Stepping through the swinging doors of a saloon, a miner or other patron would find themselves in a small, ill-lighted room heated by a sheet-irn stove. Along the left side of the room would stand a long, polished bar of dark wood. The saloon owners knew that a man who was lost or unfamiliar with the setting, would always tend to bear to the left, and they took full advantage of this. Behind the bar stood the bartender, uniformed in a starched shirt, apron, waistcoat, and often with a diamond stickpin. The backbar included a long mirror which reflected the polished glasses and the bottles of liquor, mostly whiskey.
Usually, there were two other rooms on the main floor, beyond the saloon itself. The first was for gambling; the second, a combination dance hall and theatre. This was usually a two-storey arrangement, the first floor being filled with benches in which the patrons could watch the stage entertainment. When the acts were completed, the benches were removed and the open area became a dance floor. Above the first floor hung a balcony divided into a number of small compartments called “boxes,” and behind the balcony and boxes the second floor offered space for ten or twelve small rooms which could be rented for a night, a week, or for any purpose. The miners regarded these boxes as the supreme status symbol. To occupy one of them, a man had to be lucky and rich.
The cost was often $1 for a glass of whiskey, and as much as $60 for a bottle of champagne. On one evening, a celebrating miner with his friends and girls, guzzled their way through $1,700 worth of champagne at the Monte Carlo in Dawson. Another miner, Dick Lowe, who owned a claim on Bonanza Creek, managed to get rid of half a million dollars, sometimes at the rate of $10,000 a spree.
All entertainment in the saloons, from vaudeville acts to boxing, was designed for one purpose: to seperate as much gold from the customers as possible. And all activities of the day were pointing to the hours after midnight when the real business was in full swing.
When the final curtain fell around 1 a.m., many of the girls who were not working the boxes came down from the stage to mingle with the patrons. Some of them, known as “hurdy gurdy girls,” were supposed to entice men to drink and dance. A cut above the common prostitutes, they enjoyed almost complete freedom to come and go as they pleased. These completely cooperative women lived in special houses which were usually nearby. In Dawson the prostitutes worked in cribs on Paradise Alley which conveniently ran behind the saloon dance hall row.
The hurdy-gurdy girls averaged $125 a week in base pay, supplemented by commissions from the sale of champagne and extras, which could net them an additional $25 per night. An active dance hall in a saloon such as Pete McDonald’s M & N in Dawson could crowd as many as 125 dances into a single night. It cost $1 a dance, and the girls received ivory chips worth 25 cents for each dance, with the remainder going to McDonald. It was traditional for the girls to tuck the chips into their stockings and cash them in the following morning.
Contrary to popular belief, many wanted to believe the girls were of high morale standing, protecting the gold from drunken patrons. Perhaps some did, but most didn’t. No other than Klondike Kate, the “Flower of the Yukon,” the “Belle of Dawson,” boasted how drunken men were stripped of their pokes by her associates. But it was all for the men’s own good she claimed. After she had a man stupefied with liquor and relieved of his gold, she would sometimes have him tossed aboard a boat with just enough money in his pocket for passage back to Seattle. As for the rest of his money, “Well he’d have just spent that foolishly anyway,” she said and claimed that she was merely helping him get home sooner.
What the saloons couldn’t wheedle out of the miners with whiskey and women, they tried to collect gambling. Faro was the most popular game, probably because most miners believed it offered the player the best odds. Each saloon was equipped with a pair of gold scales. Saloons and stores valued gold dust at $16 an ounce. Banks would allow as little as $11 an ounce for some gold. Hoping to cheat on the exchange, some men would add brass filings in their dust. Not to be outwitted, the saloon owners would place half dollars under the weights.
The community of Barkerville was destroyed by fire which started in the Fashion Saloon in 1868. Rebuilding started the following morning and continued to serve the outlying creeks for another sixty years. After the gold ran out, many of the miners from the 1860’s and 1870’s remained, but by the 1940’s, Barkerville was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. Through the foresight of some of the citizens, in an effort to preserve the pioneer heritage, started a campaign to preserve it. The public supported the campaign, and in 1958, the year that British Columbia celebrated its 100th birthday, the Provincial Governement announced that Barkerville was to be restored.
When the multi-million dollar restoration project started in 1958, only 15 of some 120 buildings erected after thefire still stood. Since then houses, hotels and many other business places have been rebuilt, faithful to the period of 1868-85.
The constant and often careless handling of gold dust could make even the sawdust floor of a saloon valuable. After the gold rush subsided and the boom camps became ghost towns, the ground beneath the saloons proved to be some of the richest in the North and the scene of several “strikes.” When the floors of old saloons in Nome and other towns were rppedup there were found long rows of gold dust that had sifted through the cracks.
The community of Barkerville was destroyed by fire which started in the Fashion Saloon in 1868. Rebuilding ofthe town started the next morning, and for over sixty years served the outlying creeks. Many pioneers of the 1860’s and 1870’s remained when the gold ran out, and by the 1940’s Barkerville was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. It was the foresight of some of the citizens to preserve the pioneer heritage and the public supported their campaign. In 1958, the year British Columbia celebrated its 100th birthday, the Provincial Government announced that Barkerville was to be restored.