T.W. O’Brien: The Klondike’s great industrialist

Thomas W. O'Brien was laid to rest in the pioneer cemetery on the hillside overlooking Dawson City on the morning of August 28, 1916.

Thomas W. O’Brien was laid to rest in the pioneer cemetery on the hillside overlooking Dawson City on the morning of August 28, 1916. It was the biggest funeral that Dawson had ever seen and the entire business sector shut down for the duration of the ceremony.

Members of the Eagles Lodge were there, leading the solemn procession toward the cemetery from St. Mary’s Church, with a brass band in front. The Yukon Order of Pioneers, following their banner, walked two by two to the cemetery. Commissioner George Black, Justice Macaulay and Judge John Black accompanied the coffin, which was carried by a representative of the Yukon territorial council and two former council members, and representatives of the Yukon pioneers, Alaska pioneers and the city government.

So who was Thomas O’Brien, and why did he receive such a blue-ribbon send-off?

He was born March 8, 1862 on a farm five kilometres from Barrie, Ontario. He attended school there until 1876; when he was 14 years old, “he launched into the world for himself.” He worked in Toronto for three years as a street car conductor and driver before moving to Winnipeg, where he joined a government survey party working in the Riding Mountains.

He then became a mail carrier until 1884, at which time he homesteaded near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. After a brief stint with the Canadian forces during the Riel Rebellion, he and a partner contracted to construct five kilometres of the Manitoba and Northwestern Railroad.

In 1886, O’Brien read an article in a Montreal newspaper that changed the course of his life. It described the excitement surrounding a new gold strike in the far-away region of the Stewart River, a tributary of the Yukon. He headed west to Seattle, from which port he departed, then headed north by boat on July 5, 1887. When he arrived in Juneau, he met P.G. McDonald, and together they booked passage on a small boat destined for Dyea, where they joined two others and headed over the Chilkoot Trail into the interior.

They arrived at Forty Mile, the fledgling little mining community at the mouth of the Fortymile River, on September 1 and spent the winter on Sourdough Island. The following summer they mined on a bar three miles up the Fortymile River, followed by prospecting on other creeks in the district. In 1891, he took a job with McQuesten and Company for three years when, in partnership with Billie Moran, he started a store in Circle, Alaska. Two years later, they added a store at Forty Mile. O’Brien was one of the many men in Forty Mile identified as producing illicit whiskey during the winter of 1894/95.

When gold was discovered in the Klondike, O’Brien poled his way up the Yukon with some other prospectors to the mouth of the Klondike, then hiked over to Bonanza Creek, where he staked claim No. 75 Below Discovery and acquired the two adjacent claims below. He then brought more supplies to the new gold camp aboard the steamer Arctic from his store at Circle.

During the winter, he made his way Outside by dog team and upon returning in the spring, acquired more prime mining properties on Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks. His mining claims rewarded him handsomely, with Claim No. 1 Eldorado alone yielding a quarter of a million dollars. He seemed uninterested in taking his money away from the Klondike. Instead, he expanded his mercantile operations in Dawson City, at the mouth of the Klondike River.

He became the proprietor of the Yukon Sun newspaper, in which he advertised his Dominion Saloon (“Finest brands wines, liquors and cigars”) and The Yukon Pioneer Trading Company (O’Brien and Moran). O’Brien also owned the building occupied by the Canadian Bank of Commerce.

He soon owned the toll bridge across the Klondike River, and a road up Bonanza for which he attempted to charge a toll for its use. Under great protest, he was forced to abandon that idea, but he was later reimbursed by territorial council for it to the sum of $35,000 in 1902.

O’Brien was involved in a great way in transportation in the Yukon. He acquired the steamers Lightning and Tyrrell for river transportation, and was president of the Klondike Mines Railway. The railway was not a profitable venture and contributed to the amalgamation of claims by large companies, which eventually displaced hundreds of individual miners from the creeks.

In 1904, he became the majority shareholder in the O’Brien Brewing and Malting Company, located on property he owned across the river from Dawson in Klondike City. As soon as it came into production, his beer became the dominant choice of Yukoners.

O’Brien had, since its foundation in 1894, been an active member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, eventually becoming the grand president of the organization. Similarly, he was an active and enthusiastic member of the Eagles Lodge.

According to the Dawson News, “He was a good public speaker, a man of remarkably strong personality and convictions, and always outspoken, frank and of unimpeachable integrity.” This may explain his role in territorial politics. He was a staunch Liberal until he became opposed to prominent Liberal member of Parliament, Frederick Congdon, whose corrupt practices were unacceptable even in the highly partisan politics of the era.

So great was O’Brien’s influence in Liberal politics that when he split with the policies of Congdon, whose supporters became known as “Tabs,” he took a significant faction of the party, which became known as the “Steam Beers,” with him. They joined forces with the Conservatives, forming the Yukon Independent Party (YIP). Together, they threw their support behind Dr. Alfred Thompson and succeeded in having Congdon defeated in the 1904 federal election.

Running under the YIP banner, O’Brien, along with George Black, was elected to the territorial council for a term from 1905 until 1907. O’Brien became a Conservative supporter for the rest of his life.

O’Brien sold off his interest in the brewery in 1915. He developed sclerosis of the liver, and after weeks of decline, passed away August 25, 1916 having lived a remarkably prominent life in the Yukon for nearly 30 years. He left behind his widow, three sons, and a daughter. He was also spared the indignity of seeing his beloved brewery close its doors for good in 1919.

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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