Dickinson, Christine Frances and Diane Solie Smith, Atlin: the Story of British Columbia’s Last Gold Rush. Atlin Historical Society. 317 pages plus glossary and index. Profusely illustrated with black-and-white photographs.
Good local histories tend to be boring to the outsider. And so they should be. If you don’t live in a town, you don’t know the names of the founders, the old families, or the current movers-and-shakers. The first buildings and their subsequent uses mean nothing. Furthermore, you don’t care.
However, a really good local history can bring in the casual reader. The people and events become so interesting you want to know more. This story of the founding and subsequent fortunes of today’s small town between Anchorage and Haines makes for reading riveting at times. There is a good reason this book won the British Columbia Lieutenant Governor’s Award. It’s not only a thorough history, but well written.
The opening sentence is alluring. “Atlin, British Columbia, is located in solitary stubbornness a few miles south of the Yukon border on a lake of haunting beauty.” The story of the stubborn young man who survived a shipwreck and took his hand-sled and gear along the Taku Trail, then up the Taku Glacier is fascinating. “He crossed the Coast Mountains over a death trap of bottomless crevasses, and made his way down the dangerous face of the Llewellyn Glacier. From these dazzling heights he could see a hazy town, his mecca, far down Atlin Lake.” He arrived safely and became the only person known to cross the glacier. Who could resist wanting to learn more about this mining camp founded in 1898 during the boom days of the Klondike?
There’s a nice description of everyday life. Cabins were slightly better than tents, but most were poorly built. “Old socks, long underwear, and other castoffs were used for chinking when moss, the usual material, was buried under the snow. As the logs dried and shrank, bark and bugs dropped from the ceiling, and shreds of old clothing hung from the walls....Smoke from woodstoves and lanterns darkened interiors, and windows were expensive luxuries.”
The government, irked that most of the Klondike gold went to Americans, decreed that only British citizens could file valid claims. As most of the stampeders were from the U.S., they simply headed for the new strike at Nome, and that bankrupted businesses. The authorities also placed the townsite in reserve, thus stopping development.
However, the townspeople persevered and Atlin thrived. The personality of the business owners was important. One popular hotelier was described at the time as a “burly saloonkeeper who loved nothing better than an argument, unless it was a fight.”
All the topics of a northern small town at the turn of the century are covered; transportation, including dog teams, crime (actually, the surprising lack of), and as the community matured, churches, schools, and the arrival of “Society” with attendant teas and balls. The strong women have a chapter of their own.
After the rush there was a nice period of tourism, but then the Great Depression hit, and Atlin shrank to 100 in population. However, the “back-to-the-land” movement of the ‘70s brought new blood to town as young couples with children arrived. Today there are about 450 happy Atliners.
This is not only an interesting book, it should be read by everyone thinking of doing a local history. They may have to brush up their writing skills, however.