J.B. Tyrrell explored many parts of western and northern Canada, published widely, spent seven years in the Klondike and then found gold at Kirkland Lake. He was a geology superstar. (Courtesy/Fisher Library, University of Toronto)

J.B. Tyrrell explored many parts of western and northern Canada, published widely, spent seven years in the Klondike and then found gold at Kirkland Lake. He was a geology superstar. (Courtesy/Fisher Library, University of Toronto)

History Hunter: Early geologist made his mark in the Klondike

When you stroll the park surrounding the historic Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City, it’s easy to overlook a cluster of boulders partially hidden in the trees.

If you look closer, you will note that each of them has a bronze plaque firmly attached that commemorates individuals recognized for their contributions to the framing of our nation.

One of them is dedicated to the accomplishments of a geologist named Joseph Burr (J.B.) Tyrrell. It is interesting that the plaque was unveiled in Dawson City as he is recognized for the work he did far and wide across Canada.

The plaque reads: “A member of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1882-1899, and a private mining consultant thereafter, Tyrrell devoted his life to uncovering the mysteries of the vast Canadian landscape. He was a pioneer in the search for gold and other metals in the Klondike and Northern Ontario. He surveyed much of Western Canada and provided the first accurate information on the Hudson Bay region and the barren lands of the Northwest Territories. He is widely recognized for his work on glacial geology and his recovery and publication of the journal of David Thompson.”

He was born in Weston, Upper Canada in 1858. From an early age, Tyrrell had a deep interest in anything to do with nature. His scholarly interest was encouraged as a schoolboy, and he was inspired to take an interest in reading books. This interest was reflected in his later work as an adult. He first studied at Upper Canada College, after which he received a degree from the University of Toronto in 1880. For health reasons, he steered away from a career in law to one that kept him out of doors.

With help from his father, he secured a position with the Geological Survey of Canada at the princely wage of $500 per year. He was soon assigned to accompany George M. Dawson on a trip into the Canadian Rockies, preceding the construction of the first trans-Canadian railroad, collecting fossils and surveying the land as he went.

In 1884, while surveying central Alberta, he discovered a fossil bed near Drumheller that included an entire dinosaur skull, the first of its kind found in Canada. From 1887 to 1890, he was dispatched to western Manitoba to study the geomorphology of the region. In 1892, while doing similar work in Saskatchewan, he learned of a large river far to the north that drained into either Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean, so he obtained permission to explore the Canadian barren lands for the following two years.

On these expeditions, his party was out of touch for months at a time, and they frequently faced starvation. In 1893, he reached Churchill, Manitoba, on the coast of Hudson Bay, as winter set in. He then snowshoed the almost 1,500 kilometres to Winnipeg. It should be noted that Tyrrell, who had very poor eyesight, traveled much of this distance without the aid of eyeglasses, which he had lost. For his geological work on his two barren land expeditions, he was honoured by the Royal Geographical Society. An account of this epic journey was published by his brother James, who accompanied him through the barren lands, which only added to his fame.

In 1898, he was sent to the Yukon Territory to survey the Dalton Trail, and upon his return to Ottawa, sought advancement in the Geological Survey. His relationship with then director of the Geological Survey, George Dawson (after whom Dawson City was named), was strained, and when another geologist was offered a raise in salary, and Tyrrell’s request was refused, he quit the Survey. He returned to the Klondike as a private consultant in partnership with Thomas Green, a dominion land surveyor. He continued in this capacity for seven years before leaving the Klondike for good and moving to Toronto, where he hung out his shingle as a mining engineer.

In addition to his work as a consultant, Tyrrell was a prolific writer and published numerous articles on a variety of geological topics. He theorized that during the Ice Age, there were three centres of glaciation that left their marks on the landscape. He became interested in Canadian history, searching for and finding the journals of explorer David Thompson, which he edited and had published. In 1928, he left an endowment to the Royal Society of Canada to award a prize for the best historical work published each year. This became known as the Tyrrell Medal.

He became involved in the development of mining in the Kirkland Lake area, becoming the president of the Kirkland Lake Gold Mining Company in 1931, a position he held until he retired in 1954 at the age of 96. His involvement in this and other mining ventures made him a wealthy man.

Throughout his later years, he continued to write articles on a variety of topics and received many accolades. In 1930, the University of Toronto awarded him an honorary doctorate, as did Queen’s University a decade later.

Over the years, he was the recipient of many prestigious awards and honours. His impacts on the scientific world in the field of geology were as big as his ego and self-confidence. It was said that “he was the sort of guy who wouldn’t be stopped by anything.” The Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller is named in his honour. A mountain and a stream in the Yukon are both named after him. Part of his lasting legacy is the large collection of papers and photographs that he left to the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto.

But why unveil a plaque in his honour at Dawson City when his accomplishments span so much of western and northern Canada? It is clear that he reached a turning point in his career in the Klondike when he left the geological survey and struck out on his own. Perhaps that is reflected in his later years.

On Nov. 1, 1933, he gathered in Toronto with two dozen pioneers from the Klondike, members of “Sourdoughs of the Klondike Gold Rush.” Tyrrell was secretary of the group of men, which included Johnny Lind, who went on to make a fortune in cement in Ontario, Lachie Burwash (after whom Burwash Landing was named) and G.I. Maclean, former commissioner of the Yukon. The group gathered several times over the years, including once at Tyrrell’s Ontario farm in 1935. Tales were told and memories were recounted at these gatherings, an affirmation that the Klondike experience, including that of Tyrrell, was of a special nature. So maybe placing a memorial of Tyrrell at the heart of the Klondike wasn’t such a bad choice after all.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net


Today, the plaque commemorating J.B. Tyrrell is mounted on a boulder in the grassy area north of the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)

Today, the plaque commemorating J.B. Tyrrell is mounted on a boulder in the grassy area north of the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)