Riding the rails with an arts icon

It seemed like a perfect story — riding the legendary White Pass Railway with artist and historian Jim Robb.

It seemed like a perfect story — riding the legendary White Pass Railway with artist and historian Jim Robb.

What made it great was that Robb, a legend in his own right, had worked on the railway years ago.

What could go wrong?

Well, a few things.

First, to ride the White Pass, which chugs out from Carcross across the US border into Skagway, you need a passport.

No problem.

Except, I forgot the ID.

I was reminded about it 30 minutes outside Whitehorse.

And I wasn’t the guy driving.

So we raced back and, after a little rooting around, I found my passport.

What followed was a frantic drive down the South Klondike Highway.

We made the train just as it was to pull out of the Carcross station.

“We were wondering if you were going to make it,” Robb called from the first car of the train.

“So did I,” I said, sliding into the seat next to him and taking out my notepad.

“So, tell me about your time working for White Pass.”

Robb gave me a bit of a confused look.

“I didn’t work there very long,” he said.

“I did that for maybe a month or something like that. Just a short time.”

The whistle blew and the train lurched into motion.


As we rolled out of Carcross, Robb noticed a series of ramshackle buildings on the far side of the river.

“Those are some interesting places,” he said directing my attention toward the shacks, which looked to right out of one of his famous paintings.

All of the buildings had a tilt to them, and wooden boards sticking off in odd directions.

“I’ll have to come down here to do some sketches some time,” he said.

Robb describes his artistic style as the exaggerated truth.

He discovered this view of the northern world while living and painting in Dawson City many years ago.

A lot of the buildings were shifted and tilted because of the melting permafrost.

Robb fell in love with painting and sketching these deformed beauties, and began to make everything he worked on look a little more like them.

Robb desecrates every straight line and square corner while adding little embellishments to his work.

A slightly bent chimney would become a mangled piece of tin and the northern lights would always dance overhead.

These “exaggerated truths” are the visual representation of one of Robb’s other passions — tall tales.

Robb has collected these stories, his paintings and old photographs into a series of books and columns called the Colourful Five Per Cent.

All of Robb’s stories have their roots in the past, but one gets the feeling that, like the paintings, there have been some embellishments along the way.

While the train shuttered noisily along the banks of an unusually calm Lake Bennett, Robb told me one of his favourite tales.

It was about Buzzsaw Jimmy, who had rigged up a tractor-powered buzzsaw that could cut 20 cords of wood in a single hour.

Jimmy actually lost his leg when he slipped and got buzzed by the machine. After that, he hobbled around on a wooden leg.

Obviously not learning from his past mistakes, Jimmy slipped and fell into his machine a second time.

Once again, the machine made short work of his appendage.

Luckily, this time it was the wooden one.

Laying on the ground with his mangled prosthetic, Buzzsaw Jimmy began to yell at the machine, “I fooled you this time you son of a bitch!”

Robb laughed as he delivered the punch line and turned to watch the near-perfect reflections the mountains made on the lake.

Robb first came north in the spring of 1955 when he was just 21 years old, after seeing a brochure about the Yukon, which included a Robert Service poem.

He worked odd jobs but only as a way to subsidize his artwork.

 He began by creating images on stretched moose hides with pastel and charcoal.

After doing that for 15 years, he moved on to watercolours and sketches of people and buildings.

Robb began the Colourful Five Per Cent in 1971 as a column in the Whitehorse Star.

The column, which continues to this day and was also released as a book, was an outlet for him to share stories and discuss the colourful characters he’s met during his time in the North.

“I’m just interested in the interesting people of the past and present,” he said.

“Every era has its colourful people, no matter whether it’s during the time of the gold rush or today.

“So I’m trying to record them through my drawings, paintings, photographs and stories of course.”

“In the early or mid ‘70s I was kind of stuck for money so I took a job with the White Pass Railway.”

Robb describes the work he did as gandy dancing, which involved manually putting in and moving the tracks.

It also required a lot of work shoveling gravel between the ties.

“It was quite the experience,” he said.

“It was really hard work. That made up my mind pretty quick that I had to get back to my artwork.”

Robb’s interests have led him to become a sort of collector and historian.

He maintains a large collection of photographs, mining documents, diaries, letters, old calendars, posters … you name it.

After 53 years documenting the territory’s history and interesting characters, Robb doesn’t consider himself to be part of the unique five per cent.

“That’s what some people claim, but I know there’s a lot more interesting people than me around,” he said.

“I guess I could be called interesting because of the interest I have in Yukoners.

“That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life is document these people and also tell their stories.”

After the trip, Robb insisted that we visit Skagway’s Red Onion Saloon for a few drinks.

A Jim Robb painting of the famous brothel was hanging in one corner.

“Where’d you get the artwork done,” Robb asked the bartender who had several tattoos showing through provocative getup.

“Jail,” she answered curtly.

Robb nodded. He seemed to enjoy the response.

See a video slideshow online at www.yukon-news.com.

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