Dawson City Run by the North West Mounted Police

Dawson City Run by the North West Mounted Police

Posted on August 15 by Vicki Delany in News
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The Late Sir Peter Ustinov once said that Toronto was New York run by the Swiss. Dawson City, Yukon, in 1898, was Dodge City run by the North West Mounted Police.

Imagine a place in the wilderness, close to the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, at the end of the nineteenth century. A place of no roads, no cars, no trains, no telephone, no telegraph. Accessible only by water, for just a few months a year, or by paths over mountains so steep that horses couldn’t make it. And then imagine tens of thousands of people arriving in this place within a matter of months.

What you would get in almost any other place and any other time would be bedlam. Chaos and anarchy and lawlessness.

But that was not the case in the Yukon in 1897–98.

What all those miners and dance hall owners, prostitutes and pimps, bartenders and adventurers, and businessmen (respectable and shady) found when they arrived in the promised land, was the long arm of the law waiting for them, in the form of the North West Mounted Police.

The border between Canada and the U.S. was at that time still in dispute. The Canadian government had established a police presence in order to strengthen their claim before all those gold seekers and their hangers-on began flooding into the territory. Prostitution and gambling were illegal in all parts of Canada, but the NWMP recognized that some things were going to happen whether they were legal or not, and the police would be better having some control. Thus prostitution was practiced openly and dance halls all had a gambling room. Police oversight was strict and they could, and did, close down any business stepping over the line. However, there were things the Mounties didn’t bend on — the use of “vile language” was an offence and Sunday closing was strictly observed. Firearms were banned. Every person coming into the Territory was required to have a year’s supply of goods with them: a lesson learned during the winter of 1897–98 when the town nearly starved.

In 1898, at the height of the Gold Rush, when the town of Dawson had a population of 40,000, there was not one murder in town. Not one.

Reports I have read say that people were comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and their possessions out in the open. This was in contrast to the nearby town of Skagway, Alaska, where gangsters such as Soapy Smith ruled and crime and corruption were rampant. Soapy himself was killed in a shootout on the Skagway boardwalk in July 1898.

In Dawson, a town where a one minute dance with a dance hall girl cost a dollar, a bottle of champagne could set you back 40 bucks, and successful miners were known to drop a thousand, ten thousand dollars (all in 1898 funds!) in a night at the casino, a constable in the NWMP earned $1.25 a day (roughly the rate for a labourer in the Outside). Yet the police were largely incorruptible. 

A truly Canadian story. 

Vicki Delany

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
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Vicki Delany

Vicki Delany is a prolific and varied crime writer whose work includes standalone novels of gothic suspense, the Smith & Winters series, and the light-hearted Klondike Mysteries: Gold Mountain, Gold Digger, Gold Fever, and Gold Web. She lives in Picton, Ontario.