Play Makers: The Oh-So-Mysterious 36


Glancing at the more than century-old black-and-white photos that adorn the walls of the Arts Underground Gallery, in downtown Whitehorse, the subjects look all the part of your usual Klondike stampeder: rough, with thick moustaches, long beards and icy, fearless stares.

True to their nickname, however, the Mysterious 36 are anything but typical.

How did they come together?

Who put them up to the job?

Why did they not follow the hundred of others that ventured north to the Klondike?

Why were they so secretive?

These are all questions that still go unanswered.

It was in the spring of 1898 that the three-dozen men from across the United States met in Seattle to outfit for a Yukon adventure; unbeknownst to them at the time that they would be remembered not for uncovering riches, but for the vast secrecy that would surround them.

“The circumstances are more mysterious than the actual men,” explains MacBride Museum communications director, Leighann Chalykoff. “The men seem to me to be the typical outdoorsy, burly miner type … tough guys that you would never see sipping lattes at Starbucks.”

It is the secrecy that surrounds the group’s mission and the so many unanswered questions that makes them so puzzling.

For one, why did they opt for the Dalton Trail as opposed to the golden riches of the Klondike that fuelled the majority of the miners of that time?

“I guess it’s kind of like that secret cranberry stash that you don’t want to tell anyone about,” jokes Chalykoff.

The appeal of the photos is how natural photographer Henry Dow Banks’ images are showing the men hungrily devouring a long-awaited meal, washing their well-worn clothes and attempting to groom one another’s facial hair.

Chalykoff cites the image of a miner looking back from a boat as her favourite.

“It is such a candid shot and really a beautiful picture,” she explains. “The photographer definitely had an eye for photography, and the images are so fantastic. I love them and I love the expressions.”

“They really seem posed, but aren’t. It’s a testament to the photographer’s skill,” adds Chalykoff. “He definitely knew they were doing something very memorable and something that was going to be important to history.”

Ironically, despite the stringent secrecy that would surround the group during their time in the North, all 36 would leave the North, penniless, and without any gold claims to call their own, making the photos now on display the only real riches to come out of their highly secretive mission.

Still, Chalykoff cannot help but wonder if perhaps there was a gold find and, true to their name, they were just that good at keeping their find a secret.

“Did they actually end up with nothing or did they end up with something; I mean, there was so much secrecy to their mission, who really knows?” questions Chalykoff. “Maybe I’m reading too much in to it, but who really can say?”

The Mysterious 36 photo exhibit will be on display at the Arts Underground until late October.

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