That Little Old Log Cabin on the Hill

There are strange things found on the Internet

when you’re surfing just for fun.

There’s misinformation galore and yet,

there’s no way to get it undone.

I won’t even apologize to Robert Service because I’m here to defend his honour.

Case in point: If its reporting on other topics is as sloppy as that on poor Robert, it should have its hard drives extracted.

Here’s the entry it has on the Robert Service Cabin, which is, admittedly, one of Dawson’s first-ever tourist attractions and was one before there was ever a Klondike Visitors Association or a Yukon Department of Tourism, having drawn visitors as early as 1917.

“On 8th Avenue in Dawson City stands the log-cabin built in 1898 by Robert Service, known as the ‘Bard of the Yukon’ and who around the turn of the century composed numerous poems and ballads, including ‘The Funeral Cremation of Sam McGee‘ and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’.”

Well, they spelled his name right and got the nickname at least. All the other biographical details are wrong.

Jack London Museum
The 1897 vintage two-room cabin, across the street from Pierre Berton’s boyhood home, is a popular tourist attraction. It is well maintained, but visitors can only stand on the porch and look in the door.

Service was nowhere near the Yukon during the Gold Rush and certainly did not build the log cabin in which he lived from 1909 to 1912. He arrived in the Yukon as a banker in 1904 and spent his first few years working in the Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, which is where he wrote some of his most famous poems.

Before that, he’d knocked about western Canada and the west coast states as a hobo, cowboy, farm hand, tutor (in a brothel, no less), soaking up the kinds of experiences that would end up in his writing.

He became a published author almost by accident, having only intended to have a few copies ofThe Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses printed up as gifts around the time he moved to Dawson in 1908. His success was a surprise to everyone, and his verses were often ridiculed by more literary poets who, unlike him, were unable to make a substantial living from their art.

Robert was often called the “Canadian Kipling”. A quick comparison of the rhythm of his Law of the Yukon — “This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain / Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane ..” — with Kipling’s Law of the Jungle — “Now this is the Law of the Jungle, as old and as true as the sky; / And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.” — makes it pretty plain who was influencing whom.

Neither man was well thought of as a poet in those heady days of the 20th century when free verse and subtle rhythms were all the rage and rhyme was pretty much banished from the poet’s toolbox.

Robert seemed to accept this and often called himself a versifier rather than a poet, damning his own work with faint praise. He complained to Pierre Berton of having been “crucified on the cross of Sam McGee” and yet he could recite that poem at the drop of a hat, and do it well.

The cabin, which he rented from Mrs. Edna Clarke, and which was later preserved by her and then the ladies of the IODE before Parks Canada took it over in 1971, is the site of daily recitations of his poetry and some tales of the story of his life during the summer tourist season. It will be one of the places where Dawson will celebrate Authors on Eighth Day during the Discovery Week celebrations in August.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top