ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth


Buzzsaw Jimmy Richards

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

Arctic & Northern Biographies

    His real name was Jimmy Richards but I never knew anyone who called him anything but Buzzsaw Jimmy.

    It's a nickname he earned for the unsafe but effective contraption he used to cut cord wood.

    By looking at Jimmy, you could tell the machine got the best of him - more than once. He had hundreds of stitches on his body, a missing finger, and a missing leg that he lost - twice.

    Jim Richards left home in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1898, bound for the Klondike Gold Fields.

    The wonder is that he ever made it to the Yukon at all. First, the train he was riding derailed on the Prairies, killing two of his fellow passengers. Then, the backup train derailed near Canmore, Alberta and the car he was riding in left the tracks.

    When he reached Vancouver, he hired on as a deck-hand for passage on a steamer heading for Alaska. During the voyage, the rickety ship was damaged in a storm.

    He finally arrived in St. Michael, Alaska, near the mouth of the Yukon River, and boarded the paddlewheeler James Domville for the journey up the Yukon River to Dawson City.

    Like others who arrived in 1898, he found all the gold-bearing claims taken so got back on the James Domville and worked for passage to Whitehorse by chopping wood along the way.

    He still had gold fever when he arrived in Whitehorse in October, so he built a sleigh and headed for Atlin, where he spent the winter working for wages on small claims.

    Thus, he began a career of doing odd jobs. He worked on the Yukon River as a jack-of-all-trades, and then settled in Whitehorse where he built his strange, but effective, mobile woodcutting machine with parts salvaged from an old tractor and Model T Ford.

    Wood cutting in a land of almost perpetual winter could be profitable. With his homemade gizmo, Buzzsaw Jimmy could cut ten cords an hour.

    He had regular contracts to cut wood for businesses like the Whitehorse Inn. But it was dangerous work. In 1911, he almost lost his right arm to the open buzzsaw.

    Things got worse when, a few years later, he fell off the seat, caught his leg in the gears, and made a beeline for the hospital where the doctor amputated his leg.

    Fitted with a wooden replacement, the irrepressible Buzzsaw Jimmy was quickly back on the job. But accidents continued. During his cutting career, he cut his arm, back and leg... again. Buzzsaw was becoming a regular guest at the tiny Whitehorse hospital.

    Then came his most famous accident when again he fell into the rotating saw blade and severed his right leg.

    But this time, he picked up the leg, shook it at the wood sawing contraption and said: "Fooled you." He had severed his wooden leg.

    Sometimes, if someone new happened to be watching him cut wood, Jimmy would deliberately pretend to cut through his wooden leg. The ploy never failed to evoke gasps or worse... a fainting spell from the onlooker.

    How much wood could a woodcutter cut with a wood-cutting machine like Buzzsaw Jimmy's? Good question.

    Countless cords, I am sure, in a wood-cutting career that lasted fifty years.

    Sometime in the 1950s, he retired and his machine was dragged away to the dump. Buzzsaw Jimmy left Whitehorse and his colourful career in 1963 when he moved to Vancouver, where he died at age 94. [he died on August 21, 1967]

Buzzsaw Jimmy with his unique wood cutting machine. Photo by Odin Hougen, 1942.