Tony Vagneur: Robert Service tells tales of mining towns gone by
“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/
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights/
But the queerest they ever did see/
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge/
I cremated Sam McGee.”
“Now Sam McGee was from …” and the tale goes on, almost impossible to stop reciting if one knows the rest of the story.
Robert Service, who wrote the poem, got to Dawson City late, after the famous gold rush had played itself out, but the north country and the history got under his skin. Service seemed, in this writer’s view, too neat, too civilized to write about his subject matter with such depth of understanding (he was a banker for God’s sake), but on another level, he was a savant unfurled.
The town of Dawson, nestled at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, took off in the spring of 1897, even while spring melt from the Yukon River flooded its banks and made every step an adventure in watery, muddy suction. Horses couldn’t navigate Front Street without stalling in mud up to their hocks and chests, with men alongside the carts, mud above their calves, pushing, pulling, and giving the animals every assistance they could.
So many men arrived, and in such a short period of time, it was not unlike watching an ant hill after a poke with an errant stick. Most of the men brought everything they owned, which was mostly a ragged tent and sleeping bag of sorts, the tents set up on either wet or frozen mud. By the summer of 1897, Dawson’s population was at least 5,000. A year later, it would be 30,000, or more.
By the time many of these men arrived in Dawson, they were too late to participate in the riches of gold that were so tantalizing, forcing them to look up smaller and farther away tributaries of the major streams. The creeks where the majority of the gold was found, including Bonanza and Eldorado, had already been claimed and staked. Many, eventually disheartened and disappointed, returned home, broken men in both spirit and money. Others stayed, working for the men who had struck the dizzying bonanzas or providing necessary services, such as shopkeepers and dealers in necessities. Some women made their fortunes here as well, mining, washing clothes, being dance hall girls, or marrying one of the lucky few.
By July 1, 1897, Dawson City had two newspapers, five churches and two banks. A copy of either paper brought 50 cents on the street. Imported newspapers brought much more as news from the outside was almost as valuable as the gold dust the prospectors gleaned from the dirt. One outside paper fetched $15,000 for its lucky owner.
Fresh food was hard to come by in the summer months, exorbitantly expensive and impossible to get during the winter. Easy to come by were typhus, diphtheria, scurvy and dysentery. The town was a mess with human effluent, animal manure and filthy water everywhere. These diseases killed a fair number of “stampeders” in Dawson who, although they had paid a high price to get there in human toil and money, ended up paying the ultimate price for very little other than the experience.
The Klondike Gold Rush was over by 1899. In 1904, Robert Service was sent to Whitehorse, a small mining town in the area, by his employer, The Canadian Bank of Commerce. There he listened to tales of the gold rush from old-timers who had stuck around, and by 1908, the bank had installed him in Dawson City, the heart of the gold fever. The telling of stories, the still rough and rowdy climate of discourse, and the cold winters struck a writer’s chord and we have left a large volume of work from Robert Service.
My favorite, “The Parson’s Song,” is the type of wording that can make your blood run cold, particularly on a freezing, blizzarding night as I rode in to our cow camp in the black of night alone. With coyotes howling in the dark woods surrounding me, the image of the parson’s son was impossible to ignore. It is the tale of a man who survived the gold rush, who refused to quit his quest, but knew his days were numbered. As he squats in his cabin all alone, after poetically giving his 20-year history in the Yukon, his mind begins to hallucinate, taking him back to his childhood, and his final end is recorded thusly:
“This was the song of the parson’s son, as he lay in his bunk alone,
Ere the fire went out and the cold crept in, and his blue lips ceased to moan,
And the hunger-maddened malamutes had torn him flesh from bone.”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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