The Wild West era was a time that burned bright, but was short-lived. Despite the violence, there’s a distinct sense of excitement and almost romance about living in a gold rush boomtown during its peak; every miner had a fair chance to strike it rich, the freedom of a mostly lawless town is kind of alluring, and boring moments were probably few and far between. I think that’s why boomtowns that managed to avoid fading away into ghost towns have so much appeal. They’re as close as we today can get to the thrill of living in the Wild West. I mean, as close as we can get until a real-life Westworld actually opens.
One of the best-preserved boomtowns is in the remote Canadian Yukon Territories, right near Alaska. It’s called Dawson City, and honestly, the remote location probably has as much to do with why it was abandoned as it has to do with why it’s survived for so long. From the colorful, Victorian-style buildings downtown to the rich history to the rugged setting along the beautiful Yukon River, it’s not hard to see why Dawson City has become a popular tourist destination.
The Klondike Gold Rush
Of course, Dawson City predates the Gold Rush; it was a camp where First Nations peoples would gather each summer to fish and hunt moose. But the discovery of gold in the area in 1896 prompted a massive population boom to the cold, remote corner of Canada. But it owes a lot to the short-lived Klondike Gold Rush. The gold was discovered in 1896 by American prospector George Carmack and his Native American wife along what came to be known as Bonanza Creek.
Word didn’t reach Seattle and San Francisco until 1897. This prompted nearly 100,000 prospectors to rush north. The journey was tough and went through some pretty remote swaths of the Yukon. In fact, at the time, the Canadian government had a law that anyone entering the Yukon had to bring along a year’s supply of food… which came with logistical problems such as “How do I get 1,150 pounds of food plus my tools and supplies to the Klondike?” Of the 100,000 prospectors who left for the gold rush, only about 35,000 actually made it… and they didn’t reach the Klondike region until 1898. And, of course, by that time, the easy-to-reach gold was gone. What was left was buried below a layer of chilly permafrost. By 1896, many prospectors had left for Nome, Alaska, again in search of gold.
But for that brief, two-year period between 1896 and 1898, Dawson City was bustling. Its population swelled from 500 in 1896 to 30,000 in 1898. Shoddily-built wood cabins sprang up all over, so fire and disease were common occurrences in Dawson City. The town was marked by a wide gap between the poorest prospectors and the gold miners who actually struck it rich; the wealthy miners had plenty of expendable income and would gamble and drink to excess in the saloons in town. By 1902, the population was back down to about 5,000.
But, the Alaska Highway bypassed Dawson City, instead, running through Whitehorse, and the town’s population again dropped, this time to about 750 people. But, with the construction of the Klondike Highway, a new industry was discovered to keep Dawson City afloat: tourism. There are plenty of Canadian National Historic Sites in town, and much of the downtown’s Victorian architecture is still intact; in fact, any new construction has to conform to the style.
The Land of the Midnight Sun
Like other arctic and sub-arctic cities, Dawson City experiences the Midnight Sun phenomenon. Since it’s so far North, daylight in the summer (especially around the summer solstice, the longest day of the year) can last for 21.5 hours. That picture up there? It was taken at 1:00… am. The northern location also makes Dawson City a prime place for spotting the Northern Lights. From late August until April, your odds of seeing the colors of the Aurora Borealis dance across the night sky are pretty good.
The Sourtoe Cocktail
One of the most famous attractions in town isn’t a historic site… it’s a shot at the Sourdough Saloon inside Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel. You know, the alcohol kind of shot. It’s called “The Sourtoe Cocktail”, and it’s famous because the ingredients are one ounce of alcohol and one dehydrated toe. A real, live, dehydrated, severed human toe. Yes, really. Those who take the oath and finish the shot (the only rule: the toe MUST touch your lips!) are granted membership in the exclusive Sourtoe Cocktail Club, made up of all of the daredevils who have taken the shot before you.
The legend of the Sourtoe Cocktail dates back to the 1920s. Two brothers, Louie and Otto Linken were rum-runners who were making a cross-country delivery via dogsled in the middle of a blizzard. While attempting to direct the dogs, Louie stepped in some slush, and fearing the police were on their tail, the brothers chose to forge ahead rather than stop to warm up and dry off. It wasn’t long before Louie’s big toe was frozen solid, and Otto had to perform a toe-ectomy, using only a woodcutting axe and some overproof rum for anesthesia. The operation was successful, and the brothers preserved the toe in a jar of alcohol in celebration. The jar was found in an abandoned cabin years later by a man named Captain Dick Stevenson. He and his friends hotly debated what to do with the toe and the booze, and they were the ones who created the cocktail, and the rules of the club.
It’s been a tradition at the hotel since 1973, and since its inception, more than 100,000 brave souls have stomached the Sourtoe shot. One unforeseen issue with the Sourtoe? Mummified human toes are hard to come by… and people like to steal them, often in really gross ways. In June of 2017, a toe went missing, but was quickly returned (with an apology) several days later, after much press coverage. And, in 2013, a man stole one of the toes by SWALLOWING IT as he took the shot. Ew. So much ew. The bar does have a few backup toes, and recently received a pledge to donate amputated toes from a man who lost three to frostbite during the long-distance backcountry Yukon Arctic Ultra race.
Dawson City today
If you’re interested in visiting, but don’t necessarily want to join the ranks of the Sourtoe Club, fear not… there are plenty of things to see and do that don’t involve severed, mummified human toes.
The main attraction in town is the Dawson Historical Complex National Historic Site of the Klondike Gold Rush International Park. There are about 17 historical buildings dotted across the downtown area that have been designated as nationally significant. Historic sites worth visiting in town include the Westminster Hotel (built in 1898), the S.S. Keno, a docked paddle steamer from 1922, and the Yukon Hotel, also built in 1898. There’s also Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. Though it only opened in 1971, it’s Canada’s oldest casino and is located in a historic building from 1901. The whole place has a Klondike theme, putting on vaudeville-style shows… and since it’s a non-profit, all proceeds are put back into preserving the town. Or get your hands dirty at Claim 33 Gold Panning, where you’ll learn how to actually pan for gold… and you’re guaranteed to walk away from the experience with your own treasure!
You’ll find plenty of museums as well, like the Jack London Museum. Jack London was the author of books like White Fang and The Call of the Wild, which were based on his time as a miner during the Klondike Gold Rush, and the museum features a recreation of his cabin, made with some of the original logs. And check out the Dawson City Museum, in the historic Old Territorial Administration Building; it houses one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of objects related to the Klondike Gold Rush. And no trip to the Yukon is complete without paying tribute to the First Nations peoples who lived here; the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre provides information on the culture, traditions, and history of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in… catch a performance if you can.
If you’re looking for abandoned stuff to explore, Dawson City has plenty to offer. Dredge No. 4 has been moved and preserved, but the massive wooden-hulled bucketline sluice dredge that mined placer gold back in the day has that haunting, frozen-in-time look, and you can tour it. There’s also the ghost town of Forty Mile. Like Dawson City, it went from being a site used by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in for hunting and fishing until the Klondike Gold Rush. At Forty Mile’s peak, the population of about 600 lived comfortably in the town, which had two stores, a library, a billiard room, 10 saloons, two restaurants, a theatre, an opera house, a watchmaker, and (of course) many distilleries. Today, only a few buildings remain, but they’re run by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the Government of Yukon. The coolest spot to explore in Dawson City, though, has to be the Paddlewheel Graveyard. Hidden in a stand of spruce trees along the Yukon River are the crumbling remains of about 7 paddlewheel and steam wheel ships. Once the preferred mode of transportation, they were abandoned as ground travel became easier and more popular.
Nature-lovers will no doubt be mesmerized by the rugged beauty of the Yukon. Hike (or drive) the 5 miles up Midnight Dome to bask in the iconic overlook, which boasts a panoramic view of the Yukon River, Klondike Valleys, and Ogilvie Mountain Range. There’s also the undeniably epic Tombstone Territorial Park, which encompasses 2,200 square kilometers of rugged mountains, First Nations history, permafrost landforms, and arctic tundra. A hike or drive through the park will reveal unique plant and wildlife, in addition to the jaw-dropping wilderness landscapes. Stop at the Interpretive Centre before you head into the park for valuable information on where to go and what to see!
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