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A tale of two pianos

It was the best of pianos, it was the worst of pianos. My wife Kathy and I were visiting England with my family in 2002, and we were staying with my brother-in-law David in London.

It was the best of pianos, it was the worst of pianos.

My wife Kathy and I were visiting England with my family in 2002, and we were staying with my brother-in-law David in London. David worked in the conservation division of the Tait Gallery and offered to take me on a guided tour.

We entered a gallery in the Tait Modern where a conservation treatment was under way. The piece on display was an old Bechstein piano, suspended upside down from the ceiling. The piece, titled “Concert for Anarchy,” had been created in 1990 by Rebecca Horn.

I was shocked: various modifications had been made to the instrument. Hydraulic cylinders had been inserted into the piece, turning it into kinetic art in which the keys slid in and out of the piano, and various other parts opened and closed. Some device had been installed that ran over the strings creating a harsh, grating sound.

The conservators were delicately working on the malfunctioning art piece in hope of making it flap again. I didn’t meet the curators, who would undoubtedly have explained the rationale behind the mutilation of this beautiful instrument, but I immediately made the connection with the Bechstein piano that I cared for as Curator of Collections for Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City.

From my rookie year back in 1978, until I left Dawson City, the Bechstein piano was one of the most demanding, but engaging, artifacts in the entire collection.

The piano was manufactured in 1869. It almost certainly came to Dawson during the hey-day of the Klondike. Did it find its way into one of the saloons, or was it brought there for one of the theatres? That is a mystery that has yet to be revealed. I found a picture of it dated around 1903 standing beside the stage in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall (now known as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s).

The mandate of Parks Canada was to ensure the preservation of the collection for the benefit of future generations. At the same time, I was regularly reminded by my boss that couldn’t store everything in perpetuity; we had to make the collection accessible as well. Why keep it if there is no other benefit to the public?

Parks Canada had assumed responsibility for the piano in the early 1970s. After sending it out for repair, a conservator in the Calgary office had recommended that it be stored in controlled environment when not in use. Maintaining the right humidity is essential for proper functioning of the instrument. Onsite, the staff had addressed this need by building a box consisting of six insulated interlocking panels that enclosed the piano in the off-season.

A controlled environment was interpreted to mean that a space heater be installed inside the box during the winter. This dried it out completely; the next spring, the finish on the piano was ruined. The sounding board, which produces the mellow tones, was split. So it was sent out to be refinished again. This time, it required major repair and replacement. The ivory keys were ground off and replaced by plastic ones. But the restored piano returned with a lustrous black finish, ready to play.

It seemed to be working fine, but the piano player that summer complained that the piano was out of tune. Before my eyes, he pulled out the keyboard and action of the piano, whipped out a screwdriver, and started tinkering with the intricate inner workings. At one point, thumb tacks had been stuck into the felt hammers to create a more honky-tonk sound.

I quickly learned that the action of the piano required regulation by a professional. I made arrangements to have it shipped to Hal Lyne, a highly regarded piano technician in Calgary. To ensure that the action was protected, we constructed a specially designed crate for shipping and early in 1979 I personally escorted the action to Calgary for treatment and then back to Dawson.

I arrived in Vancouver on the return leg of the trip with the piano action in its special crate. While completing the paperwork in the shipping office at the Vancouver airport, the shipper looked at the crate beside me and assured me that they handle every piece of freight with care.

At that moment, the building shook as one of their trucks pulled away from the loading bay without securing the freight it was carrying. A large box fell off the back through the sliding door, which had not been pulled down, at the rear of the truck, and slammed to the ground. My paranoia about freight handling was confirmed.

In caring for our national treasures, one of the most serious threats to their wellbeing has proven to be the human pest.

A few weeks later, Dawson was hit by a flood. By some queer stroke of good fortune, the maintenance crew had removed the top and sides of the special box, but had left the Bechstein resting on the bottom panel. As the tide of water rose inside the Palace Grand Theatre, the Bechstein rose on its buoyant support and gently settled again without harm after the flood waters subsided.

I established a regular maintenance and inspection routine and we embarked on seasonal orientation for the musicians who used the piano as part of the entertainment at the theatre. Special equipment was installed to ensure that the piano would not become too dry.

There were a few bumps along the way, but the piano benefitted from the regular care and attention. On one occasion, a pianist left a smear of nail polish on the keyboard. Despite instructions to let us handle problems like this, she attempted to remove the stain herself. When the solvent melted the plastic keys, she confessed to her transgression, and the conservator completed the treatment, successfully.

Today, it is on loan to the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture, where, in the Oddfellows Hall, it can be seen, and heard, during special events. Special arrangements were made for ongoing care of this valuable instrument.

Without knowledgeable Parks Canada staff to watch over the care of this rare piece of history now, who will now balance the needs of use with those of preservation so that our grandchildren will be able to enjoy it? Who will be its champion? Because people are the biggest threat of all.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at