2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert W. Service, who passed away on September 11th , 1958. He spent just eight of his 84 years in the Yukon Territory, yet the stories he told made him one of the world’s richest writers. His time had been equally divided between Whitehorse and Dawson City, and so I got to thinking. Where in the Yukon would the famed poet call his hometown? Would it be Whitehorse or Dawson City?
Both Yukon communities have reason to claim the honour. He arrived in Whitehorse on the White Pass train in April 1904. He was transferred to Dawson and travelled on the White Pass stagecoach in 1908. He left the Yukon in the fall of 1912 by White Pass river boat and train.
While in Whitehorse, he lived on the second floor of the Bank of Commerce building at Second and Main. In Dawson, he lodged in the Bank of Commerce employees’ quarters on First Avenue until 1909, when he quit the bank and rented a small log cabin on Eighth Avenue.
He wrote his first book of poetry, Songs of a Sourdough, in Whitehorse. His second book, Ballads of a Cheechako, was published when he lived in Dawson, but contained material written in both communities. The third book of poems, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, and his first novel, the Trail of ’98, were written in Dawson, although most of the inspiration for Rhymes of a Rolling Stone came from his 1912 journey from Edmonton to Dawson over the Mackenzie River route to the Klondike.
The background for his Yukon poems came from stories he heard people tell in both Whitehorse and Dawson. In Whitehorse, Robert enjoyed his long lonely walks along the river and into the hills beyond the tiny town.
When he was transferred to Dawson City, he wandered through the hills and along the river, searching for stories and inspiration. In 1909, he quit the bank, rented a cabin, and began work on his novel called The Trail of '98. By 1912, he realized there was little left in the Yukon that could inspire him.
In the fall of that year, on board a river boat, Robert watched Dawson City disappear from view. He saw Whitehorse fade to black from the back of the caboose on the White Pass train. He would never again see Whitehorse or Dawson or the Yukon land that made him famous.
So if we would journey back in time and ask the Bard which town he considered home, would his response be Whitehorse or Dawson City?
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin