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

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

by Margaret Archibald

Conclusion: The Well-Appointed Ghost Town

After 1905 it was obvious that the Klondike valley was to be divided among a few large corporate claim-owners whose technological and financial manipulation of the hydraulic and dredging processes would secure control of gold mining in the 20th century.1 Population declined, and for those who remained there was a growing dependence on these large gold-mining companies for jobs — and, in the case of the merchant, for sales.

By 1906 most claims were mining camps whose owners stocked goods from Dawson wholesale firms to feed their employees.2 Needless to say the system was a fine one for those wholesalers who could snap up one of these contracts (usually one of the two surviving trade corporations, the NC Company and the NAT&T Company) but many of the smaller firms were forced to close. Even then, the price offered by the gold companies was barely above cost, and the profits of those companies which did manage to survive were minimal. This new existence as a company town was itself short-lived, for in 19073 Guggenheim, the backers of one of the largest of the gold companies, announced that henceforth they would send their orders for provisions to the west coast. From that point forward, commercial Dawson was destined to continue as a shadow of its former active self.

But Dawson was an adamant ghost town and a reluctant has-been. While most of her early courtiers had loved her and left her, ten years after her prime she did retain a few sympathetic admirers. Among them was E.O. Ellingsen, who appreciated her still for her antiquated glamour. Ellingsen's craft was photography, and for his models he chose Dawson's most elegant parlours, emporia and sidewalks. In three 1909 photographs of some of the city's finer shops (the NC Company's, Zacarelli's and Jimmy's palace of sweet fruits and stationery — see Figs. 39, 56, 58 and 59) Dawson appears as a young Edwardian lady, only slightly overdressed for the occasion.

56 Jimmy's Place, Dawson (tobacco, stationery and confections), ca. 1913. Note the electric lighting.
(Public Archives Canada, C 21095.)

57 Daniel Kearney, a Dawson dry goods merchant, ca. 1905.
(Public Archives Canada, C 16462.)

58 Zacccarelli's store in Dawson, ca. 1908. Photo by E.O. Ellingsen.
(Public Archives Canada, C 8121.)

59 Jimmy's Place, Dawson, ca. 1910. Photo by E.O. Ellingsen.
(Public Archives Canada, C 8128.)

By that time, her riverfront façade was more rococo than ever. While the elaborate effect of storefront finery was really no more baroque than that found on King, Queen or Front streets in any other Canadian city, there was something stilted about Dawson's streetscapes. The original boom-town front — a matter of economy in times of astronomical lumber prices — had been distorted beyond recognition by the studied use of flourishes and curlicues.

Perhaps one had to see what lay behind that façade. While Second and Third avenues had once been lively thoroughfares and still did contain some thriving stores, the whole area was

on the verge of becoming a desert of secondhand shops & junk yards. Some of the buildings were already vacant and the windows boarded up. The secondhand shops were jammed with the refuse of the gold rush: stoves, furniture, goldpans, sets of dishes, double-belled seltzer bottles, old fur coats, lamps, jardiniers, cooking utensils, rubber boots, hand organs, glassware, bric-a-brac silver, and beds, beds, beds.4

One of the few general merchants to survive the heyday of the specialized retailer was E.S. Strait, his specialty, auctioneering and secondhand goods.5

By 1909, 11 grocers, 4 general merchants, 12 dealers in dry goods, 8 dealers in hardware, 4 secondhand traders and 4 fruit, candy and tobacco sellers remained in town to supply the 2,000 inhabitants.

Amalgamation and consolidation continued. In 1912 the NAT&T Company was forced to withdraw, leaving the NC Company as the final winner of the retail monopoly, a position which the San Francisco firm held in the Yukon until 1969. In that year the first of the great Pacific northwestern trade monopolies withdrew from its last bastion of retail sales, Whitehorse, just a little more than a century after its incorporation as a sealing enterprise. The sale left Taylor and Drury as the leading multi-purpose department store in Whitehorse. Founded upon a partnership formed 71 years earlier on the trail of '98, Taylor and Drury had worked from a keen sense of enterprise and an intuitive knowledge of what the goldseeker would buy at any price. "Buying from the downhearted and selling to the stouthearted:" the motto held true on the trail, along the river and on the wharves. Later conditions, however, called for a more rational and streamlined approach to ordering, shipping and marketing. The decade following the gold-rush demanded commercial skills of a different kind.

Hundreds of swappers, traders, pedlars and scowmen had swarmed over the passes, surprised to find their much-sought gold in a form which was crystallized, condensed, evaporated and tinned. Few of them outlasted the great monopolies as did Taylor and Drury, but then longevity had not been their goal. Their commercial careers had been for the most part brief; a few were notable and many were nameless. In Dawson, the permafrost has equalized their abandoned monuments. The false fronts sag and the nearly illegible grey names no longer speak of proud reputations. Lurching into the street, Strait's secondhand store still proclaims its "tobaccos, furniture, crockery, clothing, tents, guns, ammunition." Once there was a grocer and jobber who could declare, in truth, that he could provide "anything from a needle to a steamboat."6

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