I didn’t realize when I started this writing gig (this is my 400th column) that there was so much to write about Yukon history. As time progressed I learned about more and more interesting Yukon people and places. When short of ideas, my wife Kathy will offer a suggestion or two, and I’m off and running again. In fact, she has given me some good ideas that haven’t yet become History Hunter columns.
Friends and acquaintances have been another good source of interesting topics. Charlie Roots suggested that I write about the Klondike Brewery in Dawson City. It was a brilliant idea, and it turned out to be a widely read article. In fact, it led to a second column, because the story of the man who founded the brewery, Thomas W. O’Brien, one of the original pioneers in the Yukon, was interesting too. The story of O’Brien, however, wasn’t as popular as the one about his beer, but what can one expect in the Yukon?
Someone will send a query as a result of reading a column, which leads to interesting and intriguing details that weren’t part of the original account. Readers have written, enquiring about people or events that I haven’t heard of. I try to uncover the facts about them so that I can respond, but some avenues of pursuit are more fruitful than others.
Bob Holmes, for example, pointed me in the direction of Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, and one of America’s most prolific writers.
Gardner is reported to have spent time in the Klondike. His father was a mining engineer with experience in dredging in California and was said to have worked in Dawson City around 1905. In one report Bob sent me about California dredge mining, Gardner Senior is mentioned along with other mining engineers with similar expertise. The list included O.B. Perry, who came to Dawson City as the general manager of the newly formed Yukon Gold Company, around 1905. Unlike Gardner, Perry remained in Dawson City for a dozen years before joining the U.S. Army engineers during World War I.
I do a lot of reading about one subject but become distracted by tantalizing facts pertaining to an unrelated topic. The old Yukon newspapers are seductive in this way, because there are so many interesting articles to lure you away from the person or place you are investigating. The solution? Keep notes of these for future reference; perhaps another column will emerge from these historical snippets.
I have delved into archaeology, biography, First Nations, artifacts and old buildings. I have unearthed stories of murder and mayhem – the O’Brien murder in 1899 was a benchmark case in forensic investigation and a fascinating story. There have been mass murders, murder suicides, and anarchist bombings. Readers were interested in the tragedy of the sinking of the Princess Sophia in 1918. All of these articles have shown high reader response.
I have talked to many interesting people. For instance, I learned much about life at the mining camp at Bear Creek near Dawson City from former residents. One of these was Ted Thornton Trump, a young man from Vancouver, who came looking for a job during the Depression, and secured work with the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation for two summers. He had a knack for putting ideas together to create ingenious devices. Trump later went on to invent the hydraulic system that every lineman now knows as the “cherry picker.” He had made and lost several fortunes before I met him in the 1980s, when nostalgia drew him back to the Klondike for several visits.
Henri Thibault, who once owned the Shannon Motel here in Whitehorse, came to Dawson to give a guided tour through the old boiler maker’s shop on Second Avenue. Henri had once worked for the proprietor, Jesse “Dummy” West, during the 1930s. When I discovered that my tape recorder had malfunctioned, he kindly returned to give the tour a second time, with more successful results. The boiler maker was more important than the blacksmith in early Dawson.
Henri was able to explain all the unusual tools as well as provide an answer to why there were three streetcar axles in his shop, when there were no streetcars for thousands of miles. The axles, incidentally, were used to turn plates of heavy gauge steel into boiler shells. Jesse West rested a plate of steel on two of the long hexagonal axles, then he and Thibault pounded, with heavy sledge hammers upon the third axle, which was placed on top of the steel plate between the two axles beneath, causing the plate to curl into a cylinder.
I have covered historical award ceremonies, book launches, and written book reviews. I have attended museum events and archaeological digs. One memorable moment was a personal guided tour of the mysterious Museum of Nostalgia in Haines Junction by its owner/curator, Smokey Guttman.
Less well known places and events are intriguing because they are the missing pieces of a giant historical jig-saw puzzle. Much has been written about the Chilkoot Trail, and the White Pass Trail, for instance, so I explored and wrote a number of columns about the Dalton Trail instead. Doing this helped me compose my thoughts about the subject and eventually led to writing the first book on the trail since Arthur Thompson wrote “Gold Seeking on the Dalton Trail,” a semi-fictional account, back in 1900.
I have done the same with the Yukon and World War I. To my surprise, the column about the Yukoners at the Battle of Vimy Ridge received the largest reader response of any I have ever written. Almost as interesting – to me, if not to anyone else – was the one I wrote after interviewing “Country” Joe McDonald, one of the most well-known voices of the anti-war movement of the 1960s, when America was involved in Viet Nam. Service’s book, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man inspired McDonald to put some of the bard’s verses to music and release them on a record album. Writing articles about the Yukon and World War I helped me to craft my next book, which will come out in the fall.
Yukon history is definitely not boring, and there is plenty of material for years to come. So stay tuned.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org