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Geordie Dobson, King of 'The Hill'

Story & photos by Murray Lundberg

Originally published in Up Here magazine in July 2001.

Featured in the July/August 2001 edition of Up Here magazine     Keno City, an almost-forgotten mining town high in the mountains of the central Yukon, is "the end of the road" - it says so right on the T-shirt. Something about this area, though, has kept former globe-trotting seaman Geordie Dobson here for almost half a century.

    Being one of only twenty year-round residents makes it fairly easy for an individual to stand out in a community, but Geordie is one of those characters who would stand out in any group. Between his stories and his unique buildings, he is Keno to many people.

    "Lots of character, stories everywhere." That could describe both Keno and Geordie. Keno is far from being a spruced-up tourist town, but history permeates the atmosphere of the town. And Geordie, sitting in his dimly lit café, can tell stories for as long as you care to listen, in an English accent softened by a half-century away from his birthplace.

Featured in the July/August 2001 edition of Up Here magazine     Keno's heyday was already long over by the time Geordie arrived in 1952. Men had been prospecting in the area between Mayo and Keno City since the 1880s, but it was not until 1918, when large deposits of silver were discovered on what was just called "The Hill," that large-scale mining began. In the 1920s and 1930s, the area's silver mines were famous around the world. At one time there were five hotels in Keno, but the population was down to about 100 in 1952. "I've been in most every country in this world, and when I came to Keno I said 'This is the place I've been looking for.' It was quiet, I could go shoot a moose any time I wanted, go down to the lake and get all the fish I wanted. I liked it, and I've stayed ever since."

    He began work in United Keno Hill's Elsa mine, and over the next few years worked at several others, including the Calumet, the Comstock and the Bellekeno. Geordie, though, has always tried to avoid being one of the people who lives in what he terms "the perpetual triangle" - "you live here, you work there, then you go for a beer." In 1959, he purchased a former hotel that United Keno Hill was using as a bunkhouse, and began rebuilding it. After working a ten-hour shift in the mines, he would come home and work another eight hours on the hotel. "I was young and in good shape then. Now I'm 72 I'm getting kinda mean and cranky." In 1963, he was finally able to open it as the Keno City Hotel, and had several very good years while the mines were running.

    In the winters now, Geordie operates the café across the street from the hotel, then about the first of May when the worst of the mud has dried up, opens the hotel again. But things are always pretty quiet: "Last month I took in $500. I'd make that in one hour when the mine was going." He is not at all impressed by the Yukon government's work to promote tourism. Far off the normal tourist route, Keno gets relatively few visitors, and although the hotel is one of the "musts" for anyone who enjoys buildings with character, Geordie says that "95% of the tourists just come in and look around and then leave."

    The walls and ceilings of both the café and hotel are covered with artifacts and memories. Among the intriguing items hanging above the hotel's bar are home-made sausages that have been hanging there for up to 35 years - Geordie swears that they are still good inside. Asking about any of his treasures will probably prompt a story. Geordie is one of the Yukon's better-known storytellers, and enjoys getting a reaction from people when he tells a story. Occasionally when a visitor asks if he has any children, he will point to a postcard of two bare-breasted African women and introduce them as his daughters. A twinkle in his eyes, though, seems to serve as a good clue that the story is being told for effect rather than accuracy.

    He enjoys singing old sea shanties, often to illustrate a story, but denies being the entertainment when the bar opens: "No, I'm the mean bastard who throws the drunks out. They've got a juke box there." If he's in the right mood, though, he just might tell you about the two ghosts that inhabit the hotel.

    Upstairs, in Room 12, is the ghost of a former hotel owner, a Japanese man who owned one of the hotels in the 1920s. While he was in Mayo picking up a food and liquor order, the hotel burned and his wife and two sons were killed. He was put in room 12 to calm down, but instead, he shot himself. The other ghost is the spirit of Frank White, a miner who died in 1958 at the age of 79. "Downstairs, beside the fireplace, there's a ghost there. I've seen him at least a dozen times, just like looking at you. A couple of months after he died, here he's standing beside that fireplace. He just turned around and put his hands behind his back, but he didn't go around the pool table, he went straight through it and out the door." White, from the southern states, had owned a mine nearby and "worked himself into the ground." He walked with a hunch, with his hands behind his back and always wore a wide-brimmed hat, a coat with tails and a frilly vest that was all grubby, so Geordie has no doubt about who the misty visitor is.

    Geordie has always taken part in community affairs, and in 1992, the Governor General of Canada, Ramon Hnatyshyn, presented the Fire Services Exemplary Service Medal to him in recognition of 25 years of service as a volunteer fireman in Keno. The respect that the people of the region have for him was probably best demonstrated, though, when he was invited to meet Prince Charles during his visit to Mayo this past April.

    Geordie was born in 1925 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Formerly a proud shipbuilding centre, the city had hit hard times by the 1930s, and was no place for a boy with an adventurous spirit. Too young to enlist in the Air Force with his brothers when World War II broke out, he lied about his age and signed onto a Norwegian freighter instead.

    Geordie quickly moved up from his labouring position on the ship to that of quartermaster. In 1943, while his ship was in a munitions convoy off West Africa, he was on the bridge when it was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine. By ignoring the captain's protests about launching a lifeboat, he was able to be one of the handful of men who survived when the ammunition on board exploded.

    After a short stint with a construction company after the war, he went back to sea. For the next six years, he wandered around the world on freighters, carrying everything from copper ingots on the Congo River to lumber and bauxite in the South Seas.

    By 1952, it was time to go home for a visit, but while waiting for a train in Vancouver, another chance encounter in a bar brought him north instead. To a young man brought up around coal mines, the term "silver mine" was magical, and when the men he had met said they were going to fly 2,000 miles north to work in a silver mine, he decided immediately to join them. Although he didn't know it then, his wandering days were over.

    While the solitude of a place like Keno can be too much for most people, Geordie enjoys it. He tries to avoid even going to Whitehorse, 470 kilometers south; when he needs something he just asks the next person heading down to bring it back for him.

    Geordie is never at a loss for something to do - although arthritis slows him down some days, he has several buildings that house various projects. He loves telling visitors about his riverboats, one of which he still dreams of sailing to the ocean with. His "baby", though, is a beautiful Chevy pickup with all the toys that you would expect someone about 55 years younger to have on his truck. His largest project in the past few years has been "the bottle house." In the days before recycling, he had accumulated a huge pile of beer bottles behind the hotel, so during three summers, he cemented 32,000 beer bottles to the outside walls of the house he was living in at the time. "They make the best insulation you can get," he says. He swears that it was all very practical. Well, except maybe the two cannons that sit in the front yard: "They're just for fun!"

    Then there was the time he was put in a jail cell with a cannibal - but that's a story best told with 35-year-old sausages hanging over your head…

Geordie Dobson in his Keno City, Yukon hotel
Geordie Dobson shows visitor Cathy Small some of the treasures
that hang above the bar in his Keno City, Yukon hotel.