History of Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall

by Ken Spotswood- Freelance Journalist

When most people visit Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall in Dawson City, they go to party and to try their luck at games of chance. Their minds are on the slot machines and gaming tables, or the live entertainment on-stage. Few people realize that the building itself has a rich history of theatre, entertainment and social activities that goes back to the turn of the century. For nearly 100 years the building has been the heart and home of many of Dawson’s most important and festive social gatherings.

Oddly, it all began on February 26, 1899, on board the ocean steamer City of Seattle. The vessel was en route from Seattle to Skagway and was filled with gold seekers headed for the Klondike.

Its master, Capt. William Connell, was a hospitable man with a reputation for putting his passengers at ease despite the over-crowded conditions. On this particular trip the fraternal spirit–and the liquid variety–prevailed more than usual in the ship’s dining room. It was Capt. Connell who suggested forming a great, social ‘brotherhood of the North, where men from all parts of the world could meet and get to know one another’.

The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Initially there were eleven founding members on board the ship. In 1903 AB historian I.N. Wilcoxen described the meeting: “Being liberal of purse, and always enjoying the best obtainable, they ate, smoked and drank liberally of the best the Steward had. They found they were ‘Arctic Brothers,’ and proposed to celebrate the discovery by a night of revelry, mirth and laughter.”

Bylaws and rules of order were drawn up. The preamble of its constitution states: “The object of this organization shall be to encourage and promote social and intellectual intercourse and benevolence among its members, and to advance the interests of its members, and those of the Northwest section of North America.”

Membership was restricted to white males over age 18 who resided in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territory, or British Columbia north of parallel 54 degrees, 20 minutes, north latitude. Candidates had to be nominated by members in good standing. They were either approved or rejected by a membership committee.

Its first badges reflected the members’ drinking habits–officers wore champagne corks on their lapels, while ordinary members wore beer corks. The initiation fee was one dollar and the proceeds were usually spent on “a royal good time.”

An emblem was designed which portrayed two crossed flags–the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, a miner’s gold pan with a crossed pick and shovel and the letters ‘A..B.’. The entire design was encrusted with gold nuggets. Its motto was ‘No Boundary Line Here’.

Camp No. 1 was established in Skagway soon after the ship docked. Within a month its ranks swelled to 311 men. As its members fanned out they established Camp No. 2 at Bennett and Camp No. 3 at Atlin, B.C.

“There were the usual objections to secret orders made to this new order by the churches, and the terms Arctic Bummers on one side and Sniveling Hypocrites on the other were frequently heard,” reported AB historian I.N. Davidson.

The skeptics were silenced when they saw that the lodge looked after its members in sickness and health, buried its dead and generally improved educational and social conditions of the booming mining camps.

It wasn’t long before every northern city, town and settlement of any importance boasted its Arctic Brotherhood camp. Eventually more than 30 camps were established throughout the North and, at its height, the Arctic Brotherhood boasted some 10,000 members. They included miners, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, government officials, American senators, Canadian members of Parliament and celebrities. Among its honourary members were King Edward VII and American presidents Warren G. Harding, Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley.

Camp No. 4 was established at Dawson City on November 24, 1899. Its arrival was played up by the Klondike Nugget newspaper as a secret organization whose members met behind locked doors and wore lapel buttons with the mysterious letters ‘A.B.’:

“Alaska Bums,” the Nugget suggested, noting that only Alaskans wear the insignia. “‘Arctic Bean eaters’ suggests someone else, with a vivid recollection of trail and early day experiences with the festive camp kettle.”

Meetings in Dawson were held every Friday at McDonald’s Hall, where the initiation of new members was always a colourful affair.

On Feb. 18, 1900, the Nugget reported: “Seven applicants were elected to membership of Dawson Camp No. 4, Arctic Brotherhood. After adjournment all the members assembled around the foot of the throne of her iciness, the Arctic Queen, when a flashlight picture was taken by the new made brother, photographer Cantwell. The picture represents each member sitting on a block of ice sucking on an icicle.”

As the Dawson camp grew, so did its festivities. When initiations and business were concluded, “the camp went into social session and for two hours a most enjoyable time was had,” the Nugget reported in March, 1901. “An elegant and bounteous lunch, the creation of B.F. Germain, was served, stories were told, recitations and songs rendered and the Arctic Brotherhood orchestra, the finest in Dawson, favored the throng with many of their choice selections.”

As its membership increased the gatherings soon outgrew McDonald’s Hall, and first discussion of an AB hall in Dawson was reported in the Nugget on Oct. 5, 1901: “It was decided to raise the money for building the hall by issuing coupons to members payable after six months as dues or redeemable in cash after one year…”

Money began pouring in for the project–so much and so fast that construction began four days later.

“Work on the Arctic Brotherhood Fraternity Hall was commenced this morning,” the Nugget reported on Oct. 9, 1901. “The plan for the building was prepared by members of the camp, and when completed it will be one story and a half high, covering a space of 50 by 100 feet.

“There will be no pillars in the room, thus giving the largest floor space of any hall in the city for dancing or other entertainments. In the end of the building opposite the entrance there will be a stage 16×32 feet and on the sides of this there will be a fully equipped kitchen.

“On both sides of the hall and at the rear end will be platforms for the officers, making it a completely fitted lodge room. A balcony is to be erected opposite the stage, part of which will be partitioned off into a committee room, and lockers for the safe keeping of paraphernalia (sic). “One of the beauties of the hall will be the flooring, which will be double and have a covering of Puget Sound fir which will make it the finest floor of any hall north of Vancouver.

“Surveyors were put to work this morning and had the lot measured off this noon, and this afternoon men were put to work excavating for the foundation.”

When the Arctic Brotherhood made up its mind to do something, it didn’t mess around. The building was completed in just three weeks, at a cost of $16,000.

Planning then began for a formal ball and dedication ceremony–a gala event that was to be the largest and most lavish social gathering ever held in the short, but colourful history of Dawson City.

The inaugural ball and dedication ceremony of the new Arctic Brotherhood Hall was held November 20, 1901. It was a public event at which every member of Camp No. 4 participated. The hall was decorated with flags–the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack–bunting, picks, pans, shovels and snowshoes emblematic of the order. The folks of Dawson had never seen such pomp and ceremony either. The Nugget reported the event in dramatic style: “With a fanfare of trumpets and in a mellowed light made all the more weird by an array of torches and the occasional burning of red fire, with its lay members clad in cowled robes of spotless white, its officers vested in parkeys of royal purple, and with such other concomitants as were necessary to add mysteriousness, impressiveness and solemnity to the occasion, the Arctic Brotherhood yesterday evening in the presence of its friends, wives, sisters and sweethearts duly dedicated to the uses of the order and the brotherhood of man, the hall and building recently completed, the largest and best structure of its kind not alone in Dawson, but in the entire great northwest.

“Indeed, it would be hard to find anywhere on the Pacific coast outside of the largest cities a building more complete which has been specially constructed for the exclusive use of a secret organization.

“By 9 o’clock the two rows of chairs surrounding the hall, and the gallery, were filled, every seat being occupied by the fair ones and their escorts intent upon witnessing for the first time some of the occult incantations indissolubly associated with all orders of a secret nature.

“Such youth, beauty and chivalry as Dawson can claim was present in all the radiance made possible by the regulation sombre black evening dress and immaculate shirt bosoms of the gentlemen and the elaborate gowns, bare arms and faultlessly moulded, snowy shoulders of the ladies…

“The hall is larger, so it is said, by 500 square feet than the old Savoy, yet during the early part of the evening it was so packed as to render dancing somewhat difficult, the gallery, too, in the meantime being crowded to its utmost capacity. It is thought fully 250 couples were in attendance, a number far larger than has ever before gathered together upon any similar occasion.”

What followed was a lengthy and colourful ceremony that lasted more than an hour.

“The orchestra again played a march and 100 members of the camp filed in to the martial strain, each robed in a white parkey. After marching twice around the hall they were arranged half on either side facing each other… “After a few remarks apropos of the occasion, the singing of the odes and an invocation by the grand chaplain the ceremony was proceeded with. The grand guide of the north presented a gold pan of snow emblematic of purity; him of the south a bouquet of flowers typifying life and the land of sunshine; from the guide of the east was received a boulder of quartz as representative of integrity, the limitless wealth of the far north and the solid foundation upon which the Arctic Brotherhood is founded; the grand keeper of nuggets presented a horn of plenty filled with gold dust, the individual offerings of the members of the order toward the liquidation of the society’s debt.”

The hall was finally dedicated, its keys were formally presented and a sacred flame was lit on the altar which was followed by more singing and incantations. At the end a photographer took a ‘flashlight photograph’ of the scene, but he had over-estimated the amount of flash powder needed. The result was a loud explosion which frightened everyone and filled the hall with smoke.

After all the pomp and ceremony it was 10:30 p.m. before the first dance was played, and it was 4:30 a.m. when the music ended. “The floor was in an excellent condition, the music was inspiring, making one’s feet tingle with a desire to dance on and on with joy unconfined and where a surfeit was ordinarily expected, still the dancers clamored for more, more till the orchestra laid down their instruments in sheer desperation.”

The event was such a success that the lodge decided to hold a ball every two weeks for the duration of the winter. At $5 a couple–supper included–it was also a dandy way to pay off its debt on the building. ‘Extra’ or unescorted ladies were admitted for one dollar. Admission was later raised to $10 a couple and it seems no one minded.

Advertisements proclaimed 51 dances in an evening with “the best music and most splendid refreshments” that Dawson had to offer. In addition to its grand balls, the A.B. Hall was used for a wide variety of community and political meetings and banquets. Activities included indoor baseball, concerts, recitals, the Arctic Brotherhood Circus and a series of theatrical plays.

In August of 1902 the Nugget championed the cause of the Arctic Brotherhood in an editorial:

“The Arctic Brotherhood has attained great strength in the north by reason of the objects which it seeks to accomplish. It has brought hundreds of men within reach of social environments whose lives otherwise would be extremely lonesome and in many ways has contributed toward making the sojourn of its members in the north both pleasureable and profitable. The Nugget bespeaks long life and success to the A.B.’s.”

But it wasn’t to be. The lodge’s membership gradually declined with the exodus of miners and merchants from various towns and mining camps as new gold discoveries were made elsewhere. Conscription during the First World War depleted its ranks further. As its members gradually aged and died, so did the organization.

From about 1925 to 1933 the A.B. Hall served as Dawson’s community centre. Ownership of and responsibility for the hall was transferred to the Dawson branch of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1929 when the Eagles’ Hall burned down. It was subsequently known as the Eagles’ Hall until 1943, about which time they ceased to function in Dawson and disbanded. In 1943 the Dawson Community Inc. obtained title to the property–a society formed by local citizens who bought shares for the purposes of maintaining the hall for use by the citizens of Dawson.

The City of Dawson obtained title in 1951 and operated it as a community hall. The building was re-named in 1967 when it became the Centennial Hall, in honour of Canada’s 100th birthday.

On July 2, 1971, the city leased the building to the Klondike Visitors Association, which transformed it into the popular casino known today as Diamond Tooth Gerties. The casino is still unique in Canada in that visitors can gamble, drink alcoholic beverages and enjoy live entertainment, all in the same room.

The KVA is a non-profit society, and revenue from the casino is re-invested in the community to preserve historic sites, produce local events and tourist attractions, and to promote the Klondike as a tourist destination. It is named after Gertie Lovejoy, one of the most famous of Dawson’s dance-hall queens during the gold rush era. She got her nickname after having a diamond inserted between her two front teeth.

Years later Lovejoy inadvertently gained respectability when she married C.W. Taber, one of the town’s leading lawyers, a prominent Conservative and a friend of commissioner George Black. It was the presence of Taber’s wife–and her shady past–at a dinner party in the commissioner’s residence that roused half the town to righteous indignation.

The event was immortalized by author Laura Berton in her autobiography ‘I Married the Klondike’. Berton–who attended the same party–wrote: “The Blacks were always loyal to their friends and I am sure that Mrs. Black got added enjoyment by breaking the accepted social code that former dance-hall girls were beyond the pale.

“Gertie was a demure little woman, quite pretty and very self-effacing. She had little to say, but when she did speak, the famous diamond could be seen glittering between her two front teeth. Tongues wagged furiously the next day.”

The building known as Diamond Tooth Gerties has an impressive history. One of its fondest reminiscences was penned by author Pierre Berton in his book ‘Starting Out’ which chronicled his boyhood memories of 1920s Dawson: “In the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, where many of the big dances were held, there was always a dumpy little woman with a hooked nose, her chalk-white face half concealed by a light veil, who sat alone in one of the boxes. Who was she? Why did no one ever sit with her? My parents evaded my questions. There she sat, looking down impassively on the whirling dancers, never leaving her box or speaking to a living soul.

“It took me a long time to figure out that she had once been a leading light in Dawson’s demi-monde during the early days and was, no doubt, reliving vicariously those great moments when, rouged and lipsticked, in a similar box she had drunk champagne at thirty dollars a pint, paid for by one of the Kings of Eldorado.”

Next time you visit Gerties–before you fall under the spell of the gambling tables and the entertainment–take a walk around the hall and remember the Arctic Brotherhood:

“They found they were ‘Arctic Brothers’, and proposed to celebrate the discovery by a night of revelry, mirth and laughter.” Nearly 100 years later, the tradition continues each night when Gerties opens its doors.