How I spent my vacation

While most people dream about a holiday with palm trees, sandy beaches and surf, my wife Kathy and I think of musty old books and faded photographs. We spent the Thanksgiving Day in Langley, B.C.

While most people dream about a holiday with palm trees, sandy beaches and surf, my wife Kathy and I think of musty old books and faded photographs. We spent the Thanksgiving Day in Langley, B.C., poring over hundreds of old family photos with my cousin Angie, who has collected vast amounts of information about the maternal side of our clan.

While comparing notes with her, I produced my maternal grandmother’s wedding certificate. She whooped with excitement and produced a similar document. When we placed them side by side, we realized that my grandmother had been married at a double ceremony, along with her brother, my great uncle Stanley. Neither of us knew that.

Further examination of these old documents was interrupted by Thanksgiving dinner, but continued immediately after the meal. Aunts, uncles, cousins and others were identified in various photographs.

The following morning I presented myself to the keeper of the collections of a small archive of law records in downtown Vancouver.

The visit had been prearranged, so that when I was escorted into a meeting room, the collection of Yukon material was already laid out on the table for me to examine. I systematically worked through the folders, eying the contents of each, finding correspondence between George Black, Yukon’s Member of Parliament for nearly 25 years, and the chamber of mines. Kathy is researching the life of George Black. I quickly took photographs of the correspondence.

After this work was is complete, I go to our favourite used book store, which is frequently the source of excellent books on the Yukon. Kathy and I look at books on several shelves labelled “Arctic” and find a few interesting items related to the Alaska Highway. These might prove useful, so we bought them.

I tell the proprietor that I am looking for anything that might relate to the Yukon and World War I; would he have anything? It turns out that some years before he had sold a collection of letters and photographs of two brothers from the Yukon to a collector in Vancouver. He promises to see if a meeting can be arranged.

Shortly after returning to Whitehorse, I received a phone call from the collector and we had a good conversation. I quickly assembled a package of information to send to him.

In the afternoon, we walk to the Vancouver Public Library, which is an excellent source of historical information. Kathy goes to the fifth floor and I go to the seventh; each of us has our tasks set out for us. She finds and copies articles about Joe Boyle from an old magazine and scans old newspapers.

Meanwhile, up on seven, thanks to a very helpful librarian, I go through old city directories, tracking George Black’s law practice in Vancouver. I follow his practice from 1910 until 1949.

I go through the index for photographs and another that contains references to books and articles. In the former, I find some interesting photos of early mining on Gold Run Creek, in the Klondike goldfields. I have accumulated a considerable volume of information on this locale; this adds another small piece to the puzzle.

We hurry back to our hotel because we have a dinner engagement with our California friends Bill and Nella Berry. Bill’s great uncle, Clarence Berry, was the undisputed winner of the Klondike Gold Rush. Bill and I joined John Gould 16 years ago on a journey into the Fortymile country to see the places where Clarence mined before the Klondike was discovered more than a century before. Bill and I love to talk Yukon history. He tells me of the new book about Clarence that is ready to be published.

I can’t escape my regular column writing for the Yukon News, so early the next morning, I pound out an article about James Christie, a World War I veteran who had once engaged in hand-to-paw combat with a Yukon grizzly bear – and won.

We revisit the book store and the owner has assembled a selection of Yukon-related material he thinks we might want to look at. One collection relates to Robert Campbell. I say I am not interested, but I know someone else who may be. I take notes and photographs for reference when I am back in the Yukon.

More work in the Vancouver Public Library reveals that we have very effectively harvested the information about George Black during previous visits to the collection.

That evening, I get a phone call: it is the book dealer that I visited two days earlier. Some material has been set aside for me to look at if I am interested. I am, so the last morning in Vancouver is spent copying references from books he has brought in from his personal collection. Having a network of people as interested in Yukon history as I am sometimes pays off.

The references in question are from obscure military histories that mention James Christie, the grizzly bear man, during his four years overseas in the war. I take out my camera and start photographing the pages where Christie is mentioned. By now, it is too late to include any of this in my column, but to my great relief, nothing contradicts in any significant detail the article I have just written.

We pack our suitcases and prepare to return to Whitehorse. The day before, I packed and shipped three boxes containing books we purchased while in Vancouver, but I carry one back with me. It is too interesting to wait for a few days to read. It is the Consolidated Ordinances of the Yukon Territory for 1914 and runs to over 900 pages.

The Ordinances start with the Yukon Act, the very statute by which the Yukon Territory was originally constituted on June 13, 1898. Over the years there were various amendments and additions which were assembled in an organized fashion in this hefty volume.

The ordinance regarding motor vehicles is particularly amusing. It includes sections on how to pass a horse-drawn vehicle in an automobile, and includes speed limits: “No person shall operate a motor vehicle upon any public highway …at a greater speed than one mile in four minutes (25 kilometres per hour), nor a greater speed than one mile in six minutes (16 kilometres per hour) when making a turn at an intersection.”

Maximum speed of a vehicle in or through the streets of any town are not to exceed six miles per hour (10 kilometres per hour), states the ordinance (Chapter 33, section 1), or risk being fined $50. Considering inflation, that would be a fine of more than $1,000 today. You can see that they took vehicle safety seriously a century ago! There is plenty more to read between the covers of this volume.

Our visit to Vancouver was filled with history from start to finish, with surprising revelations, startling discoveries and titillating facts.

And that was how we celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary!

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