Gold is what opened up the West. It was in August of 1896 when the shiny mineral was first discovered in Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory long before it was even identified as the Yukon. It was from this historic finding that Dawson City was born. It had such magnetism that for the following two years it swelled to a population of between 30,000 and 40,000 making Dawson the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg. It was even larger than Vancouver or Victoria.
The city was founded as Dawson City, Northwest Territories by an entrepreneur who had seen progress at other gold fields of the day and saw a different kind of opportunity. Joe Ladue was a prospector who watched how merchants in the gold camps made out better than the miners that filled them. Ladue established a sawmill at a mining camp called Sixtymile and was staking a townsite when miners were occupied staking their claims. Ladue moved his sawmill closer to the new townsite he had by this time named.
The name Dawson City was in honour of the government geologist and surveyor who was partly responsible for defining the Alaska and Northwest Territories boundary. His name was George Mercer Dawson. Dawson, originally from Nova Scotia, started work with the Geological Survey of Canada in 1875 and led several field parties into the West and Northern regions of the country.
As for the city that bears Dawson’s name, Ladue started building the first home in the new townsite on September 1, 1896. He estimated that there were over 500 more structures erected within six months of his first building. There included homes, saloons, restaurants, hotels, supply stations and stores. Ladue’s sawmill was making a mint as everyone needed lumber. He also made money selling real estate with lots going for prices between $5 and $25 to $300. At one point lots reached a price of $40,000 each.
But a year later, on November 25, 1897 Dawson experienced its first major fire. Started in a saloon, two saloons and an opera house were destroyed. The second major blaze was on October 14, 1898 and that was a major blow to the community. A total of 26 buildings were lost including two hotels, a post office and the majority of the structures lining Front Street. Fire again took a kick at Dawson in February 1899 with nine buildings lost.
A firemen’s strike two months later could be blamed for the worst fire ever in Dawson City. It was when a blaze that started on Front Street in the popular Bodega Hotel and worked its way over to the waterfront and wiped out the complete business district. Damage at the time was estimated to have cost in the $1-million range. By this time the gold rush had ended and miners had moved on to richer fields. The population dropped down to 8,000. One final fire destroyed the entire business district on January 10, 1900 when a blaze broke out from the Monte Carlo Theatre and took out both sides of Front Street burning saloons, music halls and everything else that got in its way.
In 1902 Dawson was officially incorporated as a city. To this point it had only been a mining camp and when it finally took on the status of a city the population was under 5,000. The construction of the Alaska Highway, which bypassed the community by 300-kilometres, and the move to Whitehorse of the territorial capital, hit Dawson hard. The population hovered between 600 and 900 in the 1960s and 1970s. The population in 2016 was 1,375 providing evidence that not all mining camps become ghost towns as there is still plenty of life left in Dawson.