Dawson City — big city problems in a small northern town

 

Tim Falconer is the author of three books, including Drive: A Road Trip through Our Complicated Affair with the Automobile. He recently spent three months in Dawson City as the writer-in-residence at Berton House. All photos by Tim.

This is not a love letter to Dawson City, though I certainly could have written one of those. After all, the Yukon town is totally charming: distinctive architecture, buildings that date from the Gold Rush of 1898 and wooden sidewalks alongside wide dirt streets—and enough bar seats for every full-time resident (or so the legend goes).

But I suppose we always want to change the people and places we adore, at least a little bit. As a naive urbanite, what surprised me during my three months in this Northern town of about 1,300 is that the problems I wish I could solve are ones I thought were blights only in big cities.

Despite a severe and long-standing housing crisis, for example, NIMBYism and an irrational fear of increased density recently helped scuttle a proposal to build six small, but affordable homes.

Unused—or underused—heritage buildings are another challenge. Several are owned by a private landowner who seems content to watch his real estate portfolio rot; alas, the town can’t do much about that. Others, though, are the property of the federal government, which can be just as frustrating.

 

Parks Canada owns 26 sites in the Klondike and has faithfully restored most of them to serve as popular tourists attractions, offices or housing. But a few deserve “can do better” on their report cards. Harrington’s Store (above photo), for instance, displays a historical exhibit called “Dawson As They Saw It.” Pleasant enough, I guess, but hardly the most productive activity given the prime centre-of-town location.

 

I visited a few other landmarks during Doors Open Dawson in May. The 1901 post office, a turn-of-the-century jewel, is partially open to the public during summer tours but the Dawson Daily News building, which Parks has done some work on, remains closed, the printing press and other equipment shielded by sheets and tarps. Even more disheartening was the sight of Lowe’s Mortuary and Billy Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop (photo above); without the funds to do more, Parks Canada has been reduced to merely trying to keep these structures erect.

In a small town that attracts—and depends on—60,000 tourists a year, no one doubts the value of the Klondike’s rich history, though that doesn’t mean everyone agrees on how to preserve the past. And adaptive reuse (to wield the jargon for finding new purposes for old premises) can be controversial anywhere.

 

Saving ramshackle heritage stock may not always make the best cultural, environmental or economic sense, but Dawson boasts many high-profile examples of successful reincarnations. My favourite: in 1998, Wendy Cairns bought a derelict former brothel and moved it to a central street corner. Today, restored and expanded, Bombay Peggy’s is an elegant Victorian inn with a popular bar (above).

A block east of Peggy’s is Billy Bigg’s, which has a backstory that, ironically enough, offers an object lesson in how a building’s function can change as the economy changes. Erected in 1899, it was originally the two-storey Great Northern Hotel. By 1907, the boomtown population had shriveled and hotel rooms were no longer in high demand, so it became a blacksmith’s. Six years later, the addition of a machine shop allowed the business to serve the increasingly mechanized mining industry.

Aside from the interpretative displays in the front windows, Billy Bigg’s is now vacant and its already poor condition isn’t exactly improving. But Greg Hakonson, a born and bred Dawsonite, thinks he could do something with it. His plan: restore the second floor, which has been gone since the 1940s; renovate the front into commercial space; create an apartment upstairs and part of the first floor; and install a studio or other workspace in the back of the ground level—all while maintaining the historic look.

He submitted a formal offer in the spring, a few weeks before the federal government announced massive layoffs at Parks Canada (as well as cuts such as the incomprehensible closure of Dredge #4, the most-visited tourist site in the Yukon). Hakonson admits he was willing to pay only “next to nothing” for the property because it would mean assuming a liability that came with strict architectural handcuffs. Of course, he’d also be taking a liability off the government’s hands—and ensuring the survival of a dilapidated heritage site. “If these buildings aren’t generating revenue for somebody,” he says, “they’re never going to be maintained and looked after and insured.”

Unfortunately, the feds didn’t see it that way and turned the deal down. Without new owners and new lives, though, the blacksmith shop and similar places are destined to go the way of the nearby Third Avenue Complex, the so-called “kissing buildings” that are tilting toward collapse because of melting permafrost (top photo). In this case, the decision to let them decay, and allow people to see a natural process, seems reasonable. But it makes no sense to do the same with additional treasures.

In Dawson, fire is an even bigger threat than melting permafrost. “All these old buildings are wood, so they’re going to burn down eventually. That’s what happens,” Hakonson says. “So you need someone with a vested interest in it—maybe even a sprinkler system—and has insurance on it. And really has a desire to look after it.”

Although Parks Canada has the desire, it doesn’t have the money to do something meaningful with all of its Klondike holdings. So the government should let others do it. Done properly, injecting new spirit into tired structures enriches the future without diminishing the past. That’s just as true in a small town as it is in a big city.

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