Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/June 1899/Alaska and the Klondike: San Francisco of the North II

Popular Science Monthly Volume 55 June 1899  (1899) 
Alaska and the Klondike: San Francisco of the North II by Angelo Heilprin


Last in series






A FIRST impression of Dawson, in August, 1898, could not be other than one calculated to bring up comparisons with strange and foreign lands. As we saw it, approaching from the water side, it persistently suggested the banks of the Yang-tse-kiang, or of some other Chinese river, on which a densely apportioned population had settled. Hundreds—one is almost tempted to say thousands—of boats were lined up against the river front, and so packed in rows back of one another that exit from the inner line was made possible only by a passive accommodation from the outside. There were steam craft, house-boats, scows, and a variety of minor bottoms, ranging from the hay-packed raft to the graceful Peterboro canoe. Many had canvas spread over them, giving house quarter to those who preferred the economy of an owned estate to the high-priced cabins of log huts and hotels, and the purity of the open air to what was at least considered to be the polluted atmosphere of the stable city. It would be far from the truth to assume that this floating population

Dawson and Klondike City (South Dawson) in September, 1898.

was composed exclusively of men, women, and children; there were dogs galore, abundant by both presence and voice, horses and mules, and an occasional goat betrayed itself munching among hay-packs and the usual combination of simple and hard things which make up goat food. One canvas bore the tempting inscription "Hot and Cold River Baths," several carried legends of variously designated laundries, and a few even invited to "Board and Lodging, Cheap." Of course, the word cheap had here a special etymologic significance, and bore little relation to the same form of word which is current in lexicons.

The first favorable impression of dry land in Dawson was tempered by a knowledge that even here were many moist spots. The mud lay in great pools along the main street—First Avenue or Front Street—but hardly in sufficient depth to make walking dangerous. Dogs and goats could alone drown in it. It is true that an occasional wading burro or even a mule would find a dangerously low level, but I am not aware that any in this condition had added to a list of serious casualties. No mention is made in this connection of cats, for, in truth, only two specimens of the feline family had up to this time reached Dawson—one, a blue-ribboned kitten, which was endearingly received as the mascot of the Yukon Mining Exchange.

The Dawsonites are not entirely oblivious to the discomforts of mud, for an effort is being made to block it out with sawdust, of which the three or four sawmills in the town furnish a goodly supply. In some parts a rough corduroy has been attempted, but the price of lumber, two hundred dollars per thousand linear feet, renders this form of construction too expensive for general use, especially in a community all of whose members, female as well as male, are prepared to stem the tide with high-top boots. About one half the street length shows the pretense of wooden sidewalks, but no one has yet recognized a special responsibility for repairs, or seemingly considered that a continuous walk requires a continuous support. Walking is a succession of ups and downs; boards are missing here, other are smashed elsewhere, and the whole walk gives the impression of having been in existence for centuries rather than for the period of a short twelvemonth.

It was not difficult to determine what, perhaps, the majority of the sixteen thousand inhabitants of Dawson were doing at the time of our arrival. They were simply loitering, and the streets were packed with humanity. This was not strange, either, for it must have been difficult to resist the enjoyment of that open sunshine, that soft, warm atmosphere which is the delight of the summer climate of the far North. Never had I experienced anything comparable, and others who had traveled much agreed with my experience. On my way to the hotel, the "Fair View," which had been strongly recommended for its cuisine and the circumstance that it was "brand" new in its appointments—having only come into existence a few days before—I caught a good general glimpse of the town, the dominant features of which were registered in the two sides of the main thoroughfare along; the river front. A nearly continuous row of one-story, or at the utmost two-story, frame shacks or booths, many of

Junction of the Klondike with Yukon.

them still in canvas form, and most of them supported over the river's bank by pile proppings, built up the river side of this First Avenue. All manner of articles, both serviceable and unserviceable, for the Klondike business were displayed, mostly in cramped quarters. The variety of things that had in so brief a period found their way to this region was truly astonishing, and one marveled at the mental ingenuity which spirited some of these articles to a champ de vente. Surely nothing but "manifest destiny" could have placed a mammoth's molar on sale for a hundred dollars, when it was thought that a period of starvation was reigning in the town. And yet almost alongside of it were posters announcing that four loaves of bread could be purchased for one dollar—in another place "six loves" for the same price—and that "half an ounce"of gold dust, the equivalent of eight dollars, would gain admission to the best seat witnessing a boxing and wrestling contest.

In addition to the booths doing a regular merchandise business, there were those whose masters ministered to a specialty—druggists and doctors, photographers, auctioneers, and brokers of one kind or another. "Bartlett Bros., Packers" served the inner core of the gold regions by means of long trains of pack-mules, but they were not the only ones to whom the cargador was an officer militant. Dog teams there were as well as mule teams, and the majesty of the law was hardly considered invaded when the former effected a junction with man in the capacity of common carriers. One of the most interesting sights was to me the large number of letters awaiting ownership which were tacked up to the fronts and sides of different buildings, in the most public way petitioning for rapid delivery. My first letter in Dawson was obtained by stripping it from a door-jamb, but it was three weeks before my attention had been directed to it by a friendly discoverer. To obtain anything from the post office was a most exhaustive process, and usually required a long wait, sometimes of a day, or even of two days, before entry could be obtained into the small room where the sorting, distribution, and dispensation of mail matter were being effected. Even when finally issued, this matter was usually of several weeks' antiquity of arrival, the sorting of tons of substance being much beyond the capacity of the few official hands that were engaged in the work.

By far the most imposing side of the street was that which faced the river. Here, at least, were real buildings. The stately depots of the Alaska Commercial and North America Trading and Transportation Companies, with their outer casing of corrugated iron, would have done credit to a town of larger capacity than Dawson, and in regions much more accessible to civilization than the Northwest Territory. Farther on, the signs of a number of well-built saloons—"The Dominion," "The Pioneer," etc.—attract attention, not by the supposition that they are alone in the business, since they are supported by probably not less than two or three score others of their kind, but by their specially distinctive interiors; one of these is embellished inside by a series of four mural decorations in oil or distemper,

Arrival of the "Susie" from "down the River."

representing a range of subject from Morro Castle, Havana, to a "Moonlight on the Yukon," for which a resident artist "of promise," whose work was done in an open lot, received the some compensation of eight hundred dollars. They were befitting the place which they graced.

A more intimate acquaintance with these saloons made it plain that they were patronized both for the drinks which were sold over the bar for fifty cents or more and for the gaming tables which in open evidence betrayed a surpassingly strong interest in faro, rouge et noir, and roulette. Crowds were watching the fortunes of the play at every turn. From the front entrance quite to the rear some of the more favored halls were packed, but with an element that seemed little disposed to disturbance of any kind. While the drinking of spirituous liquors is very largely indulged in, I believe that during all my stay in Dawson only three cases of obtrusive drunkenness were brought to my attention; and of riotism my experience was wholly negative. Life and property are considered safe even in the most doubtful establishments, and it is not uncommon for a man to pass hours in a crowded dance hall with virtually all his possessions, possibly a few hundred dollars, or it may be thousands, carried in the form of gold dust in his trousers pockets. Two main factors are involved in this condition of security or in the feeling that it exists. The first of these is, perhaps, a wholesome dread of the Canadian Mounted Police, whose efficiency in the direction of controlling order is conceded by every one; and the second, the circumstance that the inhabitants of Dawson and of the adjoining Klondike region are not, as is so largely supposed, a mere assortment of rough prospectors, intent upon doing anything for the sake of acquiring gold, but a fair representation of good and indifferent elements borrowed from all professions and stations of life, and not from one country alone, but from nearly all parts of the civilized globe. During my brief stay I stumbled upon "counts," "sirs," military and naval officers, scientists, lawyers, newspaper men, promoters, and others of broad and liberal standing; and if some of these were undistinguishable in external garb from their brethren in mustard-colored mackinaws whose sole resource was digging for gold, their polished and intellectual method was evidence enough that civilization was present in good quantity along the upper Yukon. The fact that there are three weekly newspapers published in Dawson—the Nugget, Midnight Sun, and Dawson Miner, the first two selling for fifty cents a copy and the last for twenty-five cents—can hardly be considered to prove this condition, although favoring it; for, though the substance and especially the typography of the journals are quite good, the demand for reading matter is such that almost anything could realize a subscription list. The long-belated New York journals seem to command a steady sale on the news stands, where one also sees displayed the small and (in our country) gratuitously distributed scenic book of the transcontinental railways put up for fifty cents. The Argosy, Strand, Munsey's, and Cosmopolitan were the ruling magazines

The Main Street in a Spring Freshet.

during my visit, and each of these could be had for seventy-five cents a number.

Regretfully must it be said that the female portion of the population does not sustain the male either in character or diversity. I tried in various ways to ascertain the number of women who represented the community, but failed to obtain a satisfactory accounting. A large proportion of those who are in evidence, and perhaps even by far the greater number, belong to the "red" aristocracy, or at least to that side where steady principles are treated with little consideration and respect. I use the word aristocracy advisedly, for it is a notorious fact that an amount of deference is paid to these creatures of shame which is not given to the virtuous or self-respecting woman; and that they themselves, recognizing their standing, are apt to look down upon the rest of their kin, and to even question their proper privileges. A large part of the broadly capacious Second Avenue, together with equally conspicuous sections of the town elsewhere, is given up to the public display of the inmates of neatly constructed log cabins bearing such devices as "Saratoga," Bon-Ton," "The Lucky Cigar Store," "Green Tree," etc. The number of open houses is probably less than in most mining camps, and far below what it is in some places. In deference to a demand tax of fifty dollars, levied on each member of the profession to pay part costs of two fire engines which had been brought to the town, there was a response of only sixty-nine, and this was considered a sufficiently close representation not to press the matter any further.

A community of this kind must necessarily have its dance halls and places of amusement. The latter consisted at the time of my arrival of four "theatres" or "opera houses"—the "Combination," "Monte Carlo," "Mascot," and "Pavilion," two of which suspended or closed up before the "season" had fairly opened. Ordinarily, the price of a drink at the bar of entrance paid for admission to the performance with seat, and many will agree with me in believing that the admission was fully paid. The acting need not be worse at any theater, and the singing could hardly be surpassed in its eccentricities; yet the performances appeared to satisfy a general demand, as ordinarily the houses were packed to their full capacity evening after evening. Needless is it to say that the performances are not intended for women in good standing, and few such are ever present, unless heavily screened behind the curtains of the "boxes." The plays are all of a low order, but the worst is not much worse than some of the plays that are tolerated in all their nastiness in some of our own legitimate theaters. It is singular and interesting as showing the influence of necessity that a sacred Sunday concert in aid of the fire department was successfully carried through in the capacious halls of one of the most notorious dancing resorts.

There are now two banks in Dawson—the Bank of British North America and the Canadian Bank of Commerce. In the early days of August the first of these was still housed in a tent, and before the end of the month a stately wooden structure with flagstaff, and with commodious quarters for the representing officers and accountants,

Some Mud in the Main Street. First Avenue.

gave dignity to the institution, while it lent style to the corner upon which it was erected. Adjoining it now is the architecturally most imposing but by no means largest building in Dawson—the three-storied, bow-windowed log cabin of Alexander McDonald, the recognized "King of the Klondike"—intended primarily as an office building. It is a truly fine expression of the art of log-cabin building. In many ways one of the most interesting buildings, if such it can be called, was the air space, with canvas top, which adjoined one of the theaters and was used by Signor Gandolfo for a fruit store. There was no architectural quality to commend this space; nor, indeed, was there anything else in its favor, except that it was in the right place and brought both lessor and lessee fortunes. For the privileges of this space of five feet width the occupant paid the handsome rental of one hundred and twenty dollars a month, or twentyfour dollars per single foot of frontage; his profits were, however, such as to justify this payment, and before leaving he confided to me his plan of renting one half of the establishment. Conceive of the character of a store five feet wide, the opposite sides of which are devoted to quite distinct interests! Other sites rent for very little less, and the singular part of it is that much of the rental goes to the pockets of certain assumed owners, whose actual rights are largely in the nature of a "grab" or of squatter sovereignty alone.

Dawson extends up the river for about two miles, virtually coalescing with and taking in what has been euphoniously called Lousetown and also Klondike City. These more southerly parts carry with them certain characteristics which are either wanting in the main city or are there but feebly represented. The closely packed tents remind one of an army gathering or of the furniture of some religious camp meeting; walking between them might almost be considered to be a branch of navigation. Inscriptions on the canvas tell us of certain "brothers from St. Louis" being occupants here, and of "the Jolly Four from ———" occupants elsewhere. Representatives of the press, physicians, and attorneys all have their inscriptions. But the most interesting constructions, picturesque as much as they are instructive, are the elevated platform caches, diminutive log cabins, which on high stilts store a multitude of articles in safe keeping and beyond reach of the army of hungry dogs which are everywhere prowling about and carousing upon all manner of odds and ends. Their appearance, especially where they are placed among trees and bushes, is such that the observer can hardly resist the feeling that he is traveling in a region of primitive pile-dwellings—it may be the interior of New Guinea or the forest tract of one of the Guianas.

Dawson, which now owns the right to celebrate its third anniversary, is destined before long to assume a modern garb. It already has its electric plant, and before many months have passed electric illumination will lift the burden of the dark winter night. It is believed, too, that an electric railroad for freight and passenger service will be constructed in the course of the present year into the

Dog-Team Express—Dawson.

heart of the adjoining gold region. The tiresome accounts of bad trails will then be a thing of the past. In its business aspects Dawson does not materially differ from the majority of the boom towns of the United States, though of course it has its peculiarities. In the period of little more than a year it has gathered to itself, besides the usual class of merchants, representatives of a number of professions, such as doctors, lawyers, chemists, and assayers, most of whom, especially of the first two classes, appeared to be doing at least fairly well. Mine brokers, or simply venders of claims, are numerous, but their service does not in most cases sustain confidence; the display of posters announcing "bonanzas" in mining properties may be effective at times, but ordinarily the investor turns either to the Mining Exchange, a reasonably well-conducted private enterprise, or to claim-holders on the ground. The auction of claims at the Exchange was always largely attended at the times of my visits, and the bidding was frequently very spirited. The allowance of a time limit of ten days in which to make an examination of properties purchased and of the titles thereto before payment, beyond a forfeit of ten per cent, was exacted, naturally inspired confidence in the method of the transaction, and there is no question that a considerable number of good properties were parted over the boards here, and with eminent satisfaction to the purchasers.

The practice of medicine is necessarily governed by the laws which are in effect in the Dominion of Canada, and it requires the possession on the part of the practitioner of a diploma properly accredited from some recognized college of medicine in Canada. Graduation with diploma from the best medical schools in the United States is not considered to meet the requirement—nor, for that matter, is the diploma of any but a British school. This restriction also applies in the case of professional trained nurses. A number of cases closely bordering on litigation, and at one time even threatening to bring about international complications, have arisen in connection with practice violating this law; but despite the overwhelmingly large number of foreigners who are resident in the region, and who, it was thought by some, had the right to consult practitioners of their own nationality or choice, there is now a peaceful submission to the reading of the statute. The exaction is in no way intended to legislate against foreigners, but is simply a provision of the Dominion laws, similar to that which requires a "Dominion surveyor" who intends doing official survey work in British Columbia to be properly accredited with a special paper of that section of Canada (as distinguished from the Northwest Territory, etc.). Like the physicians, all surveyors giving out work under their names must be officially licensed from the Dominion, although those not thus certificated are permitted to do office or field work for others who are.

A field of labor that has already been entered upon by women is stenography and typewriting."There has been considerable demand for this kind of work, and there will continue to be much more, but it may be doubted if profits arising from it will ever equal what has been attained in millinery and the sale of fancy dress goods. One of the earliest milliners to come out of Dawson told me at Bennett that she had disposed of a hat which brought her two hundred and eighty dollars (in April, 1898), and its only ornamentation was two

Facsimile of Part of Yukon Midnight-Sun,September 3, 1898.

black ostrich feathers! Such prices are to-day a thing away in the past, but fur capes or circulars are still marketable for three hundred dollars and upward.

Toward a more intimate acquaintance with the methods and lines of business now followed in Dawson we subjoin a facsimile of portions of the advertising page of the Yukon Midnight Sun, bearing date of September 3, 1898,