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From Sourdoughs to Cheechakos

Regards to the Bard


“This is the law of the Yukon, that only the strong shall thrive; that surely the weak shall perish, and only the fit survive.” — Robert William Service

Yes, you may recall Sam McGee, Dan McGrew and Lou. No, they are not a lively sixties singing trio, but characters enlivened by the “Bard of the Yukon”. This year is the 60th anniversary of Robert W. Service’s death and the 120th anniversary of the Yukon’s entry into Confederation in 1898.

Service arrived in the Yukon during the post-Klondike Gold Rush period. After being employed in Whitehorse for a few years as a bank teller, he was transferred to Dawson City in 1908. He had his first book published the previous year, which was extremely successful. Entitled, Songs of a Sourdough (1907), it contained 34 poems. A Sourdough is a permanent resident of the Yukon. The poems of his popular book include stories such as: “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Spell of the Yukon” and “The Call of the Wild”. The latter was inspired by his view above the heights of Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids for which the capital derived its name.

“Have you gazed on naked grandeur
Where there is nothing left to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?”

One may discover myriad manifestations of his tales and persona. Several entities are representative of the books and poems he has written. The popular Downtown Hotel, home to the SourToe Cocktail challenge, has the Sourdough Saloon engraved above the main entrance. Down on Front Street, you can also find Sourdough Joe’s restaurant, named after the town-founder, Joseph Ladue. Further along the gravel street strip is a shop named after Service’s second book of verse, Ballads of a Cheechako, in 1909, which encompasses 21 ballads. Essentially, a Cheechako is a Gold Rush newcomer, the antithesis of a Sourdough. Across from the post office, a building has “The Spell of the Yukon” printed on the side of it with a small sketch of Service beside the excerpt:

“…I wanted the gold and I got it
Came out with a fortune last fall;
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought
And somehow the gold isn’t all.”

While conversing with an assortment of Klondike characters, Service compiled a plethora of poems and stories, such as “The Parson’s Son”:

“We traded in skins and whiskey, and I’ve often slept under the shade
Of that lone birch tree on Bonanza, where the first big find was made.”

Service was honoured by a Canadian postage stamp issued in 1976 featuring his classic poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.”

Sam McGee was an actual person from Ontario, not Tennessee like is stated in the poem. One may visit his log cabin which was moved from downtown Whitehorse to the courtyard of the MacBride Museum of Yukon History near the waterfront. Also, in the capital you may see the bronze bust of Robert W. Service (1874–1958). In the city you can view a floating museum, the S.S. Klondike, a paddle-wheeler indicative of the former mode of traffic on the Yukon River along Robert Service Way.

The narrative poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” was indirectly inspired by a story from a local miner witnessing a bar room altercation. In Service’s poem, Dangerous Dan (a fictionalized character) and a rough-neck prospector shot and killed one another while the love-interest, Lou, became the beneficiary when she “pinched his poke”. A couple of silent films based on the book were produced.

“I ducked my head and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark;
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.”

Service’s first novel, The Trail of ’98 (1910) highlighted the Gold Rush during its peak, the same year North West Mounted Police Superintendent Sam Steele arrived in Dawson City to introduce some law and order into the swelling northern community. The namesake motion picture, starring Delores del Rio, was released by MGM 90 years ago and was critically acclaimed for its realistic storyline and characterizations.

“There were the tents of Dawson, there the scar of the slide;
Swiftly we poled o’er the shallows, swiftly leapt o’er the side. Fires fringed the mouth of Bonanza; sunset gilded the dome;
The test of the trail was over—thank God, thank God, we were Home!”

At Service’s two-room log cabin on 8th Avenue, you can observe the modest abode. During Discovery Days in August each year, the public may experience a costumed guide reciting some of Service’s lilting verse and providing insight into his life in the Yukon. Open door days for his other writers’ block neighbours reveal interesting aspects of the literary titans.

Service only resided in northern Dawson City for a few years (1909–1912) until he caught the adventure bug stating: “the wanderlust has got me…by the belly-aching fire”. His indelible influences reflect the territorial motto: “Larger than Life”. His literary legacy in the Yukon will remain prevalent in perpetuity.

VIABy Alan G. Luke
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