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Robert Service Dreams of the Future

by Murray Lundberg


    Robert W. Service, the bard of the North. His poems of the early days on the Northern frontier have made him the most famous of poets of the genre. That, many would argue, despite the lack of literary quality of his work. Author Dick North used to say that "Service's yarns about Sam McGee and Dangerous Dan McGrew are akin to fossils which literary scholars would like to leave buried but the common man keeps dredging up." And dredge they do - from stanzas used in ads of all types, to reprints of many of his books, Robert Service's vivid images of beauty, mystery, adventure and death are seldom far from the sight or hearing of Yukoners or Alaskans.

    There is a small body of Service's work, however, that has never been published, and I only recall it being mentioned in the briefest of ways in biographies. Due I'm sure partly to Robert's "thrifty" nature, he would often, when invited to social occasions such as birthday parties, compose a poem for the guest of honour rather than purchase a more conventional gift. Unfortunately, because of their very nature, these poems have almost completey vanished. Yet, judging from the one reproduced here, they have the potential to tell a great deal about everyday life as it was seen by a Whitehorse bank clerk.

    "Bob Smart's Dream" seems to have been written for a banquet held upon the resignation of J.┬áP. Rogers, the Superintendent of the White Pass & Yukon Route. It was held on March 19, 1906, and the Whitehorse Star reported that all of Whitehorse's dignitaries were there; many of them feature in Service's poem:

  • Bob Smart had been the Government Assayer at Whitehorse since 1903;
  • J.P.Whitney owned one of the two largest general stores in town;
  • Bob Lowe was the member of the Territorial Council;
  • Bill Grainger owned a great deal of mining property in the southern Yukon;
  • Barney McGee had just gone into partnership with Pete Richen in the Commercial Hotel, where the banquet was held;
  • Bill Clark had been mining around Whitehorse since it was first settled;
  • the Deacon was the nickname of lawyer Willard Phelps.

    The sentiments spelled out in this piece seem to have been typical of the attitudes of the day, when mining at Whitehorse, Windy Arm and the Wheaton Valley was booming. Luckily, much of the progress envisioned never came to pass. There are no stamp mills, no smelter, no 18-storey buildings, no White Pass & Yukon "flyer" to Dawson (or even to Whitehorse any more). The "club" (the North Star Athletic Club) no longer exists, nor does Taylor & Drury's store. And Ear Lake is a gravel pit, not a park. But the steel bridge was built, and "the villas with gardens aflower" are in abundance. All in all, I think that Bob and the Deacon and Barney McGee would be pleased.


Bob Smart's Dream

This is my dream of Whitehorse
When fifty years have sped,
As after the Rogers' Banquet
I lay asleep in my bed.

I tottered along the sidewalk
That was made of real cement;
A skyscraper loomed above me,
Where once I remembered a tent.

I heard the roar of a trolley,
And I stumbled out of the way;
I dodged a few automobiles,
And I felt I was getting quite gay.

I thought I'd cross the Yukon,
Over the big steel bridge;
I heard the roar of the stamp mills
Up on the western ridge.

Crushing the quartz from bullion,
And borne on the evening breeze
I sniffed the fumes of the smelter
And the suphur made me sneeze.

So I thought I'd go to Ear Lake Park
Where nature was fresh and fair;
('Twas donated by J.P.Whitney,
The multi-millionaire.)

Out past the smiling suburbs,
The villas with gardens aflower,
The factories down by the rapids
Run by the water power.

I took a car to the Canyon
And transferred up to the Park
And I sat on a bench by the fountain
Feeling as old as the Ark.

I sighed for the ancient landmarks,
The men that I used to know,
Till I stumbled against a statue,
And spelled out the name - Bob Lowe.

A litle chap who saw me
Said with evident pride:
"That is a bust of my grandpa:
It's twenty years since he died.

And if you think I'm fooling,
Ask that boy and you'll see -
He's little Billy Grainger, my playmate,
And that's little Barney McGee."

Then I turned once more to the city,
With its streets like canyons aroar;
And the lights of Taylor & Drury's
Colossal department store:

The eighteen storey steel palace
Where once stood the White Pass Hotel,
The silent rush of its elevators
The clamor of bell upon bell.

And over there at the depot
The hurry, the crush and the din,
The flyer just starting for Dawson,
The bullion express coming in.

The business blocks all abustle,
The theatres all alight,
The Home of Indigent Sourdoughs
Endowed by Armstrong and White.

And everywhere were strangers,
And I thought in the midst of these
Of Old Bill Clark in his homespun,
And debonnaire Mr.Breze:

And Fish, and Doc and the Deacon,
And the solo bunch at the club -
Now grown to a stately mansion
That would make the old place look dub.

It was all so real, so lifelike,
I awoke like a man in a fog,
So I shed a few tears in the darkness,
And groped for the hair of the dog.

This was my dream of Whitehorse
When fifty years have sped,
As I lay asleep in my bed.

___ Robert W.Service, 1905 ____________________

    Somewhere, buried in boxes of old letters, or hopefully in private collections, there may be scores more examples of Robert Service's "social poems." While they can't be considered classics, they could illuminate a very interesting, un-examined aspect of Service's life in the Yukon. If you know of any, or have a piece that you're not sure of, please drop me a note.


©2001-2016 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.