The Black family returns to the Klondike

A hundred years after the Yukon's commissioner, George Black and his wife Martha entertained in the Yukon's most elegant mansion, their presence was again felt at the Commissioner's Tea.

A hundred years after the Yukon’s commissioner, George Black and his wife Martha entertained in the Yukon’s most elegant mansion, their presence was again felt at the Commissioner’s Tea. Doug Black, great nephew of former commissioner George Black, and his wife Diane were among the 200 to share in the festivities which took place on the lawn of the commissioner’s residence on Saturday afternoon, June 13.

Accompanied by long-time friends and traveling companions Malcolm and Norma Campbell, the Blacks were at the end of a month-long tour that took them deep into Alaska and the Yukon. This trip was particularly important for Doug, who is the last member of the family line to carry the Black name.

A century ago, like today, social functions at the commissioner’s residence were an important part of community life. In 1912, when George Black, the newly appointed commissioner of the Yukon, arrived in Dawson City, then the capital of the Yukon, he and his wife Martha threw a big party. At the time, the commissioner was the senior official in the territorial administration.

The doors of the residence, then referred to as Government House, were flung open and everyone, from the social elite to the hoi polloi were welcomed. Hundreds accepted the invitation, and were entertained in the colourfully decorated interior on April 10, 1912. After being introduced to the new commissioner and his party, guests circulated throughout the building.

John Dines and his orchestra were set up on the landing of the grand staircase. Guests played cards on the second floor, and billiards on the third. Others smoked cigars and exchanged stories while consuming the delicacies and dipping into the punchbowl located in front of the grand staircase.

They danced until two o’clock in the morning, and then played cards until the stragglers left for their homes in the early hours. One observer noted that… “People were there in all kinds of clothes, from the handsome gowns sent over from Paris to the wives of the millionaires, to the worn, shabby outfits of those less fortunate. It didn’t make any difference to the governor or his good wife.”

Four years later, on July 20, 1916, the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire (now referred to simply as IODE) sponsored the Alexandra Rose Day Festival to raise money for the war effort. (The IODE are still instrumental in presenting the Commissioner’s Tea a century later.) It began in the afternoon but continued late into the northern summer twilight. Again the orchestra was playing, but this time it was outside on the verandah.

On the lawn, ice cream, cake and sandwiches were served to the guests, many of whom were visitors who had just arrived on the steamer Selkirk. Others played “Swat the Kaiser” at 25 cents for three tennis balls. For that, contestants got to throw their projectiles at likenesses of the German crown prince. A direct hit earned the winner a cigar or other prize.

Everyone sported decorative wild roses they had purchased to support the war effort. Mrs. Black played the hostess, “charmingly gowned in white, and wearing a most becoming picture hat trimmed in Alexandra roses.” Despite being weak and pale from recent surgery, George Black circulated through the assembled crowd throughout the day.

In Dawson City, my wife Kathy and I joined the modern-day Blacks, and acted as tour guides, escorting them to various sights and visiting special attractions. They stayed in Dawson for five days, but later admitted that they could have stayed even longer.

They stood on the Dome overlooking the Klondike capital and absorbed the spectacular view. They panned for gold at Claim 33, then visited a working mine. Special tours were provided of the commissioner’s residence, which George and Martha Black occupied for four years, as well as the residence on Fifth Avenue where they lived during the years that George was member of Parliament. George Black was important to the territory both socially and politically for half a century.

On Friday afternoon, Doug Black made a donation of his great uncle’s cocktail shaker to the Dawson City Museum. Acting Director Alex Somerville graciously accepted the artifact on behalf of the museum.

Somerville then took the Blacks and the Campbells into the museum storage to show them other artifacts associated with George Black, including a collection of walking sticks recently donated to the museum, a set of silverware and a pair of decorative snowshoes. As a special treat, he opened up the storage shelves and pointed to the desk that George Black occupied when he was a member of the territorial assembly between 1905 and 1910.

The modern Blacks were recognized during the proceedings at the Commissioner’s Tea, where they were greeted by Yukon Commissioner Doug Phillips and his wife Dale Stokes, and by Chief Justice Ron Veale and his wife, Catherine. They chatted at some length with former member of Parliament Larry Bagnell and his wife, Melissa Craig, after which Diane Black circulated around the grounds of the commissioner’s residence, meeting people and making friends with everyone.

In the evening, the Black party were acknowledged at the Commissioner’s Ball in the Palace Grand Theatre, where Dawson Mayor Wayne Potoroka chatted with Doug Black, at one point placing the gold-laden chain of office around his neck.

A scrumptious meal was served. Guests at the ball were then entertained by a short address from the commissioner and youth performances by Emma Kaiser on harp, and sisters Sophia and Emily Ross. Dancing to the music of Hank Karr and the Canucks followed.

Back in Whitehorse, Doug reminisced about George and Martha Black visiting his parents in Montreal in the mid 1950s, when he was a young lad of 10. He remembers they went out for dinner, which was a rare occasion, and that George was a “fun guy,” who got along well with his parents. It was obvious that they lived life to the fullest.

But the significance of that visit and of the special guests did not impress the 10-year-old, and he confessed that he learned more about George Black during his recent visit to Dawson City. Diane Black reinforced that, stating that it was important for Doug to get in touch with his history, to see the places and hear the stories connected with his illustrious relative.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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