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Dawson City Archive: How a Treasure Trove of Silent Film Was Discovered and Restored

This cache of early 20th century film reels lay tucked beneath permafrost for almost fifty years.

"The Social Buccaneer" (1916)

“The Social Buccaneer” (1916)

Courtesy of The Dawson City Museum, Library and Archives Canada, and The Library of Congress

In 1978, beneath an old ice rink in a small mining town in the Yukon, a cache of thousands reels of nitrate filmstock was discovered, a collection thought to be lost for over fifty years. As Lawrence Weschler writes at Vanity Fair, Dawson City, once the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush, boasted a population of over 30,000 people at its peak, and held several movie theatres within its meager city limits. In its heyday, miners, trappers and other, shall we say, “entrepreneurs” (in the wilderness of the Yukon, prostitution and gambling was hardly a clandestine activity), could visit any number of these new-fangled movie theatres, catch up on newsreels or the latest drama, and head back out in search of their fortune.

READ MORE: BFI National Archive Finds Lost Film ‘Welcome Mr. Washington’

After the rush ended, however, the town’s population plummeted to a few thousand, and the necessity to trek dozens of reels of film to a location mere miles from the Arctic Circle vanished with most of the miners. And so, tucked away beneath the permafrost, the hundreds of newsreels, melodramas and Westerns lay dormant for decades after the town’s decline.

Weschler writes that, when Michael Gates was sent to Dawson City in 1978 on an assignment from Parks Canada, he was initially meant to document and collect any notable artifacts pertinent to the history of the Klondike. It just so happened that a local ice-rink was in the process of becoming a parking lot, and all kinds of strange things were being pulled out of the permafrost. In the depths of the abandoned pool lay dozens of boxes containing reels of what looked to be black ribbons, but were in reality spools of highly flammable nitrate film.

READ MORE: Guy Maddin on His Obsession with Lost Films and Why We Need to Preserve Them

Upon this discovery, Weschler writes for VF, that Gates immediately notified the National Film, Television, and Sound Archives of Canada, and so began the excavation, reconstruction, and identification of the hoard of frozen film. In the rigorous process of restoration, Gates and his team had amassed a group of over 500 films of the initial 1,500 that could be saved, with footage dating back as early as 1903. Some of the newsreels include W.E.B. DuBois at a 1917 civil rights rally, the aftermath of the attempted bombing of the New York Stock Exchange of 1920 and even footage of the infamous 1919 World Series.

Gates’ incredible discovery is now the subject of a brand new documentary from Bill Morrison, entitled “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” which uses archival footage to tell the amazing true story of Dawson City and its remarkable films. The film will screen at the upcoming New York Film Festival. You can find out more about the doc right here.

Read the full story over at Vanity Fair.

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