No single individual was more influential in perpetuating the lure and romance of the northland than poet Robert Service. Although he lived in the Yukon a scant nine years, from 1903 to 1912, he left a legacy of poetry that captured the raw excitement of the gold rush and preserved it for generations to come.
Robert Service was born on January 16, 1874 to a Scottish bank clerk and the daughter of an English factory owner.
At the age of 15, he followed his father into the banking business. But in 1896, he emigrated to Canada where he joined his younger brother in an experiment in ranching. The life of a farmer in British Columbia, however, was far from his expectations. After 18 months he set off for California.
For the next six years, Service drifted up and down the Pacific Coast. In 1903, finding himself broke in Vancouver, Canada, he applied to and was hired by the Canadian Bank of Commerce and won a posting in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.
Here, Service found the western life he had sought – with its balance of a frontier sort of social life and solitude in the northern woods.
Service was inspired by his surroundings. Throughout the next months he began writing many poems, among them the famous, “Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Another poem, “The Spell of the Yukon,” was published and the following year, he resigned from the bank to write full time.
In 1908, he relocated to a small cabin in Dawson and wrote about the Gold Rush, traveling along the Klondike River, visiting the famous gold sites and boom towns, interviewing those who had settled in the area in 1898. Having finished the novel he moved to New York City where the book was published as, “The Trail of 98.” After that he traveled to Louisiana, Cuba, and back to the Yukon via a canoe down the McKenzie River.
Back in his cabin, Service took up where he had left off, enjoying a bohemian sort of life and writing a great amount of poetry. In 1912, having finished, “Rhymes of a Rolling Stone,” he accepted a job as a war correspondent in the Balkan War.
During his travels in Europe, Service married a woman from Paris and purchased a villa in Brittany. In the First World War, he served in a volunteer ambulance unit and became a war correspondent for the Canadian government. Following the war he traveled and wrote two volumes of poetry and several novels. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he escaped from Poland to Hollywood, where he lived in exile until the end of the war and his return to France.
Though he never returned to the Yukon after he left in 1912, it remained an important part of his life until his death in 1958.
Throughout the years, several Alaskans from Skagway to Dawson to Fairbanks have memorialized Robert Service and performed his work with passion and zeal, most notably the late Larry Beck.
But for me, the most powerful readings of Robert Service came from a bearded saloon owner named Don Pearson at Esther, Alaska, outside of Fairbanks. Pearson opened the Cripple Creek Resort in the late 1950s, which included the Malemute Saloon, and regaled crowds for nearly 30 years with his throaty, emotion-packed renditions of Robert Service.
As college students at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, my classmates and I always looked forward to weekend visits to the Malemute. We got to know Pearson’s lines so well that we would often whisper them a fraction of second before his delivery – trying to trip him up – which he generally didn’t find very amusing.
Pearson retired in the early 1980s, but the tradition lived on for awhile in the Malemute Saloon at the historial gold rush site of Cripple Creek. For several years a new bard, Robert Miller, recited Service during the summer tourist season.
Robert Service died 59 years ago, but his verses retain their power and magic as if they were written yesterday. On many occasions a Robert Service poem recited in the tent or by the campfire helped cap off a good day on the trail.
I am no Don Pearson, Larry Beck or Robert Miller, but if you follow the link below you can hear my rendition of “The Spell of the Yukon.”
Scroll down to the audio poem at the bottom of the list.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of the ECHO News team, a freelance writer and avid outdoor recreationist who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired school teacher. Reach Frank at: [email protected]