yukons captain martin was more than a master mariner

Politician, entrepreneur and fox farmer — Captain Paddy Martin wore many hats. But before making his mark on the Yukon he had a long and…

Politician, entrepreneur and fox farmer — Captain Paddy Martin wore many hats. But before making his mark on the Yukon he had a long and colourful career on the high seas.

Captain Martin was born in a remote outpost in Newfoundland in 1864. He took to the sea as a teenager and fished and sealed off the coast of Greenland for the next 10 years.

Lured by the promise of better wages and working conditions, Captain Martin headed west to British Columbia in 1891.

Within months of moving west, Captain Martin travelled back east on behalf of his backers and purchased a sealing schooner, which he sailed around Cape Horn to Victoria, BC, in record time. The dangerous trip was a rite of passage for seasoned sailors at the time.

Back in Victoria, he fell in with a rogue band of sealers who often poached the animals in defiance of international laws.

“I was anxious to assist my shipmates in the piratical work of slaughtering animals that was strictly prohibited, and a solemn warning given as to the consequences to follow if caught,” wrote Martin.

“In those days like most sailors of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, they were full of adventure with no thought of risk. This was pretty much my outlook, so killing seals against the orders of two nations the size of Great Britain and the United States of America didn’t phase (sic) me at all.”

Martin was on site when the first wave of gold-laden miners emerged from the Klondike in 1897. The gold rush was on and Victoria was one of the starting points toward the Klondike.

“Lo! What a sight it was for us Barnacle Bills, to see these hardboiled prospectors walking down the gangplank with big buckskin sacks on their shoulders,” wrote Martin.

“All we knew about the drama that was enacted right before our eyes was that seafarers was nothing in the romance of adventure compared to these tough-looking gold seekers. Any one of them had more in their poke than we would make in five years of sealing.”

Martin quickly realized that the sealing trade was in decline and went north to Skagway, where he took a job on a coastal steamer transporting stampeders and their gear from Vancouver to Skagway.

He was then hired to pilot the SS Canadian to Dawson City. After Dawson, Martin settled at the future site of Whitehorse, where he helped to build the town site into a thriving city. He opened a general merchandise and grocery store on First Avenue called the Arctic Trading Company.

Over the years, Martin ran various hotels and stores; he operated a fox farm and he owned one of the first Model T cars in the Yukon. In 1912, he was elected to represent Whitehorse in a territorial election. He won the seat by a landslide.

But he lost his seat in 1915, when he received less than half the number of votes than the lowest candidate elected.

Between 1932 and 1933, he penned his memoirs in 13 exercise books, which he then presented to the Roman Catholic Church in Whitehorse to be kept in its archives.

Captain Martin died in 1940.

“It was with profound regret that the news circulated around town…” read Martin’s obituary in the Daily Star. “His rugged individuality made him a veritable institution … from one end of the territory to the other his name was familiar and his popularity well maintained”

He was buried in Victoria according to a provision in his will that he would “avoid an eternity in sub-zero tundra.”

Today, the Captain Martin House, which was occupied by the Martin family from 1915 to the mid-1930s, remains a historic building and is now located at 305 Wood Street in downtown Whitehorse.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.