Earlier this month, former students of F.H. Collins High School flocked to Whitehorse for a reunion before the old school is demolished after more than 50 years of service. One returning alumni has roots that go back much farther into Yukon history than that; in fact, they extend back four generations to the Klondike Gold Rush.
I visited with Harry Miller and his wife, Elaine, at their campsite. The reunion was over and they had just returned from an emotional day trip to Braeburn, where they visited his old family cottage, and to Carmacks, where he met an elder who knew his father back in 1952.
Let’s follow Harry’s sentimental journey back to the beginning nearly 120 years ago:
In July of 1898, Harry Breaden went to the Klondike by the long route – to the Bering Sea and up the Yukon River, from its mouth, on a flotilla of paddle wheel ships intended for the Yukon River trade. The following year, Breaden joined his wife Elizabeth and two year old son James at Bennett and they floated down to Fort Selkirk in a boat that had been assigned the number 507 by the North West Mounted Police.
At Selkirk, they went up the Pelly River to a cabin he had built for them at a place later named (and spelled incorrectly) Braden’s Canyon. For the next dozen years or so, they alternated between living there and at Fort Selkirk. I checked the 1909 Polk’s Directory and found that an H. Braden was listed at Fort Selkirk as running a bakery and laundry.
Between 1900 and 1912, young James was joined by two brothers and four sisters. Sadly, the brothers, Ernest and Harold, both died in a diphtheria epidemic at Fort Selkirk in 1907. Harry and Elizabeth Breaden split up after their last daughter was born. Harry left the Yukon, remarried some years later and disassociated himself from his first family.
By 1911, at age 14, James had moved to Dawson City. He ran a jitney, or taxi service, with a model T. I note that in the Yukon directory for 1915, he is listed as a driver for D.W. Ballentine, who operated a garage and auto stage service from Dawson to Hunker Creek. After having been stiffed a few times, he established a rule that his passengers pay up front for their trip to the goldfields. This earned him the lifelong nickname of “Spot Cash” Breaden. His transportation career continued after the Great War; he ran trucks and cats over the trail from Dawson to Whitehorse for Greenfield and Pickering.
James enlisted in the Yukon Infantry Company with George Black and 224 other Yukoners. In his enlistment papers, signed September 26 of 1916, he added a couple of years to his age, making him 21 rather than 19 years of age. He described himself as “automobile driver and mechanic.” After spending a few months at Willows Camp in Victoria, B.C., the Yukon contingent was shipped overseas in early February of 1917.
A few months later, in November, James married Bertha Kate Harding of Godalming, Surrey. There is a photograph in the family album of the newlyweds sharing a Christmas dinner with George and Martha Black and other Yukon volunteers in the mess hall at Whitley Camp, south of London, in December of 1917.
After the war, James and Kate returned to Canada where daughter Audrey was born in 1919. Vera followed in 1923, and Henry in 1927. James spent his career in the transportation field, as a mechanic, or driving horses, trucks and caterpillars. He passed away in Vancouver in 1971.
James’s son Henry worked summers on the Steamer Keno between 1942 and 1950. Ten years later, he served as the first mate on the Keno for her last voyage down the Yukon River to Dawson City. Henry worked for the Northern Canada Power Commission for many years until he retired. James’s daughter Vera was living in Mayo when she met and eventually married Carl Miller in December of 1941.
Carl Chase Miller, was born in Bridgetown Nova Scotia in 1904. In 1926, when he was 22 years old, he left Nova Scotia and moved to Alberta, where, a year later, he, his brother Max and a man named Bill Teare filed for homesteads near a place called Rat River. In 1934, Carl, Bill and a third man named Carl White, came over the Dalton Trail to prospect and mine on Squaw Creek, in the very southwest corner of the Yukon, south of Dalton Post.
After a couple of fruitless years at Squaw Creek, they tried mining and trapping in the Mount Freegold area. Carl then moved to Mayo and secured work for the territorial government building and maintaining roads and the Mayo airstrip. Carl was denied military service during World War II because of a heart condition, but the condition did not prevent him from living an active life. In August of 1943, Carl secured a job as fire chief in Whitehorse, just at the time when the sleepy little town had come to life because of the war.
Carl and Vera moved to Vancouver, Dawson City, Mayo and Carmacks before settling in Whitehorse in 1953. Carl was hired by the Corps of Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, located near the bottom of the Two Mile Hill. In 1962, he purchased land near Braeburn and began to open it up for agriculture, but died in 1964, just 60 years old. Harry Miller can’t remember if he ever told his father he loved him, but it’s obvious he did.
Harry said growing up in Whitehorse was one of the best experiences that a young person could have had.
He played Fender bass in a number of teen and adult bands which, he said, probably kept him out of trouble when he was growing up. There were teen dances two or three times a month, plus adult affairs where he played with an adult band called the Honky Tonks at places like the Elks Club, the army mess and the air force mess.
When he reunited with some of his old band members to perform on Friday night of the reunion, it was like the 60s all over again, except he said that this time, instead of dancing, everybody stood and watched the band.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org