Klondike History has roots in the Maritimes

Kathy and I are in New Brunswick on our latest history hunt - searching for the roots of the Yukon's political icon, George Black.

Kathy and I are in New Brunswick on our latest history hunt – searching for the roots of the Yukon’s political icon, George Black. Black was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick April 10, 1873, but made his mark in the Yukon during the first half of the 20th century.

We are staying at a restored home dating from 1875, in Fredericton, the provincial capital, where, as a young lawyer, Black started to practise his profession. Heritage Canada proclaimed Fredericton the cultural capital of Canada in 2009, and it is perfectly clear that the city, population 50,000, is saturated with history.

The site was originally the homeland of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples; the first permanent European settlers were the Acadians fleeing Nova Scotia only 300 years ago. At that time, the area was known as Pointe Ste. Anne.

The community was settled in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists, who were fleeing the colonies to the south during the American Revolution. The area was named Fredericton, in honour of the second son of King George the Third, and, secure from American attacks, it became the capital of the region in 1785.

Many of the buildings still standing, near downtown Fredericton, represent the early vernacular architecture of the late 18th century, while others reflect the development of the city through the subsequent centuries. The streets are rich with a mixture of styles from the nineteenth century: Georgian, Classical and Gothic Revival Queen Anne and Second Empire, Beaux-Arts Classical.

I have taken to walking the streets early in the morning as darkness gives way to dawn. Through the early morning mists, I visualize the streets as they might have once appeared, lined with houses both modest and grand, some hugging the sidewalks, others set back, with imposing column-framed front entrances.

Early on, Fredericton was a military encampment, and many of the buildings representing this occupation survive near the St. John River, a broad watercourse that winds its way through the heart of the city. One of these is now the site of the York-Sunbury Museum. I visited this site as a student 35 years ago, and hope to visit it again during this visit.

The centerpiece of Fredericton’s cultural claim is the Beaverbrook Gallery, on Queen Street. In 1974 I toured the facility and was entranced by a huge Painting by Salvadore Dali at the main entrance. It is still there, and everyone here, that I have talked to, expresses pride that their little city has one of the finest art collections in the country.

Recent news reports state that a long-running battle between descendants of its prime benefactor, Lord Beaverbrook, and the art gallery, over the ownership of many works in the gallery has been settled. The courts have decided that the collection will remain part of the national patrimony, and will not be sold off by cash-starved relatives of Beaverbrook, in the UK.

It was from Fredericton, and many other maritime communities, that Maritimers came to the Yukon, before and during the gold rush.

There was Harry Waugh, one of the first to stake a claim on Bonanza Creek, along with Skiff Mitchell. Another early prospector was Robert Henderson, the Nova Scotian from Big Island, who Canadians fervently embraced as the “true” discoverer of the Klondike. Better a “Bluenose,” than George Carmack, an American.

I have commented on these Maritime -Yukon connections to numerous friendly people that we have met during our visit, eliciting only pleasant smiles, or the occasional yawn of disinterest. Yukon is not a familiar word in their vocabulary.

So it was with satisfaction that we shared information with Fredericton author and former English Teacher, Ted Jones, and his teacher-author wife, Anita. They visited the Yukon in 1972 on their honeymoon, and during their trip through our northern territory, they gained many memorable experiences. For most of their lives, they too have been history hunters, and at both the personal and the historical level, they have connected with the Yukon.

Ted wrote an item in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner about Frederictonians who went to the Klondike in 1898. This got my attention.

Fredericton, during the period of the gold rush, was an industrious community of about 4,000 residents, characterized by a large number of churches. The district was full of farms, tanneries and foundries. There was a new University and many government related jobs. People were well paid and their homes and the town showed it.

A thousand people showed up at the large two-storey wooden train station on York Street to bid farewell to the party that was leaving for the gold fields of the north. To me, such a turn-out was a significant number in a community of that size, but Ted assured me that it was a common event for large crowds to turn up, even to welcome a baseball team from a neighbouring community. Compared with gold rush news I am told, the Boar War elicited more column inches and headline space. In the one case, the stampeders were coming home with empty pockets; with the other, many of them came home in caskets.

So much for the importance of the Klondike in Fredericton life! Yet over the ensuing months, news of those on the Klondike trail were widely covered in local newspapers, and devoured by their readers.

One party, departing in March 1898 did so in a train car engaged specially to carry their group to Vancouver. There, while acquiring their provisions and booking passage for the north, they camped near what later became Stanley Park.

From Vancouver, they made their way north, encountering many challenges from weather, isolation and harsh terrain. All shared dreams of opportunity and riches.

The party that left on that train, consisted of a group of eight men, financed by “businessmen and politicians” with expectations of financial success. Only six of them eventually returned home; they were richer in experience, but not in gold.

The seventh member of the party, Walter Chestnut, of the canoe-building family, never had the opportunity to contribute to family legacy. He became ill while traveling over the White Pass and returned to Skagway, where he succumbed to pneumonia. He was eventually buried in Victoria.

The eighth man was George Black, a young Fredericton attorney. Black stayed in the North and put his hand to mining, then to the law profession, before engaging in politics. Eventually, he represented Yukoners, first as a member of the territorial assembly, then as commissioner of the territory, and finally as their member of parliament. For four years, he assumed the position of Speaker of the House of Commons.

His career lasted half a century, and he left an indelible record of achievement in the development of the territory.

As I walk the quiet streets of the New Brunswick capital, admiring their old buildings and their marvellous art, I wonder: will they feel a small tinge of pride when the full story of George Black is finally told?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.