As she examined dozens of photos laid out on a large table, former territorial archivist, Linda Johnson recalled how they first came to her attention more than forty years ago.
“One day, Diane Chisholm [another archivist] and I were sitting in my office when the phone rang. I picked it up and a voice said, ‘I’m calling from Pennsylvania. Is this the Yukon Archives? Are you in the Yukon?’”
The caller had a collection of films and numerous photographs that had been taken by a Mountie in the Yukon between 1914 and 1946. The Mountie, whose name was Claude Tidd, was the caller’s late brother-in-law.
Johnson had not heard of Claude Tidd at the time, but the collection has since become oneof the most well-known and well-used resources at the Yukon Archives. It contains correspondence between Tidd, and his wife, Mary, and her family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There are carefully crafted home movies and more than 2,000 photographs. There is even an audio recording, originally made in 1947, of Claude and Mary Tidd on a phonograph disc, a short time before Claude passed away.
Johnson never got to meet the Tidds; Claude Tidd passed away the year that she was born, so she and countless others have become well acquainted with the Tidds through their body of work, which was passed to the Yukon Archives by their Pennsylvania relatives.
Claude Tidd was born in England, but came to Canada as a young man. After trying his hand at many other pursuits, he enlisted with the Royal North West Mounted Police in 1914 and was shortly thereafter transferred to the Yukon. Ten years later, he was asked if he would mind showing the sights to an American woman who was in Dawson, waiting to connect with a steamer to take her downriver to Fort Yukon, Alaska. She was a nurse, being posted to the hospital there. Her name was Mary Ryder.
Tidd was smitten with Mary, and an intense exchange of letters began, followed by a visit the following spring. They were married a year after they first met, and their romance lasted for the rest of their lives. Together, they were posted to many communities throughout the Yukon, both during his years as a Mounties, and after he retired: Dawson City, Ross River, Twelve Mile, Forty Mile, Old Crow. They were not passing through these places; they were fully engaged in community activities.
Mary was tiny, weighing in at just over 45 Kilograms (100 pounds). She seemed to prefer the isolated outposts to the more populated communities, and sometimes travelled with Claude on patrols. She once spent two weeks on the trail with Claude, mushing their dog teams between Ross River and Whitehorse in the dead of winter. Her letters provide detailed accounts of her journeys. After this particular trip, she commented that, for the several months before that trip, she hadn’t been in the company of another woman who spoke English.
Claude was constantly taking photos, and later shooting films with his cameras. He had a remarkable eye for subject matter and composition. There is not a bad photo from any of his photo albums, some of which were finely decorated with numerous inscriptions describing the subjects. He filmed everything, from natural history specimens and domestic life, to chopping wood, fetching water, snaring rabbits, and patrolling by river in the summer, and by dog teams in the winter.
Through his films and photographs, he captured a lifestyle from an era in Yukon history slowly moving beyond living memory, in some of the most isolated places in the territory when few others were around to do so. His portraits of Yukoners may be familiar to you without even realizing that it was Tidd who took them. Percy DeWolfe, Chief Isaac and Member of Parliament George Black were among his subjects. He even took selfies of himself and Mary before the digital age. He jokingly referred to himself as a “camera fiend.”
|Retired archivist Linda Johnson, seen here examining photos taken by Claude Tidd, first learned about this remarkable collection more than forty years ago. It has become one of the most widely used collections at the Yukon Archives. (Courtesy/Michael Gates)|
But he was more than that. He was a meticulous craftsman with a lens, working in highly adverse conditions far from any technical support. When he was posted in Ross River, he set up a dark room in the attic of their cabin, to process his own films, carefully chinking all the openings to ensure no light got in. His interior photos show balanced lighting from at least two different light sources. How did he accomplish this where there was no electricity? I’ll have to go through his papers at the archives to see if he provided an answer. His choice of subjects shows communities going through a phase of profound transition. Trips that once took days or weeks by dogsled for example, were later accomplished in hours by bush plane.
First nation people were also going through a tremendous transition. Tidd captured their lifestyle before it was transformed. In the late 1970s, Linda Johnson took some of Tidd’s moving pictures back to Ross River, to show to a full house, where they had been taken nearly 50 years before. These films became a bridge between past and present. Some residents recognized themselves as young children and could name many of those otherwise unknown persons shown in the footage. What an extraordinary gift! Claude and Mary had no children. Their letters and photos are the legacy they have left behind.
A person may chronicle their experiences from the past, through letters, photographs and other things they keep, but it is the archivist who cares for these documents, and becomes the gateway between past and present. And one wonders: if Linda Johnson had not been at her desk to answer the telephone so many years ago, would Mary Tidd’s brother have turned thecollection over to the national archives in Ottawa instead, thousands of kilometres away from where it belonged? Would they have languished amongst the millions of documents accumulatedfrom across the nation, whose worth might have been unrecognized and unappreciated?
Using material from the Tidd collection, as well as other sources, the Yukon Archives hascreated a website display of the lives of Claude and Mary, assembled from photographs, extracts from their letters, as well as from other sources of information. You can see this on-line exhibit, titled “A Yukon Romance,” by going to the following website: www.yukonromance.ca
If that whets your appetite, you can see more than 1500 photos from the Tidd collection online by going to: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/digitization/public/index.php#
If you really want to get a real sense of the richness of the collection, why don’t you visit the Yukon Archives, where they can bring out the original documents for you to look at?
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at email@example.com.