Tag Archives: Dawson City

Robert Service

oie_2472830AK5Xg6wJRobert 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.”

RWS on cabin porch 1910?

Robert Service at his beloved log cabin on the hill overlooking Dawson City, 1909-1911. 

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.

Resources:

• Two extensive websites, with extended biographies, chronologies of his life, and many photos, newsclippings and other material from descendants of Robert Service:

 Robert Service          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 

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Monument to the Bard in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Still More Classic Alaskan Books

Classic Alaskan books from the Sept-Oct and Nov-Dec issues of Alaskan History Magazine:

Conquering the Arctic Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen (1909)

Eijnar MikkelsenIn October 1907 the Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen, co-leader (with Ernest de Koven Leffingwell) of 1906-1908 Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which established that there was no land north of Alaska,  set out on a formidable journey, which would take him west along the Arctic coast from Flaxman Island to Barrow, Nome, Fort Gibbon, Manley Hot Springs, Fairbanks, and then down the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail to Valdez, where he boarded a ship for home.

His trip was detailed in his book, published in London in 1909 by William Heinemann. Available to read online at Google Books.


A Dog Puncher on the Yukon, by Arthur Treadwell Walden (1923)

Arthur T. WaldenArthur Treadwell Walden was a dog driver during the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes. He would become a respected trainer and freighter on Admiral Byrd’s 1928-29 expedition to Antarctica, but thirty years before, in northern Canada, he gained  fame as a sled dog driver and freighter over the northern gold rush trails near Dawson City, Circle City, and Nome. 

After returning to New England Walden began a breeding program which produced the Chinook breed, based on a dog by that name which he knew as a sled dog driver in the North.


Dog Team Doctor, The Story of Dr. Romig, by Eva G. Anderson (1940)

Dr. Joseph RomigIn 1896 Dr. Joseph  H. Romig traveled to Bethel, Alaska, and opened the first doctor’s office and hospital west of Sitka, at a time when there were very few non-native people living in remote southwest Alaska.

 For a time, Dr. Romig was one of the only physicians in Alaska, and he became known as the “dog team doctor” for traveling by dog sled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the course of his work. Four decades later a book would be written about the good doctor’s adventurous and life-saving exploits across the vast northern territory.


Seward’s Icebox, by Archie W. Shiels (1933)

Sewards IceboxArchibald Williamson Shiels, born in Scotland, emigrated to the US in 1893. He became chief of staff to railroad contractor Michael Heney, supervising the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, and was later involved in the construction of the Copper River and North Western Railroad. Shiels joined the Pacific American Fisheries in 1916, the largest salmon cannery in the world, and served as President of the company from 1930-1946.

Shiels collected a vast amount of informational material, from which he researched and wrote many historical manuscripts, books, and speeches. His well-researched Seward’s Icebox begins in 1867 with the transfer of Russia to the United States and continues to the date of publication. 


Tillicums of the Trail, by George C. F. Pringle (1922)

Tillicums of the TrailSubtitled ‘Being Klondike Yarns Told to Canadian Soldiers Overseas by a Sourdough Padre,’ this is a collection of true stories from the Klondike and nearby regions, as told to troops by the Chaplain to the 43rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, at Avion, France, during the First World War. Pringle was a pioneer bush pilot and United Church minister and this book contains some classic northern tales, “….because in every man there is something that stirs responsive to tales of the mystic Northland, vast, white, and silent.” 

Pringle’s true stories to his men included his first trip by dogteam, the legend of the Lost Patrol, the story of Skagway’s notorious “Soapy” Smith, a trip down the Yukon River by scow from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Christmas and wedding celebrations in the Klondike and more. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


Ploughman of the Moon, by Robert W. Service (1945)

Ploughman of the Moon, ServicePloughman of the Moon: An Adventure into Memory is the autobioigraphy of Robert Service, famed Bard of the Yukon whose popular poetry includes The Spell of the Yukon, The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and countless others.

This warmly personal account traces the first half of his life, from his boyhood in Scotland to his emigration to Canada at the age of 21 with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy, drifting around western North America from California to British Columbia, being sent to Whitehorse and later Dawson City by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and gaining fame for his captivating way with words. The book is available to read online at Project Gutenberg 


Alaska Days, by Erastus Howard Scott (1923)

EH Scott book 420 resPublished in 1923 by Scott, Foresman & Co., this slim 100-page volume is the photo-rich recounting of a journey taken by Erastus Howard Scott and his wife as they travelled from Chicago to Seattle and boarded a ship which took them across the Gulf of Alaska to Katalla, Valdez, and finally Seward.

From Seward they rode the newly-built Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, photographing and describing everything along the way, including a memorial stop for the recently departed President Harding. Available to read online at Google Books.


Alaska The Great Country, by Ella Higginson (1908)

Ella Higginson book 420 resElla Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, 1931. Her book ‘Alaska, the Great Country,’ an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing  travelogue of Higginson’s adventures there, was published in 1908 and went through several editions.

Higginson describes her trip with the less than politically correct mores and values of her time, but her keenly written observations of territorial Alaska make this a fascinating account. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


A Summer in Alaska (Along Alaska’s Great River) F. Schwatka (1893)

Schwatka book 420 resPublished by J W Henry, St. Louis, in 1893, ‘A Summer in Alaska, A popular account of an Alaska exploration along the great Yukon River from its source to its mouth,’ by Frederick Schwatka, is the enlarged edition of his ‘Along Alaska’s Great River, published in 1885. 

The book details Schwatka’s explorations along the Yukon River, from its source in northwestern Canada to its mouth on the west coast of Alaska, the first full-length navigation of Alaska’s greatest waterway. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.




 

Ed S. Orr Stage Co.

Orr Stage leaving Valdez PC

A popular hand-tinted postcard circa 1910 depicting the Orr Stage leaving Valdez for Fairbanks.

The Edward S. Orr Stage Company, also known as the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage Company, was only one of several stage lines which operated along the Valdez-to-Fairbanks and Chitina to Fairbanks Trails in the early years of the twentieth century, but it was uncontestably the most successful. When the Klondike gold rush started, Ed Orr was in the right place and quickly made his way north. He formed a small freighting company with William V. Tukey, of Boise, Idaho.

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Pack train, Chilkoot Trail, 1897.

Their string of packhorses hauled goods for the Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company over the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, at tidewater, to Sheep Camp, where the cargo was transferred from horseback to buckets and sent to the summit via a cable tramway. In 1899, after completing their narrow-guage railroad over White Pass, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad bought out the Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company, effectively ending Orr and Tukey’s freighting company.

In August, 1899, Orr and Tukey loaded 28 horses and 70 mules, along with a dozen people and several tons of goods, into nine scows and sailed them from Lake Bennett down the Yukon River to Dawson City, arriving to great fanfare on August 21st. Orr’s wife Jennie and their young son, Thorold, were among the passengers. Business was brisk in Dawson City, and Orr & Tukey advertised that they would carry “All kinds of freight, to any of the creeks, safely and quickly delivered,” utilizing horses, mules, and dogs, pulling various types of wagons or sleds.

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Orr & Turkey Stage at the Ogilvie Bridge over the Klondike River, Dawson, Yukon Territory.

James Wickersham, en route to his new appointment as territorial judge in Eagle, visited his old friend Ed Orr in Dawson City, and in his book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1938), he described Orr as “six feet tall, handsome and generous.” In 1901 Orr & Tukey merged their freighting business with the Hadley Stage Line and expanded their freighting and stage business to a small mining camp on the Alaskan side of the border named Fairbanks, and it was soon one of the largest freighting companies in the territory.

edward_s_orr_stage_company_wagon_on_the_chitinafairbanks_road_alaska_1906

Orr Stage, circa 1906.

In 1905 Orr’s partner, William Tukey, retired to Idaho. The following year, 1906, Ed Orr moved his family and his freighting company to Valdez, Alaska. The Orr Stage Company was successful from the start, and Ed Orr bought out the rival Kennedy Stage Company, making his the largest such company in Alaska in 1909. The fare from Valdez to Fairbanks was $150, the return trip was $125, on sleighs which could carry ten passengers on four double seats. Horses were changed out every 20-25 miles, and a telegraph station could be found approximately every 40 miles for safety and convenience.

Keystone Stage not used

Orr Stage, Keystone Canyon.

in 1910 Ed. S. Orr began considering a return to Washington state, as the myriad stresses of overseeing the company had resulted in his health declining. Jesse C. Martin, who had managed the company office in Valdez, was appointed General Manager of the stage line, and Ed. S. Orr and his family returned to Washington, where Orr underwent medical treatment and slowly regained his health. Back in Alaska the Orr Stage Company expanded to Chitina, but by the summer of 1911 the trail had been improved enough for wheeled vehicles to travel it during the summer, and  in April, 1914 a meeting was held in San Francisco at which the company directors gave their written consent to dissolve the company. Six months later, in September, 1914, Robert Sheldon drove the first car from Fairbanks to Chitina amidst much fanfare.

In the 1991 National Park Service’s Historic Structures Report on the Superintendent’s cabin at Chitina, a log cabin which had been built for the Orr Stage Company manager in 1910, the legacy of the Ed. S. Orr Stage Company is made clear:

“Although the Ed. S. Orr Stage Company only operated in Chitina for a short time, the company itself traces its roots deep into the development of the transportation industry in Alaska and the Yukon. Mr. Orr was one of the foremost pioneers in building not only a transportation empire, but through his efforts and good management of his company, he greatly impacted the development of the mining industry in and around Dawson City, Fairbanks, and finally along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.”

Orr Stageload Albert Johnson PC

A hand-tinted postcard showing the Orr Stage on the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail, circle 1910.

 

Ezra Meeker in Alaska

oie_2592726OeC5rLmpEzra Manning Meeker (1830–1928) was a pioneer who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852 with his wife, their young son, and his brother, a journey which took them nearly six months. In his late 70s, after making and losing a fortune, he repeatedly re-traveled the route, meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt and working to memorialize the Trail he’d travelled as a young man.

Once known as the “Hop King of the World” for growing the hops used in making beer, Meeker was the first mayor of the town of Puyallup, Washington, in the Puget Sound region. By 1887, his business had made him wealthy, but in 1891 an infestation of hop aphids destroyed his crops and thereby much of his fortune.

oie_259246VQV1PkkbIn 1896, gold was discovered both in Alaska and in Canada, and the Meeker family, seeing the finds as a possible road to financial recovery, turned their attentions north. After a few less than successful ventures, Meeker was certain there was a way to make money from the gold rush. He and his wife spent much of the winter of 1897–1898 drying vegetables, and Ezra Meeker departed for Skagway, Alaska, on March 20, 1898 with 30,000 pounds of dried produce, His son Fred Meeker and his wife Clara were already across the border in what would soon be designated as the Yukon Territory

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Meeker, far right, stands before his first grocery store, Dawson City, November 19, 1898.

The 67-year-old Meeker, with one business associate, climbed the steep Chilkoot Pass, floated down the Yukon River to Dawson City, and once the ice broke up in late May, and sold his vegetables in two weeks. He returned to Puyallup in July, only to set out again with more supplies the following month. This time, he and his son-in-law, Roderick McDonald, opened a store, the Log Cabin Grocery, in Dawson City, and remained through the winter.

Meeker returned to the Yukon twice more, in 1899 and 1900. Most of the money earned through groceries was invested in gold mining and lost. Ezra’s son Fred died of pneumonia in Dawson City on January 30, 1901, and a few weeks later, in April, 1901, Ezra departed the Klondike for the last time. 

In his autobiographical book, The Busy Life of Eighty-Five Years of Ezra Meeker, he wrote about his northland adventures:

THE KLONDIKE VENTURE.

I had lived in the old Oregon country forty-four years and had never seen a mine. Mining had no attraction for me, any more than corner lots in new, embryo cities. I did not understand the value of either, and left both severely alone. But when my accumulations had all been swallowed up, the land I had previously owned gone into other hands, and, in fact, my occupation gone, I concluded to take a chance in a mining country; matters could not well be much worse, and probably could be made better, and so in the spring of 1898 I made my first trip over the Chilcoot Pass, and then down the Yukon River to Dawson in a flatboat, and ran the famous White Horse Rapids with my load of vegetables for the Klondike miners.

Chilkoot pass

Chilkoot Pass

One may read of the Chilcoot Pass the most graphic descriptions written, and yet when he is up against the experience of crossing, he will find the difficulties more formidable than his wildest fancy or expectation had pictured. I started in with fifteen tons of freight, and got through with nine. On one stretch of 2,000 feet I paid forty dollars a ton freight, and I knew of others paying more. The trip for a part of the way reminded me of the scenes on the Plains in 1852—such crowds that they jostled each other on the several parallel trails where there was room for more than one track. At the pass, most of the travel came upon one track, and so steep that the ascent could only be made by cutting steps in the ice and snow—1,500 in all.

Frequently every step would be full, while crowds jostled each other at the foot of the ascent to get into the single file, each man carrying from one hundred (it was said) to two hundred pounds pack on his back. Nevertheless, after all sorts of experiences, I arrived in Dawson, with nine tons of my outfit, sold my fresh potatoes at $36.00 a bushel and other things in like proportionate prices and in two weeks started up the river, homeward bound, with two hundred ounces of Klondike gold in my belt. But four round trips in two years satisfied me that I did not want any more of like experience.

As I have said, the trips to the Klondike became real adventures. Fortunately detained for a couple of days, I escaped the avalanche that buried fifty-two people in the snow, and passed by the morgue the second day after the catastrophe on my way to the summit, and doubtless over the bodies of many unknown dead, imbedded so deeply in the snow that it was utterly impossible to recover them.

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Whitehorse Rapids

I received a good ducking in my first passage through the White Horse Rapids, and vowed I would not go through there again, but I did, the very next trip that same year, and came out of it dry; then when going down the thirty-mile river, it did seem as though we could not escape being dashed upon the rocks, but somehow or another got through safely while the bank of that river was strewed with wrecks, and the waters had swallowed up many victims. When the Yukon proper was reached, the current was not so swift but the shoals were numerous, and more than once we were “hung up” on the bar, and always with an uncertainty as to how we would get off. In all of this experience of the two trips by the scows no damage resulted, except once when a hole was jammed into the scow, and we thought we were “goners” certain, but effected a landing so quickly as to unload our cargo dry. I now blame myself for taking such risks, but curiously enough I must admit that I enjoyed it, sustained, no doubt, with the high hopes of coming out with “my pile.” But fate or something else was against me, for the after mining experience swept all the accumulation away “slick as a mitten,” as the old saying goes, and I came out over the rotten ice of the Yukon in April of 1901 to stay, and to vow I never wanted to see another mine, or visit another mining country.

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First Oregon Trail marker erected by Ezra Meeker, in Tenino, Washington

Small wonder, you may say, when I write, that in two weeks’ time after arriving home I was able to, and did celebrate our golden wedding with the wife of fifty years and enjoyed the joys of a welcome home even if I did not have my pockets filled with gold. I had then passed the seventy-year mark, and thought my “pet project,” as some people call it, of marking the old Oregon Trail, was hung up indefinitely, but the sequel is shown in what followed and is the answer to my foreboding. I am now at this writing past the eighty-fifth year mark, and cannot see but I am as strong as when I floated down the Yukon in a flatboat, or packed my goods over the Chilcoot Pass, or drove my ox team over the summit of the Rocky Mountains on my recent trip to mark the historic Oregon Trail. 

• Read more about Ezra Meeker’s life

My Busy Life of Eighty Five Years at Gutenberg.org

Meeker Mansion, Puyallup, Washington