Back when Dawson City was at the end of the road, some of the consumer goods that arrived here stayed here because it wasn’t worth anyone’s time and money to haul them away.
Such was the case with a treasure trove of 500 nitrate-based reels of silent movies, newsreels, shorts and primitive cartoons that were shown in town between 1903 and 1929.
The films had been cached in the Carnegie Library (now the Masonic Lodge), which had been abandoned due to fire and water damage in 1920. It was cold in there, and a cold building was just the place to store highly flammable nitrate film stock.
If Hollywood had had such great storage spaces then more films from that era might have survived.
Some of the films found in Dawson were the only existing copies – but no one would know that until 1978. Before anyone realized they are valuable, the reels from the library became part of the landfill material filling the hole behind the Arctic Brotherhood Hall (now Diamond Tooth Gerties). Thus the newsreels, cartoons and shorts were safely frozen in time in the cold Dawson City ground.
For the full story of what happened next, read Michael Gates’ History Hunting in the Yukon, pages 221 to 225, “There’s Film in Them Thar Hills.”
The short version is that the films were rediscovered in 1978. They were carefully extracted from the earth and shipped by military plane – since they were deemed too dangerous for commercial aircraft – to Ottawa where they were teased apart and transferred to safer film stock.
Some of them were shown in 2004 during that year’s short film festival, with music provided by Barnacle Bob Hilliard.
Now, with the assistance of Yukon Energy, the Dawson City Museum has them in digital form and will be showing them in its theatre room this summer. While the museum has access to all of the material, three show reels have been created (with Barnacle’s music), and these will be featured on a rotating basis.
Each of the three reels contains newsreel footage, serious and whimsical shorts, and maddeningly incomplete snippets.
This new attraction was launched on May 22.
Yukon Energy’s Janet Patterson was there to accept a gift from grateful museum chair, Debbie Winston.
“For Yukon Energy, this is an extremely worthwhile cause,” Patterson wrote on the company’s blog. “And one that fits with our values. Whether it’s saving old film footage or saving electricity, it’s all about valuing what we have and using it wisely.”