When Frank Slim was 14 years old, he approached the captain of a Whitehorse sternwheeler and asked for a job.
“What are you going to do on the boat?” the captain asked him.
It was 1912, and aboriginal people didn’t work on boats much.
“I don’t know, I just want a job,” said Slim in the shy gentle way he is best remembered for.
What the captain didn’t know when he hired him as a deckhand was that Slim, who had grown up on the water, knew the bends of the river better than many of his crew.
When the boat ran into a gravel bar a couple weeks later, Slim knew right away where the boat had strayed. The captain invited him into the wheelhouse.
“Show me where we should have gone,” he said.
Soon, Slim had worked his way up to being captain of his own boat.
He passed his captain’s test by teaching himself to read from the labels of Campbell’s soup cans and shopping catalogues.
He is now considered one of the last original riverboat pilots in the Yukon.
Yesterday, Whitehorse commemorated the boatman by naming the main structure in Shipyards Park the Frank Slim Building.
The building was overflowing with Slim’s friends and family.
“My grandfather was a shy, humble man,” said Donna Dillman.
“He would have appreciated this, but would have thought it was a whole lot of pomp and circumstance,” she said looking around at all the city officials, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles who turned out for the event.
Slim would often come home from ferrying tourists along Schwatka Lake, and dole out silver dollars and sugar doughnuts to his grandchildren, said Dillman.
It spurred her book about her grandfather’s life, Silver Dollars and Donuts. She presented the city with a draft at yesterday’s ceremony.
“Frank Slim died many years ago, but he will be remembered forever,” said longtime friend Jim Robb at the ceremony.
He unveiled a framed photograph of Slim with a sternwheeler in the background. Beneath was a brief description of Slim’s life.
The picture captures one of the last times Slim piloted a boat.
During his career Slim piloted boats along the Pelly, Yukon, Stewart, Dease and Nisutlin rivers.
When river traffic dwindled he began ferrying tourists to Schwatka Lake.
In 1960, Slim made his last river trip from Whitehorse to Dawson on the SS Keno.
When bridges replaced ferries, Slim turned to trapping and trained to become a heavy equipment operator to make ends meet. He died in 1973.
Slim was well known and liked by the people he visited on his river trips, said Anne Marie-Miller, Slim’s granddaughter.
“Many of the elders up in Dawson knew who he was and when Captain Frank came down the river, they would all be sitting waiting for him to arrive.”
Miller was raised in a small yellow shack across from Shipyards Park that can still be seen from the window of the Frank Slim Building.
“My grandfather would be over at the house a lot and we used to walk the river path together,” said Miller. “He talked to me about respect and being kind to others.
“It is the times I spent with him that led me into a career in social work.”
He made many sacrifices to support his family, said both Virginia Lindsay, Slim’s youngest daughter, and her husband Joe Lindsay.
Slim gave up his status card to go to school to get his captain’s papers.
“He was just happy to have a job and some income for his family,” said his son-in-law, Joe. “He didn’t think about not having status.”
“He was a good, kind father to us all,” said Virginia.
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