1898 Yukon Nuggets
Dawson City Post Office: Alfred G. McMichael, from a letter to his wife.
In Dawson City itself, the first crude post office was operated by the Northwest Mounted Police from a tent on Front Street. Then, in 1897, Frank Harper was appointed the first post master; but the Mounties still staffed the office. When the newly built NWMP compound called Fort Herchmer opened, they moved the post office into a small log building beside the guard room.
The first delivery that arrived in the spring of 1898 proved that mail was more popular than gold. Lineups were so long they filled the soggy streets for endless blocks. Those who could not leave their claims hired others to stand in line for them. The little log shack in the compound was far too small to hold the volumes of treasured letters. Harper had to do something so he leased a saloon to expand the existing facilities.
During the summer, the Dawson post office was moved to a building owned by Big Alex McDonald on Front Street. However, on October 14, 1898 came the first great Dawson fire. Gone was McDonald's building and the post office in a puff of smoke. The raging flames consumed most of Front Street. In all, twenty-six buildings were destroyed. By this time, saloons were a dime a dozen and the local government leased another called the Brewery and set up permanent quarters. They were not permanent for long. Nor were they adequate.
July 14, 1898
"I am so disappointed in not getting a letter from you or in fact from anyone, we are feeling so anxious to hear from you. I do write so many letters and do not get but a few, that sometimes I get almost discouraged. I received your letter with this Easter card and pin but dear the pin was broken. I almost cried.
Despite criticism from politicians and the public in the Klondike, they did not convince the federal government in Ottawa the Gold Rush would last. Thus, it reasoned there was no need for an elaborate postal system. Nevertheless, the gold did not "peter out" as it had in so many other places. Dawson began to have a look of permanency.
More or less permanent businesses such as butchers shops, bakers, grocers, clothiers, tobacconists, blacksmiths, gambling halls and at least twenty-two saloons were becoming the norm. Six sawmills could not keep up with the demand for lumber. Still, the postal service lagged.
Frustration grew in the town and on the creeks and threatened to become the key issue in local and federal elections. People grew tired of lining up outside the post office for hours and sometimes days to get their mail. More often than not they lined up only to find the queue, slip the sorters some gold and get their mail quickly.
In the late fall of 1898, the Federal Post Office Department agreed to take over the mail service from the Mounties. I.J. Hartman, the first federally appointed post master, arrived in Dawson in October. His bold undertaking to sort out the mail mess failed, but in January of 1899, a minor miracle occurred. Canada's Post Master General recommended that funds be included in the federal budget to build a real post office in Dawson.
In February, the Harper and Ladue Townsite Company offered the Postal Service a building lot on the corner of Third Avenue and King Street and the Department of Public Works appointed architect Thomas W. Fuller to design the structure.
He was a good choice, coming as he did from a long line of famous architects in Canada. His father, Thomas Sr. had won a competition back in 1859 to design the new Parliament Buildings (the Centre Block) in what was then known as Bytown, but soon to be called Ottawa.
Queen Victoria herself had selected a permanent seat of government on March 16, 1858 and the Legislative Assembly approved funding "not exceeding two hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds", or about one million dollars, for the construction of the Parliament Buildings.
Later, Thomas Sr. became the supervising architect for every project on Parliament Hill and from 1881 to 1897 was Chief Architect for the Dominion of Canada. While the post office in Dawson was not the architectural league with the Parliament Buildings, his son, Thomas Jr. must have made a good impression with his Klondike post office. He too was eventually appointed Chief Architect of Canada and through the years, designed many significant public buildings in Canada.
Thomas Fuller Jr. was a hands on architect who took his job of building the post office in the Klondike very seriously. Building costs in Dawson City were astronomical compared with what civil servants in Ottawa were used to. The call for tenders produced eye-opening sums for the pencil pushers of DPW in Ottawa.
Federal bureaucrats were not eager to pay Dawson's inflated prices but they were not able to delay the opening of the building either. So young Fuller himself was seen swinging a hammer while keeping a close eye on his unique design. Carpenters skilled in building anything more than a clapboard saloon were rare in Dawson and specialized workers were hired from as far away as Montreal.
Though Joe Ladue's sawmill could readily produce boards for houses, it was necessary to order many building materials from "the outside" at exorbitant prices. Imported supplies like glass were not only expensive but also difficult to obtain.
Construction conditions in Dawson haven't changed much through the century. The land presented its special problems then as it does now. Architect Fuller quickly discovered the delights of permafrost but had no more success in dealing with the soggy stuff that anyone else. The ground melted into an oozing mass of mud when the top layer was scraped away. One novel idea he had was to dig two large metallic boxes into the muck to provide a foundation for the heavy furnaces in the basement. At least that plan worked.
In November of 1900 when the new post office opened, the Dawson Daily News heralded it as: "... a thing of beauty and a monument to the architectural skill of the man who designed it. It contains all the most modern fittings known for convenience and dispatch, including a large vault and almost eighteen hundred brass-faced postal boxes and large, neat drawers to hold the mail. The postmaster's office, the delivery offices and the telegraph receiving room are also located here."
High praise from a generally cantankerous press, but it was warranted.
The post office was one of the first fully designed buildings to adorn the marshy streets of Dawson and it was versatile. The first floor housed the post office. On the second floor, offices were occupied by the Customs Service, the Crown Lands Department, the Registrar of Crown Lands and the Telegraph Service. Fuller even installed an elevator so that workers could deliver messages and parcels within the building without runnig up and down the stairs.
The Post Office was the first of many public buildings constructed in Dawson by the Canadian government. For Klondike residents, the efficiency of the new post office was a major miracle.
"Your last letter received today" wrote a niece to her uncle in Dawson. "One would not think it came all the way from Dawson since the envelope was as clear and whole as though it had just been mailed in town here."
Architect Thomas Fuller Jr. had done his job well. The Fuller Construction Company is still active from its Ottawa headquarters operated by sons and grandsons of Thomas Fuller. It has been responsible for more than six hundred construction projects including office towers, hospitals, university buildings, research facilities, shopping centers, and heritage restorations.
Yet the Parliament Buildings and the Dawson City Post Office remain the lasting legacies of the Klondike architext, Thomas W. Fuller.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.