Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 26
by Margaret Archibald
Mercantile Mosaic: The Men and their Methods
The swampy streets of Dawson had been turbulent, in the summer of 1898, with the activities of Everyman the entrepreneur, with his swapping, bargaining, peddling, profiting or losing, and ultimately with his selling out. In such a trade there was little to distinguish the buyer from the seller. A certain common spirit of adventure and enterprise did, however, exist; one which in most cases understood quick profits better than patience and planning. Nevertheless, an attempt to single out and identify The Dawson Merchant from the maze of active and peripheral participants results in a dilemma. The problem applies only to the period during and after the gold-rush, for the identity of the river trader of the pre-rush Yukon River commercial empire is very well defined indeed. Jack McQuesten represents a legitimate stereotype; he was the enterprising, trusting but astute frontiersman who differed little in character from the prospector with whom he did business.
After 1898 the stereotype blurs. While the mercantile procedure was definitely more structured and more rational in these years than it had been before the gold-rush, these factors do not make it more conducive to generalization. Instead, the group in question becomes more complex. Dawson merchants have, in the previous chapter, been introduced as a cohesive group with a known hierarchy and sphere of influence. Nevertheless the whole was far from uniform; great variety and individuality prevailed among its membership and within the community bond.
Consolidation, the unifying force which was considered necessary to ensure Dawson's commercial survival in the 20th century, was at work during the period in conjunction with another influential trend, one which was more a part of 19th-century mercantile behaviour. This trend was specialization. In the early years of the new century Dawson merchants were engaged in surprisingly narrow fields of endeavour. This in itself bespoke a maturing urban population. The general trader in provisions, dry goods, hardware, feed and livery had indeed been the predominant figure of both the rural and mining frontiers, but after the initial scramble for and distribution of provisions in 1897-98, this kind of small-scale general trade was no longer the rule in Dawson. After all, once the railway had been completed in 1900, the city no longer considered itself a remote outpost. In 1899 advertisements exhorted residents to "avoid the old style or back-woods trading" by shopping in one of Dawson's better-appointed department stores.1
The general merchant was still visible in the Klondike, but the typical role (as defined by the rural country storekeeper or frontier river trader) had altered considerably. After 1898 the trader and general outfitter on the creeks probably conformed most closely to the 19th-century image. In many creek camps a single man looked after the general store, roadhouse, stable and post office. While his tasks were varied, he and his store were not necessarily the focal point of the community. In the context of the Klondike's cosmopolitan and, indeed, sophisticated population, neither was he necessarily the most travelled, the most experienced in the ways of barter, nor the most versatile man in the community, as the country storekeeper was reputed to have been.2
In Dawson itself, the term "general merchant" no longer evoked the trader or country storekeeper. City directories often applied the term to individuals who did most of their trade in a diversity of dry goods. The large multi-purpose or commercial companies, whose lines actually did cover the range of products traditionally carried by the general merchant, had from their infancy more resembled the modern department store. Business was conducted on several floors in such varied areas as hardware, men's and women's furnishings (clothing), groceries, drugs, tinware and stoves, china and glass. All these were overseen by managers and superintendents who directed a number of clerks, salesmen and saleswomen, warehousemen, weighers, cashiers, book keepers and stenographers. In 1902 the NC Company had 65 employees and the NAT&T Company had 31.3 Hardly a classic example of the general store! Among Dawson's floating merchant population there were, however, dealers who were general merchants of the traditional sort. These traders usually operated for a summer season only, and none of them remained in the mainstream of Dawson's commerce for long.
The merchants who ran well-stocked shops carrying one specific type of goods were far more noticeable in terms of advertising, promotional photographs and newspaper articles, and far more representative of the variety to be found in the business community. In 1902, for instance, the Dawson consumer could obtain fresh poultry or "fresh eastern oysters" from any of 16 local meat markets. A total of 27 retail grocers were in town that year, but many of them were fairly specialized. W.A. Hammell and Avery's Grocery had acquired reputations for stocking more goods than the common everyday commodities. "Fancy goods" was the term they used to describe them. T.W. Grennan was known for his large supply of household goods and William Germer for his competitive tobacco counter. If the customer wanted "Armour" meats, John H. Hughes was the agent; if he was looking for "Swift's", N.P. Shaw and Company's store was the place to go. Grocers Darby and Schink specialized in baked goods from their German bakery next door, while M. Des Brisay and Company concentrated in complete grocery outfits. The North End Grocery prided itself on its coffee (roasted fresh daily) and the South End Mercantile Company had a variety of Norwegian delicacies including herring, sardines, fishballs and anchovies.4
While several grocers dealt in butter, eggs and cheese, there were by 1899 five independent dairies. For those of Dawson's citizens who craved such luxuries as sweets, fruits and ice cream, there were from the earliest days stores to satisfy such particular appetites. The number of confectioneries in the city grew to 13 in 1902. These, along with the many similar establishments which sold tobaccos, cigars and cigarettes in addition to candies, comprised a total of 25 shops dealing in delicacies, treats and specialty items which had once been the prerogative of the general storekeeper. One of them, Zacarelli's, became Dawson's most luxurious palace of self-indulgence, dealing in stationery, ice cream and a full complement of current magazines as well as in bonbons.
Sargent and Pinska, Hershberg and Company, J.P. McLennan and (later) Oak Hall Clothing seem to have been the most popular men's clothing dealers and had full stocks of up-to-date "nobby" fashions for the northern gentleman. By 1902 there were 15 businessmen and women catering solely to the women of the city (who had, by this time, increased in number and respectability). They offered ladies' clothing, millinery, dressmaking and hair dressing services.
Hardware, like groceries, was a singularly successful field of endeavour in the Klondike. At first most miners and new residents had been supplied from basic stocks of shelf hardware largely an extension of the types of tools which had been contained in the average outfit (see Appendix L, below). It was not long before more domestic tools were required, as were those items of heavy hardware and machinery needed in the evolving mining industry. By 1903 Bob Bloom and Charles Kaiser were among the few who still restricted themselves to general shelf hardware. By contrast, George Apple's Pioneer Tinship, the Tacoma Hardware Company, the Dawson Hardware Company and "Mc & Mc" were focusing their efforts on producing their own stoves, tinware and pipe-fittings. F.G. Whitehead specialized in lamps, D.A. Shindlar in bicycles (commonly called "wheels"), and Brimstone and Stewart in furniture and undertaking.
While Dawson was soon rid of the diseases which had plagued the pioneers of 1897 and 1898, the average resident still had to consider his own well-being. A versified play on the equation of "health" and "wealth" exploited his concern in a popular form of advertising for patent medicine, both inside the territory and out.
With this all-important and universal goal in mind, drugstores were abundant and prosperous in Dawson. There were eight such firms in 1901, of which Cribbs and Rogers was the largest. As well as filling prescriptions, these drugstores provided an other source of such "staple and fancy sundries" as cigars and sweets.5
With the possible exception of fresh meat and dairy products, all the foregoing types of goods were available from the complete stocks of the NC Company, the NAT&T Company, the Ames Mercantile Company and Ladue and Company, whose claims to excellence were based on their ability to fill the needs of the family table, the prospector's cabin and the mining camp in both essential and luxury items at reasonable prices. Yet these alternatives did not fulfill all the demands of Dawson's consuming population. By 1899 only one-fifth of the city's population was women,6 and despite the influx of wives in the new century, Dawson's customers remained predominantly male and single. Understandably, their need for entertainment was treated as a highly promising market.
In this field, entertainment merchants held their own as successful and respected members of the commercial fraternity. The restaurant and saloon business was booming. According to Major H.J. Woodside, 50 per cent of Dawson's residents, even as late as 1901, kept house only as a place to sleep; daily they filled the city's 33 restaurants for the standard $1 meal of pork and beans, bread, pie and coffee.7 As consumers of large quantities of food, these restaurants were undoubtedly valuable clients of the large wholesale grocers.
A similar bond of interdependence existed between "respectable" businesses and dance halls. While the moral attitudes of the first group toward the commerce in pleasure associated with the second went unrecorded, their single-minded opposition to the closing of dance halls in 1902 was another matter. A petition bearing the names of many of the pillars of the business community clearly illustrates the close relationship between these merchants and the pleasure palaces. Not only were these dance halls, concert halls, theatres and their employees good customers, but a certain amount of their brisk trade tended to be deflected into nearby shops.8
Liquor was another product essential to the Klondike way of life, and, to some minds, one of the most profitable. At first the procedure of licensing premises for the wholesale distribution of liquor had been corrupted by the availability of black market permits. The fines levied on non-permit-holders were regarded by many establishments only as predictable working expenses.9 By 1902 the schedule of license fees for the territory was as follows:
Lord Minto, on his trip through the city in 1900, hazarded a guess that every third house was a saloon.11 A year later there were still 23 of these establishments. Despite Dawson's growing respectability as wives and family men asserted moderation, the number barely dwindled over the years. There were 16 saloons operating in 1905. These saloons, along with some restaurants and the city's many confectioneries, shared the cigar and tobacco trade, a lucrative one indeed. Tobacco had been regarded as a staple from the days when even the most spartan of prospector's outfits contained enough plug to make the long winter bearable. The Canadian Grocer's exhortations to grocers to keep a well-stocked tobacco counter were of no avail in Dawson, where that line of business had fallen into more specialized hands.
The consumption of liquor was aided by a number of merchants who dealt in wholesale wines and spirits. The AC Company, the NAT&T Company and the Ames Mercantile Company probably carried the largest stocks. In 1898 the AC Company was authorized to bring in 10,000 tons of liquor in exchange for a $25,000 license fee and another $60,000 in customs and revenue duties.12 By 1901 only the two largest among the mercantile companies retained their licenses in wholesale liquor. The remaining trade was divided between Gandolfo (one of the enterprising fruit dealers of 1898) and Binet Brothers at the Madden House Hotel.
Dawson establishments were as varied in size and status as they were in the kinds of business they carried on. Again, loose categories may be drawn up, based on the amount of control exerted on the whole process of purchasing, shipping, storing and distributing. In determining comparative status, the distinctions made in the previous chapter between wholesale-retail companies and the smaller retail establishments which depended upon them are still useful as well. By compiling information from city directories for the years in question, a comparative list of the number of people employed by various businesses can be formed. Where more precise information as to capital and assets is not available, this list is a rough indication of business size. However crude the method, the results obtained reveal that the ten largest employers and Woodside's list of the eight controlling firms correspond remarkably closely (see "Metropolitan Airs: Dawson from 1899 to 1903" and Appendix E). It also gives a fair indication of those merchants who were clearing enough profit to hire help, separating them from the third, more transient group of traders.
The large or controlling firms were lively promoters of Dawson's trade, both wholesale and retail. Their concern with the future of the community stimulated an interest in local elections to positions of prestige and authority, an interest which encouraged them as a group to play a significant part in local politics. Both as employers and as major investors they were able to exert an influence over the scope of candidates' policies. In some cases they entered the political fray themselves. H.C. Macaulay of Macaulay Brothers, wholesale importers, was one such; he was elected the first mayor of the newly incorporated city.13 In the following year the mayoralty race was won by P.H. McLennan, the popular "Dawson-Vancouver Hardware King" and resident proprietor of McLennan and McFeely. His closest contestant was Thomas Adair, better known as one of the owners of J. and T. Adair, general merchandising, hardware and pianos.14
Local journals sometimes made mention of the various activities of leading merchants. While the names of smaller establishments rarely reached the columns except in advertisements, social notes frequently contained items about the more important proprietor when, for example, he left the north for the outside on a business tour of distributing houses across the continent and abroad. The Dawson Hardware Company, McLennan and McFeely, Sargent and Pinska, the AC Company, the Seattle-Yukon Trading Company, the Ames Mercantile Company and the NC Company could evidently afford the time and expense to set up their orders in this way.15
Occasional bits of information exist which record the careers of members of this group as they participated in related commercial ventures. R.P. McLennan (dry goods) and H.T. Roller (resident manager of the SYT Company) both held seats on various boards of directors in trust companies, stage transfer lines and power and telephone companies.16 J.R. Gandolfo, who was originally known for being the first on the Dawson market with his citrus fruit in 1898, was in later years equally well known in real estate as one of Dawson's more cunning investors.17
In addition to this group, a second category of merchants existed, a smaller group which played a constant but less visible role in the community. This category roughly encompasses the city's variety of retail firms which, although they competed with the larger firms for the retail trade, were usually staffed only by the proprietor and one or two assistants. The second part of Appendix E, showing those firms employing fewer than three assistants (1901-03), covers the majority of this group. There is little information about their personnel and operations.
Although they were exceptional in the fact that theirs was not a predominantly retail trade, Dawson's wholesale and commission merchants should also be noted. The details of these businesses remain vague, but newspaper advertisements reveal that they stocked their warehouses with complete lines of goods over a wide range. Hay, feed, flour, eggs, stored vegetables and canned milk might all come into their purview at one time or another. They purchased surplus consignments and goods brought in over the ice and stored them for resale and speculation. Barrett and Hull, Peter Steil (later Steil and Mullen), Stanley Scearce, and Cheney Kniffen and London were Dawson's largest commission merchants in the period 1901-03. Stanley Scearce's advertisements in the Dawson Daily News in 1902 reveal the business on its grandest scale (Fig. 36). Although they were neither as completely nor as consistently stocked, nor as responsible for the quality of the goods sold as were the commercial companies, these commission merchants were nonetheless their rivals.
The third group (if it can be so-called) of Dawson merchants in this period included its most colourful and certainly its most controversial members. For the purposes of this work, these merchants may be loosely described as unspecialized self-employed traders who operated without permanent mercantile establishments. This includes men who were either engaged in Dawson trade on a transient basis or who, if they took up residence, spent (as a rule) no more than one season in the town. It encompasses the transient trader the mistrusted river or scow pedlar, treated by the majority of contemporary permanent merchants as a thorn in their sides and a universal scapegoat. While they were not similarly mistrusted, the local small traders who were to disappear during Dawson's belt-tightening after 1902-03 may also be placed in this third category. The identity of such a trader is marked by his absence from newspaper advertisements, photographs and business directories.
In retrospect, it would seem that these transient and local traders shared a particular function: they filled the gaps and shortages which were a perpetual feature of Dawson's market. These gaps were especially visible in the grocery trade, more specifically in fresh fruits and vegetables. In season and out, Dawsonites could never get enough of these commodities.
The Dawson Daily News, a faithful voice of the stable element of local business and a vehement advocate of commercial progress, spared no adjectives in its condemnation of the transient trader:
Unscrupulous . . . unprincipalled curbstone dealers . . . with office in their hats and the half of whose capital consists of an immaculate nerve and an unequalled audacity. . . . The same chap one meets on the street today with a lot of moccassins for sale, "go sheep", tomorrow peddling out stale eggs and the next day probably selling socks or cheechako spirits. . . . They are a pest to the community and a parasite to the legitimate storekeepers, who have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in buildings and stock, and yet who are brought into competition with these people, many of whom have not even a six by eight shack wherein to do business.18
These traders were notorious for their evasion of fees and taxes and for their practice of passing one small rented building from hand to hand as they took turns going outside for more cargo.19 As early as 1899 license fees were imposed on transient traders, but in 1902 the government of the newly incorporated city raised that fee from $150 to $500.20 The imposition and strict enforcement of such fees must certainly have discouraged the transient element in Dawson's business community.
The yearly advent of the scowmen, as these transients were generally called, came in late May and early June. They arrived in Dawson along with the ice floes. Their winters were spent in Vancouver or Seattle where they gathered goods which were then shipped to be stored at Bennett Lake, where the anxious goldseekers had waited out the late winter weeks of 1897. At Bennett they too waited until the ice broke, and then they set out in small boats for Dawson. Their small craft navigated the ice-filled Yukon more easily than the larger sternwheelers which most Dawson merchants employed to transport goods, and theirs were understandably the first fresh perishables to reach the winter-weary Dawsonites. Turnover was rapid, and before a trader's presence had been really established, he was off to bring in a second lot. The speed of these trips was the secret of their success, for such traders were best at serving areas where known shortages existed. Such holes had to be plugged immediately, before the larger companies had a chance to order such products through regular channels. The trade was, in fact, an exhausting one, and after a few years of two round-trips each shipping season, the scowman had probably had enough.
Not every transient trader was denounced by reputable businessmen. Ezra Meeker was a yearly comer whose arrival was hailed and whose goods were announced in the newspapers.
Meeker was one of the traders who set up semi-permanent quarters on which he paid taxes and his trader's fee. (The building is still standing, or so a sign on a small one-storey cabin on Third Avenue across from Caley's Store indicates.) Meeker's first and most memorable trip was over the Chilkoot Pass in 1898. His flat-boat arrived in Dawson with 9,000 of his original 15,000 pounds of vegetables. Two weeks later, he pulled out with "two hundred ounces of Klondike gold in my belt."21 Urged on by his hopes of a lifetime's wealth from Klondike gold, Meeker continued his yearly pilgrimage until April 1901 when his mining properties finally failed. In leaving Dawson for the last time, he vowed never to set foot in mining territory again.22
One fascinating feature of the Dawson merchant's history is his origin: what brought him to the Klondike? And what drew him into the business of buying and selling in the city? Many who were to become Yukon merchants had initially entered the territory as goldseekers, unsure of what form the paystreak would take. Some of these never made it to a placer creek, realizing along the way that there was a less heroic but more reliable way of get ting rich. As long as thousands of others were determined or naive enough to continue the placer quest, there was money to be made in providing for their survival.
Many a Dawson merchant had his first taste of barter as a goldseeker-turned-entrepreneur along the famous trail of 1898. The commercial career of J.O. Drury, an Australian goldseeker, had an enterprising start when he bought a bolt of ticking, filled it with Dyea hay and easily sold the product to new arrivals. In 1899 he pooled his commercial know-how with Isaac Taylor, an Englishman he had met on the Ashcroft Trail to the goldfields the previous year.23 Since their original meeting, Taylor had set up a store in Bennett which he had stocked with collected outfits and an initial consignment from R.P. Rithet in Victoria, representing an investment of $200.24 Before long, Taylor and Drury had moved to the new railhead at Whitehorse where the firm has remained ever since. It amalgamated with Whitney and Pedlar in 1912 and bought them out seven years later.
Like Taylor and Drury, Bob Bloom came to the Klondike in 1898 by the Chilkoot Pass. Like them, he perceived the possible profit in handling the redistribution of the tons of outfits on the passes. "Swopping," as he called the transaction which occurred when the disillusioned sold out to those who needed more goods to stay on, could lead to a fortune for the permanent middleman.25 Bloom's first years of business in Dawson were based on continual "swopping." He supplemented his stocks by consignments from Victoria and Vancouver, primarily from McLennan and McFeely. During these early winters when business was slack, he drove cattle from the coast to Dawson by overland trails.
Charles Sargent and Martin Pinska formed a partnership in February 1899 which marked the beginning of a firm which soon became one of Dawson's in 1898 (from Duluth and St. Paul, Minnesota, respectively) their initial interests in the Klondike had been somewhat dissimilar. Sargent hoped to acquire his wealth through mining, while Pinska came to Dawson with enterprise in mind. He brought with him a large stock of furs and opened a waterfront store in September 1898.26 Business was good, and Sargent was persuaded to leave the drudgery of mining for a more reliable sort of profit-making operation. No sooner had the partnership been formed than its store was destroyed by the April 1899 conflagration. The firm relocated on a prominent lot at First Avenue and Second Street. By that fall Sargent and Pinska had enough capital to send one partner outside to buy stocks from New York and Boston manufacturers.
Like Pinska, other commercially minded men regarded the Klondike market as a worthwhile risk from the beginning. In many cases these men already possessed a quantity of capital which they determined to invest in mercantile ventures in Dawson. Some of them directed companies which dispatched representatives to open branches and extend operations into the north. (The extension of branch outlets by established west-coast firms has already been discussed as a factor in Yukon River development.) Others had no connections with existing companies, but possessed a large amount of capital which they invested in mercantile ventures. Both of these types were knowledgeable investors, men whose experience had led them to anticipate a large profit on money invested in gold-rush commerce.
One example of an extension of a large company was Parson's Produce Company, with headquarters in Winnipeg. This firm was, according to the Nugget, one of Canada's largest businesses. In addition to the Dawson investment, Parson's had branches in Vancouver, Nelson, Victoria, Rossland, Atlin and Bennett, British Columbia, as well as in Exeter, Ontario. The Dawson local manager, H.P. Hanson, had had two years of experience with the company and had at one point been mayor of Morden, Manitoba. By the end of 1899 Hanson had supervised the construction of three new warm and cold warehouses (to replace those lost in the April fire) as well as a second Dawson branch store.27
A good example of the second type of capitalist was S.D. Wood who, until he heard the call in 1897, was the mayor of Seattle.28 Wood soon became something of a legend (certainly an example) in Seattle, for he relinquished his secure post and invested $150,000 in a Yukon fleet and in stocks of goods and a warehouse in Dawson and five other Alaskan points.29 He continued to live in Seattle, leaving the management of his multi-purpose company (carriers and traders, staple and factory provisions, wholesale and retail, warm and cold storage and vessel leasing) to H. Te Roller.30 Te Roller, as previously mentioned, invested in several Dawson concerns himself. When the SYT Company was sold out in 1900 Te Roller became the resident manager of the rival NAT&T Company.
Rather than embark immediately on a partnership or invest heavily in a large consignment of outside goods, many businessmen preferred to acquire capital and experience in northern mercantile activities by working as employees of one of the already established firms. In some cases, the prospective merchant probably sought temporary employment when he was unable to locate on the goldfields. Before long, he recognized the potential profit to be gained and resolved to embark on a commercial venture himself. Appendix E indicates the ample opportunities offered by Dawson businesses for such apprenticeships. The regularity with which such apprenticeships occurred is illustrated by several documented examples among the city's merchant population.
William Clark and W.A. Ryan were both experienced in northern trade when they opened the North End Grocery in 1900. Both had come north from Tacoma, Washington, where Ryan had been county clerk and correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Clark had been an attorney.31 Ryan had gained his experience as a clerk in the AE Company, while Clark's commercial training had begun when he was a waterfront trader.
Another Dawson merchant, W.H. Hammell, already had acquired some commercial experience in Montana when he arrived in the city in 1897. This experience undoubtedly helped him to find employment in the NAT&T Company shortly after he reached Dawson, and he remained with the company for the next two years. In August of 1899 he opened a store of his own, providing staples and fancy groceries for the family home or miner's cabin.32 The understanding of commercial operations in the north and his capital, both acquired at the NAT&T Company, were without doubt the foundation of his operation.
In 1903 a partnership known as Cheney, Kniffen and London appeared in the city directory as commission merchants, auctioneers and general merchants with outlets on First Avenue and in Bonanza. Directory listings for previous years show that these three had been independently engaged in auctioneering before coming together in a partnership.
One especially notable case of a proprietor who worked up through the ranks of an established firm was that of R.S. Hildebrand. In 1901 Hildebrand was a mere shipping clerk for McLennan and McFeeley.33 By 1905 he had bought out the firm's Dawson holdings.
While Dawson merchants' routes to commercial success varied, there is one feature of their collective origin which stands out clearly. Very few of them were Canadians. This fact was exposed in 1899 when the Dawson Daily News billed Parson's Produce as the only Canadian firm trading in the Yukon.34 Why the News chose to overlook McLennan and McFeely as Canadian operators must remain a mystery, but the data given in Appendix C is a fair indication that Canadian businessmen were not in the majority. This information has been compiled from all available references to the place of origin of any Dawson merchant or business firm. Such references do not abound, and the final product is, unfortunately, rather meagre. The results, however, are far from surprising. They merely reflect the fact that Dawson's population was predominantly American.35
Contemporary newspaper advertising conveys both the quality and versatility of Dawson's many stores. Weighted as they were in favour of each merchant's virtues, these advertisements leave one to wonder what reputation these men did indeed have with their customers.
The newspapers raised their voices in disapproval of business oversights or malpractices only on major matters which involved the entire business community. Consistently excessive prices and the cornering of a particular line of goods were usually the issues in question.
The NAT&T Company was censured by the Nugget in 1898 for its supposed irresponsibility and unfair distribution of goods during the preceding winter's shortages, but when Healey, the manager, was recalled that September, the fuss died down. Such an outright condemnation of a single firm was rare. One ardent critic of the Klondike trade in general was Mary E. Hitchcock, a wealthy American tourist who had chosen to spend her summer holidays in the Klondike. She was a connoisseur of fine goods and a more demanding customer than the average Dawson citizen during the summer of 1898. Few of the firms she dealt with escaped her caustic commentary: "Between the cheating of the people from whom we bought The goods, The spoiling and detention of our boxes by The steamship companies and the Non-responsibility of the warehouse owner, it is enough to drive one crazy."36 It should be pointed out that the disorder of gold-rush times was hardly likely to produce the sort of mercantile habits which Mrs. Hitchcock and her companion had come to expect in the more genteel commercial centres of the continent.
In keeping with the many other facets of northern progress, merchants prided themselves on their maturing business methods. The AE Company claimed in 1899 to have advanced beyond the crudities of backwoods trading "where you get what they want to give you in exchange for all you've got."37 A rather long and highly laudatory newspaper article on the workings of the AC Company in 1898 praised that firm and its managers for their attention to order and detail, their execution of broad-minded plans, their fair prices and their absolute refusal to exploit the consumer. As the most seasoned of Dawson's firms, the AC Company was already capable of combining efficiency with elegance in their operations. Undeniably (the Nugget thought) this marked "progress towards civilization and its influences."38 As long as business achieved that most important goal, the Nugget's reporter could find no reason to criticize.
H.P. Hanson, the courteous local manager of the Parson's Produce Company, was in turn singled out by the Nugget for public praise as being one of the most popular men in Dawson because of "certain straightforward qualities inherent in himself."39 Honesty continued to be regarded as a virtue in the Yukon trader; the total dependence of the community on his goods required it to be so. At one time the trader had reciprocated by allowing almost unlimited credit to his mining customers. Much has been made of the swamping of the miner's code by the onslaught of the Klondike rush. Indeed, the kind of trust which had existed between Jack Mcuesten and his customers would have been sheer naiveté in the grasping days of 1898 and after. But a certain amount of faith was still necessary, and Bob Bloom's wife spoke in retrospect of her husband's "uncanny knowledge of who he can trust and who he should avoid."40
Part of the price of 20th-century efficiency was the generally enforced restriction of the once promiscuous credit system.41 The Dawson Hardware Company letterbook of 1903-04 shows that substantial security had to be presented before opening an account with that firm. The standard 60- to 90-day period of payment was all that was allowed, although this does not appear to have been rigorously enforced. Late in June a company collector was sent up to the creeks to clear up all unpaid bills.42 His timing was good, since it followed closely on most cleanup operations and ensured the sudden income needed by the company to make its own large July payments. However severe the Dawson Hardware Company's methods seem to be in theory, in practice this rigorous system was essential to keep a balance. The company was constantly beseeched by miners for clemency on payments. The company letterbook is filled with scraps of paper with pencil-scrawled apologies for late payment: cleanup had been impeded, the paystreak was close at hand, unforeseen expenses for repairs had delayed other payments in short, cash was not available. One letter from a medical doctor-miner in Dominion Creek starts with the common story of woe; his diggings had taken him unknowingly away from paydirt and into bedrock therefore, no gold. His plea for time is made more complete by his statement that his own patients were not paying their bills either, and that he understood perfectly the position of the hardware company. One roadhouse proprietor explained that August was the month for the renewal of the expensive liquor licenses, and that as a result he had no cash remaining to pay his bills.43
As long as gold dust was used as a means of payment, extended credit was readily available and grubstaking remained a prevalent custom, Dawson trading ethics were a common subject of discussion. There was a legendary ritual of completing a transaction; one tossed one's poke on the counter and pointedly turned away while the merchant weighed out the amount owing on the purchase. It he so wished, the miner could request that a respectable store or saloon keeper look after or "bank" his poke for him.44 An unlocked drawer was allegedly used for this purpose. (Presumably one avoided the premises of those less scrupulous dealers who exploited such ceremonies.) In 1899, before the arrival of official weights and measures from Ottawa, it was reported that no two sets of scales in town were the same, and that the only reliable ones were those used by the large companies.45 In most cases, a certain percentage as a "tip" to the weigher was acceptable to both sides. It was possible, however, for some swindlers to gain as much as 50 cents on the dollar.
While gold dust was never officially legal tender, its widespread use as such was unavoidable. The miner paid for his provisions with the products of his labour in much the same way that the rural consumer paid for his supplies with crops, livestock or firewood. The custom was entrenched in Dawson commerce by 1898. In that year, hard currency was grievously scarce while dust was plentiful enough to be baked (one miner quipped) into Christmas puddings.46
The AC Company partly solved the currency problem by issuing vouchers and tokens.47 These were paid out at a specified rate for contracted work; men selling cordwood to the store, stevedores on the company docks and store employees were all paid in this way with vouchers redeemable at the company counters. The policy did not last beyond 1898 and it does not appear that any other company followed suit.
The whole issue of the fluctuating exchange rate on gold dust was a vital one to both merchant and miner. The slightest variation brought cries of outrage from one camp or the other. The matter was complicated by two factors. First, each creek's dust assayed at a different value, varying from $12.50 per ounce on one section of Hunker Creek to $17.50 on another.48 Second, the nearest official assay offices were thousands of miles away in Seattle. That necessitated initial payments by the store or bank to the miner, with the promise of refunds if the gold assayed more than the base value.49
The immediate solution adopted to cope with such an involved procedure was a streamlined operation whereby a recognizable and inferior gold dust, called "commercial" or "trade" dust, was circulated exclusively for local business transactions. This adulterated form was, of course, worthless, and could be bought from the bank at an established rate in exchange for the real stuff. The process resulted in uncontrolled inflation as the value of an ounce of trade dust dropped progressively in relation to the value of a pure ounce. In 1900 the ratio stood at $14.50 to $16.00.50 If a case of goods was worth $16.00 (one ounce of pure gold) it could be bought (theoretically) for an ounce of trade dust, but, given this ratio, the merchant would be reimbursed only $14.50. As a result, rather than to assay all incoming gold to determine whether it was pure or trade assay, merchants simply went on the assumption that all dust in circulation was impure and accordingly raised their prices.51
Eventually the market was so inundated with trade dust that the Board of Trade reacted, announcing that the local exchange rate on all dust brought to the counter would be $15 to the ounce.52
The placer labourers, an understandably discontented group at best, were infuriated by this announcement. They feared that the next step would be the total abolition of dust as a medium of currency. Throughout this controversy the Dawson Daily News stood squarely behind the merchants. The guilty parties, the editor claimed, were the mine owners and bosses who were buying up the cheaper dust and using it to pay their workers.53 The crux of the matter was the fact that wages were computed on the basis of one ounce equalling $16, which of course it did not. A worker paid in this way was bound to feel cheated at any store where his "$16" ounce was accepted at less than that value.
By 1902, despite the threat among miners to form syndicates and buy their goods outside,54 the exchange rate for commercial dust dropped again to $13.50. A list of 36 firms which endorsed this policy was published. Since virtually every major company in each field was included, the buyer could do little to stem the tide against him.55
At the same time as the exchange rate was lowered, the practice of unlimited credit came under severe strain. More and more merchants demanded immediate payment. Call it the prospector's code or a backwoods style of trading, but the old order was being forced to change. The unwillingness of outside suppliers and manufacturers to make allowances for what they undoubtedly considered to be an outdated frontier system is fully understandable. By 1904 most controlling firms in Dawson were responding to this pressure by insisting on cash payments, even from their most trusted customers.56 Up until that time, some 70 per cent of Klondike miners had been given credit for eight months, paying up with the results of spring cleanup.
The cash-on-the-spot demand was more than a bluff on the part of the large companies, but at the same time they could not deny that the credit tradition was still, for many miners, a way of survival. Both the use of gold dust and the extension of credit continued to a certain extent. Generally speaking, long credit and gold dust payments remained as regular practice only with the general merchants on the creeks whose clientele was still almost entirely composed of mine workers and whose methods continued to vary little from the acknowledged frontier traditions.
Lowering the exchange rate had the immediate effect of stirring up the long-simmering complaints against unduly high prices. On this issue the Dawson Daily News jumped to the defence of the consumer.57 Like landowners and their own arch-enemy, the WPYR, merchants were (according to the editor) guilty of failing to scale down their prices in keeping with the post-boom pattern of economic belt-tightening. Little wonder, he exclaimed, that clubs were being formed to send outside for supplies.
During this period the T. Eaton Company began to make in-roads in the Yukon Territory. Although the exact date on which Eaton's catalogue first crossed the Chilkoot is neither known nor celebrated, its arrival in the north marked the beginning of a long-lived association between the Dawsonite and the Dream Book. Since that time, loyalty to local merchants has been carefully weighed against the advantage of sending outside for goods.
Much of the general ill-will felt toward the Dawson merchants and their position on the monetary question should more accurately have been directed toward the Board of Trade, the official voice of the business community, including transport, mercantile, banking and real estate interests. Organized in September 1899,58 the board played an especially active role before the incorporation of Dawson. During that time it was an important lobby to the Yukon Council on such matters as city improvements. Memorials from the board and reports from its various members form a substantial portion of Lord Minto's Yukon correspondence.59 The successive slates of the board's executive position over the years 1899-1903 were filled by a well-balanced sample of company directors, real estate brokers and bank managers.60 The actual impulse needed to deal effectively with the trade dust problem had come from this body.
Those adversely affected by the policy regarded the Board of Trade as a dangerous combination designed to keep land and commodity prices high.61 Merchants were thought to be doubly guilty as each year they faced additional accusations of cornering the market in certain commodities. This disreputable practice stirred "the collective sourdough memory" to recall the grim winter of 1897. Calling it the "starvation winter" was definitely hyperbolic. The root of the scare had in fact been indiscriminate cornering, resulting in scarcities of certain articles and black market dealings in many staples. Ever afterward, once the rumour of a natural shortage in a certain area reached public ears, fearful gossip about another such winter abounded.
In 1899 the Yukon had frozen early, leaving many tons of freight stranded between Dawson and Skagway. During that fall and winter, massive manipulation was reported in the markets for rolled oats, hominy, sugar, Ogilvie flour, butter and potatoes.62 No one was quite sure where truth ended and rumour began. Some firms were besieged with orders for 10,000 of a single item. The finger of blame was pointed squarely at those greedy and speculative "unprincipled curbstone dealers" who allegedly would not hesitate to deprive Dawson's poorer citizens. After individual interviews with representatives of the Ladue Trading and Exploring Company, the AE Company, the Ames Mercantile Company, the NAT&T Company and the NC Company, the Dawson Daily News discovered that all leading firms either pleaded total innocence of the scare or issued public assurances of their full stocks in all areas and their absolute refusal to sell staples in lots larger than an outfit. No staple line disappeared entirely and no one starved. Whether anyone actually made his fortune by the scare remains a matter of speculation.63 Dawson would never be entirely free of price fixing of a certain kind. No one would deny the existence of open competition on one hand, but neither could one ignore the fact that, when the NC Company published its yearly price list, few merchants in Dawson were not affected.64
In 1902, again, the Dawson Daily News declared in December that the Pacific Cold Storage Company, the Standard Commercial Company and one other firm had the city locked in a three-way meat monopoly. The main point of the newspaper's criticism was that these firms, not content with their indisputable wholesale control of the market, had cornered retail sales as well.65 Dawson residents were not adjusting to mercantile monopolies without complaints.
Merchants were also criticized for their failure to live up to the general public's expectations of high-quality goods. Dealers in groceries and provisions were especially vulnerable to these attacks, partly because of the shipping risks they had to take and partly because of the age of adulteration in which they lived. (This particular aspect of merchandising will be discussed more fully in the next chapter.) The North-West Mounted Police's health inspection provided a certain protection. The general efficiency of this unit is not known, but the Dawson Daily News described in lurid detail at least one successful raid in 1899. The trader in question had apparently been doing business up until the moment of his arrest at which time the odor of his rotten eggs and tainted meat and fish was likened to that emitted by a sewer, Examination by one health official showed the meat to be "ready to walk." When the trader claimed that he was selling his merchandise as dog food, he was admonished, fined $5 and court costs, and sent on his way.66
By all indications, the established Dawson merchant enjoyed a comfortable reputation in the city. Presidents and managers of leading companies, however they were considered by customers and employees, were generally respected as men of means and social prominence in the community. These leading merchants were part of a clearly visible post-boom elite, identified rather succinctly by Laura Berton in her witty and perceptive analysis of Dawson's social fabric in 1907. The event in question is the Grand Opening of the gala St. Andrew's Ball.
It was led, of course, by Commissioner Henderson and his wife, followed by the church, represented by the Stringers, the law (the three head judges and police superintendent) and Mammon (the heads of companies). The rest of us followed behind.67
As the northern store evolved from the cabin of the self-reliant river trader of the 1890s to the equally versatile but more elegant quarters of the department store, its role as a centre of social activity changed considerably. The importance of a warm, well-lit gathering place in the life of a prospector needs no further emphasis. Even in Dawson's heyday, when the cheechako hoards jostled along muddy Front Street, there was still a need for a central point of reference where friends could be found, news bartered and (above all) where word of any new strikes could be picked up, weighed as to authenticity and acted upon it necessary. The AC Company and the NAT&T Company, centrally located on Front Street and constructed side by side in the early summer of 1897, had from the start served as the agora of Dawson, Both stores opened onto large wide platforms which overlooked the traffic wending its way up Front Street, steamers rounding the bend from Whitehorse or Saint Michael, and, just across the way, the heaving and hauling of merchandise onto company wharves. The NC Company's verandah was indeed a fine place to spend long summer days waiting for a steamer, waiting for a strike, waiting for a stage bound for the creeks. In the early days of Dawson-Bonanza freighting, these companies were the arrival and departure points for various stage lines. There, without doubt, the pulse of the boom town could be felt daily. The AC Company's platform and the post office were the places to locate a long-lost friend, partner or husband. Stories of day-long lineups at the post office would seem to indicate that the crowd on the AC Company's platform probably had a better system for dealing with personal inquiries.
The end of summer in Dawson meant an end to steamers, freights, newcomers and Front Street activities. It meant the gnawing cold of winter, digging, thawing and the endless confinement in smoky cabins. There were, of course, diversions; unlike rural communities Dawson had scores of saloons, dance-halls, theatres, restaurants and (ultimately) ladies in Paradise Alley to compete for the gold of the lonely miner during his first long winter inside. The store, however, continued to hold its position as public assembly, reading room and social club.68
Despite the general reputation of boom town populations, not every Dawson citizen felt comfortable in the noise and smoky glitter of the dancehall. With a few exceptions, Dawson's restaurants seem to have been relatively cheerless eateries. The store, on the other hand, provided some element of companionship. While the cracker barrel tradition was no longer an element of its culture, the huge stove was undoubtedly the centre of any store gathering. The daughter of one trader recalled a vivid childhood memory of the tones of adult conversation punctuated by the occasional sharp hiss of spit hitting the hot metal.69 This rag-chewing ran the usual gamut of Yukon topics from local injustices to prospecting adventure (every sourdough had his own "face-to-face-with-a-bear" story). References to the more distant past, to one's outside ties, were scrupulously avoided.
When electricity came to Dawson, it came first to the stores. A brightly lit room must have attracted many who found the hours of winter darkness increasingly unbearable. One sourdough gives us an idea of just how desperate the creek miner was for winter entertainment.
Dn the creek where I spent the first several years the only form of recreation was playing cards by the light of a candle. There were neither books nor magazines, and at times we were so wistful for a break in the monotony that we would visit the store in the evenings and read the labels on the cans.70
Lord Minto's Klondike diary records that in 1900 the stores and shops seemed to be open night and day,71 a practice that was probably directly related to long hours of summer daylight.
In time, some of the larger stores took to organizing activities to help fill the winter months. Editions of the Dawson Daily News during the winter of 1899-1900 made weekly references to hockey and bowling tournaments set up between the employees of some of the larger establishments. New Year's Day that year was celebrated around the punch bowl in the AC Company's store.
There were still vestiges, indeed, of the kind of trust and interdependence which had existed in the distant days along the Yukon River. But it was obvious, in the next decade, that the simplicity of this relationship would have to give way to the pressures of "progress towards civilization and its influences." The closely knit "family" of river traders working together more or less under the AC Company's banner had been forced to take on a new and multifarious membership. Streaming to the gold-bearing centres from all parts of the world, the merchant group of 1898 and later brought a vast range of experiences and backgrounds to bear on the traditional Yukon business methods. This new group was no homogeneous whole in terms of specialities, ways of operation or status in the community.
The next chapter focuses on one particular type of business and the demands which helped to mould it. The grocery and provisions trade was germane to all phases of Klondike outfitting and supply. As the Dawson business community matured, the small-scale general store became a peripheral rather than a central institution in the community. Only the provision merchants remained to carry on the trade most reminiscent of the gold-rush era in stores which were the most colourful emporia of them all.