When he came to the Yukon, an aging backwater relic of the gold rush, John Rowland chose to find the humour and the colour in the quirky people who remained, while travelling the territory by foot, by car, by boat and by air, as the impulse and opportunity allowed.
“It is true that Dad did meet an inordinate number of interesting people,” wrote Jay Rowland to me about his father, John, who visited the Yukon in 1937 and again in 1940. John was working on commission, selling magazine subscriptions, for which there was considerable demand in the North.
When it came to sales work, John Rowland seemed to have the golden touch. “Most people seem to think that a good salesman has to always have a big mouth, and be able to talk all the time,” wrote Rowland. “That is not true. A salesman has to be just as good a listener as he is a talker because your customer likes to talk about himself.”
John had the good fortune to visit the Yukon while there were still significant numbers of Klondike stampeders living in the North, although they were getting on in years by that time. So he heard their stirring accounts of the Gold Rush first hand.
In his autobiography, Slipping the Lines, which details his exploits as a world traveller 80 years ago, Rowland does not relate the stories of these old-timers, perhaps because there were so many of them spinning yarns about the Gold Rush that they took on an element of sameness.
One old-timer even offered him a partnership in his mining claim. Rowland had made friends with the fellow while selling magazine subscriptions in the goldfields. Rowland declined the offer, but learned later that the old sourdough had one of the richest claims in the Klondike.
During his travels, John Rowland visited all the major northern centres of the time — Whitehorse, Dawson City, Mayo, Keno Hill, Atlin — and points in between. He stopped at remote mining camps and travelled through the Klondike goldfields — on foot — twice.
In Dawson, in 1937, he hunted down the fabled Klondike Kate, who was in town to visit her husband, Johnny Matson. Kate had a couple of cabins, and Rowland rented one from her while he was making the rounds of Dawson City. Rowland devoted two paragraphs to her in his autobiography.
About his father, Jay Rowland wrote: “I think he sought them out for his own interests. For example when he was in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1938, he heard that the famous Count Felix von Luckner was in the harbour with his yacht. Dad went down to his yacht to meet him and got invited on board and was made an honorary member of his crew. That was his usual tactic and as he was very charming he usually got his way. He didn’t meet Klondike Kate by accident.”
During his second visit to Dawson in 1940, he was a dinner guest of George Black, Yukon’s member of Parliament, and his wife, Martha. But he didn’t dwell on them. Instead, he focused upon other characters who, even among the oddities of Yukon society, stood out.
There was a fellow in Dawson who was obsessed by baseball. After work, he would return to his memorabilia-filled hotel room, where he would don a baseball uniform — an exact replica of that worn by Babe Ruth down to the baseball cap and spiked shoes.
There were businessmen on Front Street like “Apple” Jimmy Oglow, and Tex Rickard (or Rickart in some directories — Rickard was said to be still wearing the suit he brought with him 30 years before), and there was restauranteur Harry Gleaves, who served Rowland his meals. By the time Rowland returned in 1940, “Apple” Jimmy had passed away.
But Rowland saved his most detailed description for the ultimate Dawson eccentric — to whom he referred as “Perpetual Motion.” Clearly it was clearly a description of Czech immigrant Jan Welzl, who in his later years devoted himself almost entirely to creating a perpetual motion machine.
“He had three log cabins on his property to house his perpetual motion machine, which filled to overflowing the three cabins. Large pulley belts ran out of the window of one cabin and into the doorway of the next, then into the third cabin. I never saw such a mess of wheels, pulleys, belts, etc.,” he wrote.
Welzl didn’t have time to socialize: “He ran around with a spanner in one hand, and a screw driver in the other to tighten one belt, loosen another, then [he would] rush off to throw some more wood into his steam engine fire box. He expected to have his perpetual motion machinery perfected that day. When I returned to the Yukon three years later,” wrote Rowland, “he was still at it.”
By 1937, Keno Hill was a shell of its former self. The miners would come to drink here on pay day in the only operating hotel in town, and return to work broke (ruthless hoteliers taking advantage of lonely miners is a theme repeated in different places in Rowland’s account).
Rowland even sold magazine subscriptions to the half dozen or so aging prostitutes plying their trade at Keno Hill. When a fresh batch of younger hookers came from outside to service the local miners in the hotel, he wrote, the RCMP sent the newcomers out of town with a blue ticket.
Stewart Island, at the time of Rowland’s first visit, consisted of five houses and a Hudson’s Bay Post. The hotel where Rowland stayed for a dollar a night until the next steamer arrived, was nicknamed “The Mildew Inn.”
Assisting the Australian innkeeper at Stewart was a cowboy from Alberta. Decked out in cowboy boots, shirt, hat and chaps just like Gene Autry, he was courting the HBC factor’s daughter, and she, too, was decked out in western garb. Sitting on the top rail of the corral for the non-existent livestock, the cowboy serenaded his sweetheart with off-tune cowboy songs while strumming on a guitar.
Rowland wrote that he nearly fell out of bed laughing when he heard the singing, but at least there was something amusing to break up the monotony while waiting for the next steamer. When he returned three years later, the cowboy and the corral without cattle were both gone.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org