Story Hunter: Death in the Dining Room

The Commissioner’s Residence, prominently located on Front Street in Dawson City, was the residence of the senior federal government official during his tenure and served several different functions: personal, social and official. The building as you see it today represents the period when its most famous residents, Commissioner George Black, and his wife, Martha, lived here, from April 1912 to October 1916.

George was an amateur taxidermist and Martha had a passion for flowers, both wild and domestic, and both of their prints can be found in the building today. Behind the residence was a large greenhouse, which was heated all year round by a large steam plant. The range and diversity of flowers grown there during this period was impressive, and flower shows were part of every social event. George was an avid hunter and several trophies are mounted and displayed on the ground floor of the building.

Imagine this: it was April 1912 and the newly appointed commissioner and his wife had just moved into Dawson’s most lavish home. They held a huge reception to which the whole town seemed to have been invited. According to author Laura Berton, after the select gatherings of the previous regime, this was democracy in its broadest sense. The building was crowded from top to bottom with guests, all friends of blacks. There were miners in evening dress, miners in evening dress, miners in overalls and even miners in rubber boots.

It doesn’t matter if you wear overalls or a swallowtail. George Black said, “Come in and have fun. It made no difference to the commissioner or his wife.

As you entered through the flag-draped gate, the strains of music could be heard from the orchestra, which sat on the landing halfway up the grand staircase. After leaving your tracksuits in one of the upstairs rooms, you returned to the ground floor and entered the reception hall, where you were greeted by the blacks and various prominent dignitaries who made up the echelons. superiors of Dawson society: the commander of the mounted police, the chief justice, the Anglican bishop and the American consul. From there, you mingled with the hundreds of people present, having a glass of punch and a sandwich in the dining room.

Although many events at the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City were called “democratic in the broadest sense,” as you can see in this photo taken in July 1913, only a select portion of the community was invited to events. special events. (Courtesy of Howard Firth)

The men gathered in the office to chat and “burn the Havana incense”, or went to the third floor to play pool, while the ladies gathered around the punch bowl or joined the card games on the second. stage.

Later, the furniture was moved back and the rugs were rolled up, and the dancing continued until 2 a.m. This was followed by more card games and conversations that continued until the last guests left in the early morning.

Other functions of the residence, officially known as the “Government House”, aimed to create a positive experience for visiting investors. On July 3, 1913, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce joins the crowd gathered at a reception hosted by the new George Dawson Chapter of the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire, or IODE.

Over the years, in addition to investors, many high-profile guests, such as cabinet ministers and even the Governor of Alaska (who was secretly a Canadian), have stayed at the residence, as well as members of the extended black family.

Even the furniture was chosen to reflect the image of modernity in this most remote region of the British Empire. The large pedestal table in the front vestibule was intended to welcome guests while the servants went to see if the hostess was available for visitors. They could examine themselves in the mirror embedded in the rack and hang their outer garments on hooks mounted on either side of it.

Next to the vestibule stand was a receptacle to hold the umbrellas that no one in Dawson seemed to use, while on the table across the vestibule was the silver card receiver, on which visitors could leave their carefully coded business cards. God forbid, we shouldn’t know about calling card protocols.

The dining room contained many allusions to the culture of the affluent elite, from the neatly arranged plates, glasses and cutlery, to the elegant Arts and Crafts wallpaper and the prominent sideboard. I learned many years ago, faced with such displays, to wait for others to start eating before choosing which utensils to use and in what order.

The dining room and office seemed to be filled with things that evoked death and gore. Framed pictures of hunting scenes hung on the wall here and in the office, to attest to the sport of hunting, as did mounted moose and caribou heads and game birds. These indicated that the hunt was not only to provide food, but also to pass the leisure time of upper-class men. All of these things were designed to assert status and provide social distancing.

The building was closed in the fall of 1916 and was never reoccupied until 1950, except for a brief stay by Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy during his visit in 1922. When Lord Byng went to visit the mining district of Mayo, Lady Byng remained in the residence until his departure, attending social functions and receiving visitors.

The Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in dancers performed at the Commissioner's Residence last weekend, but you wouldn't have seen such a spectacle on Discovery Day a hundred years ago.  (Courtesy of Michael Gates)

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in dancers performed at the Commissioner’s Residence last weekend, but you wouldn’t have seen such a spectacle on Discovery Day a hundred years ago. (Courtesy of Michael Gates)

According to Daily Dawson New, one of them was Chief Isaac, leader of the Moosehide people. He came dressed in moose hide and caribou clothing, richly beaded from head to toe, wearing a feathered hat and carrying a bow and arrows…

“Lady Byng and the chief conversed a little while, and the chief (in his usual fashion) took the opportunity to assert that he and his fathers had ruled this kingdom for many generations and possessed the hundreds of millions of gold that made the Klondike famous. , …”

Before leaving, Chief Isaac presented His Excellency with a small parka, a hooded robe of the traditional type that First Nations mushers used on the trails before the Europeans arrived, and other gifts from Moosehide residents – a First Nations doll, beaded moccasins and a beaded tobacco pouch. . Sam Smith’s wife sent a large moosehide cushion cover and a pair of fur-trimmed white caribou slippers.

After all the parties, social functions, IODE meetings and other special events, this was the first time I could find any evidence that a First Nations person had ever attended. For although the Yukon claims to be an egalitarian society, there was a segment of the community that was excluded from Dawson’s social life.

For nearly a century, First Nations people have remained virtually invisible in Yukon society. Land claims changed all that, and First Nations now play a prominent role in land affairs. All the old rules and conventions are just memories. Today, this impressive structure is a reminder of British colonialism on the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.

Michael Gates is the first winner in Yukon history. His new book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in select stores. You can contact him at [email protected]

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