There’s a Kamloops and Summerland connection to the ‘Cremation of Sam McGee’ | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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There’s a Kamloops and Summerland connection to the ‘Cremation of Sam McGee’

This plaque commemorating Robert Service's time in Kamloops in the original Bank of Commerce building is still on display at the corner of Victoria Street and 1 Avenue.

“The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

“But the queerest they ever did see

“Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

“I cremated Sam McGee.”

Those are some of the legendary opening lines to Robert Service’s famous poem: ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee.’

Residents of Kamloops and the Okanagan might not know so much about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, the Bard of the Yukon who turned Sam McGee and Dan McGrew (that poem was ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’) into legendary figures.

Perhaps even fewer know that there’s a connection to both Service and McGee in the Thompson-Okanagan region.

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Service was born in England of Scottish parents in 1874. He wandered western North America for a time before getting a job with the Bank of Commerce in Victoria.

He was transferred to the Kamloops branch (at the Corner of Victoria Street and 1 Avenue) in 1904 and spent five months there before being promoted to the Whitehorse, Yukon branch.

He found Kamloops “even more agreeable” than Victoria, settled into the frontier cowboy lifestyle and even took up polo (which he appears to have played poorly).

"Of his time in Kamloops he would later write: 'Life was pleasant and work light,'" says a plaque on the building where the bank once stood. "At four o'clock we were on our horses, riding over the rolling ridges or into spectral gulches that rose to ghostlier mountains. It was like the scenery of Mexico, weirdly desolate and aridly morose. I loved to ride alone.'"

He had some of his poems published in Victoria before heading north, where he arrived well after the goldrush was over.

But there was still a lot of mining going on in the territory along with a lot of challenges with the cold in what is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun.

But the Cremation of Dan McGee is set during the frigid winter, meaning very little light at any time of the day.

As the lengthy poem goes, McGee hailed from Tennessee. While he was always cold “the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell.

As the two men (McGee and the storyteller) journeyed by dog sled along the trail, McGee grew weak, made the writer promise to cremate him and died.

The writer toiled onwards to the “marge of Lake Lebarge” where he found the derelict ship, the Alice May, jammed in the ice.

Lake Laberge, as it’s now spelled, is a 54 km long widening of the Yukon River about 20 km north of Whitehorse.

After much consternation and wrestling with a frozen body, McGee was shoved into the boiler, planks were ripped from the cabin floor and the fire was lit.

After a time, the writer returned for a peep inside.

“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;

“And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.

“It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm --

“Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

While that part may be made up, Sam McGee was based on a real man who was actually born in Ontario and travelled to the Yukon in 1897 at the height of the gold rush.

He staked and mined the successful War Eagle copper mine above Whitehorse but was also known as a road builder.

He moved to Summerland in 1909, where his wife had family. He had an orchard but also worked for the district building roads before heading off to Alberta three years later.

According to the Poem Analysis website, the cremation took its inspiration from Service’s roommate, Dr. Leonard S.E. Sugden, who had once cremated Cornelius Curtin in the firebox of the Olive May.

Curtin had died of pneumonia and the Olive May was a derelict ship belonging to the Bennett Lake and Klondike Navigation Company.

Bennett Lake was at the top of the Chilkoot Pass where the miners had to build boats to ferry their supplies down to the gold fields at Dawson City after struggling up the treacherous Chilkoot and White passes.

READ MORE: How Europeans distorted the true names of Kamloops and the Okanagan

There is some disagreement about how McGee became the lead character in Service’s poem.

According to the 63rd edition of the Okanagan Historical Society’s annual report, an early version of the poem, apparently read:

“There are strange things done after half past one

“By the men who search for gold

“The arctic histories have their eerie mysteries

“That would make your feet go cold

“The Aurora Borealis has seen where Montreal is,

“But the queerest it ever spot

“Was the night on the periphery of Lake McKiflery

“I cremated Sam McKlot.”

It seems that Service saw McGee’s name on a form in his bank and pounced upon it.

"I happened to be turning over the bank ledger and I came across the name of Sam McGee, and it seemed a good name to use,” the Historical Society report says. “It sounded well and it rhymed well."

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McGee, the report says, tells a different story, as told in the historical society report.

“He recalled in 1938 that Robert Service was ‘always looking for material to weave a story or poems as at that time he was writing in a small way as I was doing a lot of freighting across Lake LaBarge (McGee's spelling) in those days in the winter time, and, as there was a little steamer called the Alice May beached on an island in the center (of the lake) and as Service was always roving around in his spare time, he got this inspiration for the poem when he ran across this Alice May and myself freighting on the lake in the bitter cold weather.’”

Service said he only met McGee once but, as the website says, there were two consequences to the change in name.

One, is that the poem and the book that followed (‘Songs of the Sourdough’) became bestsellers that made Service known around the world.

“The second consequence was that, after Sam McGee realized his name was in Robert Service's poem, he transferred his bank account to the Bank of British North America!,” the report says.

In 1909 Service retired from the bank, travelled to Europe, worked as a war correspondent for a time, wrote many more books of poetry and fiction along with music.

He died in France in 1958, never returning to Yukon.

In 1910, McGee bought 191.33 acres of orchard land in Paradise Flats on the east side of Trout Creek canyon in what is now Summerland. He bought another acre for his home at the corner of what is now Dale Meadows Road and Lister Avenue.

McGee did make two trips back to the Yukon, one in 1918 and again in 1938.

“On the last trip, he was amused to find tourists buying ‘genuine’ ashes of Sam McGee as souvenirs,” according to a Yukon Nuggets article.

Two years later he died of a stroke in Alberta.

“The real McGee was not cremated but rather buried in a family plot in Beiseker, AB, next to his wife Ruth,” the article says.

The full ‘Cremation of Sam McGee’ poem can be read here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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