Coming of age in the gold fields
by Michael Gates ©
The restaurant was noisy with the clatter of dishes and the clamour of voices as we settled in our booth in the restaurant at the Midnight Sun Hotel.
It was Discovery Day, 1985. From his busy Dawson schedule, Pierre Berton arranged an hour to talk to me about coming of age, working for “The Company” during the summers of 1937, 1938 and 1939.
“The Company” was the massive dredging operation known as the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, but “The Company” was all you had to say because everyone knew that it was the economic lifeblood of the Yukon, and by far the territory’s largest employer.
The Company enabled Berton’s emergence into manhood, as it did for many young men, who, by the time I spoke to them in the early 1980’s, had reached the ends of their careers and reflected upon this rite of passage.
It was the Great Depression, and jobs were hard to come by. Berton’s father, Frank, had been superannuated by the government from his position as mining recorder in Dawson city. They lived in Victoria on his tiny pension while Pierre and his sister, Lucy, went to school.
When Frank was offered his old job back, it was an offer no one could refuse in those hard times, so he left the family and returned alone to Dawson City to assume the post he had been made to leave some years before.
Through his connections with the executives of The Company (Frank was good friends with W.H.S. McFarland, the general manager) Berton was able to get his teen-age son a job working on a thawing crew out on Middle Dominion Creek, some eighty kilometers from Dawson.
Berton was so green, that when he was hired in July of 1937, they sent him to Bear Creek, where they hung a tag around his neck that said “Middle Dominion Camp”, and he bounced his way out to Dominion Creek in the back of a rattling old truck.
He thought that was the normal thing to do, and was reminded of it, decades later, by one of the other fellows on the thawing crew during a return visit to Dawson.
The work was hard and unrelenting as, day after day, he went out into the flats on Dominion Creek and helped set up pipe, and keep the water flowing through the intricate network of pipes and hoses to the hollow steel tubes that they drove into the frozen ground.
Berton quickly learned not to speak of his university studies because out in the goldfields, nobody cared. Nor could he see the point to this work, where, he said, they took the gold out of the ground to ship to Forty Knox, only to put it back in the ground. It was just a job.
Over those three summers, he became a man. He learned to work, he learned to drink, and he learned the ways of the world. In 1939, on June 21st, the longest day of the year, a truck rolled into camp just as the men were retiring to the bunkhouse for the evening. Someone called out – “anyone for Fournier’s?”, and into the truck and off they went to Joe Fournier’s roadhouse at the top of the divide between Hunker and Dominion Creeks.
Someone offered Berton a drink of whiskey in a tone that brooked no refusal, so by the time he reached the roadhouse, he was already half way to roaring drunk. From there, someone suggested they drive down Hunker to Gold Bottom, where there was a dance going on in another roadhouse, so they stole Fournier’s truck, and off they went.
On the return trip, they ran the truck off the road, where it overturned. Berton alternately, walked, staggered and ran down the road back to camp. Through good fortune, a truck came by, picked him up and deposited him, still drunk, at the mess hall with ten minutes to spare before his work day commenced. He didn’t know that Joe Fournier was going to throw the book at him for his antics.
For many others I spoke to about their experiences working for The Company, the memories were equally indelible. Matt Offer, got a job as a flunky, then bull cook in one of the mess halls, and later, as bow decker on one of the dredges. With a tear in his eye as he talked to me, he remembered that this was his first real job, and he learned fast.
Another was John Calam, a retired university professor, who, in the summer of 1999, travelled with me to the site of the dredge camp at Granville. He had an almost photographic recall of the job working on the thawing and stripping crew at Granville.
We stood beside the road at the site on Dominion Creek where the row of bunkhouses used to be, but was now merely grass and bush and a few pits in the gravel. I watched transfixed as he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and played a mournful tune as he once did on the porch of the bunkhouse here some fifty years before.
His eyes watered up as he played, and it took him a moment before he could speak again. I think he had been waiting a long time to play that tune once again at Granville.
Another man who returned was Ted Thornton Trump, who worked mostly at the company headquarters at Bear Creek, though he too went out into the goldfields. Ted went on to become an inventor, most notably of the hydraulic cherry-picker, the device that linemen now use to work on electrical transformers.
He came back to Dawson to return an act of kindness. Decades before, the Gould family had allowed him to stay in their house in Dawson until he was able to hire on with The Company. Now a wealthy man, he flew my wife and I and John and Madeleine Gould to Inuvik for lunch before taking us out over the Beaufort Sea and returning to Dawson.
For each of these men, there was something special in their experience working for The Company, something that made them return.
I felt their need.
And Pierre Berton’s illicit ride? Fournier laid charges against him. John Gould told me the story. Berton thought for sure that he was going to go to jail. His father told him to get back to Vancouver as fast as possible, then hired Charlie McLeod, The Company Lawyer, to handle things.
According to John, when the case came before Judge McCauley, the judge looked at Fournier, for whom he had no love, and then looked at the charges, and announced: “Case dismissed.”
I think that his father may have called in a favour or two. And it’s a good thing, too. Imagine Canada’s foremost author – with a criminal record!
(Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.)