Magazine article Art Monthly

Gold Rush

Magazine article Art Monthly

Gold Rush

Article excerpt

I'm from Great Yarmouth; I identify intimately with the vacant, posthumous beauty of a place no longer bustling with the vibrancy it once enjoyed. Standing here, in downtown Dawson City, a month or so before the tourist season will start, it suddenly seems more like Great Yarmouth than anywhere else I have been. There is a windswept look to its desolation, as though a strong gust of wind has only moments previously stripped the town of its former decadence. It remains, however, devastatingly beautiful, situated right on the dramatic Yukon River, sharp hills ascending on all sides. Much of Dawson's original boom is preserved in the architecture through faithful care. Wooden sidewalks and frontier-style shopfronts illustrate the city's history as richly as Great Yarmouth's 'Golden Mile' of illuminated amusement arcades. Both present quintessentially patriotic tableaux that address visitors in the same language of nostalgic archetypes, respectively the classic British seaside resort and the gold rush frontier cowboy town. With its recent push for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it is obvious how seriously Dawson's residents take their city's history. In town on a wilderness-oriented hiatus from the art world, I was expecting little of Dawson in terms of cultural capital, but the upending of this common expectation is a duty Dawson's inhabitants take equally seriously.

Dawson's boom lasted but a minute in the relative hour of Canadian history--a juvenile nation compared to the UK, if we are to maintain the convention of assuming that nothing had happened in Canada before the white people arrived. The area was, in fact, of great significance for the First Nations people of Tr'ondek Hwech'in, whose capital was the settlement of Tr'ochek, located where the Klondike River and the Yukon converge, not far from Dawson. In the mid 1890s, gold was discovered in the area and by 1896 some 40,000 prospectors were living in the settlement. In 1897 Dawson City was officially founded and was, for a brief period, the most populated metropolis on the entire west coast north of San Francisco. However, by 1899 Klondike's gold rush was over and Dawson's population dwindled. Currently about 1,300 inhabit Dawson, with the population slowly rising once more with gold prices on the up and tourism flourishing in the area.

The gold rush attracted many working-class Americans determined to make their fortune. A wide cross-section of young citizens ventured north from the cities, among them countless artists and writers consumed by the romanticism of the unexplored frontiers. Much of Jack London's adventures White Fang and Call of The Wild were based on his prospecting in the north in the late 1890s. London's first writing job was a newspaper commission, based on his excursions on the Yukon River's infamous rapids, hastily taken after his return to San Francisco as a poor, unskilled labourer riddled with scurvy. London's affinity with Dawson and the surrounding Klondike region remains celebrated today, with a Jack London museum serving the tourists in the summer, and the city's prominent Downtown Hotel naming its restaurant The Jack London Grill.

Despite the fleeting nature of Dawson's golden years, the city's impressive cultural output has never wavered. Where many remote towns with illustrious histories of cultural wealth deal exclusively in the celebration of times gone by, the Dawson community is startlingly proactive in the cultivation of contemporary culture. …

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