History Hunter: New book celebrates Yukon’s most colourful hotel

If the walls could talk, what tales they would tell. But the venerable old Caribou Hotel in Carcross has found its voice in the form of a new book, written and published by local author and historian, John Firth, titled “The Caribou Hotel: Hauntings, hospitality, a hunter and the parrot.”

“The Caribou Hotel,” which was launched last Friday, more or less corresponds with the re-opening of the hundred-year-old hotel after having been closed for almost 15 years. And the stories this old building has to tell are quite remarkable.

Firth takes us back to the gold rush and the stampede of thousands of gold-seekers trekking over the Chilkoot and White passes. All of these stampeders converged at the head of Bennett Lake, where Bennett, a bustling community of thousands, was established. In 1898 three men named Barrett, Turner and Geiger built the two-storey Yukon Hotel.

Bennett was a flash in the pan that was eventually bypassed by the stampeders, and a short time later, by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The population quickly dwindled, and in 1901, the hotel was sold to Big Bill Anderson, who had the building skidded to Caribou Crossing (later shortened to Carcross) across the ice of Bennett Lake, and set up beside another former Bennett Hotel, the Vendome. Anderson couldn’t sell the metal-clad building, so he opened it as the Anderson Hotel, and went into business.

Two years later, Anderson sold the building to Dawson Charlie (formerly also known as Tagish Charlie), who was one of the co-discoverers of the Klondike goldfields. Charlie renamed it the Caribou Hotel, and owned it until December 26, 1908, when he drowned after falling off the railroad bridge into the icy waters of Bennett Lake.

Charlie’s former wife, Annie, by then remarried to former Mountie Arthur Auston, inherited the hotel. She leased it to Edwin and Bessie Gideon for the next 25 years. In 1910, only a short time after the building was leased by the Gideons, it burned to the ground and was replaced by the hotel as we know it today. Bessie died in 1933, eight years after her husband, and was succeeded by her sister, Louise Dawson, who managed it for five years.

Annie Auston’s son, Bobbie, then took on the role of manager, until he enlisted shortly after war was declared upon Germany in September of 1939. Jack and Adele McMurphy operated it for the next seven years, to be succeeded, in turn, by Florence May Robson, then eventually by Dorothy Hopcott. In 1980, Hopcott sold the hotel, which, by default, became the property of Ray Olson. Olson carried the burden of operating it until he died in 1997. He was succeeded by his son, Bob Olson.

The business staggered forward until Bob Olson was murdered in 2004. The current owners, Jamie Toole and Anne Morgan, purchased the property from Olson’s sister in 2006, and have made the hotel, which by that time was in poor physical condition, their personal restoration project.

The building was designated a territorial historic site in 2008. That opened the door to modest financial support for restoration work. Two years later, Toole and Morgan received an award for Heritage Conservation project of the Year from the Yukon Historical and Museums Association. The couple have faithfully continued the restoration work to the extent that the opening of the bar is imminent. The restaurant will follow next year, and the hotel rooms after that.

That is the chain of the custody laid out in this book, but there is more to the story – much more. Firth’s thesis is that the Caribou Hotel has served as a focal point in the history of the community. He does a good job of supporting that position. The hotel has been the centre point for key people in Carcross history, and witnessed many of the most important events in Carcross for the last century.

The first iteration of this hotel was born of the gold rush, and was later owned by one of the figures central to the original discovery – Dawson Charlie. Over the next decade, the hotel was central to the boom of mining speculation in this region, sparked by “Colonel” John Conrad.

Later, in the teen years, Johnny Johns, a young First Nation man from Carcross, established a big game hunting business based in Carcross. He gained a reputation as one of the best hunting guides in the world. Johns made the hotel a base from which to operate, and it was he who promoted the reputation of the hotel’s most famous resident – Polly the Parrot.

In October of 1918, Captain James Alexander, the owner of the Engineer Mine down Tagish Lake, left Polly at the Caribou Hotel for the winter when he passed through Carcross on the way outside. A short time later, he and his wife, Louise, perished when the SS Princess Sophia sank during the worst maritime disaster in the history of the west coast. As a result, Polly became a permanent resident of the Caribou Hotel. Like Johns, Polly developed a world-wide reputation because of his colourful plumage, his colourful history, and his extremely colourful language.

When Polly passed away in 1972 at the age of 125 years, the event and the subsequent interment in the local cemetery made headlines around the world.

Add to that mix the tourism trade that flourished during the 1920s and 1930s, the role the hotel played during the events of the Second World War (Alaska Highway and Canol Project). Then there was the boom and bust of the 1970s and 1980s, the murder of Bob Olson, and the detailed account of the current restoration. Put them all together and you have a remarkable history not only of the hotel, but of the community.

Oh, and don’t forget the ghosts, the most famous of which is the benign spirit of Bessie Gideon, who, it is said, still haunts the corridors of the hotel that she walked many years ago. But there are reports of other apparitions within the walls of this old building, enough to inspire the commissioning of a postage stamp, issued in 2015, commemorating the ghost of Mrs. Gideon. Author Firth peppers the story of the hotel with accounts of ghostly encounters that he picked up from people who lived, worked, and stayed in this hotel.

In private conversation, Firth informed me that he continues to meet people with their own remarkable personal memories of the Caribou Hotel. Perhaps these will someday be incorporated into a revised edition of the book. Meanwhile, this volume, which is enhanced by a hundred photographs and three maps, is a great read from start to finish, and I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about Carcross and its famous hotel.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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