Bankers were no different from everyone else who trekked to the Klondike goldfields. They too made the tough trip by boat, trail, dog team and sled to reach the most amazing gold strike in North American history.
As prospectors flooded into Dawson City in 1898, the Canadian Government had two problems. How to collect royalties from mostly American miners? And how to keep the money secure?
Send in the Mounties and the bankers, of course! Well, some Mounties were already there and the feds contracted the Canadian Bank of Commerce to handle the cash or gold dust. In April 1898, two groups of specially trained Bank of Commerce employees set out from Toronto bound for Dawson.
In February 1899, the New York times reported that "a Canadian Bank of Commerce is to be started in Dawson City." The bank, the story said, has been appointed agent of the Government for the Yukon district and will receive all royalties on gold mined in the Canadian territory. The gold received by the bank will be sent to the coast under the escort of the Mounted Police provided by the government."
All was well until the winter of 1900, when yet another fire burned an entire downtown block of buildings including the office of the Bank of Commerce. The bankers moved in with the Mounties, but they now needed a new building.
In 1901, the Bank of Commerce leased land on Front Street and constructed a state of the art building. It was classy. A spiral stairway connected an assay office on the second floor to the main floor. A fireproof vault of stone was lined with brick. An upstairs apartment boasted the first flush toilets in Dawson. Robert Service, who arrived in 1908, probably found these digs much more comfortable than the rustic cabin with outdoor plumbing on Eighth Avenue that he rented when he quit the bank in 1910.
The new Bank of Commerce building opened for business on May 20, 1901, advertising prime rates for gold dust and the services of an assayer. This was a major expansion for the Bank of Commerce, which today is known as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The Government of Canada owned the land but the Bank of Commerce held a lease from 1901 until 1988, when the lease was transferred. Today, the bank building is a key element in the historic character of Front Street in Dawson, though most agree that a facelift for the historic edifice is long overdue.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin