Last spring, Jeff Brady made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Jeff is the proprietor of the Skaguay News Depot, the editor and publisher of the Skagway News, and author of the excellent book, Skagway: City of the New Century. He is also involved with the annual North Words Writers Symposium, which I was attending.
During the symposium, he asked me if I would like to come back later in the summer and reside in a rustic log cabin for two weeks. He and his wife Dorothy are developing a cabin as a retreat for writers and artists at their picturesque property on a tributary of the Taiya River, near historic Dyea at the head of Lynn Canal.
I spoke to my wife, Kathy, who is gathering material for a biography on George Black, the prominent Yukon lawyer and politician in the first half of the 20th century. Would this be an opportunity to digest the volumes of research material that she has accumulated on this interesting man? We agreed it was.
Our departure from Whitehorse had been a wet one. The previous week had been non-stop rain, but at the summit the clouds parted and the sun came out. The following days were warm, calm, sunny ones with brilliant clear blue skies that set us in a positive frame of mind from the beginning.
Our little cabin at Dyea was a gem, containing a kitchen/living room space on the main floor, with a sleeping loft. An adjacent washroom provided toilet and shower. For a couple accustomed to living together for 35 years, the compact space worked well.
In the evenings, a magnificent harvest moon bathed the rainforest landscape around us in its unearthly glow. To lie in bed with the curtains parted to allow the moonlight into the loft was magical.
When we filled up the bird feeder hanging from the front porch, a small flock of Stellar’s jays descended upon the offering and their antics provided us with continuous entertainment – and company – for the duration of our occupancy.
A juvenile sharp-shinned hawk eyed them hungrily from a short distance, but after a few days it disappeared, presumably to continue its southward migration.
We set up our laptops and began processing the boxes of research material we had brought with us. Kathy and I threw ourselves into the task at hand with a zestful energy and commenced the slow, painstaking task of sifting through hundreds of articles that chronicle the daily activities of George Black.
George has always fallen in the literary and historical shadow of his wife Martha. Yet reviewing the documents that traced his activities revealed more than the octogenarian known to most long-time Yukon residents who still remember him from the 1950s.
Instead, the story of a young, energetic and formidable lawyer and politician emerged. Remaining in the Yukon to mine during and after the initial Klondike stampede, Black eventually set up a law practice. He had remarkable success in obtaining acquittals for defendants that the prosecutors were convinced were heading for the slammer.
He also pursued his life-long passion for politics. There was no Conservative (opposition) party to confront the Liberal administration, so he helped start one. When a federal election in 1902 was tarnished by Liberal interference, George Black led the charge at the following election, hunting down the keepers of the voters list and forcing the returning officer to add all eligible voters to the list, not just those who were Liberal supporters.
George entered territorial politics in 1905 and campaigned for a fully elected council. The Liberal administration was entitled to place half the members onto council without election. Black remained active in the territorial legislature long enough to see a fully elected council installed in 1909.
Black became the commissioner (governor) of the Yukon in 1912, finally leaving that position to enlist and lead a company of 225 men overseas to the trenches of France during World War I. Within a couple of years of returning to Canada, he was elected to Parliament as the Yukon representative, and was returned to his seat five more times over a period of more than 23 years.
Poring over the old records without everyday interruptions, we were able to read his speeches and follow the battles of this formidable political warrior. His personal writings were enhanced by the physical landscape we were in. Driving in to Skagway, we contemplated the gold rush trail winding through the valley. His gold rush descriptions of it are vivid and compelling:
“Sometimes a horse or an ox slips,” he wrote, “or driven to exhaustion, falls and there is no room to pass him, then all is confusion; those behind not knowing the cause of the delay keep crowding up, a fearful jam and much shouting and cursing ensues, sometimes for hours. Many a time we see a good animal go down never to rise again, and dogs, cattle and horses are strewn all through the canyons. Several times some of our own horses have gone through the ice or tumbled off the edge of the narrow ledges into the water, but with prompt action we have always had the good fortune to get them out safe and sound; our horses always have strength enough left to keep themselves – it doesn’t pay to exhaust them.”
Along the trail he witnessed a gunfight between a stampeder who had just been robbed of $300 and the gang of gamblers that had fleeced him, all of which took place within earshot of the American troops, who passively stood by.
Similarly, we absorbed the physical setting through which George’s future wife Martha passed. We viewed the salt marshes where the gold-mad crowd came ashore and the now vacant landscape where the gold rush town of Dyea once stood. Perhaps she passed near our little refuge in the rainforest while she wandered in the area, waiting for her party to advance over the trail. She loved to collect wild flowers and pick berries.
Each time we went to Skagway, we passed the start of the fabled Chilkoot trail. This is the way that Martha came in 1898. When she reached Sheep Camp, near the summit of the pass, bodies were still being recovered from the deadly slide of April 3. We wandered among the decaying grave markers of the little cemetery at Dyea where most of the victims of the avalanche are now buried.
While we were undergoing this study of the man, the Bradys were generous hosts, always available when the need arose. It was the ideal situation for our intensive study of the life of a man who was a political giant in the territory for half a century.
If you want a quiet, contemplative place in a beautiful coastal setting, this writer’s retreat will prove to be a popular location to get the creative literary (or artistic) juices flowing. We both recommend it.
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 email@example.com