Strange Tales from Canada’s Yukon (Part Two)

by David Webb on November 4, 2013

Dawson City, Yukon

Welcome to part two of my “Strange Things Done” series — wild tales from Canada’s Yukon. As relayed to me via a Parks Canada guide, here are three tales that could have only come from North of 60:

In This Yukon Article Will Discover:

  • How to Make Millions in Gold
  • The 20th Century’s Most Successful Marketing Campaign
  • Why Dawson City only Has Half of Jack London’s Cabin

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold…” So begins The Cremation of Sam McGee, written by the Bard of The North, Robert Service. And it’s as true today as it was in 1907 when Service penned the famous verse. Maybe, in fact, the Klondike is even stranger now. Or, given the context of these three tales from the mid-20th century — maybe not:

big-inch-land-company

My tour guide with a “Big Inch Land Company” deed.

The Big Inch Land Company

Fuelled by the popularity of the television program, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, by the late 1950s public interest in the Klondike hadn’t been as great since the Gold Rush. Thus, in an effort to sell more cereal, Quaker Oats decided to piggyback on the region’s popularity.

In 1955, Quaker introduced a promotion where purchasers of their Puffed Wheat, Puffed Rice and Shredded Wheat could receive an actual land deed to a parcel of Klondike Property (divvied from a 19-acre plot near Dawson City, Yukon, that Quaker had purchased for the contest for $1,000). The fact that these land parcels were merely one-square-inch apiece didn’t deter people from a buying frenzy. Within a month, 21 million boxes of cereal had flown off the shelves — success! It is now considered the most effective marketing campaign of the 20th century. But this is just the story’s beginning.

Once all 21 million cereal-buyers had their deeds in-hand, which had been issued from the so-called “Big Inch Land Company,” they wanted to know more about their property. Rather than call Quaker — who had ended the promo once the land deeds were all gone — “owners” decided to look North.

The tiny, understaffed Dawson City town office was flooded — no, drowned — in an onslaught of telephone calls and letters from 21 million concerned property owners.

Could they visit? How much is it worth? Is there any gold on it? Would-be prospectors made the trek north just to inspect the property for themselves. Some people even asked that their inch be cordoned off from the others. The demand was staggering.

Dawson City still sees tourists who were first entranced by the Klondike when they received their Big Inch Land Company deed more than 50 years ago. Today, these deeds can be found on eBay, selling for about $40. But of the land itself? Well, Quaker Oats forgot to pay their property taxes and the land defaulted to the Yukon government. It is now lost somewhere within traditional First Nations territory — so no, deed-holders, you don’t own anything.

Make Millions, Spend Millions

goldbottom-nugget

The largest nugget Gold Bottom Mines ever found — worth about $10,000.

Gold Bottom Tours is one of Dawson City’s most popular tour operators — visitors can learn all about placer mining in Gold Bottom’s active gold mine, and even pan gold for themselves. It’s a family-run business, founded by current tour-guide Justin Millar’s grandparents in 1974 — though back then, Gold Bottom was strictly a mining operation. No tours were necessary as Justin’s grandparents had more money than they knew what to do with. Strike that. They knew.

Nearly 20 years after they had honeymooned in the Klondike, Len and Rona Millar returned to Dawson to strike a gold claim. It was 1974, and price of gold had recently been deregulated — jumping from $40 per ounce to about $400 overnight. It was a modern-day Gold Rush.

The Millars bought a claim (for $10, still the price today), set up a meagre operation and in the first day they pulled $160,000 worth of gold from the dirt.

The Millars continued to reap a fortune of millions over the next 20 years — and they spent nearly every last cent, travelling the world First Class and generally living like Sultans until Len’s passing in the ‘90s. There was enough money in their bank account to keep Rona, still alive today, in comfort for the rest of her days and the mine itself was willed to to their son — but not a penny beyond that was leftover from the multi-millions the Millars had mined. The family continues to operate the mine today — supplementing gold income with tour revenue, as it seems that grandpa and grandma got the lion’s share. Work hard, play hard!

King Solomon Would Be Proud

jack-londons-cabin

Jack London’s Cabin, with local tourism guru, Peggy Amendola.

One of Dawson City’s most popular attractions is “Writer’s Row;” found on the town’s 8th Avenue. Here, tourists can view the former homes of authors Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton.

Robert Service, best known for The Cremation of Sam McGee, went north to work as a bank teller at the turn of the last century — but eventually found fame and a better living from his words. Whitehorse-born Pierre Berton is the most contemporary of the bunch, penning Canadian bestsellers like The Last Good Year and Prisoners of the North before his passing in 2004. (Berton’s cabin is now a writer’s retreat.) But, of course, Jack London, author of Call of the Wild and White Fang, is the most famous of them all.

The Jack London museum, founded by and formerly curated by Yukon author Dick North, is a popular Dawson City stopover. Beside the exhibition, you’ll find Jack London’s actual cabin on-site — which Dick North had discovered in the woods in 1965 and brought to Dawson to be restored as a heritage memorial.

Wait, did I say his “whole” cabin? No, you’ll really only find half of Jack London’s cabin on-site.

Fact: London didn’t write a word while in the Klondike. He gathered his inspiration from the wilderness then returned home to Oakland, California, to gain fame with his books. So when the cabin was discovered, both Dawson and Oakland quickly laid claim.

Both cities had equal rights: one as the inspiration for London’s tales, the other as the author’s actual hometown and the place where we wrote his famous stories. Neither wanted to fight about it. So they did the only fair thing: they cut the cabin in half. Dawson City kept the top-half, and built a replica bottom; Oakland has the bottom-half, and built a replica roof. Today, you can visit Jack London’s cabin in one, or both, cities. If only all governments could work together so well…

Read Stories From PART ONE.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

David Webb November 6, 2013 at 16:10

You’ll have to strike your own claim to get a nugget like that!

Abby November 5, 2013 at 19:21

Wow! I would love to have that nugget Gold Bottom Mines worth $10,000. Guess that it will be only in my dreams :)

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