Ted Thornton-Trump was one of the most remarkable men I met during my career as Curator of Collections for Parks Canada in Dawson City. From his youthful beginnings working for the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, he went on to a career as a world-renowned inventor.
From the moment he stepped into my office in 1983, his was a presence that could not be ignored. Energetic, lively, and enthusiastic, he exuded confidence and optimism. When other men his age were retired, he had reached the pinnacle of his success.
He had made and lost several fortunes, but he had invented, developed and now manufactured equipment used to de-ice aircraft. He had just returned from China, where he had inked a deal to sell his de-icing equipment to airports in China.
Like many men of his generation whom I met over the years, there was a strong emotional tie to his humble beginnings working for the YCGC. Working for the big dredging company left a life-long positive imprint on his psyche.
The year 1939 was the tail end of the great depression. The threat of war was looming over Europe. Ted had just completed a 12-month course in Diesel engineering and power generation in California. He was looking for work, and his father, through a business contact, had learned that the YCGC was looking to hire men for its mining operation at Dawson City.
Ted arrived in Dawson City, in early April of that year, speculating that he would be able to get a job working for “The Company,” (as the YCGC was known) for the summer. But a job wasn’t forthcoming. For weeks, he languished in Dawson City, starving and cold.
Fortunately, Gould family members, who were working their claim on Hunker Creek, allowed him to bunk in their two-storey house in Dawson. He never forgot that kind act. To keep warm at night, though, when the temperature fell well below freezing, he rolled up inside a rug on the floor. His roommates would sneak out after the streetlights were turned off at 1 a.m. and steal firewood from a huge pile beside a neighbouring greenhouse.
Finally he was hired as a manual labourer to construct a new building for smelting gold at Bear Creek. Each day, he tallied up his blisters and his earnings, anticipating he would save enough to attend UBC in the fall.
After a month, he was laid off.
“Very carefully every night I would tally up how much closer I was to university,” he said. “And then I got laid off … I came to the conclusion that God was punishing me because I was so greedy about counting up all these pennies, and I made a vow then that I would never ever in my life work for money alone. I would work for the love of the job and the money end of it would look after itself.”
Finally, he was re-hired by The Company, to work in the garage at Bear Creek. To his new boss, Ted pitched the idea of building a special work bench with various gauges and meters on it to test and repair electric motors. Mr. Daily, the man in charge, finally approved the idea, and over the summer, in his spare time, Ted constructed this work bench.
When we visited the huge machine shop at Bear Creek together that summer, he was able to point out the bench, which was still in the building 44 years later. This was testimony to the usefulness of his creation.
Ted told me that he stayed in the bunkhouse while working at Bear Creek. He got tired of plodding out to the multi-seat outhouse, out back in the cold early morning, only to find all the seats taken. So he hooked up a small cable or line to each seat, and connected them to small semaphores that he mounted on the top of the outhouse.
From that day on, all he had to do was look out the back door to see if all the flags were up before sprinting across the cold gravel in the early morning mist. That was one of the first things that he invented.
During our tour of the Bear Creek complex, 10 kilometres east of Dawson City, we located an outhouse behind the mechanical shops similar to one he had to use forty four years before. This one, a six-seater, though long since abandoned for its original function, and later used to store grease and paint supplies, still contained the honey buckets, which could be removed through covered hatches at the back of the structure.
His creative genius took root in these humble beginnings. Years later, while living in Oliver, B.C., he came up with the concept of attaching a bucket at the end of a hydraulic arm, which would enable a man to work at considerable height above the ground. He called it “The Giraffe,” but it became known by another name, the “Cherry Picker,” a device now found everywhere around the world.
He described the process to me by which he came up with the idea. He imagined a man working in a bucket high above the ground, and he could see the truck down below. He just had to think of some means by which to connect them.
The last time I saw Ted, he had returned to Dawson City for another visit in the 1990s. Now in his mid 70s, and having gone through treatment for cancer, he was still optimistic. He told me he had just put the finishing touches on a 25-year plan.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book History Hunting in the Yukon is available in stores throughout the territory.