Every picture tells a story

My wife Kathy recently acquired a small collection of old Yukon photographs that included one of a group of men posing in front of the Territorial Administration Building. 

My wife Kathy recently acquired a small collection of old Yukon photographs that included one of a group of men posing in front of the Territorial Administration Building. Today, that restored building houses the Dawson City Museum.

The 120 men in the photograph are wearing jackets and ties. They are all sporting hats; 12 of them are holding rifles. There are leaves on the trees on either side, so we know it was taken during the summer. The administration building was not completed until 1901, so we also know that the photo was not taken during the gold rush.

The image is evocative, but without more information, it is devoid of context or time frame. Fortunately, the photographer inscribed some information on the picture, which identifies the event, and the date when the photo was taken.

The caption reads: “Second Yukon Contingent, Dawson June the 8 1916.”

The First World War had raged for two years before this photo was taken. The opposing forces had reached a stalemate in a system of trenches that faced each other for hundreds of kilometres across Belgium and France. The only thing not stagnant about this conflict was the dreadful growing body count.

Britain was reaching out to her colonies for a continuing supply of new soldiers to replace the dead and wounded. The Yukon had already sent a contingent overseas; in 1914, Joe Boyle, the Klondike mining king had sponsored a detachment of 50 men from the Yukon to be sent overseas. Hundreds more left the Yukon individually or in small groups and enlisted in Vancouver, Victoria and Ottawa.

Now a second contingent was being raised to join their Yukon comrades overseas, and Commissioner George Black was the driving force behind the enlistment campaign.

On June 8, the commissioner and Mrs. Black had just returned from a trip Outside that had begun the previous fall. Commissioner Black, though still pale and weak from recent surgery, spoke to the waiting crowd and the volunteers who had been assembled to greet him.

Black wanted to raise a company of 250 brave men to join him in France. Enrollment began in January of 1916, and one of the first to join was his stepson, Lyman. The men who signed the provisional roll had their first muster and drill the evening of February 11 in the south court room of the old courthouse. Drill was to be held once a week, though later on, they planned to increase to two a week.

The volunteers included another student, Norton Townsend as well as long-time barber Joseph Dubois, Lawyer J.A.W. O’Neill, former territorial councillor Andrew Smith and Frank Thompson, son of local doctor W.E Thompson. There was a former amateur boxing champion, a French teacher, a waiter, a piano tuner and a boiler maker. Edward A. Dixon, territorial council member for Whitehorse, would join them in Whitehorse. Before the end of the summer, he would be followed by William Radford and Norman Watt, leaving the council with barely enough sitting members to form a quorum.

A few hours after arriving back in Dawson, the commissioner and his wife assembled on the front steps of the school with various dignitaries and eight student volunteers for a photograph. Their son Lyman was among the students who posed for that photo.

Later that day, 120 men, all volunteers for the second contingent, assembled on the steps of the Territorial Administration Building and posed for the group photograph that is the subject of this week’s column. The evening of the next day, these men and the students fell into formation in front of the old court house, and with much pomp and ceremony, marched down Front Street to the steamer Casca, followed by Mrs. Black and the wife of Captain Hulme, in a carriage.

George Brimston, who acted as parade Marshall, led the home guard at the head of the procession. Then the Boy Scouts, and the Girl Guides, all in uniform, followed. Next were members of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, two abreast. Pat Penny carried the banner of the Order. Other members carried the flags of Britain, France and other allied nations. Next came the Dawson brass band playing stirring patriotic marches. One of the volunteers then led the company mascot, a handsome grey malamute.

Finally came the volunteers, who were, according to the Dawson Daily News, “stalwart, rugged, lithe, firm of step, resolute and ready for come what may. At the head walked Captain Black, presenting a splendid appearance in his khaki uniform…the men presented a stirring sight and as they marched past the large crowd of friends, mingled emotions of sadness and pride struck every heart.”

At the wharf, the Yukon Rifle Association parted ranks and presented arms. The Guides, Scouts and Pioneers stepped aside on the wharf and the men marched through and onto the deck of the steamer.

“The brave boys destined for the front swarmed over the boat from the Texas deck to the lower deck and soon were bidding a fond adieu to old friends… Husbands were embracing wives and little children, sweethearts were tearfully expressing their last well-wishes, and old pards of the trail and camp were giving the firm hand and ‘God Bless you Bill and good luck.’” Soon, the Casca was steaming up river as the men waved their final farewells from the decks of the hardy little riverboat.

The Yukon saw similar departures month after month, as her best and finest men marched off to war. When Commissioner (now Captain) Black, who remained behind to continue the recruitment campaign, finally left Dawson City in October, he was joined in Victoria by 225 other men of the Yukon Infantry Company. By war’s end, nearly a thousand men and women from the Yukon had gone overseas to fight for the Empire. Most came from Dawson City, but the volunteers came from far and wide across the territory. Almost a hundred came from Whitehorse.

Of these braves souls, a hundred lost their lives in the service of their country. Of the thousand who left, only a tenth of them returned to the North at war’s end. The glory days of the gold rush were washed away, and a generation would pass before the economy of the territory would be rekindled during another world war.

And that is the story behind the photograph.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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