A stroll along the Writers’ Block

Dawson City would not be nearly as well-known as it is without the writings of three men who lived here for parts of their lives. This year we will once again be celebrating all of their lives and works with a stroll along the Writers’ Block, that portion of Eighth Avenue where they once lived.

When Jack London lived in Dawson, he was mostly either in the north end of town, or at Father Judge’s Hospital. However, one of the cabins on Henderson Creek, in which he spent his winter trying to be a miner, now sits at Jack London Square. Actually, it’s half of the cabin. The other part has been relocated to Oakland, California, as part of the deal that Yukon journalist Dick North struck with the Americans who financed the 1964 expedition that located and authenticated it.
Jack London Square (pictured above) now boasts the London Museum, created from North’s collection of London memorabilia, and run by the Klondike Visitors Association. (KVA.) It’s interpreted by North’s protégé, Dawne Mitchell, along with her crew. 

Robert Service’s cabin, where he lived from 1909 to 1912

Just up around the bend, on the high side of the avenue, is the cabin Robert Service rented (he did not build it) from Edna Clarke. There, he wrote his second collection of poems,  Ballads of a Cheechako, and his first novel, The Trail of ’98. After Service left Dawson in 1912, Clarke kept the cabin, which was already beginning to attract visitors, vacant for him to return to. He didn’t, though some of his descendants have. The cabin is now owned and managed by Parks Canada. Daily interpretive programs take place there during the tourist season. 

Right across the street is the cabin where Pierre Berton lived for most of his pre-teen years, before his father lost his government job and the family moved to Victoria. Here, he was a school chum of my former next-door neighbour, the late John Gould. Gould was part of the group that persuaded Berton to buy back the house and land in 1989. 

Berton House, seen from the viewing platform with the interpretive panels

Over the next seven years, the KVA helped to get the place back to a livable state. At the same time the Yukon Arts Council struck a committee, that I had the pleasure of serving on, to devise a writer-in-residence program. This launched in 1996 and has seen nearly 90 residents since that time. It is now managed by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, with some assistance from the KVA and the Dawson Community Library.

As it is a working home for whoever is there, the Authors on Eighth Walking Tour (held this year on August 15) is the only time the general public gets to take a peek inside. It’s the last stop on the tour that day and the place where the winners of the annual Authors on Eighth Writing Contest (covered here on June 19) are announced.

I made up the term Writers’ Block as a pun back in the 1990s. Certainly these men were anything but blocked in their writing, but it caught on and is often used to refer to the three sites as a group. 

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