Everybody who visits the Klondike should see its iconic attractions: The Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek, and in Dawson City, Robert Service Cabin, Jack London’s cabin, even to a certain extent the Berton Home.
But there is another lesser known attraction in the public cemetery on the hill above town – the grave of Jan Welzl. Depending on where you come from, he’s either a hero, or an oddball.
Jan Welzl, a native of what is now called the Czech Republic, resided in Dawson City from 1929 until his death in 1948. He was an aging indigent whose presence in the gold rush city was not so out of place as it might have been elsewhere. Dawson City had a large population of aging men – relics from the gold rush decades before. He was just another one of them.
People remembered him as a friendly, rotund gentleman with a bushy walrus moustache; a pipe was often clenched between his teeth. He was unconventional and an inventor who, from his first arrival in Dawson, was at work making one contrivance or another, chasing the Holy Grail of inventors – the perpetual motion machine. Locally, he was known as “the perpetual motion man.”
One elder of Dawson City told me that when he was young, his mother would bake pies which he was then sent to deliver to the septuagenarian. In fact, the kids would flock to his cabin at the corner of King Street and Fifth Avenue to peer through the window at his marvellous device, or listen to his stories.
His cabin was always filled to overflowing with one of his ingenious contraptions. As described by one visitor: “There in the centre of the room, occupying the majority of space, stood a large wheel, innumerable cogs and many levers – mostly all of wood. ‘Eet is my latest invention,” said Welzl. “Eet ees a pomp for da mine … you th’ink eet vork, no? … maybe I make lotsa monee und gedt a patent, no?’” Sadly, he died shortly after this encounter.
He was buried in the public cemetery and his burial site was almost forgotten until some of his countrymen sought and located it (although there is controversy over its location).
But Welzl had a reputation that spread across the globe and included a bestselling book. In fact, he is something of a national hero back in his homeland.
Little is known about Welzl, who, back home, was known as “Eskimo Welzl.” Some say his birthplace was Hohenstaat, but he was likely born in 1868 in the town of Zabreh, in Moravia, a country that was engulfed in the course of history and absorbed into what, after World War I, became known as Czechoslovakia.
One account states that he apprenticed for a short time as a watchmaker; another says it was as a machinist. He may have done military service before he went on his famed travels through the polar regions. In 1924, as a crew member of a small polar ship named Seven Sisters, he was shipwrecked on the Pacific Coast of the United States. Lacking identification, he was deported to Europe, where, in order to raise money, he gave lectures and sold articles to newspapers about his exploits in the North.
He thus attracted the attention of two journalists, who over a period of two months, conducted an extended interview with him. They took meticulous notes and paid him a small sum of money in exchange for signing over the publishing rights to his story. Three years after he arrived in Dawson City, a book under his name, titled Thirty Years in the Golden North was published in the United States. Selected by the Book of the Month Club, it became a best seller in North America.
The book was and still is shelved as non-fiction, yet it contains some of the most preposterous assertions detailing facts about the North. I reviewed the section that describes his journey over the Chilkoot Trail and down the Yukon River. They are more fiction than fact.
Take for example the funicular railroad that carried gold rush stampeders to the foot of the Chilkoot Pass (was something lost in translation?), or the White Pass railroad that was not completed until 1906 (it was 1900). Or how about the net the Mounted Police stretched across the Yukon River below Five Finger Rapid to catch all the drowned corpses that floated by?
Welzl never mastered geography: the White River flows into the Yukon below Lake Laberge; the MacMillan enters the Yukon at Fort Selkirk, and the Sixtymile flows into the Yukon below Dawson. And be careful of the skunks that are found in the forests beside the river!
Reviewing the book in 1932, famed Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson couldn’t decide whether the book was a parody of exploration literature, or complete fabrication.
Welzl vacillated between trying to claim a larger share of the royalties and disowning the book entirely, but in the end, he had to settle for the less than $100 he received when he relinquished his rights to the volume. In the eyes of Dawsonites, he remained nothing more than one of the many oddball hermits who occupied the Klondike in the decades after the gold rush.
Back home in Czechoslovakia, he was not forgotten. He was warmly welcomed during a visit to his homeland in 1924, where he was “received in audience” by Thomas Masaryk, the liberal president of the new republic. Welzl’s life became associated with the values of social justice and freedom of the individual embraced by the Masaryk regime.
After the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Welzl’s books were banned. According to Rachel Taber, a student who studied Welzl in 1987, “The sentiments expressed in the stories regarding individual freedom are considered to be against the purposes of the state. The communist government does not consider Welzl to be the model of a good Czech citizen.”
A short-lived liberalization of Czechoslovakia occurred in 1968. Welzl again served as a symbol of individual liberty. The return to hardcore communism once again made his work a victim of censorship. When my wife Kathy hosted a Czech diplomat visiting Dawson City in the 1970s, he acknowledged both the existence of the man, and his unfavourable standing with the communist government.
And that’s how it remained until the end of communist rule in 1989. Jan Welzl is once again in favour. Tourists from his homeland flock to his Dawson City gravesite and what it symbolizes for them. In the end, it is not the factual accuracy of his narratives that matters to them as much as what he represents.
In 1998, asteroid “15425 Welzl” was discovered by Czech astronomer Petr Pravec and named in honour of the wandering eccentric of Dawson. Every year, in his home town of Zabreh, where a large statue of Welzl is prominently displayed, participants with suitcases compete in a run in remembrance of the Czech wanderer.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org