Length of stay: 2 days
Visited: September 2023
Dawson City is located along the Yukon River. It is famous for being the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s. It was also once the capital of the Yukon before being moved to Whitehouse in 1953 following the completion of the Alaska Highway. Dawson City contains many historic buildings and a few museums to give a sense of what life was like during the largest gold rush in Canadian history.
Day 1: History of the Downtown
After spending the day hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park, we arrived in Dawson City in the late-afternoon. We checked in at the Visitor Information Centre, which shares the building with Parks Canada, to sign up for a historic walking tour later in the evening. Since we had some time to kill, we went for a stroll downtown to get a sneak peak of some of the historic buildings. And because the border along the Top of the World Highway was closing tomorrow, we had the place mostly all to ourselves.
In August 1896, huge quantities of gold were discovered on Rabbit Creek, which was later renamed Bonanza Creek. This led to the start of the Klondike Gold Rush. When news reached the outside world the following year, over 100,000 prospectors began to make their way to Dawson City. But the journey was long and treacherous. Around 30,000 people reached Dawson City in the summer of 1898. But by this time, most of the individual claims had already been purchased by larger corporations. And just as quickly as Dawson City became a boomtown, its population quickly declined due to the discovery of gold elsewhere. By 1918, there were fewer than 1,000 people left.
Given how quickly Dawson City grew, many of the buildings were hastily put together and built with wood and cheap materials. Most of the original structures were damaged by fire, but have been rebuilt over the years using a similar style to keep the authentic appearance of the city. The downtown today contains a number of smaller shops, restaurants and hotels. Parks Canada has also acquired over 17 buildings that are part of the Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site to preserve the history of the Klondike Gold Rush.
While some buildings have been rebuilt and restored, others look like they are about to collapse. The ground here used to be frozen solid all year. But the permafrost below the surface has been melting, which has shifted the ground underneath. This is why the roads and sidewalks aren’t paved as the sewers and water pipes underneath are also affected by the thawing permafrost.
After taking a break at our accommodations, we returned to the Visitor Information Centre to attend the historic downtown tour. Our group consisted of around 15 people. Our charismatic guide (who wore a period costume) then spent the next hour and a half leading us around downtown while explaining the history of Dawson City, including stories and tales from the gold rush. We even got to enter three buildings which are typically closed to the general public.
The Bank of British North America was the first banking institution that was established in Dawson during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. It eventually closed in 1968 when the last gold dredge closed.
The Red Feather Saloon was initially constructed in 1902 and is reputed to be one of the last saloons built and licensed in the city. While many of the furnishings in the current building are reproductions, some of the items are original pieces from the gold rush.
The Old Post Office was the first substantial building constructed by the federal government in Dawson City. It was completed in 1900 and helped demonstrate the government’s commitment to the region.
We wrapped up our tour just after 7:30pm. Since we had yet to eat dinner, we walked to Pan of Gold to order a pizza, which we took back to our accommodations at the Bunkhouse. Our room was quite basic, but it was clean and comfortable, and a nice change of pace from sleeping in our tent or in the back of our car.
Day 2: History of Mining
The next morning we drove to the Midnight Dome Viewpoint, which provides a panoramic view of the city, the Yukon River and Klondike Valley. It gets its name from the fact that people have been gathering here for decades to watch the midnight sun during the summer.
We headed back to the historic downtown and made our way over to the Visitor Information Centre to meet up for a one-hour tour of the S.S. Keno. We had the same guide as yesterday’s historic downtown tour and were joined by one other person. From the Visitor Information Centre, it’s a short walk to the S.S. Keno.
Before the Alaska and Klondike Highways were constructed, sternwheelers were used in this region to help transport gold, silver, lead and zinc and to bring in supplies and heavy machinery. The S.S. Keno mainly worked along the Stewart River and hauled silver lead concentrate from Mayo to Stewart City.
After explaining the history of the S.S. Keno and the use of steamers along the lakes and rivers of the Yukon, our guide took us aboard. We walked through the main and first floors, learning more about how the steam powered sternwheelers were powered by wood and what conditions were like for the people who worked or travelled on the S.S. Keno. Since our group was small, our guide also led us to the upper deck to check out the captain’s wheel.
After our tour ended, we walked around the block to the Dawson City Museum. The museum contains a number of galleries and exhibits that provide more information about the history of the area, its connection with the First Nations people, and about the Klondike Gold Rush.
After having a quick bite to eat, we made our way to the Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site, located along Bonanza Creek. We had signed up for another tour with Parks Canada to learn more about how gold was extracted from the area and to see the inside of the dredge.
Dredge No 4 was the largest wooden-hulled bucket dredge in North America that was designed to dig up gold. It was built in 1912 for the Canadian Klondike Mining Company and was used until 1959. During this time it operated 24 hours a day from April to November. It was considered more efficient than mining by hand, but required a lot of effort to construct and operate. It moved forward a half mile per season, but unearthed nine tons of gold when it was operational.
After learning more about the history of Dredge No 4, our guide took us inside and explained how it works. The dredge was decommissioned in 1959 after sinking in the Bonanza Creek. Parks Canada acquired it in 1970 and had it excavated and relocated. While it is still being restored, it is open for guided tours.
Once we finished our tour, it was time for us to hit the road again. We planned to return to Whitehorse to spend the night, which is about a 6.5 hour drive from Dawson City. The drive was rather uneventful, but we did spot a Canadian lynx by the side of the road.
By the time we made it to our accommodations, it was just before 8:30pm. Tomorrow we had a big day of driving, plus we wanted to squeeze in a day trip to Skagway, Alaska.