which had enough material to outfit 1,252 men completely and furnish flour to 1,589 more,12 chose to fill to the best of its abilities all of the orders it had received. The NAT&T Company, on the other hand, preferred to bypass its original orders and to ration all its stocks on the basis of need.13 In October, when the scare was at its worst, both companies were persuaded by the Mounted Police and government authorities to fulfill their responsibility to the worst-outfitted miners by offering transportation downriver to Fort Yukon, where supplies were said to be more plentiful.14

Both firms did attempt to curb skyrocketing prices; they eventually limited their sales to issues of supplies for two weeks at a time, thereby controlling food speculation.15 Despite their efforts, prices for flour, the most basic as well as the most limited staple, ran wild on the black market. At midwinter the retail price for flour seems to have ranged from $35 to $100 for a 50-pound sack.16 Butter, when it could be had at all, was going for $5 a pound and salt for its weight in gold.17 Such prices put these commodities beyond the reach of most buyers and turned their goods into mere figures on the speculative market.

As winter drew to an end, it became clear that there would be enough to go around and that Dawson would not starve after all. Two unexpected factors relieved the situation: extra commodities were thrown onto the market by people who left the district after freeze-up, and those who stayed were blessed with an unusually mild winter. Indeed, the Klondike Daily Nugget declared in comfortable retrospect that, considering even the obvious cases of speculation and inflation,18 the whole situation had been nothing but a scare. Many placed the blame squarely on the two supply outlets which, for all their protestations of innocence, were suspected of having rigged the shortage for their own benefit. Those citizens of Circle City who had made an orderly raid on the AC Company's steamer Bella in the late fall were only too aware that their camp was being by-passed by the company in order to get supplies through to Dawson, which lay further upriver. They interpreted the company's intentions as pure greed for the higher prices which undoubtedly prevailed at the newer camp. The NAT&T Company suffered as much, perhaps even more so, from accusations of unbridled favouritism in their rationing policy. The Nugget was the community leader in its outspoken criticism of the latter company, specifically of its manager, Captain J.J. Healy, for his handling of the food shortage. Healy was accused of refusing to fill some orders and then selling out such rare luxuries as molasses and tobacco to favoured speculators at fabulous prices. Over the summer of 1898 the Nugget painted the picture in increasingly lurid colours. The last instalment, released just before Healy was recalled by the company in September, disclosed that the demi-mondaines and "satellites who revolve in that particular sphere" had won Healy over, while honest miners and small businesses had gone short.19

Even those who denied that the situation had at any time been out of hand could not overlook the prevalence of scurvy in Dawson that winter. Limited and unvarying diets and poor-quality or badly cooked food had been the cause. By breakup, bacon was the only meat available; tinned vegetables had gone off the market early in the season.20 Wherever the blame lay, a lesson had been learned by both consumers and suppliers, who resolved to stock up the town's warehouses over the coming summer. Further to ensure that the situation would not repeat itself, the North West Mounted Police, who had kept watch over the winter supplies, enforced a regulation made by Commissioner Walsh that all men crossing the passes have at least 1,095 pounds of provisions to support themselves for a year's stay.21

To everyone's relief, the winter of 1897-98 officially ended on 8 June with the arrival of the Mae West, one of the steamers which had spent the winter locked in Yukon River ice.22 Another good omen was the fact that her cargo included whisky. At that point bars had been serving what amounted to whisky-flavoured water; "thirsty" rather than "hungry" might be the best description of the badly stocked town.

When the ice broke up and the steamers could move freely again along the Yukon River, the news spread wide across the continent and the great Klondike rush was on. Perhaps the most eager were the thousands who had camped on Bennett Lake, impatiently awaiting their chance to be among the first to grasp at the pot of gold.

Mixed in with the multitude were speculators and entrepreneurs who had heard that Dawson was a starvation camp, that any conceivable article could be unloaded on that desperate town at prices unheard of in any previous placer camp. Such rumours seemed all the more believable in conjunction with out-of-date reports which had come out of the town the year before, before Dawson's first millionaires had left, when there were still enough nuggets to go around. Such testimonials as the following one, issued in June 1897 and republished later that year, fostered the vision of Dawson as exceedingly rich and very hungry. "There are more ways of making money here than any place I ever saw . . . Big money can be made by bringing in a small outfit over the ice this fall . . . I have seen gold dust until it seems almost as cheap as sawdust."23

Since these individual businessmen were to some extent in active competition with the already entrenched monopolies, their greatest advantage in the battle for the market was timing. Traditionally the first and the last boatloads of goods commanded the best prices. There was, therefore, a rush of a specialized kind which took place within the 5,000-craft armada in the great June boat race to Dawson24 The goal was to be the first into town with the goods and services which the population craved. The stakes were high, but they were equalled by the risks involved. While the passes had the advantage at first of being the fastest route to the Klondike (since the Yukon's northerly mouth did not thaw for shipping until early July) the probability of loss or spoilage over that precarious trail was considerable. Costs were high, even though most of the traders built their own scows. Early spring shipment by native packers from Skagway to Bennett Lake amounted to about 12 cents a pound, and would increase when the ice was replaced with the more treacherous spring mud.25 The chances of meeting disaster on the river were fairly good, considering the unwieldy nature of many of the home-made craft and scows. Miles Canyon and the Five Finger Rapids had become legendary graves for men and merchandise, while the river's countless shoals and sandbars were particularly hazardous in the early spring and late fall, when the freezing of the river's tributaries lowered the water level. The final risk concerned the market itself, the chance that it might already be deflated by earlier arrivals. To the successful went the spoils in the form of astronomical prices. The best-known example is H.L. ("Cow") Miller, who sold the products of Dawson's first milk cow at a phenomenal $30 per gallon.26 Ice cream was proportionately $10 a glass. One dollar, the lowest negotiable sum, would buy a tin of meat or potatoes or one piece of fruit — unless the fruit was one of the few melons, which sold for $25 to $35.27 Two-fifty would buy either a pound of butter or a dozen eggs, both at a fraction of their winter values.28 Flour prices dropped dramatically as soon as the first sack hit the wharf; the inflated market collapsed and the price for a 50-pound sack plummetted from $50 to $12.50 to $3.29 Tobacco, once completely off the market, had returned to it and "Old Chum" cost 75 cents a pound and "T & B" cost $1. Whisky was once again available at $15 per bottle (see also Appendix J). Unquestionably, the summer of 1898 was a high point of Dawson's commercial enterprise. Among the variegated memories of glitter and mud, dancing girls and disappointed goldseekers, are the recurring stories of the success and failure of enterprising individuals, partnerships and multi-departmental companies. Like the miners they supplied, they lived their Klondike adventure in the belief that gold and initiative made anything possible. Yukon commercial activity was no longer the domain of a few large companies that it had once been. Just as the spread of the Klondike news had thrown open the goldfields to masses of hopeful prospectors, so the field of merchandising attracted a great number and variety of participants — large and small enterprises, some with vast experience and others with none whatsoever. Every miner entering the country bearing his required half-ton of goods was a potential trader. The commercial spectrum of Dawson extends from the large, established corporations to these individuals, unintentionally involved, "swapping" their wares on the Dawson waterfront.

Delving into the chaos of the Dawson marketplace that season, one can discern certain formative trends. Certain general types of merchant activity can be drawn from available examples. The first type of merchandising to be considered involves the largest and most influential mercantile interests in Dawson. These companies were able to control all phases of the supply and distribution process, from their purchasing agents outside, their sea coast connections at Saint Michael and their river fleets to their storage and retail outlets in Dawson. The first such companies to join the ranks of the existing major firms were the Alaska Exploration Company (the AE Company) and the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company (the SYT Company). Based in San Francisco and Seattle respectively, these firms announced their candidacy before the first of their river steamers had left Saint Michael bearing hundreds of tons of provisions, along with materials for corrugated iron warehouses, stores and winter quarters.30 By the end of August, notice of complete stocks in their warehouses appeared in the Nugget.31 In the case of the SYT Company, the mayor of Seattle, W.D. Wood, had resigned his post to come north and personally manage the firm.32

On a smaller scale, but still in control of all aspects of the trade, was the California-Yukon Trading Company. With the arrival of her steamer Rideout proudly bearing 500 tons of freight for the camp, construction was begun on warehouses and wharves.33 From Vancouver emerged the British American Corporation, a transportation company running two river steamers, which in September bought out a local merchant and opened a store and warehouses in Klondike City, the community across the Klondike River from Dawson.34 Another well-known firm (though without a river fleet of its own) was the Joseph Ladue Gold Mining and Development Company. As president and managing director of the New York-financed firm, Ladue made his final trip to his townsite in September 1898 for the opening of the company's store. Dawson had become everything that Ladue could have imagined when he first laid claim to the swamp. It was to be his last impression of the place, for he died of tuberculosis three years later.35 His firm opened its store by advertising goods of the best quality, adapted to Klondike use, all at reasonable prices. "Come and examine our flour, beans, bacon, sugar, eggs, butter, teas, coffees, spices, canned fruits, dried fruits, tobacco, candies, clothing, underclothing, boots, shoes, stationery, etc."36 The firm retained its founder's name, and survived Ladue by almost a decade as one of Dawson's reliable general supply firms and steam sawmills.

There was no doubt that the NAT&T and AC companies still controlled the bulk of Dawson's trade. Tappan Adney maintained that of the 7,540 tons of freight brought in on the lower river route (via Saint Michael) by 1 September 1898, half was carried by these two companies.37 By this time, the AC Company was running a total of 13 steamers, and had four warehouses, one of which was exclusively for warm storage.38 Their total capacity was 5,000 tons, but four more sheds were under construction. In reporting the growth of these two companies over the summer of 1898, the Nugget leaned heavily toward the AC Company. The newspaper's scathing articles led one to believe that the NAT&T Company's sales had suffered profoundly from the discredit earned by Healy39 but his recall eased the situation.

The success of these companies in terms of their prominence and popularity was largely due, according to the Nugget, to their specialized consideration of the needs of the miner. The three-storey AC Company building, an indisputably central point in the Dawson business area, was organized on this basis. The first floor had rows of offices where clerks dealt with the daily tasks of outfitting, transportation, mail, cash and credit. Nearby were 22 safety deposit boxes of case-hardened steel set in a wall of masonry and concrete. Beyond this opened up a veritable emporium, where "countless shelves groaning under their loads"40 of staples and luxuries were divided into departments according to the priorities of the miner-consumer. First came the grocery department, then hardware, china, glassware and drugs. The second storey had mens' furnishings, combining standard heavy-duty Klondike clothing, robes and boots with "fancy and dress shirts, beautiful neck wear of latest designs, knox and stetson hats in assortments equal to any shown in the avenues of New York, Chicago or San Francisco."41 A recently opened showroom contained a housekeeping department as well as ladies' dry goods and clothing. The newspaperman describing the store was highly impressed with additional and separate facilities for delivery, for ice supply, for warm storage (with accurate checking and a 24-hour guard) and for the assaying and storing of gold. A final revelation was the clean and comfortably furnished employees' residence. The author's concluding comment on such large enterprises was that their impressive installations reflected a "faith in the permanence of the country and of Dawson in particular as a great distribution centre."

The second group of merchants to thrive that summer often did interdependently with these companies. Although the large companies retailed some of their goods in yearly outfit lots, they were in effect wholesale firms as well. Through them, individual merchants could purchase their goods, then have them shipped, stored and delivered for further sale. Alternatively small merchants could buy the goods through their own outside agents, then have them shipped on vessels usually owned by these large companies. There were, in addition, several independent river transportation companies which catered to individuals, merchants and companies. On the lower river route, the Columbia Navigation Company and the Empire Transportation Company (with a fleet of 18 steamers) operated, making connections for Seattle at Saint Michael.42 Goods could also be shipped in via Skagway, connecting at Bennett Lake with either the Bennett Lake and Klondike Navigation Company or the Canadian Development Company. Before long, a fleet of scows was also operating regularly on this upper river route, to expedite quick delivery of small consignments.

There is an understandable lack of information about most of the 300 "stores and saloons" recorded in the police census of July 1898.43 Those who advertised or were mentioned in newspaper reports leave a hazy idea of the retailing practices of Dawson's many individual merchants. Approximately 36 retail outlets for general merchandise, groceries, dry goods, furs, wines, liquor and tobacco (these three usually sold together in saloons and restaurants), jewelry, house furnishings and lumber advertised in the Klondike Nugget Over 20 others were mentioned in articles and reports. By the end of the season the paper was singling out several individual merchants whose impressive stocks implied that they were in Dawson to stay. Among them was the partnership of O'Donoghue and Swift of Kingston, whose lines of groceries, wines, liquors and general merchandise were proclaimed outstanding in terms of quality and selection. Their wares apparently included many articles not otherwise obtainable in the city.44 The Macaulay Brothers were similarly praised for their latest styles in dry goods as well as for their complete stock of groceries. Their shelves contained such delicacies as jams, jellies, pickles and olives, all of which would help "to make the Klondike life something of a pleasure."45

A third kind of merchant was the small trader who arrived in the Yukon with his own stock all ready to sell. He brought his goods with him; consequently he was able to act independently of the Dawson jobbers or wholesale firms. These traders have already been introduced as they patiently waited for spring breakup at the head of Bennett Lake. On one Yukon River boat it was later recorded, "the majority of the 30 passengers were going into the interior to make money through the sale of merchandise."46 Their stocks were small (necessarily, for those crossing the passes), but usually highly sought after for the luxuries they included. Fresh meat, fruit and vegetables and dairy products were the most popular cargo — items rarely included in the miner's own outfit and both risky and expensive to ship. Once they had scanned the market situation, these traders could return to their outside supply bases in the hopes of freighting in another load. A particularly profitable enterprise that summer (and for long after) was livestock. The animals could be herded overland on the Dalton Trail, skirting the passes from the panhandle to Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River where the trail met the upper river steamer route. Dawson, the herders knew, was a seller's market.

One of the best known of these independent produce traders was R.J, Gandolfo, an Italian fruit seller, whose first shipment of eight tons of oranges, lemons, bananas and cucumbers arrived in an untouched market at $1 apiece.47 Paul Mizony, whose father carried in perishable stock over the same trail, recalls:

The prices we got for some of the articles were as follows:

   oranges and lemons75.00a box
   canned tongue1.00a can

Other items like canned jams, salmon, milk, tomatoes and meat, brought like prices. Our perishables we sold at wholesale, the other merchandise at wholesale and retail. Most of our stock was sold out in about a weeks [sic] time.48

These prices are only one example, providing a very general picture of the situation. Uncontrollable price patterns marked most of the summer of 1898.49 As a significant element of Dawson's waterfront, the transient produce vendors were in later years to become the bane of general merchant establishments and their stable market conditions.

The final group of merchants (who never thought of themselves either as a group or as merchants) comprised an unknown number of men who never expected to earn their Klondike gold as traders. Many an eager goldseeker who had hauled his required half-ton outfit all the way to Dawson discovered that, while the cost of living was every bit as high as expected, the rich claims needed to support it were no longer available. He rapidly concluded that his outfit must be sold to obtain the necessary fare to return home. One outfit was good collateral, but many men amassed a number of them and temporarily became small retailers themselves. The familiar Dawson sign, "$15,000 money wanted — this entire stock to be cleared out at once — prices very low"50 demonstrates that one man could become a commission agent of sorts for several others sharing his desire to leave as soon as possible. Any man who was willing to speculate in provisions in order to raise enough capital to go into mining falls into this category as well. Jeremiah Lynch's career is an excellent example. Lynch began by buying up the flour in a consignment of goods which the AC Company had turned over to the Bank of British North America when the consignee failed to pay up. Lynch managed to sell the flour for $3 a sack less than the prevailing price. With his profit from this transaction, he came back for other staples in the same consignment.51

These entrepreneurs and impatient traders shared, for the most part, a brief and disordered career in Dawson. The hectic, bazaar-like atmosphere of their activity dominated many a first visual impression of the city.52 The subject of a great number of photographs, it presents a fascinating and detailed picture. Many who arrived in small boats and scows never left the waterfront, where they formed a "wobbly two-mile clutter from the mouth of the Klondike to Moosehide Hill"53 (Figs. 18-19). A sand bar to the south of the steamer landings was jammed with tents and scows so that there were only two narrow thoroughfares to the water. Hastily constructed shelves of planks and crates creaked with merchandise. The terms of purchase were based on the best offer or, in many cases, on barter. Photographs suggest that some booths specialized in certain commodities — case lots of condensed milk, sacks of flour, boots, saws or rifles, for example. One trader, by the look of his display, must have found argyle socks particularly hard to sell (Fig. 20).

18 Scows along the Dawson waterfront.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 16182.)

19 Cheechacos "swapping" and selling out, Dawson, 1898.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 13432.)

20 An early "specialist" in dry goods, Dawson, ca. 1898.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 13490.)

As the season wore on, those hoping to leave tried desperately to get rid of their goods. While provisions were still limited and high-priced, dry goods of every description glutted the market at prices slashed to half what had been paid for them in Seattle or Victoria. In some cases that dealer had no choice but to auction off his stock. For a month Dawson was witness to "boots and shoes and rubber boots and the thousand and one things we all brought with us going at prices which would make a Clarke Street Chicago second hand man sick with envy."54 The out-of-here-or-bust mood prevalent in the cramped canvas quarters was further encouraged by attractive newspaper advertisements for immediate passage outside. In one instance a group travelling out through the NAT&T Company got special rates 50 per cent lower than the standard rates earlier in the season.55

While Front Street remained the city's expensive commercial "strip," newly erected structures were gradually creeping along the cross streets (mainly York, King, Queen and Princess) to Second Avenue, where land was cheaper. Summer traders, who had little capital for land or lumber but wished to operate in this central business section, often opened simple booths — canvas-covered log frames tucked away between two larger buildings (see Fig. 21). Gandolfo, the fruit vendor, paid an astonishing $120 per month rent for 5 feet of street frontage in his first quarters.56 Plate glass of any kind was not to be had that summer, so booths and storefronts alike opened right out onto the street or (in some parts of Front Street) onto the sidewalk. Hooks, frames and cords were used as extensions of the tiny interiors of such shops to hold and display all manner of crumpled dry goods, used or warped tools and tangled tin masses of cooking utensils (Figs. 22-26).

21 Captain Jack Crawford's store in Dawson, ca. 1898.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 16924.)

22 An early merchant, 1898 or 1899.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 13395.)

23 The Northwest Trading and Commission Company: "All kinds of merchandise bought and sold," 1898 or 1899.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 13402.)

24 Reselling outfits at the Dawson waterfront, probably 1898.
(Public Archives Canada, PA 13501.)

25 "We buy and sell merchandise," 1898. Ben Levy was to become one of Dawson's better-known clothing merchants.
(Public Archives of Canada, PA 13394.)

26 Selling out in Dawson, Asahel Curtis, photographer.
(Photography Collection, Special Collections, University of Washington Library.)

Against the dismantled Yukon stove or the sluice box full of hip-length rubber boots leaned the proprietor. His waterstained tent sometimes bore a hand-painted sign, or more often no sign at all for his wares were known to all. He had lightered his own load onto the beaches of Dyea, packed all 2,000 pounds of it over the Chilkoot, pried it loose from the mud on the trail, and perhaps rescued it from one of the shoals along the Yukon River, until at last he had reached the mecca — Dawson, a muddy congestion of stumps, sawdust and dogs, populated by innumerable cheechacos or tenderfeet like himself. This population, it seemed, had one thought in mind: to get rid of the condensed milk and the mackinaw suits to a luckier (or more naive) gold seeker who intended to stay inside, and to return to the relative sanity and security of Montreal or Seattle.

By the end of the shipping season (4 October that year), the majority of disillusioned or homesick cheechacos had managed to swap enough for a passage outside. Among those who had reason to remain, there was an unquestionable confidence in the air. There would be no talk of starvation in Dawson this fall. Well-stocked warehouses, busy order offices and hurried autumn construction all reflected what the Nugget termed the "faith of the moneyed men in the Klondike."57 When Joe Ladue arrived in town late in August the newspaper turned to him, as if for a patriarchal blessing. Ladue was glad to oblige, and the Nugget reported that the city's founder was much pleased with the growth and stability he saw around him.

The daily arrivals of loaded supply vessels over the last months had allowed many a new establishment to blossom in elegant premises. The Fairview and Aurora hotels and the Monte Carlo saloon were known as Dawson's 'first class' establishments. For those who could afford them, shipments of mirrors and mahogany replaced newspapered walls and rough-hewn benches. By September two furniture stores were in business, one offering "bed room suites, parlour, office, dining room and saloon chairs, rockers, cobbler-seats, armchairs."58 In addition to the already successful lumber trade, there was a burgeoning tinware industry manufacturing pipes, fittings and, as winter drew near, quantities of Yukon stoves. In this field McLennan and McFeely were pioneers. They had lost no time in opening branches of their establishment in Bennett and Dawson (Fig. 17). "Mc & Mc" was a well-known firm in Vancouver, and this act of faith in the potential of the district did not go unnoticed in the Dawson business community.

The two most significant features of the market at the season's end were the greatly increased variety of available commodities and the corresponding drop in prices.59 The price of eggs settled at a respectable $3 a dozen, tinned fruit and vegetables at 75 cents a can, bread at 25 cents a loaf. Tinned meat was expensive — $2.50 a can — while potatoes were less than 50 cents a pound, half their July price. While such prices were not necessarily the cheapest such items had been, the arbitrary and fluctuating element in the market had been settled.

The multitudinous Dawson restaurateurs were among the most astute observers of market fluctuations (Fig. 27). By the end of the season, some of the more popular restaurants were reflecting the time-of-plenty atmosphere with extensive and elaborate menus. For the most part, though, there was little choice in which restaurant one frequented. One weary customer reported, "You can eat anywhere. Its all equally bad and dear."60 The average menu card ran as follows:

Dough-nuts.75per order
Pies.75per cut
Turnovers.75per order
Ginger cake.75per cut
Coffee cake1.00per cut
Caviare sandwiches1.00each
Sardine sandwiches1.00each
Stewed fruits.50per dish
Canned fruits1.00per order
Cold meats1.50per order
Raw Hamburg steak2.00per order
Chocolate or cocoa.75per cup
Tea or coffee.50per cup61

27 Paying with gold dust, probably at one of Dawson's early restaurants. Note the newspaper wall-covering.
(Public Archives Canada, C 5393.)

What form some of the more appetizing of these items actually took is anyone's guess. One wonders, for instance, whether the "caviare" was one of the dreadful pastes or tablets which had appeared in the territory, suitably reconstituted. The stewed fruits were probably evaporated ones, disguised, and the cold meats were undoubtedly tinned. What was contained in the "Raw Hamburg steak?" In reporting this menu, Tappan Adney registers his own doubts about the possibility of creating these meals from the meagre pile of tins and bottles which actually appeared on the shelf behind the counter. Eateries of this sort sprang up across the town. While there are no references to deaths as a result of their meals, the very experience must have given rise to a number of unpleasant epithets as alternatives to "Paris of the North."

Mercantile stability, the first signs of which had been confirmed that fall by the town's founding father, was not easily won. In Dawson itself there were tremendous physical obstacles to overcome before the overgrown mining camp would give way to anything like "civilization." Problems of health, sanitation, fuel and fresh water supply, muddy thoroughfares and fire prevention gained increasing newspaper consideration as winter approached. While the Yukon Territorial Council was expected to deal with these urban problems, the responsible merchants were acutely aware of the pressing need for an active municipal organization. Incorporation of the city of Dawson was the obvious first proposal, and was initially a popular one among the city's commercial vested interests.62 Municipal taxation was a fair price to pay for progress — improvements, protection and an increased political voice.

The issue was given greater urgency when, in October 1898, a $503,000 fire in Dawson's business section levelled hotels, saloons, stores and other businesses to frozen rubble.63 The matter of incorporation would be tossed about for another four years between Dawson citizens and the Yukon Territorial Council, where the power to initiate the process resided. The merchants, represented after August 1899 by the Dawson City Board of Trade,64 would not always maintain the position on which they had united in the fall of 1898. Throughout these years the topic remained a lively one during the dark winter days around the Yukon stoves. There it competed with the gold royalty, freight rates, high prices, land speculation and newly exchanged gold claims as the basis for opinionated discussion. Dawson merchants turned their full attention to these concerns, alleviated by talk about team sports, social functions and newly organized fraternal orders in the days when the sun barely skimmed the top of the Midnight Dome, the height of land overlooking Dawson from the east. For most of the storekeepers who decided to winter inside, 1897-98 had been a good season. Leather pokes and iron warehouses bulged alike, and there was an optimism about the place which two major conflagrations could not destroy.65 As far as anyone knew, the mother lode was still to be found.

previous Next

Last Updated: 2006-10-24 To the top
To the top