The most noticeable of these are antique buildings that date from the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, an event which still defines this town’s spirit and collective unconscious over a century later. Formally designated a National Historic Site, and protected by stringent heritage laws, most of the old structures are immaculately preserved. Several carry museum-like window displays of tools and goods and signs dating from circa 1898, when Dawson City was the biggest Canadian city west of Winnipeg.
But Dawson’s current population is now barely a tenth of that size, and these buildings are unoccupied relics — empty shells whose spirit from a past life can only be glimpsed and viscerally felt. Like all ghosts, they merely give the illusion of being alive. Some are dopplegangers carrying vintage signs that proclaim them to be the Bank of British North America, or the Post Office, but where no actual business can be conducted. You have to go elsewhere in town, to the living places, to do that. On 3rd Avenue you’ll find an entire block of old structures — weathered, crooked, some teetering on the verge of collapse — which have been left that way on purpose, as a dying testimonial to the potential hazards of building on permafrost.
Those empty heritage buildings, which are maintained by the Klondike Visitors Association, should not be confused with the businesses in town, many of which reside in equally old structures, that are sitting shuttered up at the moment. In winter, a great number of the local establishments, especially those that mine the summer tourist bonanza, shut down for the season, and their owners and workers migrate south to warmer climes — perhaps to Vancouver, or all the way to Mexíco. The population of Dawson plummets to a few hundred, turning it into a veritable ghost town compared to the manic, bustling days of summer, when visitors abound by the tens of thousands. Combine this wintertime exodus with sub-arctic temperatures that routinely dip below -30°C, and on a weekday it’s not uncommon to walk through parts of town during the few hours of precious daylight and not actually see anyone on the street. Oh, you can spot ethereal clouds of smoke wafting and shape shifting from chimneys, and you regularly pass a vehicle parked on the side of the road, its engine idling but no driver visible behind the wheel, but otherwise the avenues and sidewalks can often be eerily empty.
Then there are the classic ghosts. Every old town has them, or at least stories of them, but Dawson seems to have its disproportionate share. And it’s easy to imagine why. The Gold Rush brought a stampede of people to the Klondike, mostly poor and desperate, quite often ill-prepared for the hardships they encountered. If the harsh climate and brutal conditions didn’t kill you — if you didn’t die in a cave-in, or from rot-gut whiskey, or a gangrenous frostbitten limb, or gonorrhea, or go crazy from cabin fever — then the hustlers and claim-jumpers would probably do you in. Very few actually made their fortunes, and the bubble burst quickly, so it’s easy to understand why the local ghosts often are reported to appear like they’re gravely seeking something. Several places in town have a reputation for being haunted, among them Macaulay House, the billet for the Artist-in-Residence sponsored by the Klondike Institute for Arts and Culture (KIAC). The artist currently staying over the holidays has prior experience with Macaulay, however, and this time wisely brought along some of his dead father’s ashes as a talisman against the bothersome spirits.
As for my own place, well, if any dwelling could sustain a ghost story, it should be Berton House, a house of writers. The building creaks, and thumps, and sighs constantly, especially this time of year when the furnace and radiators are working full-out against the cold outside. But despite several comments about the noises recorded by past writers in the house journal, no one has yet to make any actual claims of spectral invaders. Nor will I. Once you get used to them, the noises are oddly comforting, especially when you consider how warm and cozy the place is compared to the icy menace that lurks outside its walls. No ghosts, then, but there is definitely a spirit — that of Pierre Berton, and the 50-odd writers who have used this place as a refuge, hoping for a speck or two of gold among the words that flow from our fingers.