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Bombay Peggys In The Yukon.

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A HOUSE WITH A SECRET

Entrepreneur Who Moved Entire Former Brothel House In The Yukon & Made It Into Unique Inn & Pub Tells Story

Some girls of Dawson City in a vintage photo. [Courtesy: Bombay Peggys]

Saving a piece of history is commendable. Moving a former brothel building across town and making it into a unique inn and pub is a whole other level of commitment. Wendy Cairns, owner of Bombay Peggys in Dawson City in The Yukon, knows this ambition but also the heart and diligence to make it happen. Cairns sat down with The Buzz in the foyer of Bombay Peggys to discuss myth, movement and making a dream happen.

The Buzz: What initially brought you up here?

Wendy Cairns: A job. I didn't even know where Dawson City was, and I got this job dancing at Gertie's [the local nightclub/casino. (laughing). And dancing wasn't necessarily -- I mean I was really into it, but I never imagined it as a job. So that was pretty exciting being paid to dance.

The Buzz: People have such a love for the history around here with the culture. But Gertie's is a whole different thing above that. I mean, you have to be a good dancer, but you also have to sort of get what you're doing.

WC: I mean, I actually wasn't the greatest (laughing). But I had more of a gymnastics background, so they used me for that. I did a few acrobatics and things. And I really didn't know anything about Dawson and history. I was pretty ignorant on both those fronts. But I learned quickly.

The Buzz: Can you tell me what you first learned?

WC: I was just getting a kind of a Hollywood-version of Gold Rush history centered around the can-can (laughing). But I remember getting to meet lots of the miners who were kind of the family farm of the North. These were small operations that were largely family run at that time. They'd come in on the weekends from the creeks and throw their money around and throw poker chips up on the stage at us and occasionally tip in gold. It was kind of fun and nothing that I had ever been close to growing up (laughing).

The Buzz: When did the idea of this house, or the interest in this house first happen?

WC: I think it was probably the mid-'90s. At that time, I was running the local women's shelter. I kind of realized that I've done a lot of different jobs in Dawson. I really wanted to stay and if I was going to stay for the long turn I kind of needed to invent my own show a little bit, I needed to create my own gig. I've done a lot of service industry work. I've worked at the casinos as a dealer for years, done a few other different jobs and I was working at the woman shelter for a quite a number of years but I just realized that wasn't what I was going to be doing forever. I'm not from the merchant class. I never grew up in a business family or anything. This was pretty foreign. For a long time, I felt quite fraudulent (laughing) so I just thought, "I'm a fraud, I'm just faking it, I'm not the real thing." But, anyway, I've been admiring this building like many people for years just thinking, "That was such a cool building and why doesn't somebody do something with it? It could be such a neat little business." And years went by and at that time a friend of mine, who also worked at the woman's shelter, was sort of [having] the same thoughts of really wanting to start her own business and we both had admired this house. We weren't actually really close friends, we were more colleagues I guess. We both had saved up a bit of money that we wanted to put into something. That's when it was first hatched and these conversations like, "Wouldn't it be cool to do something with Bombay Peggys?" And everybody was like, "Oh, yeah." But the thought of trying to breathe new life into this building with no building experience...it was a bit of a fantasy I think at the beginning.

The Buzz: Can you talk about the story of Bombay Peggys?

WC: I think there was a certain mystique or a certain sense of fun that it had been a whore house. There were a few stories about Bombay Peggy floating around. I think she was also quite a bootlegger. The stories I heard about her and about what used to go on in the house were after we started building because the old timers would show up and want to fess up and tell us their stories. It was really fun. And they were so happy that the building was actually being fixed up. They would tell us they used to be pranksters [would leave] so and so vehicle in front of Peggy's for the night just to get them in trouble. The local taxi driver used to have a few stories about it being the kind of place you could get hard stuff when it wasn't available in town as it was a brothel. But the other thing is we moved it from there which was kind of a big thing as well.

A photo of the real Bombay Peggy. [Courtesy: Bombay Peggys]
Wendy Cairns, owner/proprietor of the new Bombay Peggys. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: And what was the building like then?

WC: You could tell that it was a cool funky structure that was quite different from a lot of the other buildings of that era in town. This building had something more going on. It made it kind of interesting. There was this funky roof line. I was like, "There's a whole whorehouse with a red roof." It almost looked like a comic or something. The growth around there [from where we moved it] changed. You should see it now, how overgrown it is. It was pretty rickety. There had never been any indoor plumbing. There was no glass in the windows. There was no trace of wallpaper. It was just down to barn board and then there was sawdust insulation kind of falling out there. But they cabled it together and slid steel beams underneath and up she went on to a flat deck truck and down the road. They had to take power lines down so it all had to be kind of choreographed with the power company. The house got parked on Front Street across from the Visitor's Center overnight. This is the end of October, so it wasn't open as the Visitor's Center. The guys who did it were so excited. They're like, "Oh yeah, we're going to move the old whorehouse," and here they are.

The Buzz: What possessed you to move an entire house?

WC: Well, two things...the owners who owned the building at the time were not willing to sell it and especially not without the four lots of swamp on it. They finally decided to leave town and sell their assets. And this was one of the. They came back to us because the first attempt had failed as far as buying it. They offered us actually the building but not the land, which was perfect because that location was problematic. It was just too far outside the town core. But it meant we went running around looking for a lot in town to buy that was available. We happened to get this one and it was just lucky, really. It was part of what the city called its parking inventory, whatever that means. But anyway, that was one reason we had to move it because we didn't own the land, and the secondly is we wanted to because that was a really weak location. So down it came. And moving buildings is really-- it's really common here. I mean, a lot of the building even just right around here were moved from some of the old mining communities like Clinton Creek and Elsa because building is so expensive up here. It's because of the permafrost, our foundation systems-- most people don't have basements. They're just floating on these blocking and cribbing foundation systems. Yeah, so you just slide the steel beams under and jack it up.

The Buzz: The mythology that surrounds this place is about a woman entrepreneur although obviously she was working in a different space.

WC: I think Dawson has quite a tradition of women entrepreneurs making it on their own. There's 100 years of that, for sure, maybe more that I don't know about. So that felt like just sort of a kind of, "Of course, that's going to be part of it." Bombay Peggy, from what I'd heard, sounded kind of pretty rough and ready. She catered to more the working class, not the administrative class like her competition, Ruby Scott. Peggys was located down at the north end of town. It was more of a blue collar area, I guess. She had a past that nobody knew about and that was something that was fairly common up here too. She sounded like she was tough, very independent, kind-hearted. There were stories of her kind of looking after some of the old miners who might have been down and out at different times and bringing them sandwiches (laughing) to the bar. And she was well-known for being extremely generous with the kids, especially at Halloween or Christmas.

The Moving of Bombay Peggys across the town of Dawson. [Courtesy: Bombay Peggys]
Inside the foyer of the new Bombay Peggys. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: Was she good to the girls?

WC: That I don't really know about. I mean I think she sometimes had girls, sometimes she didn't. That's a good question. I know that there were some rules in the house. Some of the old timers let me know that. I mean, in a small town everybody knows who's married and who's not. And so the married men were allowed in but they weren't allowed upstairs. They could sit downstairs --

The Buzz: And drink?

WC: –- and have a drink, play cards with the girls, but they weren't allowed upstairs, because she was obviously needing to keep the peace in town. And I think the madam's all had similar rules probably. Otherwise you'd just be run out of town

The Buzz: Around what time was all this going on?

WC: From what I understand, that would have been the '50s. Because by the early '60s they were all shut down. Ruby kept going a little bit longer because she had connections in the right places. Because the thing is is that, up here, especially during the winter, it's hard. And the demographics were such that, I think, also there was sort of some level of acceptance where when you've got a demographic like 10 men to 1 woman...you almost need this going on in a kind of regulated way. And so I feel like, from what I've heard, there was quite a high level of acceptance of this type of business. I mean, it was shunned to some degree, but I also think it was also just quietly allowed to go on.

The Buzz: Now when you got the building to this location, what happened?

WC: There was a lot of drama, during especially the earlier stages of construction where just neither one of us had any building experience. And suddenly it's this pretty involved project, and even a lot of the tradespeople here didn't have a lot of experience with a project this size. There were a lot of great people who were involved and really committed to it. And especially one person who came in who was kind of our angel. He was trained as a wooden bolt builder. He was actually involved in the early stages too. He pulled out all the rot of the walls, and also on the floor. We called him Rot Man. Because he'd been involved in the restoration of the sternwheeler in town, he had a lot of experience with that. But the other thing is he had wonderful finishing skills and he also had a real sense of design. He had a real appreciation for the moldings and the details. None of this was left. It was just a modest little house at the turn of the century. There were no antiques. There were no light fixtures, there were no bits of wallpaper. It was really just a structure. Just bare bones down to barn board.

The Buzz: Was there pictures or anything from back in that time?

WC: Nothing. Because it was always privately owned. It was never publicly owned. So very little documentation. Again, it was just stories. One story was that Peggy herself had always wanted to make it into an art gallery. And what she really wanted to do was to have red linoleum on the floors and the walls. I would have felt some obligation to pay tribute somehow with red linoleum. But I didn't know that in time. And I didn't know really if it was true, either. But it was such a funny story (laughing). But some of the old timers I remember used to come in and just say "She would have been so happy that you decked it out like this." And that felt good, just doing her some justice.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

Bombay Peggys

Make Sure To Check Out:

Bombay Peggys,  where you can discover the colorful past of one of Dawson’s favorite buildings, and experience its vibrant presence in the thriving Klondike city of Dawson as well as the story behind the woman known as Bombay Peggy.

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