William Samuel McGee had no idea that, just because he had an account in the Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, his name would make him world famous. The poet Robert Service, however, thought the name had a poetic ring to it -- and the rest is history. Actually, the real McGee was not from Tennessee, but was born in Lindsay, near Peterborough, Ontario in 1867.
In 1898, McGee came to the Yukon from San Francisco - hiking over the Chilkoot Pass. In 1899, he built a cabin in Whitehorse and settled down with his wife Ruth. On July 16, 1899, he discovered and staked the War Eagle copper deposit in the hills overlooking Whitehorse. The region would eventually produce over twenty million dollars worth of copper, gold and silver.
Although Sam was a prospector, his main claim to fame was building roads. Some of the roads - which were really serviceable trails through the bush - were the Whitehorse-Carcross wagon road in 1906, the Conrad-Carcross wagon road, the road to the Whitehorse Copper Belt and the Whitehorse-Kluane road in 1904. Between 1902 and 1909, the Territorial government spent $45,000 to build 36 roads in the Copper Belt region.
Sam McGee also operated a roadhouse at Canyon Creek on the Kluane Lake Wagon Road, and owned the Racine Sawmill near Tagish when the mining town of Conrad, on Windy Arm, was booming. He also prospected the Windy Arm district for gold and silver and staked the Blue Grouse claim.
In 1907, McGee built a stately two-story log home where he, his wife Ruth, and their children lived. The house still stands on the corner of Fifth and Wood Street. By 1909, after ten years in the Yukon, Sam moved his family to Summerland, British Columbia, and became a fruit farmer. When he left the Yukon, the Board of Trade held a banquet for Sam and gave him a gold watch and chain. After three years in Summerland, Sam and Ruth moved to a farm near Edmonton. Then, in 1923, they settled in Great Falls, Montana where he worked as a contractor on road and railroad construction. He also worked on the road to Yellowstone National Park.
Though his Yukon days were over, Sam McGee did return twice. Once in 1918 when he was partners with Robert Lowe in the War Eagle mining operation, and again in 1938. On the last trip, he was amused to find tourists buying “genuine” ashes of Sam McGee as souvenirs. By then, he was living in Alberta.
Two years later, on September 11th, 1940, Sam McGee died of a stroke at his daughter’s farm at Beiseker, Alberta. He was 73. The real McGee was not cremated but rather buried in a family plot in Beiseker next to his wife Ruth.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Sam McGee