Robert William Service (1874–1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, best known for his colorfully vivid descriptions of the land and the people of the Yukon Territory. Although he did not arrive in Dawson City until ten years after the great gold rush of 1898, his poetry and writings of the era helped shape the romantic ideals of the Klondike.
The Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article about the life of the great rhyme-maker, and his life was as unusual and adventuresome as the men he penned lines about. Hardbitten, down-on-their-luck, but ever-hopeful and sometimes incredibly fortunate men, and Robert Service had been all of these and more. Opening lines from The Man from Eldorado:
He’s the man from Eldorado, and he’s just arrived in town,
In moccasins and oily buckskin shirt.
He’s gaunt as any Indian, and pretty nigh as brown;
He’s greasy, and he smells of sweat and dirt.
He sports a crop of whiskers that would shame a healthy hog;
Hard work has racked his joints and stooped his back;
He slops along the sidewalk followed by his yellow dog,
But he’s got a bunch of gold-dust in his sack.
The noted Canadian author and journalist Pierre Berton interviewed Robert Service in 1958 in Monte Carlo—the last interview Service ever gave. Berton had crossed paths with Service since childhood; in his book, Prisoners of the North (Carroll & Graf, 2004), Berton wrote, “My mother knew him when she was a young kindergarten teacher in Dawson City; he even asked her to a dance—the kind of social affair he usually avoided. His original log cabin stood directly across from my childhood home under the hill overlooking the town.”
In the Monte Carlo interview, recently uploaded to YouTube, Robert Service describes writing The Shooting of Dan McGrew after one of the churches asked him to do a bit in a program. Thinking it over on one of his long walks, he decided to take his friend Stroller’s advice and write something original: “….I heard sounds of revelry, and the line just popped into my head, ‘A bunch of the boys was a whoopin’ it up,’ and there I got my start. I felt quite excited about it, I ate scarcely any supper, and after supper I went to my teller’s cage and I started to write. Well, believe it or not, I wrote on almost continuously through that ballad, and finished it, oh, around about two in the morning. I wrote it as it stands now, scarcely a line has been changed, and finally I went to bed, my job was finished. I put it away in a drawer and forgot all about it.”
Pierre Berton asks him, “You didn’t recite it at the church social?”
Robert Service: “Oh no, the cuss words in it was something that they wouldn’t stand for!”
There are many fine websites dedicated to Robert Service’s life and work, and Pierre Berton’s interview with Robert Service, in Monaco in 1958, can be found on YouTube.
• Two extensive websites, with extended biographies, chronologies of his life, and many photos, newsclippings and other material from descendants of Robert Service:
• Prisoners of the North, by Pierre Berton. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004
• Vagabond of Verse: A Biography, by James A. Mackay, Mainstream Pub. Co., 1996
• On the Trail of Robert Service, by G. W. Lockhart, Luath Press, 2004
• Biography at Encyclopedia Britannica
• Robert Service Resource Page at ExploreNorth
• Robert Service Facebook Page