Origins: The Yukon Territory - #101

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The legend of El Dorado tells of a land filled with gold where men find their fortunes.  In 1896, part of the Canadian Yukon became known as El Dorado, and for some people it delivered a fortune in gold.  It’s just to the east of the town of Dawson and it was home to some of the richest strikes during the great Klondike gold rush.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The gold is still here, though it’s not as easy to get to as it was about a hundred years ago. Though it really wasn’t so easy to get to even then. The town of Dawson that was built with that gold is still here, and it’s easier to get to than ever. At the height of the gold rush 16,000 people lived in Dawson and 20,000 people lived in the creeks surrounding it.

During the summer of 1898 Dawson was in some ways the center of the world.  Gold poured into town with the prospectors who were working in the nearby creeks.  And stories about the wild life in Dawson poured out to the rest of the world.  There were very few actual miners among the stampeders who rushed here to find gold.  Most of them were white-collar workers who thought they saw a chance to change their lives for the better.  The trip to Dawson had been an agony and the work in the gold creeks was exhausting.  When someone was lucky enough to get his hands on enough gold to head into town and live it up... he did.  When they really struck it rich there was no end to their excess.  A miner by the name of Johansen purchased a dance hall queen for her weight in gold.  Unfortunately, she came with a very limited warranty and soon returned to her original boyfriend.  Of course, she did retain poor Johansen’s gold.  Even then it was important to check the fine print in a purchase agreement.

The town was wild, but not lawless.  The mounties saw to that.  During that amazing year of madness there were no murders and no major thefts.

Today the population of Dawson is about two thousand.  But it is very much the way it was physically during the days of the gold rush.  The sidewalks on the main streets are made from wooden boards.  The roadways are unpaved and hard-packed gravel.  This particular gravel comes from the creek beds and is gold-bearing.  So if you wanted to say that the streets of Dawson were paved with gold, there’d be a technical truth to your statement.

GLENDA BOLT:  Okay, one of the buildings that we’re just coming up on, this green one here, this is Madame Tromblay’s store.  Now, Madame Tromblay came over the Chilkoot trail with her husband on their honeymoon.  Nice guy.  I guess everything must’ve been booked for Hawaii.

Glenda Bolt is a guide for the Klondike National Historic Sites of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

GLENDA BOLT:  When you think that they’re almost one hundred years old, these buildings are doing quite well.  These are, in fact, excellent examples of turn-of-the-century construction.  You see, during the Klondike gold rush the prospectors and early day miners didn’t know about permafrost.  That’s permanently frozen ground left over from the last ice age.  So when they came into this area, they took green timbers, first mistake, and hastily constructed their buildings and their shelters.  But what they didn’t know is as they heated these buildings, they were melting the ground underneath them that had never ever been melted.  And it’s like black Jell-O, it’s ooze and the buildings would sink down and then the weather would change and the building would heave up.  And it would sink and heave and sink and heave until you get to the present condition that a lot of Dawson buildings remain today.

BURT WOLF:  It’s a real fixer-upper...

GLENDA BOLT:  Yeah, bring your checkbook.  Now you’ll see the natural scar in the hillside here...

BURT WOLF:  Yeah...

GLENDA BOLT:  That’s called Moose Hide Slide, and now a lot of the early prospectors or explorers like Shwatka, when they were traveling down the mighty Yukon River, they made note of this scar in their notes -- and little did they know how close they were to a major gold discovery.  Now, you might be wondering, why is that Moose Hide?

BURT WOLF:  Why is that Moose Hide?

GLENDA BOLT:  Tilt your head a little bit and you can easily see that it looks like a moose’s hide that is stretched out for tanning. 



GLENDA BOLT:  I’ve been looking at this thing ten years,  I’ve never seen it.  Nevertheless, they still call it Moose Hide.

BURT WOLF:  Right.  Well, okay maybe I’m not tilting enough.

GLENDA BOLT:  You gotta squint.

BURT WOLF:  Actually, you see as soon as you close your eyes you can see it perfectly.  It’s an intense squint.  So tell me more.

GLENDA BOLT:  How about the Palace Grand Theater?  Did you get an opportunity to go into the theater?


GLENDA BOLT:  Oh, it’s a great building.  It was originally built in 1899 by a wild west performer named Arizona Charlie Meadows and his charming wife May Melbourne, a seasoned performer in her own right.  They were able to amass enough money, enough fortune from the investments in the gold fields to be able to build the largest, most grand frontier opera theater in the north.  And the type of show that they would put on there is a vaudeville, variety show, and you might think that performers who came here were, in fact, at the end of their career or perhaps third- or second-rate, but it’s not so.  In fact people took it as their opportunity to come to the Klondike, to the Paris of the North and perform.  There was one woman who took it as her big opportunity, she came from Philadelphia, she loved it.  She could wear shorter skirts and sing bawdy songs and have a little fun.

            At night the dancing and gambling still goes on at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s.   The profits, however, all go to support the charitable and public works of the community.

For the folks rushing to the gold, Dawson was a spot were they stopped to dry their socks after getting through the Whitehorse rapids... that is, if they had any socks left.  Today Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory and has a population of about 23,000.

Development in the Whitehorse area began in 1897.  Twenty-five thousand people were on their way to the Klondike.  The most dangerous part of the trip was the passage through the Whitehorse rapids.  The area got its name because the standing waves on the rapids reminded people of the mane on a white horse.  The town of Whitehorse developed as a resting place for those who survived the passage.  Whitehorse outlived the gold rush because in 1900, copper mines were discovered.  And it got a third lease on life when it became a transportation hub for the United States Army during the second World War.  Many of the original buildings are still in place.

This structure is known as the Whitehorse three-story skyscraper.  It was built in 1947, when every hotel room in Whitehorse was packed with military personnel.  The shortage of accommodations led 70-year-old Martin Berrigan to construct a series of multi-story log houses which have been continuously rented since their completion.

In 1900, the “Apostle of the North,” Bishop William C. Bompas, became the first resident Anglican priest in Whitehorse.  The log church and rectory was the home of their ministry, and in use until 1960.  The poet Robert W. Service was the secretary to the vestry, and his minute books are on display.

David Neufeld is a historian with Parks Canada, and a specialist on the Klondike gold rush.  He’s based in Whitehorse, and he’s put together a group of photographs that were taken during the period.  They show us how people really ate on the Chilkoot Trail.

DAVID NEUFELD:  What’s incredible about the whole experience of the gold rush is how much stuff came up.  They had bananas come in from Latin America, or South America.  They were brought up in refrigerator ships and dropped off and then packed over the trail, and you can buy fresh fruit into the interior of what’s this wilderness area.  Now, to keep these guys supplied and happy, you needed good meals, and fresh meat was something that was difficult to get.  Wild game was gone.  Soon as these 30,000 stampeders showed up the bear, moose, and even the fish tended to disappear.  Either they got picked off right away or they just went back in the bush.  So they brought everything with them and what we’ve got here is a horse pack train heading over the trail that is crated up with live turkeys.  And there was also herds of cattle that were brought in and herds of sheep that were stampeded over the trail as well.

BURT WOLF:   So these guys were really in business.  They were bringing things up to sell to the prospectors.  It was kind of like a moveable mall.


BURT WOLF:   And that was common, I gather.

DAVID NEUFELD:  There is quite a few people who saw this as a business venture, you know, supplying the gold rush miners and everybody else who was going up.  There was mounties, there was government administrators, there was miners, and then there was the other storekeepers.

BURT WOLF:  ‘Cause we only see these pictures of everybody starving on the Chilkoot, but that wasn’t completely true.

DAVID NEUFELD:  Most of them were pretty well fed, certainly they were well equipped.

BURT WOLF:  Nice little town...

DAVID NEUFELD:  Yeah, this is Bennett, British Columbia, and Bennett’s right at the end of the Chilkoot Pass.  And what’s interesting, I guess, is all the restaurants that you can see coming down the street here.  This one here, the Arctic Restaurant, we have some reviews of that and it was run by Donald Trump’s grandfather.

BURT WOLF:  Wait, wait, wait...The Arctic Restaurant and Hotel was owned by Donald Trump’s grandfather?

DAVID NEUFELD:  Grandfather.  Yeah, he came up here with a partner and they ran this restaurant here.

BURT WOLF:  I love that!

DAVID NEUFELD:  Well, it gets even better.  When -- the town tended to close down when the railway went through, this kind of disappeared, nobody came on the  trail, so they took the restaurant, and put it on a barge and floated it over to the railway and then set it up again for another couple of years.

BURT WOLF:  So Donald comes by his entrepreneurship quite honestly.

DAVID NEUFELD:  Quite honestly, yeah...It’s in the family.

One of the most important methods of transportation in the Yukon Territory was the riverboat.  The most famous of these was the S.S. Klondike.  Today it’s been restored as a museum and sits at the side of the river in Whitehorse.

ODETTE LLOYD:  The S.S. Klondike was originally built here in Whitehorse in 1929 and she worked on the Yukon River mainly between here and Dawson City.  Now this was the biggest freight ship that ever operated here in the Yukon, which was owned and operated by a company called the B.Y.N., which is the British Yukon Navigation Company.  And the name S.S. Klondike, the S.S. actually stands for steam ship, so everything was powered by steam.  At this end of the boiler there’s a door that opens up, and this opens into the fire pit.  So standing on some boards where we’ve got the walkway now there’d always be one person on duty.  He was called the fire man and his job was just to keep stoking the fire.  Now the Klondike would burn on average between about a cord and a cord and a half of wood an hour.  Now one cord of wood is a measurement, it’s four feet, by four feet by eight.  So this pile here, it’s actually a little bit closer to a cord and a half of wood.  This just gives you an idea of how much they needed to burn for one hour with the ship out on the river...


ODETTE LLOYD:  What that actually meant for the fire man was that he had to throw this door open, pitch one of those logs in, and close it just about once every thirty seconds. 

BURT WOLF:  A log like this?

ODETTE LLOYD:  Well this one here, it would have been cut the same length,  four feet like this, but it probably would have been split in two.  Another part of the deck hand’s job was to be constantly running all that wood forward to the boiler so they wouldn’t run out.  So it was what you might, uh, consider a demanding job physically, and that’s why the fire man only had to work a four hour shift, then he’d have eight hours off while everybody else in the crew was working twelve hours on and twelve hours off...

BURT WOLF:  Must’ve been in great shape.

ODETTE LLOYD:  Nice burly strong men.  A lot of people would call this kind of boiler a locomotive-style boiler ‘cause it’s the same kind you’ll find on most steam trains.  We usually call it a fire tube boiler, though, and that’s ‘cause inside here you’ve got two hundred and forty-two of those fire tubes.  So what was happening inside the boiler here is the fire was getting sucked down through those tubes and that heats the water.  All the water’s in the big cylinder there, around and in between all those tubes, and then of course when you heat water enough you get steam.  And that meant that after every other trip they had to clean this whole thing out.  First of all, you’d have to run out and find the most recently hired deck hand, he’s like the lowest guy on the totem pole, and he would dress himself up in five or six layers of clothing, maybe tie some wet rags around his head, he’d throw a board across the pump in here and then he’d have to crawl right into the boiler.  He’d have big wire brushes to punch out all those tubes and buckets to clean the sump and the pit at the other end.  His buddies would stand out here and they’d throw water on him to keep him cool.  After a minute or two, he was allowed to crawl back out and catch his breath, take a moment to cool down.  Then he’d have to get right back in and keep working until it was done.  It might take him up to about six hours and by the time he finished his board was smokin’ and red hot and he was due for a trip into town. 

Okay, so all the cargo that we’re seeing down here right now, this is all a pretty good example of what the Klondike would have carried from Whitehorse into Dawson City on the first run of the year, because of course, before we had highways in the north Dawson was really isolated over the winter.  So in the summer when your first steamboat made it through it would always bring in, first of all, a big load of liquor, then the food, and then the other supplies.  Now, one thing on board too that I always like to show to people -- it’s right up here, and we’ve got an order of gasoline on the ship right now... and this really shouldn’t be here.  You see, in the Yukon, it’s actually against the law for a ship that carries passengers on board to be carrying anything flammable or explosive in their cargo hold.  But when it came to the British Yukon Navigation Company, they really didn’t like to lose any money, whether it was on the passenger tickets they could sell or on the cargo they could move.  So they devised a system to get around the law.  Now, when they had something like this to move, they’d load onto the ship anyway.  It might be a gasoline or empty oil barrels.  They might even have kegs of gunpowder down here.  They’d load it on to the ship and then sell tickets to all the passengers anyway, but then they’d give each passenger one dollar back, they would say “This is your salary, for this trip you are part of the crew.”

BURT WOLF:  What a cheap shot!

ODETTE LLOYD:  So we got a little change of scenery up here.  These are the passenger decks.

BURT WOLF:  The wheel house.

ODETTE LLOYD:  So right in here of course this is the control center for the whole ship.  Incidentally, we are now at the top of the tallest building in Whitehorse.  Now, in here a couple of things you can see,  they have the top end of the telegraph system up here, so that’s the handle the master used to send the orders down to the engine room.  Now, you’ll notice in here, too, this is one of the only places on the ship where they’ve got heating.  When the S.S. Klondike was out on the river, they actually kept all these windows open all the way around so you could hear everything happening around you.  So that’s also what the canvas was for here, just a little wind dodger helps to keep the wind and the bugs out of your teeth when you’re steering the ship.  Now, my personal very favorite thing on the entire S.S. Klondike is also up here in the wheel house.  Just down in the corner there, we’ve got a beautiful brass compass.  Now, navigational law again says that every ship must have a compass in the wheel house, right?  But if you think about that, if you’re actually gettin’ lost going up and down a river, I’m sure you’ve probably got bigger problems to worry about.

When the glaciers of the last ice age passed through Canada about 10,000 years ago, they missed a small pocket of the Yukon -- and that has given this part of the territory a somewhat unique geography.  The absence of the glaciers allowed the gold in the earth to concentrate.

The glacier-free zone also had an effect on the rivers.  Most of the northern rivers of Canada, having had a previous encounter with a glacier, ended up with either deep canyon walls, whitewater rapids, or vertical waterfalls.

But that is not the case for most of the Yukon River.  Most of the Yukon, having slipped through the icy fingers of the glaciers, has none of that rough stuff; it flows peacefully through its valley.  Which makes it a perfect place for rafting, canoeing and fishing.  There are still large runs of salmon that swim up thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean... and all for love.

The soil is rich and sustains a wide variety of plants, which in turn support an equally wide variety of animals.

In the end, the great treasure of the Yukon may be its natural beauty, and that beauty’s accessibility to the tourist.  And one way into that beauty is by highway.  The roads of the Yukon are perfect for viewing the local wildlife.  Animals roam free in their natural and unspoiled habitat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   There are major animal migrations in the Yukon which change the wildlife population throughout the year.  A hundred and sixty thousand caribou winter here, then they pop across the border to Alaska to calve. Tens of thousands of birds migrate over the area.  Waterfowl include ducks and geese, loons and swans.  The official bird of the Yukon is the raven; very important from a spiritual and cultural point of view for the people of the First Nations.  As you drive along the highway, you’ll come to signs like this; they’re a reminder to get out of your car and take your camera and get a picture of the wildlife. . . . Sorry... wrong kind of wildlife.  Maybe we’ll just go down the road and take a look at the gastronomic life.

This is a little cafe called The Chocolate Claim.  It was started by a woman named Jose Janssen, who came here from Holland in 1974.  She heard The Call Of The Wild.  When she got here she started earning a living by baking muffins in her home kitchen and selling them door-to-door.  Today she owns one of the most respected bakeries in the territory.

JOSE JANSSEN: Today we’re going to make triple berry muffins.

BURT WOLF:  Triple berry muffins!  Let’s do it!

JOSE JANSSEN:  Excellent.  Okay, we’ve got two and a half cups of eggs...

BURT WOLF:  How many is that like in real eggs?

JOSE JANSSEN:  In real eggs?  That’s about a dozen eggs...


JOSE JANSSEN:  All right.  And then we’re going to have two and a half cups of brown sugar.


JOSE JANSSEN:  Okay, we’re going to mix the brown sugar with the eggs until that’s all together.  Nice and frothy, thick.  Now we’re going to add two cups of oil.  Vegetable oil will be just fine.  Want to help me?

BURT WOLF:  Sure, why not.

JOSE JANSSEN:  Okay, why don’t you pour in the oil...

BURT WOLF:  Okay...

JOSE JANSSEN:  All right, there we go...

BURT WOLF:  Just one shot...everything in at one --

 JOSE JANSSEN:  Excellent.  Okay, now we’re gonna add two cups of milk.  Excellent.  Okay, next we’re going to add four cups of whole wheat flour and we’re going to move to a wooden spoon cause it’s gonna get thick now.  Okay?

BURT WOLF:  Alright.  A little bit at a time?

JOSE JANSSEN:  You may dump this in...

BURT WOLF:  Dump that in...

JOSE JANSSEN:  Dump the whole thing..

BURT WOLF:  You got it...

JOSE JANSSEN:  Excellent.

BURT WOLF:  White flour next?

JOSE JANSSEN:  Next we’re gonna do white flour, four cups of white flour, great.  We’re gonna mix this until it’s thick like mud.  You like mud?

BURT WOLF:  I love mud.

JOSE JANSSEN:  Then we mix in half a cup of bran.  We’ll go easy on bran.  Okay, got a hand on that bowl, baking powder, baking soda...

BURT WOLF:  You bet...

JOSE JANSSEN:  We mix that in.  Alright.  And we’re making this triple berry.  We’re gonna put in raspberries, blueberries and we got some cranberries. 

BURT WOLF:  How many?

JOSE JANSSEN:  About three quarter cup.  It’s thick enough now.  We’re gonna let it sit for about ten minutes to thicken it a little bit more.  And then we’ll scoop it in the muffin pans.

BURT WOLF:  We can do that.

JOSE JANSSEN:  There’s a little bit of batter left.  Okay, good, good...Okay, I’m gonna put a sprinkle of brown sugar on top of the muffins and that will give it a nice crust.  Right on.  Good...

BURT WOLF:  We’re ready...

JOSE JANSSEN:  Twenty-five minutes, three hundred and seventy-five degrees until they’re done.

BURT WOLF:  Let’s go have a coffee.

JOSE JANSSEN:  Hey, let’s go for coffee.

As I was driving along I noticed a small airstrip and a sign indicating that people landed here for cinnamon buns.  That was clearly enough to get my attention.  Surely one of the more unusual places where I have dined is the Braeburn Lodge on the highway between Whitehorse and Dawson.  Steve Watson is a biker turned baker, a man who went from the Harley to the hearth, from bikes to buns -- and he’s proud of it.

BURT WOLF:  Steve is famous for big food, right?  Big country, big people, big heart.  This is your standard cinnamon bun?

STEVE WATSON:  Yeah, it is.

BURT WOLF:  How much does that sell for?

STEVE WATSON:  Five dollars...

BURT WOLF:  You know how much it weighs?

STEVE WATSON:  No, not at all.

BURT WOLF:  Okay.  Why is the food so big?

STEVE WATSON:  It’s a tradition.  They get bigger in the summer when it’s warmer.

BURT WOLF:  Why is that?

STEVE WATSON:  They rise a bit more...

BURT WOLF:  Okay, and people come and eat’s a standard, big...

STEVE WATSON:  They’re world-famous...

BURT WOLF:  ...cinnamon bun... I’ll bet they are... people fly in in their planes for this?


BURT WOLF:  That’s amazing.  I want to show you a hamburger.  Mike... let me see the hamburger that I ordered.  Okay.  Take a look at that.  That is your standard hamburger?


CUSTOMER 1:  You see, they got a little sign up there that says “if you can finish a hamburger deluxe, you get the next one free...”

BURT WOLF:  And did you?

CUSTOMER 1:  No, no way.

CUSTOMER 2:  We go through quite often to Whitehorse and we always stop here.

BURT WOLF:  I hear he makes a great chocolate soufflé.

CUSTOMER 3:  No.  No, he doesn’t.

CUSTOMER 4:  The soufflé, yes, is quite good.  But his foie gras is magnificent in port wine sauce...

CUSTOMER 5:  Well, that’s superb, but, uh, his Grand Marnier cake is probably his finest creation.

CUSTOMER 2:  Well, not like his chicken cordon bleu...

BURT WOLF:  Steve, that was really great.  Thanks a lot.  But, uh, before I go, what’s the real word on the chocolate soufflé?

STEVE WATSON:  You know Burt, they just don’t appreciate it.

BURT WOLF:  That’s life.  Take care.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Robert Service, the great poet of the Yukon gold rush wrote the following:

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,

A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Well... I am pretty sure that I’m not breaking the hearts of any kith or kin, but I am definitely roaming the world at will.  And I hope that you will roam along with me next time as we take a look at the ORIGINS of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.