Moving Pictures from the Permafrost

Recent documentary captures Klondike role in Hollywood history.

  • The reels spanning the heydays of silent, black-and-white moving pictures now have been given a new lease on life.
    Photo courtesy Dawson City Museum

During construction of a new Dawson City rec center in 1978, a backhoe unearthed 533 newsreels and feature films dating from 1903 to 1929, many of them thought to have been lost to time’s ravages, others previously unknown. Stored initially in the town library’s basement, they had been interred in an old gym pool that also functioned as an ice rink. There they rested like Snow White in her crystal coffin. The pool site was part of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association’s building, which opened in 1902 and soon after began screening films. Some of the cache’s contents played again in the rebuilt Palace Grand Theatre fifteen months after their discovery.

The reels spanning the heydays of silent, black-and-white moving pictures now have been given a new lease on life. The New York film director Bill Morrison—a fan of things out of fashion—artfully reassembled snippets of cinematic treasure snatched from the debris. His two-hour, largely narration-free meditation Dawson City: Frozen Time was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. (It can be downloaded from iTunes.)

A subtitle five minutes in, “Film was born of an explosive,” speaks to the martial origins of celluloid. This plasticized base of early films, cellulose nitrate, used as “guncotton” in warheads, was extremely flammable. Patented in 1889, coated, light-sensitive Kodak stock not only revolutionized entertainment, but in Dawson and elsewhere also sparked or fed conflagrations. The business district of the timber-built Yukon hub burned each single year of its first nine. Worldwide, firestorms consumed film collections in warehouses, studios, laboratories, and theaters, including the very movie houses that screened such films in Dawson City. Edison’s film manufacturing plant blew up in 1914; Robert J. Flaherty ignited 30,000 feet of Nanook of the North by smoking a cigarette.

Because movers and the railroad refused to ship the combustible stock dredged from the permafrost and temporarily stacked in a root cellar, the Armed Forces flew the crates to Ottawa in a Hercules plane. At the capital, Library and Archives Canada preserved the unstable images. With help from the Library of Congress, staff then catalogued the entire collection, printed it onto 35mm safety film stock, and kept it in climate-controlled vaults for the past 38 years. Morrison, who visited Whitehorse and Dawson while making his movie, obtained scans of any reel he wanted to watch.

Another surprise trove added to Morrison’s sprawling canvas: almost 200 photo negatives by the Swedish emigrant Eric A. Hegg. Considered valueless, they’d been insulating the walls of a Dawson City cabin until 1947, when the glass plates barely escaped being turned into greenhouse panels. The prospecting Swede had followed the shifting human tide from Skagway to Dawson to Nome. His shots of men loaded like mules and stair-stepping up a 45-degree slope to the snow-choked U.S.-Canada border were copied in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and onto Alaska license plates. Hegg’s output also included the only surviving pictures of the infamous 1898 Easter Sunday avalanche’s aftermath. First exhibited in a New York gallery in 1901, they caused crowds vying for a glimpse to riot.

Splicing in period newsreels and newspaper headlines as well as post-WWII home movies, Dawson City: Frozen Time among other things charts the transformation of the peaceful indigenous fishing camp Tr’ochëk to boomtown surrounded by denuded land to respectable, film-obsessed backwater—a tale familiar to readers of Pierre Berton’s The Klondike Fever. The highlights are all there, in grainy detail: sternwheelers, dead horses, scows hammered together at Bennett Lake; seething Miles Canyon Rapids, where four stuntmen died; George and Kate Shaaw, Tláa Carmack, Skookum Jim, Chief Isaac, leather-faced; prostitutes’ cribs lining Paradise Alley, claims on Bonanza Creek; a dancer turned entrepreneur, and latecomer Robert W. Service of “Sam McGee” fame.

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