“And so passed a likeable, soft-spoken, wholly impractical genius, who never…said an ill word about a soul and had the affections of everyone he met.” … J.J. Hillard
The most interesting thing about the 91 years Erwin A. Robertson spent on Earth is not the fact that he lost his teeth to scurvy and created a homemade replacement set from an eclectic mix of animal teeth. It’s not even that those dentures lasted until his death. Robertson, nicknamed Nimrod, was a gentlemen gold miner and inventor, whose homemade choppers were just one of many memorable things about him.
Robertson displayed the spirit that is often found in those who call the North home. Northerners have a unique attitude and approach to life. Perhaps it is because we are shaped by our environment, or because the environment is so unforgiving, but we must meet the challenges or perish. Nimrod had that “never give up” attitude, as well as his inventive genius.
For example, he created a relief map of the Eagle area. He also invented an engine to power the “flying machine” he was trying to finance with the earnings from gold prospecting. That’s the reason Robertson came North in the first place. While he was saving up those nuggets, however, the Wright brothers beat him with their own flying machine. Fortunately, Nimrod had more inventions to offer.
According to the Yukon archives, E.A. Robertson crossed into Canada over the Chilkoot Trail on June 3, 1898. Beside his name, the location “Bangor, ME” is listed. Robertson had been a jeweller in Maine. He undoubtedly used his skills as a jeweller to set his new teeth into melted aluminium. He was part of the rush of stampeders who were headed North to strike it rich. Robertson made his way up the Yukon River and settled in Eagle, Alaska, just 12 miles up the Yukon River from Dawson City. Eagle is not far from Chicken, Alaska. Both were settled by gold miners in the early 1900s. In the case of Chicken, the story goes, the founding fathers could not agree on the spelling of the word ptarmigan, which were plentiful in the area, and a life-sustaining food staple. So as not to be embarrassed, the town was instead named Chicken.
In her book Jewel on the Yukon Eagle City, a collection of essays on Historic Eagle and its people, Elva R. Scott states that Nimrod received his nickname as a young man. He was a crack shot, but preferred hunting and fishing to gold mining, though he did mine in the Eagle area for 40 years.
Stories and rumours have grown out of that time, swirling around the life of Nimrod like snowflakes in a January blizzard. One such rumour is that Nimrod killed a bear, then ate that bear, using the bear’s own teeth. A wry touch of irony in that tale, however untrue it is. Nimrod did, however, use sheep, caribou and bear teeth for his dentures. The sheep teeth were first, followed by caribou teeth, then followed the bear molars. Nimrod wore his teeth until he died, though he did complain that they transferred heat a little too well when he drank coffee or tea.
Eagle is also known for another larger-than-life character named Roald Amundsen, the famed explorer. According to Stephen R. Brown in The Last Viking, Amundsen spent three winters iced in 65 kilometres east of Herschel Island. He’d ended up there after successfully navigating the Northwest Passage and was anxious to share the news of his accomplishment with the world. Amundsen travelled 800 miles from his ship, the Gjøa, and arrived in Eagle, Alaska, on December 5, 1905. Amundsen was keen to send a telegram to Norway to let the world know that he had successfully navigated the Northwest Passage. Amundsen and Robertson were in Eagle at the same time!
In the speculation category, the question needs to be asked, what are the chances that these two great men met in this small town? What things they would have had to discuss! What things indeed. Alas, there is no evidence that the two men met or spoke, but there is also no evidence that they did not meet or speak. How amazing would that meeting have been?
Angela Linn, senior collections manager of ethnology and history at the University of Alaska Museum of the North (UAMN), Fairbanks Campus, stated that to see Nimrod’s famous teeth in person, you could wend your way to the Eagle Historical Society & Museum in Eagle from May 15 through Aug. 30. In the off-season, the teeth are housed in a special environment-controlled collections space at the UAMN.
If you are fortunate, you will one day see this artifact of Alaskan history for yourself, and marvel at the genius and perseverance of Nimrod.
As for the most interesting thing Robertson did? What does a genius inventor/gold miner, who lived in a small town, and who has been dead more than 70 years have to give us all these years later? For me, it can be distilled down to a quote attributed to J.J. Hillard and posted above the famous teeth on display in the museum.
“And so passed a likeable, soft-spoken, wholly impractical genius, who never…said an ill word about a soul and had the affections of everyone he met.”
Here is Nimrod’s legacy, and a challenge for us to live up to. To never say an ill word about anyone and to gain the affections of everyone we meet. This is the true gold that Nimrod mined. This is his legacy and it stands as a benchmark for us to measure ourselves against, because we are people of the North. To follow Nimrod’s example is hitting pay dirt!
Paul Rath is a freelance writer who loves the outdoors, and lives on the Haines Highway where the mountains are many and the people are few.