It was very difficult for First Nation people to make their mark in white society early in the 20th century. Among those who cleared the path for those who followed was Frank Slim, one of the Yukon’s most famous river pilots.
Frank Slim was born on the shores of Marsh Lake on June 27, 1898, during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. His father was Slim Jim, a Tlingit and member of the Wolf clan. His mother was Kitty Jim, a Southern Tutchone from the Crow clan, whose affiliation he inherited.
As a boy he learned the way of the bush, developing skills in hunting, trapping and fishing in the traditional way. By age 16, he was working as a deck hand on the Yukon River sternwheelers and in the shipyard. Over the years, he plied many rivers in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska, eventually earning his papers for all three jurisdictions.
In order to progress, he realized he would have to learn to read and write. Frank said he did this by reading the labels on soup cans and other grocery packages, but his father also hired a white man to help him learn to read and write.
He worked for the British Yukon Navigation Company (an extension of the White Pass and Yukon Route), as well as Taylor and Drury, including the boats Thistle and the Yukon Rose. He also worked on the steamers Klondike and Tutshi. He would be around boats and the river for the rest of his life.
The fall of 1929, the Taylor and Drury boat, Yukon Rose, pushing a barge loaded with supplies destined for the village of Teslin, got stranded on a bar in the Teslin River. By early February, supplies were getting low in the Taylor and Drury trading post at Teslin, so Bill Taylor and Frank mushed overland from Whitehorse by dog team to the beached vessel and began transporting the stranded goods into Teslin.-
When not working on the river, and in the off-season, Frank ran a trapline near Whitehorse and worked at placer mining. He carried mail and also hauled freight overland with a team of horses and a sleigh, and later with Caterpillar tractors.
By 1937, with many years of experience behind him, he wrote the examination for his river master’s papers and was certified on any steam vessel up to 1,500 tonnes.
In order to obtain his pilot’s papers, however, Slim was obliged to give up his status as an Indian. He resented this decision and it may have contributed to personal problems he experienced in later years.
When the war came to the Yukon’s doorstep, Frank Slim was engaged in the building of steamers and barges on Dease Lake, and then captained the largest of the fleet to push barges down the Dease River to the Liard to support the construction of the Alaska Highway.
After the war, and the completion of the highway to Mayo, river traffic declined; he worked on the ferries that operated at Pelly and Stewart Crossings until the completion of the bridges at those points.
Even after the riverboats were finally beached in the 1950s, Slim continued to work in river navigation. He worked for John Scott on the MV Schwatka after it was launched in Schwatka Lake in 1960.
That same year, the steamer Keno made its final voyage to a berth in Dawson City, where it was subsequently designated a national historic site. Frank Slim was the pilot on that journey.
Five years later, it was Frank Slim who piloted the George Black ferry down the Yukon River to Dawson City, where it continues to operate to the present day.
Frank Slim passed away September 6, 1973 at 75 years of age. He was predeceased by Aggie, his wife of more than 40 years, who died in 1959.
Granddaughter Maxine Lindsay recently stated that Alan Innes Taylor, another northern pioneer, admired him so much that he had nominated Slim for the Order of Canada. Unfortunately, the decision to grant him the honour had not been made by the time he died, and they are not awarded posthumously.
The following year, James Smith, commissioner of the Yukon, signed a certificate that confirmed the naming of Mount Slim, the tallest peak on the eastern side of Lake Laberge, in his honour. Smith stated that such recognition honoured the work “of those prominent in development of the territory and those who gave dedicated service to fellow citizens.”
In 1997, Frank Slim was inducted into the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame as the Transportation Pioneer of the Year. A plaque in his honour is mounted in the Hall of Fame (located within the Yukon Transportation Museum), which concludes: “The loss of his Indian status was the price Frank Slim paid to achieve his dream of becoming a riverboat captain. For his sacrifice and his many years of skillful and dedicated service to the transportation development of the Yukon, Frank Slim was honoured in 1997 as a Yukon Transportation Pioneer.”
On May 21, 2009, the City of Whitehorse further honoured the veteran riverboat man by naming the main building in Shipyards Park after him. The ceremony in the building was filled to capacity with friends, family and officials. As part of the event, then-mayor Bev Buckway, artist Jim Robb and Frank Slim’s daughter Virginia Lindsay unveiled a framed Jim Robb photograph of Slim with text acknowledging his accomplishments.
Granddaughter Donna Dillman, who more recently has authored a book about her grandfather titled Donuts and Silver Dollars, said about the ceremony: “My grandfather was a shy, humble man. He would have appreciated this, but would have thought it was a whole lot of pomp and circumstance.”
Maybe so, but where better to remember a man so closely connected to the river?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org