Think big. That’s what Dawson City residents were invited to do this fall as they participated in yet another round of consultations for a new (we’ll believe it when we see it) recreation centre.

So dream away, Dawson, or look to the past.

While Dawson’s beleaguered Art and Margaret Fry Recreation Centre falls short of many facilities found in the Yukon today, the Klondike once had a recreation complex that was the envy of the North.

Indeed, Dawson’s first athletic centre was considered by many to be the finest north of Seattle.

The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) clubhouse was built in 1902 for the considerable sum of $45,000.

Building in Dawson was expensive and this price tag was on par with the cost of major projects, such as the construction of the first territorial court house, which was completed in 1901 at the cost of $50,000.

By the turn of the 20th century, recreation was widely believed to be important for the general well-being of a population. Organized recreation promoted health and kept youth out of trouble. As the capital of the Yukon, Dawson had to have the best.

Dominating the northwest corner of 5th Avenue and Queen Street, the DAAA building extended north, encompassing some of the same ground occupied by Dawson’s current recreation centre. The DAAA’s original footprint was 20,000 square feet, with third storey towers giving the building a palatial quality.

The DAAA was widely recognized as the social centre of Dawson. It housed – among other things – a family theatre, an auditorium, a lounge, a buffet, handball courts, reading rooms, billiard rooms, a gymnasium, steam baths, bowling alleys, a swimming pool, curling rinks and an ice skating surface.

The “D-three-A” arena was always abuzz with cheerful activity, playing host to dances and water spectacles in the summer, and major ice carnivals, hockey matches and skating competitions in the winter.

Although temperatures in the arena were not artificially controlled, the rest of the facility was steam-heated and lavishly fitted with electrical lights, making it the perfect place to escape the dark days and cold nights of a Klondike winter.

Dawson’s Amateur Hockey League (DAHL) made its home in the DAAA clubhouse, raising funds to bring rival teams to the hometown rink from Fairbanks, Alaska, Anchorage and communities to the south.

On occasion, the boys from Mayo or Elsa camp flew in to Dawson for a match, borrowed the league’s hockey stockings, and left by plane the following morning.

Things weren’t perfect, of course. Every winter the DAAA capped its huge swimming tank and laid an ice surface down over the cover. Many skaters complained this gave the rink an unsatisfactory bevel.

Others were unhappy with DAAA management. One disgruntled patron wrote to the Dawson Daily News to demand the expulsion of a so-called “ice scorcher” (fancy skater).

“His break-neck racing would not be objected to so much if he would break his own neck,” the patron explained, “but the dire results usually fall on the innocent.”

In the writer’s opinion, management was showing an intolerable level of patience for bad behaviour.

There will always be reasons to grumble, but perhaps the gripers would have kept mum if they’d known that their days of frolicking in the north’s most enviable sports and leisure facility were to be numbered.

Early in the morning on December 30, 1937, the DAAA building burned to the ground. It is not clear exactly how the blaze began, but once the nitrate films housed in the club’s theatre caught fire, the inferno was unstoppable.

Not to be discouraged, and unprepared to face a Yukon winter without hockey, the citizens of Dawson rallied to the cause. Led by the Dawson Amateur Hockey League, Dawson citizens raised the $750 needed to repair the skating rink, which had survived the fire.

By 1939 the rink had re-opened, but the rest of the DAAA complex was never rebuilt. And never again have Dawson’s citizens known anything like the recreation wonderland they enjoyed during the opening decades of the 20th century.

When the Art and Margaret Fry Recreation Centre opened about a decade ago, locals had reason to hope, but the building has been fraught with problems and underutilized since.

In 2011 Dawsonites go without a gymnasium, artificial ice surface and swimming pool under one roof, let alone racquetball courts, a theatre and bowling alley.

Their only consolation: Nora’s Kitchen, the arena canteen. There’s just no chance that anything in the D-three-A’s fancy buffet could have rivaled a plate of steaming poutine!