Fire hazards and the day Dawson burned

Aunt Phil's Trunk

Fire was the curse of many towns during the Klondike Gold Rush era, and Dawson was no exception. The extreme cold, coupled with dryness, meant fires burned in all buildings when occupied.

Stovepipes thrust through flimsy walls or roofs of cabins and tents carried smoke from high-creosote spruce. Over time, the creosote built up on the pipes, which increased the draft, and soon that created enough heat to start the creosote burning. Eventually, a red-hot stovepipe could set a building on fire.

The Dawson volunteer fire department had built a fire hall and tower down near the bank of the Yukon River by the 1890s. Whenever a report of a fire came, firemen rang the bell in the tower and raced to the scene, pulling their fire-fighting apparatus behind them. The record was 22 alarms in one night.

The fire department had a hose cart that extended only as far as the city's water system, and chemical carts that were little more than large fire extinguishers to use when water froze inside the hoses. By the time an alarm sounded, and the firemen reached a fire, they usually found the tent or cabin gone and spent most of their time trying to keep the fire away from other structures.

To keep fires from spreading during cold weather, residents had a rather unique system. They soaked blankets in water, thrust them out windows, and fastened them over walls. The blankets promptly froze and formed a barrier of ice.

But despite the danger, the town grew by leaps and bounds. And as it grew, the residents needed better fire protection in order to get fire insurance. Insurance companies wouldn't cover high-risk areas, at least not at rates that most customers could pay.

Some sources say that town merchants collected $5 apiece (about $180 in 2023 dollars) from the ladies of the evening to buy a fire engine. Others speculate that the ladies collected the money from the merchants and politicians who used their services.

Whatever the real story, the town purchased a steam pumper from the Seattle Fire Department in 1898 and had it shipped north. However, due to human error, the new horse-drawn fire engine with its smoking stack proved useless when a fire broke out on April 26, 1899. The next day, the Klondike Nugget newspaper reported:

"Dawson is once again in ashes. The Queen of the Yukon is once more attacked by her old-time enemy. The city's loss will be fully a million dollars. One hundred and eleven buildings gone up in smoke and flame. Incompetency in operating the Fire Steamer charged with being the cause of the heavy loss."

While many people said the fire was "an act of God," several others said it was aided by the stupidity of man.

During breakup, the river had churned under the rotting ice of the river and the shift in pressure had pushed water up through the hole where the steamer sat. Nobody noticed that the water had doused the fire in the firebox, which was necessary to make the steam pump work.

It took almost a half-hour to get the fire lit again, by which time the entire east side of Dawson had already gone up in flames.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at