A generation ago, my first impressions of the Yukon included the iconic image of the grizzled miner hunkered down over his gold pan on some unnamed creek. One of my favourites was of an old-timer with an abundant white beard and the grandfatherly smile, teaching visitors how to pan for gold.
While the image was a stereotype, there was much truth in it. Even before the gold rush, there was a strange breed of men who had come North, many remembered for their eccentricities. Cannibal Ike liked to eat his meat raw. Howard Hamilton cut away the walls of his log cabin from the inside for kindling and joked that the thin walls gave him more light inside. Another, known as The Old Maiden, lugged stacks of old newspapers with him, wherever he prospected, to refer to when settling arguments with his neighbours.
Some came to escape the law, others, civilization. Most claimed they came North to get rich, and that’s as good an excuse as any. They later made up that unique part of the community that Jim Robb came to label The Colourful Five Per Cent.
They were caught up in the euphoria of the Klondike Gold Rush, and it left an indelible imprint upon their psyches. After the gold rush subsided, they remained and became part of an unusual demographic bulge that consisted of hundreds of aging single men who spread out across the Yukon (but especially in the goldfields around Dawson City). They remained for the rest of their lives.
Many of pre-gold rush prospectors couldn’t leave because they were in debt to the traders who grubstaked them, but in the years following, it was something else that held them. I think it was the freedom of spirit that the Yukon had to offer. The men (and a few women) who chose this lifestyle could have made a better living at something else, but that wasn’t what held them here.
More than a few were well off. Geologist Hugh Bostock met one man who had saved up enough from his mining that he was able to go home and set up his sisters in comfort for the rest of their lives. He could have done the same, but he chose to return to the Yukon. Where else, he asked, could you step out of your cabin to have a pee and have such a spectacular view?
Another was Pete Nazarino, who lived on his claim on Dominion Creek. He made $3,500 a year and could have made a lot more, but he chose not to. When he went to town, he wisely bought his grubstake for the following year, before going on a spree of mythic proportions. When asked why he didn’t choose to make more from his claim – there was certainly enough gold on it. “But why? he asked. “I’d only burn it up in one weekend there in Dawson.”
Another was Jimmy Lanoff, a Russian miner who worked as a dredgeman during the summers and spent his autumns in Dawson playing cards and being sociable. After Christmas, he would retreat to his claim on Gold Run Creek to hand mine for gold with a partner. One year, he was called back to work on the dredges in the spring, and never had the chance to sluice his winter’s pile of paydirt. He never did. It just didn’t seem important.
Bob Fraser and George Rusk ran a roadhouse on Dominion Creek long after the gold rush had waned. As a young man, Pierre Berton met them while he was working for the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation on the thawing crew. Fraser hadn’t been to Dawson in 17 years, while his partner hadn’t been to town since the gold rush 40 years before!
There were plenty of old-timers who didn’t come into Dawson for years at a time. They would send their orders into town and have the goods delivered to them. They left a suit at one of the hotels to wear during their infrequent visits. One retailer in Dawson City remembered an old-timer paying for his supplies in money that was years out of date.
One man had a son living Outside, who was doing well, who tried to convince him to leave the North. He wouldn’t, and was content to mine his claim and live in his cabin on Bonanza Creek – and got around his claim on his hands and knees! As one long-time Dawson City resident told me, “They were very independent; they were self-minded and they weren’t going to accept welfare. They were just as happy to eke out their existence, barely scraping by, but doing it on their own.”
And they lived in solitude. One such man, who lived in the Kluane region, fell ill in his cabin on Bullion Creek in the Kluane district in April of 1918 and died. His remains weren’t found until the following August. But he probably preferred the life where he was, to that in town.
Some could not stand the isolation, and were occasionally taken away to Vancouver and institutionalized. Geologist Hugh Bostock encountered one man who engaged in conversations with his chimney. But living in the North, he probably wasn’t doing anyone any harm with his eccentricities.
That generation of old-timers is now gone, but their stories survive. Most of them were happy with their lives. How many people could say that today?
There are still a few people around who came North for the personal freedom, but it seems that civilization is creeping into the territory and there isn’t much room left for independent souls. So I ask you, do you think that we have lost the independent spirit of the old days?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in May. You can contact him at email@example.com