Searching for Dr. Varicle

Have you ever heard of Jean Anthony Varicle, the French balloonist, dentist, and would-be polar explorer, who lived in Dawson City after the Klondike Gold Rush? 

Have you ever heard of Jean Anthony Varicle, the French balloonist, dentist, and would-be polar explorer, who lived in Dawson City after the Klondike Gold Rush? The question was posed by Chris Allan, a US Parks Service historian, and I acknowledged that I knew of him. The question is, what do I really know about the man?

In the era before powered flight, lighter-than-air balloons were the only means to ascend into the firmament. The Klondike Gold Rush was an excellent opportunity for aeronauts to come up with all kinds of gold-rush schemes.

One of the more publicized proposals came from Dr. Anthony Varicle. Varicle, who came from Paris, France, was a member of the French “Geographical Society,” and a founding member of the French Electrical Engineer Society. He was known to have secured a number of patents, including the universal key can opener, a photographic telegraph instrument, and a “combination key used by the French government in connections with time locks on all post office property.” He was also a dentist.

He had a reputation as one of the most experienced balloonists in Europe. In early 1898, the United States military had intended to purchase two of his balloons for use in the Spanish-American war, but he couldn’t produce them in time to meet their timetable.

According to early newspaper accounts, some provided to me by Allan, Varicle was preparing to venture to the Klondike. His balloon would be steered by means of a sail and rope dragging below. A bicycle contraption could be used to power a propeller to drive it forward.

According to Varicle, in various newspaper interviews, the balloon could: “carry speedy relief to the Klondike District,” enable a topographical and geographical survey of the country, and aid in finding a good railroad route to the interior. After that, the party would look for the missing Andree expedition, another balloon party that went missing the year before in an attempt to reach the North Pole from Spitzbergen Island. Varicle’s scheme appeared to cover all the bases.

Aside from the vast distances separating Spitzbergen and the Klondike, the lost Andree party had only been in the air for a few days before taking refuge on an island only a short distance from its point of departure, though the remains of the party weren’t discovered for another 34 years. No one, including Varicle, was aware of that at the time.

Despite the extensive press coverage of the Varicle party’s intended balloon trip to the Klondike, Varicle came north without balloon (there was no supply of gas available), and mined on Dominion Creek for a number of years. Another balloonist, named John Leonard, however, did. He demonstrated his lighter-than-air balloon in Dawson City on several occasions, and his demonstrations were well covered by the newspapers of the day.

While floating over Dawson City, Leonard hung beneath his balloon, performing on a trapeze. He also parachuted from the balloon, twice landing in the Yukon River (he had to swim to shore) and was injured after landing on the steep roof of the N. A. T. & T. Co store on Front Street.

Varicle’s mining venture didn’t work out, so by 1902, he had set up a dentistry practice in Dawson City, advertising painless extractions, and had become an active booster of the community and eager participant in the social life. Upon a number of occasions, he even acted as French consul, when the incumbent, R. Auzias-Turenne, was out of town.

The Arctic Brotherhood Hall was packed tightly with interested spectators on Saturday evening, August 5, 1905, to hear about Varicle’s grand scheme: to make Dawson City the headquarters for an experimental station, which would organize a polar expedition, and be the point of departure for the North Pole.

According to the Dawson Daily News, a thousand people crammed into the gaily decorated and electrically illuminated hall. When he stepped onto the stage he was greeted by an ovation like few ever heard in Dawson.

The elite of Dawson attended to endorse his proposal: Commissioner McInnes, M.P Alfred Thompson, Chief Justice Dugas, and Superintendent Z.T. Wood of the Royal North West Mounted Police. The consuls of Norway and Sweden were there too. The program for the evening included vocal performances by several local singers. The ladies received a bouquet of flowers each time they ascended the stage to perform.

The esteemed doctor invested considerable sums of his own money in the proposition, and was successful in establishing the International Yukon Polar Institute, and publishing an impressive prospectus for the society.

Dr. Varicle, not being fluent in the English language, had Charles MacDonald speak on his behalf. MacDonald had performed a similar task for Varicle before a recent gathering of visitors from the American Institute of Mining Engineers. Dr. Varicle had presented the visiting engineers with a lovely album of Klondike photos. The album itself had been decorated with pyrographic art by local artist Mort Craig, and the esteemed doctor had subsequently been made an honorary member of the society.

The expedition, MacDonald explained, would not reach the pole by balloon. Instead, a party of experienced northerners would travel over land and ice by sled.

By September, Dr. Varicle had made his way Outside, accompanied by MacDonald, intent on promoting the North Pole expedition, but his trail gets cold at this point. The expedition never happened. On July 26, 1907, Varicle died of stomach cancer in Seattle, where he had again been practising dentistry.

Dr. Varicle is typical of many of the colourful people who graced the charismatic Klondike capital in the post-gold rush period, but about whom we must piece together their story from many sources. A quick scan of the Yukon genealogical website reveals that he held a number of claims and mined, but so did everyone else in Dawson. The government records revealed little about his stay in the Yukon. I have not located any of his personal papers yet. The information I have found so far provides more questions than answers.

What about his life in France before coming to America, for example? It is possible that careful scrutiny of archival material in France would inform us of the early life of this intriguing gentleman? It won’t be possible to connect all the historical dots without some more history hunting…

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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