Dawson City, the centre of the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and 1898, is a remote town underlain by permafrost. The first gravel road coming up from Whitehorse was not completed until 1955. Before that, for about five months out of the year the main access to the town was by boat, and when the Yukon River froze over, Dawson was isolated from the outside world. During the first half of the twentieth century, this one-time capital was a living museum of deteriorating buildings and other remnants from its boom days.
Some forty years ago, as the price of gold rose, the Klondike saw a resurgence of placer mining — the extraction of valuable minerals from streambed deposits. That activity revealed an array of artifacts that had been left behind: log cribbing from old shafts, well-worn tools, and scraps of work apparel. Even the broken tips from pickaxes have been uncovered.
When I arrived in the spring of 1978 to become the curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites, I quickly learned to expect the unexpected. Every week, new discoveries were made behind facades, on the streets, and along the waterfront. Abandoned properties filled with furnishings from half a century before dotted the landscape. Massive pumps and boilers crowded deserted lots. Old cars and mining equipment were everywhere. But long-time residents were accustomed to such findings. The relics were often demolished, taken to the dump, burned, or simply thrown into the Yukon River, to be carried away by the powerful current.
Only three months after my arrival in Dawson City, the Klondike’s frigid vault revealed something particularly surprising. Just behind Canada’s first modern casino, Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, city crews were busy working at the site of a former ice rink when a hoard of silent movies on cellulose nitrate film suddenly emerged. I hurried over as soon as David Burley, a Parks Canada archeologist, told me about the discovery. While exploring, I noticed that one of the reels lying exposed on the ground still had visible images, including a frame with a title: “The Strange Case of Mary Page.”
The case was certainly strange for me. Cinema was neither my expertise nor my purview, but I was intrigued by its connection to those early days after the gold rush. We had in our hands historical documents of what this small northern town, isolated for the better part of the year, saw on the silver screen. I reached out to the Canadian film world to see if anybody would want to salvage the footage. Sam Kula, director of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives in Ottawa, took an immediate interest — and then a big gamble. He flew up to see it all for himself, and once he was on location, he recognized the find’s importance: if we were to come across a reel featuring Theda Bara, Tom Mix, William Farnum, or Buster Keaton, much of whose cinematic work had gone up in flames, it would be a treasure.
Kula contracted Kathy Jones, the director of the Dawson Museum, to lead the recovery and itemization of the material, while I arranged for its safe storage (cellulose nitrate is highly flammable). As the excavation proceeded, a museum crew removed the artifacts and transported them to the former Bear Creek mining complex ten kilometres away for temporary storage in an old root cellar. Kula’s gamble eventually paid off: hundreds of reels of rare footage were retrieved and added to the holdings of the Library of Congress in Washington and the National Archives in Ottawa.
In September 1979 the restored motion pictures were screened, for the very first time, before a packed house in Dawson’s historic Palace Grand Theatre. Kathy Jones and I gave the introductory remarks, and Fred Bass, a Vancouver entertainer, provided piano accompaniment to the silent rarities, which included a short comedy titled All Jazzed Up, a serial starring Pearl White, and a drama called The Half-Breed, with Douglas Fairbanks as the lead.
After a year of recovery and restoration, the premiere was a fitting celebration of a unique find. And today, as Yukon’s frozen subsoil thaws, who knows what other relics will come to light.