Hougen Group

Dr. Alexander John Gillis

There are very few historic photographs of the great poet Robert Service at his cabin in Dawson City. For those that do exist we can thank a local dentist. One shows Service, pipe in hand, a bicycle by his side, standing on the front steps of the now famous cabin.

Another depicts the poet pensively looking at some distant scene, perhaps conjuring another fanciful story. A third features Service inside the cabin at his writing desk, his trusty Underwood typewriter nearby. These gems of Yukon photo history are the work of a Dawson City dentist, Alexander Gillis.

Dr. Gillis was born in Nova Scotia in 1865. In 1892, he graduated from the Pennsylvania Dental College in Philadelphia, and in 1894 he received his Medical Degree from the Philadelphia Medical School. He was also an amateur photographer of considerable skill.

When news of the Klondike Gold Rush echoed around the world, Dr. Gillis, like so many others from eastern Canada, headed for the Klondike. Unlike so many others, he actually made it.

In April 1898, Gillis and his companions reached Lake Bennett via the trail from Skagway over the White Pass Summit, thus missing the infamous avalanche on the Chilkoot Pass that same month. When ice cleared from the lakes, Gillis sailed to Dawson City, arriving in the middle of mayhem, mud and madness that was the frontier city of gold.

Though a dentist by training, Gillis was bitten by the gold bug and initially mined on Dominion Creek near that creek's discovery claim.

However, it wasn't all work and no play for the doctor. In Dawson, he met a lovely lady named Frances Donley from Ontario and the two were married in 1902 in St. Andrews Presbyterian church. The happy couple lived in a comfortable home on the east side of Seventh Avenue.

Dr. Gillis gave up the mining trade and expanded his professional medical practice, becoming a recognized member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Northwest Territories in 1906. In 1911, he was certified to practice medicine in Dawson.

Not one to be satisfied with a single career, Dr. Gillis was also a politician. From 1912-14 he was the Conservative Member for South Dawson and Speaker of the Yukon Territorial Council. Gillis was also a registered member of the BC photographers union and is listed as having taken photos of the Klondike trail.

In 1916, their only child, a daughter Alexandria was born. During their time in Dawson, the family enjoyed the outdoor life often going on long hunting and fishing excursions. Little wonder a group of lakes west of the Peel River are named after Dr. Gillis.

Through the years, the Gillis family developed a lasting friendship with Robert Service and took the priceless photos of Service posed in front of his cabin on Eighth Avenue, the only visual record I know of the poet at home.

In 1918, the Gillis family left the Yukon. But Dr. Gillis returned each summer to maintain his medical practice. The couple eventually settled in Victoria, and later moved to Seatlle

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin