Biographers honour two prominent Yukon geologists

One of the two men was a tubercular hunchback dwarf. The other was half blind. One had a city named after him, which he never saw.

One of the two men was a tubercular hunchback dwarf.

The other was half blind.

One had a city named after him, which he never saw.

The other went bankrupt, and then later made a fortune.

Both made significant scientific discoveries that contributed greatly to the physical definition of Canada.

One died young. The other lived almost a century.

A plaque in George Mercer Dawson’s honour, overlooking the mighty Yukon, was sponsored by the Hougen family just a few years ago.

A plaque recognizing Joseph Burr Tyrrell’s contributions to Canada was unveiled three decades ago by the government of Canada near the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City.

Two new books about these giants of geology were published in 2007, and they are worth taking a look at by any northern history enthusiast.

Both books shake the dust off of historical biography and reveal the human side of these Canadian men of science and discovery.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell was born in Weston, Ontario, in 1858. Plagued by poor eyesight from childhood and as a young adult, with lungs weakened by bouts of pneumonia, he was an unlikely candidate to be an outdoorsman and explorer.

After his second bout of pneumonia, he was advised by his doctor to leave the practice of law and get an outside job.

His father, a political friend of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald, arranged a job for him with the youthful Geological Survey of Canada.

Bored after two years as an apprentice clerk in the mouldy basement of the survey, where he catalogued and filed thousands of rock and fossil specimens, he used his family connections to get his first field assignment, with famed geologist George M. Dawson.

Perhaps as a test to see if he had what it took to be a field geologist beyond the family connections, he was assigned the job of making a pace and compass survey, which meant that he accompanied George Dawson’s party on foot, counting every step and collecting rocks and plant specimens as they trekked across the southern corner of Alberta and British Columbia in 1883.

Tyrrell must have passed the test because he was assigned work in Alberta, where he mapped portions of the province and collected the first specimen of an Albertasaurus skull.

Interpreting evidence he found during his field work, Tyrrell correctly postulated the presence of a massive continental glacier, a theory not widely popular at the time because it contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In 1893 and 1894, he made two highly acclaimed trips into the Barrens along the west side of Hudson’s Bay, which sealed his fame as a northern explorer, and for which he received the Back Award from the Canadian Geographical Society in 1896.

Tyrrell was sent north to the Yukon in 1898 to examine the Klondike gold fields, but when one of his geological colleagues at the survey received a raise and he didn’t, he quit and went into business as a mining engineer in the Klondike.

Practically broke when he left the Yukon, he later made his fortune and sealed his fame by his involvement in mineral development in northern Ontario.

Tyrrell rediscovered the work of David Thompson, and championed the history of Thompson’s surveys of western Canada, becoming involved in the Champlain Society and publishing Thompson’s work.

Heather Robertson’s treatment gets into the meat of his story. Through his own words, and her narrative, she paints a picture of his travels both vivid and enthralling. I could picture the places he saw and feel the sensations he experienced.

Further, the author reveals the personal character of a man driven by both determination and ego — a spendthrift in his early adulthood, a scrooge in his later life.

His wife had to endure bankruptcy (he once tried to pawn the family furniture), long absences while J.B. was in the field, and even hints of infidelity.

Tyrrell was ambitious, and self-aggrandizing, and cultivated his reputation in his later years. He had the good fortune to outlive most of his detractors.

I have only one criticism of Robertson’s book: her decision to use copies of Tyrrell’s original maps as illustrations. I found the greatly reduced maps hard to read and interpret, and while reading the story, repeatedly wished for decent maps to illustrate his travels in various parts of the country.

George Mercer Dawson was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1844, the son of William Dawson, the founder of McGill University, and himself a prominent and respected scientist.

During his childhood, he was stricken by a form of tuberculosis that stunted his growth and left him with a deformed spine, yet Dawson was a man with an inquiring mind and outstanding intellect.

His first work in western Canada was as a member of the party that travelled across the prairies defining the international boundary with the United States. Through family connections, he, like Tyrrell, was able to secure a position with the Geological Survey of Canada.

In subsequent years, Dawson charted the rocks, plants, and people of western Canada, including breaking in a novice Tyrrell to field work.

Despite his physical stature, Dawson was a determined and driven man.

In 1887, he was commissioned, along with surveyor William Ogilvie and geologist R.G. McConnell, to penetrate what became the Yukon territory and document the region.

His work in this regard was published in a report that was republished in 1987 by the Yukon Historical and Museums Association. (Dawson’s reprinted report is still available today through the association, if you check out its website).

Dawson later went on to become the director of the Geological Survey of Canada, dying at the tragically young age of 52 in March of 1901, a victim of bronchitis.

Like Tyrrell, Dawson was recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1937. A plaque in his honour was unveiled by the board in 1961 at his Nova Scotia birthplace.

Like Robertson, biographer Phil Jenkins takes a more personal approach to the chronicling of Dawson’s life, but he does it through the words of Dawson himself.

Around 5,000 of Dawson’s letters are housed in a collection at McGill University, and Jenkins, who found the result of his attempts to insert Dawson’s words into his narrative too jarring, opted in the end to craft this story almost entirely from Dawson’s own words.

Jenkins laid out Dawson’s narrative from 45 years of letters, moving some letters from the time when they were written, to the time they describe and some of his narrative was rearranged to ensure “a narrative flow.”

Jenkins selected examples of Dawson’s poetry, drawings and photographs to enhance the biography

The result is a captivating personal narrative of a great Canadian. Dawson was an articulate writer, and while I would have been happy to see more photos and illustrations in the pages of this book, Dawson’s own words create a graphic image of himself, the places he traveled, and his experiences.

Both Jenkins and Robertson have created biographies of great Canadian explorers, both with Yukon connections, that you won’t want to put down until you have finished them.

Measuring Mother Earth by Heather Robertson, McClelland and Stewart. Beneath My Feet by Phil Jenkins,  McClelland and Stewart.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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