Hougen Group

1980post

The Reconstructed Post Office - 1980.

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Outside view of new Post Office Dawson. [original photo caption] Yukon Archives. Walter R. Hamilton fonds, #106.

Thomas Fuller, Klondike Architect

His dad has been the architect who designed the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, among other great Canadian buildings. So there was good lineage for the man who designed the Yukon's first official post office. The first post office in Dawson City was operated by the Northwest Mounted Police from a tent on Front Street. When the newly built NWMP compound called Fort Herchmer opened, the Mounties moved the post office into a small log building beside the guard room.

With the first delivery in the spring of 1898, lineups were so long they filled the soggy streets for endless blocks. Miners on the creeks did not dare leave their precious mining claims and, instead, hired men to stand in line for them to get their much cherished mail.

During the summer, the Dawson post office was moved into a building owned by big Alec McDonald, one of the few wealthy Klondike Kings. However, on October 14th, 1898 a huge fire engulfed McDonald's building and the post office disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Twenty-six buildings were destroyed, but by now, saloons were everywhere, so the Mounties leased a place called the Brewery and set up semipermanent postal headquarters. They were not permanent for long.

Politicians and the public in the Klondike complained bitterly, but the federal government remained unmoved, refusing to set up a real postal service. Soon, a growing city emerged with churches, schools, hospitals, a fire hall and an elected municipal government.

While residents could buy just about anything in the shops, they were still forced to line up for hours, if not days, outside the makeshift post office to get their mail. People complained that men with money could jump the queue, slip the sorters some gold and get their mail quickly. It was known as the "five dollar window", a side door where a bribe would hasten the process. Frustration continued to grow and threatend to become the key issue in the local elections.

In the late fall of 1898, the Canadian Post Office finally agreed to take over the mail service from the Mounties and, in January 1899, the federal Post Master General urged that money be included in the budget to establish a real postal service in Dawson. The Department of Public Works wasted no time in appointing Ottawa architect Thomas W. Fuller to design the building.

He was a good choice. His father, Thomas Fuller Senior had been Canada's chief architect from 1881 to 1896. Walking in his father's fairly large shoes, Thomas Fuller Jr. took seriously his task of building the Yukon's first post office. The land presented its peculiar problems, as architect Fuller quickly observed the delights of building on permafrost.

When the top layer of earth was scraped away, Fuller discovered to his dismay that the ground melted into an oozing mass of mud. One novel idea he had was to dig holes in the muck and position two large metal boxes in the holes to provide a foundation for the heavy wood-fired furnaces in the building's basement.

Except for lumber from the local sawmill, most of the building materials had to be imported from "the outside" at outrageous prices, and carpenters skilled in fabricating anything more than a clapboard saloon were rare in Dawson. Specialized workers were hired from as far away as Montreal and young Fuller himself was often seen swinging a hammer while keeping a close eye on his unique design.

 

 

When the post office opened in November 1900, the Dawson Daily News heralded it as "...a thing of beauty and a monument to the architectural skill of the man who designed it,"high praise, indeed, from a generally cantankerous northern press. However, the official opening did not mean that Fuller's Yukon work was finished. He designed other important buildings including the Territorial court house and Administration Building, the Comissioner's residence, and the Telegraph office. Today, all are National Historic Sites.

 

 

While the post office was not in the architectural league with his father's Parliament Buildings, Thomas Jr. no doubt made a good impression with his Klondike construction efforts since he, like his father before him, was appointed the Chief Architect of Canada.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin