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"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

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"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Dawson City Preserves Memories of Two Famous Bards: Jack London and Robert Service. One Worked as a Miner

©Bert Gildart:  Anyone have an idea what Robert Service and Jack London shared in common regarding the Yukon Territory and the gold rush of the late 1800s–other, of course, then a marvelous way with words?

Because I’ve been a fan of both men since my teen age years, that’s one answer I can easily provide, but, first, in a highly abbreviated form, here’s my background.

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Cabin was home for Robert Service between 1910 and 1912

In high school we got extra points if we memorized The Shooting of Dan McGrew, a Robert Service epic, and I memorized it, and (subsequently) others. Jack London penned such famous novels as White Fang and Call of the Wild. What’s more, when I taught English, I used my favorite short story of all time: To Build a Fire, to illustrate various aspects of good writing.

That’s my resume on the two bards, so, now, the answer:

Both men resided in tiny area cabins and both drew inspiration from the Dawson area for their various works. However, they were here at different times during the gold rush-and were initially drawn for different reasons.

LONDON HIKED THE FAMOUS CHILKOOT

Jack London came because of desperation and arrived like all the other Stampeders. He climbed the Chilkoot Pass (now a national park), then dropped down onto the Yukon, floating by boat to confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, which happens at Dawson City. Here, he mucked for gold, living in a rundown cabin.

Robert Service, on the other hand, arrived as a bank teller, transferred from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Because of the gold being taken out, his employers wanted a youthful man to serve the banking needs of the miners, and they sent this English-born man. As a banker, Service discharged his duties, but found that he was more interested in the stories that were unfolding around him. In these two Yukon settlements he saw a shooting, he heard about cremation and met a man named Sam McGee. He learned about petulance, hooch, fang and claw. He learned about the bands of the aurora, the bitter cold, and the beauty of the towering peaks.

BOTH LIVED IN SMALL CABINS

Because of the ultimate fame of the two men, in Dawson you can now see the cabins of both authors. London’s cabin was discovered along the Klondike, and, using the old lumber, replicated so that it now forms part of a small interpretive center.

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About the way it was when poet Robert Service occupied cabin

The Robert Service cabin stands where it has always stood and that is on the outskirts of Dawson. To reach it Janie and I rode our bicycles from our campground down the dirt-covered streets of the small town, arriving in time for a one o’clock presentation. We toured the small cabin, noting the modest accommodations. Then we joined Fred, an interpreter with Parks Canada, who provided a thoroughly entertaining account of the years of Robert Service in the Yukon.

He said that the then-banker began writing down the visual impression he was beginning to form. Before long his work began to assume the form of long poems. Some called them ballads. While working in Whitehorse, he lived with several other bankers. In the evening he’d retire early, but then rise in wee hours to pen his story-poems until it was time to assume daily obligations at the bank.

SERVICE FINDS PUBLISHER

Within the year, Service had assembled an adequate portfolio and he presented it to a publisher in Toronto. The news was good, and soon the poet was making more from his art than he was as a banker. Resigning, he moved into a small cabin in Dawson that has now been preserved as a historic shrine. Here, he declared he would live modestly and write.

We gleaned all this from Fred’s presentation, and the man knew how to hold an audience-and draw them in. He recited several poems, and then asked if anyone had heard of the Ballad of Blasphemous Bill. Others in the audience had boldly revealed their knowledge, so I raised my hand. Fred smiled and began the poem, and obviously, as you’ll soon see, it is one of my favorites-containing words, phrases and stanzas I’ve memorized.

Fred had memorized the entire ballad, and he began:

I took a contract to bury the body of Body of Blasphemous Bill MacKie…

The poem continues explaining what Bill’s partner must do after he dies, and the problems he ultimately encounters. Without missing a beat, Fred continues with his rhythmical and animated recitation.

THE MISSING WORD

… His arms and legs stuck out like pegs, as if they was made of wood. Till at last I said: he’s froze too hard to thaw; he’s obstinate, and he won’t lie straight, so I guess I’ve got to…

And here Fred paused, looked at me, and with a gesture of his hand asked for the missing word-which I gleefully provided… “SAW…”

Fred continued, bringing the poem to an end with words that always turn pathos into humor, a signature event for Robert Service.

… And as I sit and the parson talks, expounding on the Law, I often think of poor old Bill, and how hard he was…  to SAW.

The crowd clapped, Fred bowed, and then summarized his philosophy of Robert Service. “Isn’t that great,” chuckled Fred. “He could laugh at life. And that is what endeared him to so many.”

YUKON WAS ENDLESS SOURCE OF INSPIRATION

As the years went by, both Robert Service and Jack London garnered much acclaim. Service worked from his cabin for several years, finally departing for good in 1912. Eventually he moved to France, married, worked as a war correspondent, drove an ambulance in WWI-and wrote more poems (and even a couple of novels), all of which ultimately made him a very wealthy man. London on the other hand moved to California, worked hard, and though his life ended in tragedy, enjoyed immense success and the good life–at least for a time.

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Parks Canada interpreter could recite endlessly from works of Robert Service

And now, even though both moved far from Dawson there is another aspect of their work that can be framed into a question, and that is: what did the two continue to share in common?

The answer, of course, is that they both continued to draw on the Yukon as a source of inspiration for their respective bodies of work. In this manner both succeeded admirably-and to some extent you can relive their glory years by visiting their cabins, located in Dawson, just off the banks of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. The landscape is one both knew intimately, but more significantly, it was one that inspired what are probably their best descriptive works.

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THIS TIME THREE YEARS AGO:

*Fort Ticonderoga

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(Note, if you want to learn about Robert Service consider the two books on the left. If you want to learn about the life of a teacher in Chicken, Alaska, you won’t go wrong with Tisha. And of course we use Nikons, usually the D-300):




One Response to “Dawson City Preserves Memories of Two Famous Bards: Jack London and Robert Service. One Worked as a Miner”

  1. Anya Says:

    Robert Service didn’t actually make it to Dawson City until about 1907 or 1908, well after the Gold Rush was over. Before that, I believe he was in Whitehorse, where he wrote his early Yukon works. By the time he got to Dawson, he was already pretty well known for his poetry.

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