It's not often you get to meet a legendary character who was cremated and lived to tell the tale, but one day, years ago in Whitehorse, I did.
When Sam McGee came to the Yukon around 1898, he had no idea he'd end up a famous Klondike character. Sam came from eastern Ontario to prospect. He lived around Whitehorse and had an account in the Bank of Commerce. One winter's night in Whitehorse, a bank clerk named Robert Service heard some oldtimers telling a strange yarn about a man who was cremated in the boiler of a riverboat locked in the ice of Lake Laberge. Service raced home and feverishly began to write. "There are strange things done in the midnight sun" ... "now Sam McGee was from Tennessee."
With the Cremation of Sam McGee, a legend was born.
Service reportedly took the name Sam McGee from the bank ledger and used it because it rhymed with Tennessee. The steamer trapped in the ice at Lake Lebarge was called the Olive May. Service changed the name to the Alice May.
After living ten years in the Yukon, the real McGee left the Yukon, but he occasionally came back for a visit. In the spring of 1949, as I walked home from the Lambert Street School, I saw an old man sitting on a rocking chair in front of a small cabin on Elliott Street, between Third and Fourth avenues. He was dressed in a tweed jacket, broad brimmed hat and tie. He looked like a friendly gentleman. He also looked right at home at the cabin. It seemed to me that he had been there all of his life.
As I passed by the cabin, the old man said, "Hello what's your name lad?" "Leslie," I said. "Pleased to meet you", he said, "my name is Sam McGee." Here, I thought, sat the man who was never cremated, but instead brought fame and fortune to the bard of the Yukon, Robert Service. But it could not have been the real Sam McGee because he died in Beiseker, Alberta in 1940. His daughter, Mrs Ethel Gramms, said his fame as a man, so sour on the Yukon's cold that he wanted to be cremated, amused him. But he didn't dwell on or try to capitize on that lifelong fame. She also said that her father was never sour on the Yukon.
So who was this man that I met in front of Sam McGee's cabin on that sunny spring day in 1949?
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: The Real Sam McGee