Dawson lies near the northern edge of the Yukon plateau. This broad, basin-like plateau, with an average elevation of about 3,000 feet, is bounded on the north by a series of mountain ranges and hills, with intervening valleys, plains, basins and plateaus.
The town itself lies on the east bank of the Yukon River which here flows approximately south to north. The townsite is located where the Klondike River joins the Yukon. Here a large level flat provided the best building land in the area for the establishment of a large settlement on the river. Behind the town site the land rises several hundred feet to the general level of the Yukon plateau, and at the north end of the town looms the dome of Moosehide Mountain.
Dawson lies near the boundaries of two geological provinces, one of which has oil and gas potential, and the other of which has hard rock and placer mineral deposits.
This part of the Yukon was not glaciated during the Pleistocene. This factor has had considerable influence on the economy of the area. Glaciation would have distributed far and wide the rich placer gold deposits that first attracted men to this remote region. Undisturbed by glaciers, the placer gold of the Klondike and its tributaries was easily mined even by the most primitive methods. One of the lures of the Yukon in the early days was that gold could be literally picked up from the ground.
Permafrost exists under most of the townsite. The south end, however, does not appear to be frozen to within several feet of the surface. A survey crew putting in new markers in the townsite in 1963 noticed that their spades hit permafrost as soon as they started digging in the north end of town, but that they could dig down several feet in the south end of town without striking permafrost. The permafrost limit seems to be along the line of an old slough that cuts across the government reserve. Presumably the floods of the Klondike River in the old days, or a former bed of the river, caused the ground at the south end to thaw out. Flooding still occurs along the Klondike River. It was necessary to build a three to four foot high dyke of sandbags along Front Street.
Permafrost has had harmful and beneficial effects on Dawson. It increases the cost of building by requiring pilings to support floors, or sills. A number of old buildings stand at crazy angles, their foundations disturbed by frost. But the permafrost’s slow thaw in summer provides moisture for plant roots in an area that has very little rain in the summer. In the south end of town, where the soil is better, growth of flowers and vegetables is exceptionally good. Here, presumably, the thawing of the water held in the soil all winter assists growth. On the whole of the river flat, a luxuriant growth of vegetation covers lots that have been abandoned. In some cases, whole blocks on which no buildings stand have been covered with willow and alder growth. The growth of vegetation and the disturbances caused by melting permafrost have had much to do with the physical decay of Dawson.
Initially, Dawson was a huge mining camp. A man named Joseph Ladue, who had traded at Forty Mile, staked the most suitable part of the river flat for a townsite in 1896. From 1896 onwards, cabins and shacks spread over the river flat and onto the hillside behind the town. As the old photographs show, every creek for miles around was occupied by a cabin or a tent.
Dawson began life as a typical boom town. In the summer of 1896, the population of the Dawson area consisted of old timers or sourdoughs – miners who had been in the country for a number of years, and who were accustomed to being without, and doing without. In 1897 and 1898, the newcomers or “cheechakos” arrived in the thousands. Their sole aim was to earn a quick fortune, and then to leave the country as soon as possible. They were not settlers in any sense, and had little, if any, intention of remaining in the Yukon. The sourdoughs resented the cheechakos, who were city dwellers in the main, and who neither cared for, nor respected, the rules of conduct devised by the early miners who had been forced to organize their own society.
Dawson remained the centre of the populated area of the Yukon until 1941, and mining remained the chief activity in the area. The year 1900 produced an estimated peak gold production of I,077,553 fine ounces. The Yukon Territory never produced as much in one year again, but the gravels of the creek beds and benches still gave rich returns to the dredging companies. Between 1908 and 1919, one large company, the Yukon Gold Company, paid out over $11,000,000 in dividends alone. In 1919, the value of gold production from the Klondike dropped below two million dollars.
Dawson’s continued existence is not due entirely to historical, or economic inertia. Dawson acts as a centre for small placer operations, as a tourist attraction and as a minor service, communications, and government centre for the northern Yukon.