By Dan Davidson
Friday August 15, 2003
George Mercer Dawson
There have been many plaques erected around Dawson City of the last 30 years, but it has taken until this June for there to finally be a plaque in honour of Dawson’s namesake, George Mercer Dawson.
This oversight was finally corrected through a generous donation by the Hougen family of Whitehorse and the efforts of the Klondyke Centennial Society, which laid the groundwork for this memorial when it established the Joseph Ladue plaque in 2002.
According to Jon Magnusson of the KCS, Rolf Hougen came to him with a proposal to erect a $10,000 bronze bust of Dawson.
As Hougen tells it, Magnusson had a counter proposal, a substantially cheaper memorial which would be a match for the Ladue plaque already erected on a large rock atop the dyke, at the high end of the flowered walkway known locally as Norm’s Hump (after the superintendent of public works who commissioned it).
“I agreed with them,” Hougen said in a telephone interview some weeks later. “I thought it was a great idea.” It also cost a bit less, probably around $4,000 when all the bills are in, though that was not an issue.
The monument reads that it is placed in memory of Berent Hougen, one of the legions of gold seekers who lived in Dawson in the early years of the 20th century, but Rolf Hougen says there’s more to it than that.
“That’s true, yes, but we’ve had an association with Dawson for 50 some years. We’ve often gone to Dawson City and I’ve always loved it there.
“It’s the reason the Yukon exists, you might say. I’ve always had a special place for Dawson in my heart.”
What of Berent Hougen?
“My father, as a young sailor, ended up in Dawson City. Not at the gold rush, but in 1906. He spent three years there before migrating on to Alaska.”
Rolf Hougen himself recalls many of the colourful characters, such as Black Mike, who used to enchant visitors to the Klondike. He recalls being on the dredges himself when they were in operation.
George Mercer Dawson was a most unusual man. Stricken with Pott’s disease when just a boy, he scarcely grew taller after that and was left with a humpback created by a deformed spine. For some time after the illness he was confined to a wheelchair, but he refused to accept that fate, and set himself a tough life. He studied geology at McGill University and in England and was, by age 24, a member of the North America Boundary Commission, traipsing the woods to help define the line between Canada and the USA along the 49th parallel.
In 1875 he joined the Geological Survey of Canada and in 1887 he led a seven month reconnaissance of the land around all the Yukon’s major rivers, including in his studies the Stikine, Dease, Liard, Frances, Pelly and, of course, the Yukon.
Dawson’s report on the Yukon, in particular, was much in demand during the 1890’s and on into the Gold Rush years. In “The Little Giant”, biographer Joyce Barkhouse writes that he was often called “Klondyke Dawson”.
“Oddly enough, he was then sitting in his office in Ottawa, but it became known to the thousands of prospectors that his were the only maps available for the region. To possess a copy was thought to be the magic charm for ‘hitting it rich’.” (Barkhouse, foreword)
Dawson lived only to the age of 51, but by then his name was splattered all over western Canada.
When Joe Ladue was trying to establish the townsite that would become Dawson City, he needed a surveyor. That man was William Ogilvie, who had accompanied Dawson as his surveyor in 1887. His fee for doing Ladue’s survey was simple; he asked that the town be named after his boss, George Dawson. If Barkhouse has it right, it would have been Dawson himself who added the little dot with its name to the official maps of the Territory a few weeks later.
A Klondike Sun article by Dan Davidson