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Who was Dan McGrew?

A bunch of the boys were a whooping it up in the malamute saloon.
The kid that handled the music box was playing a jagtime tune,
Back of the bar in a solo game sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While watching his luck was his light o'love the lady that's known as Lou.

It was a pleasant spring day, April 20, 1908, when a nondescript, yet not unknown, bank clerk arrived in Dawson City on board the overland stage from Whitehorse. He slid into town without fanfare and took up his duties behind the teller's cage in the ornate Bank of Commerce building on First Avenue. Nondescript? Maybe, but his fame had predeceded him. The gold rush city folk were expecting another wild, crazy drinker and gambler to join the ranks of colourful characters in their midst.

Instead, they found a shy, introverted young Scot who drank little and smoked only occasionally, who preferred long solitary walks in the wilderness. Though polite and proper, he spoke very little. Could this be the same man who had recently taken the world by storm with the publication of bawdy book of pungent poetry called Songs of a Sourdough?

Was this the man who wrote about corpse cremations in beached river boats; who wrote about a painted prostitute with an added halo whose image hangs in a church; who told the steamy story of a double shooting murder in a local saloon?

Could this modest young man be the renowned poet, Robert Service?


Bob Service, everyone called him Bob, had arrived in Whitehorse back in 1904 to work as a clerk in the Bank of Commerce.

His skill, apart from pen-pushing in the Bank, was listening. He loved to listen to the tall tales of the Klondike and would seek out old-timers for that purpose. He was also a bit of a writer, having studied literature in Scotland before he emigrated to Canada in 1896.

Thus stories of the great gold rush, a rush that had already past him by, became grist for his gift as a writer. He could embellish a simple story with such detail and twist that ordinary events became extraordinary, almost epochal episodes on the world's stage that was the Klondike.

By the time he arrived in Dawson City in 1908, he had already become world famous for his clever reconstruction of a saloon shootout in which two men lay stiff and stark, while a rouge-painted lady pinched a dead stranger's poke of gold. In his later years, Robert Service always claimed that his characters, including Dangerous Dan McGrew, who appeared like a slate of scoundrels in a police lineup, were fictional. These are not the simple facts of the case.

Most of the characters who permeated poems by Robert Service were based on real people. He listened, he learned, he wrote. We know that Sam McGee, born near Peterborough, Ontario, was as real as ice fog, 'Touch the Button' Nell actually strutted her stuff on saloon stages in Dawson.

The "kid that handled the music box" in the Shooting of Dan McGrew was an accomplished piano player from Chicago, whose mother was one of the foremost music teachers of her day. Clancy was an honest-to-God Mountie.

But who was Dan McGrew? In my search for characters real or imagined by Robert Service, I had long been unable to pinpoint the hero-villain in the famous poem. Since Robert Service would never admit to the existence of such a person, the search for Dan McGrew and his "lady that's known as Lou" seemed endless, as well as hopeless.

Then I got to figuring who he was, and to wondering what he did. With a final piece of information, the job was done. These are the simple facts of the case.

Murray Eads came to the Klondike in 1898, not to mine for gold, but to run dance halls. There was big money in saloons and dance halls, and Murray Eads knew the business.

Eads was a flamboyant character. His whole career had been tied to Dawson City's gaudy dance hall days. He managed the old Standard and the famous Monte Carlo saloons. Alexander Pantages, who became the owner of North America's biggest movie chains, and Tex Rickard, who became owner of Madison Square Gardens, tended bar for Eads.

In 1904, he married a dance hall girl, Lulu Mae Johnson, who had come over the trail with a troupe of performers, hired by Eads. She was touted as one of the real beauties of the Klondike. Murray was a Kentuckian. Lulu Mae hailed from Alabama.

At the time of the marriage, Eads owned the Flora Dora on Front Street. It was a bustling place and not without its characters. The walls behind the ornate bar were covered with paintings of voluptuous nudes. In back of the bar, as with every bar in Dawson, was a room dedicated to the favourite pastime of the city's wild, rich miners.

Gambling! Faro, aceaway, and spread misere were games of choice. While the gamblers made and lost a fortune in gold dust, as many as twenty women, according to NWMP Inspector Zachary Wood, rented rooms upstairs in 1907.

One day, the Royal Northwest Mounties charged Lulu Mae Eads with "allowing women of loose, idle or suspicious character on the premises for the purpose of keeping company with men." Prostitution was not totally condemned in Dawson, but the Mounties did not take kindly to the business being conducted under their noses right on Front Street, across from the prestigious Bank of Commerce. They charged Lulu because her name appeared on the liquor licence. Her husband Murray, the owner, had his own reasons for this arrangment.

Royal Alexandra
Front angle view of the Royal Alexandra Hotel on Front Street in Dawson. Date: 1925.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7765.
Click for larger view.

McGrew 2
Exterior of Canadian Bank of Commerce building on Front Street in Dawson. Date: 1900.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #7661.
Click for larger view.

McGrew 1
Men sitting around a small table playing cards.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4746.
Click for larger view.

The matter was settled, Lulu Mae stayed out of jail, and Eads went on to expand the Flora Dora and rename it the Royal Alexandra. It became one of Dawson's classiest dance halls and made nothing but money for the couple. With money came respectability. The Eads, their dance hall and assorted shenanigans aside, were pillars of the community.

In the fall of 1918, Mr. and Mrs. Eads decided it was time to leave the Klondike. They sold their various business interests and made arrangements to leave for the coast. Neither had been out of the Yukon since they arrived at the height of the gold rush twenty years earlier.

In October 1918, they travelled to Whitehorse by sternwheeler, took the White Pass train to Skagway, and booked passage south on board the CPR ship, the Princess Sophia. The Sophia left Skagway on October 23, 1918 with three hundred and fifty-three passengers and crew on board. In a blinding snowstorm in the Lynn Canal, the ship struck the well-charted Vanderbilt reef.

It sat high and dry for two days waiting rescue from another CPR ship, the Princess Alice.

Then, on October 25, a blizzard swept the stricken Sophia into the sea. All passengers and crew, including Murray and Lulu Mae Eads, were drowned. Ironically, the couple had drawn up their last wills just a few days before the disaster.

It became apparent later that they had stayed in the Yukon for twenty years, not so much because they loved the place, but because they feared sea travel.

In my search for Dan McGrew, the real Dan McGrew and his "lady that's known as Lou," a telling piece of evidence came after the sinking of the Sophia and the death of Murray and Lulu Mae Eads. It came in a letter, recently uncovered, written by a woman from Juneau, Alaska, to a friend.

"The Princess Sophia went down with all passengers and crew", she wrote in 1918. "It was a terrible tragedy. The ship took with her Lulu Mae Eads, the lady that's known as Lou."

Is it possible that Dangerous Dan McGrew, that mythical character from the inventive mind of Robert Service, was her flamboyant husband, the Dawson saloon king from Alabama, Murray Eads?


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Wop May

August 21, 1918. Eight yellow Sopwith Camels circled high in the cloudless sky, thousands of feet above the carnage on the ground below. Squadron leader Roy Brown was in command of the Allied squadron. The veteran ace from Carleton Place had eleven kills on his formidable fighter pilot's resume. Meanwhile, a rookie pilot in the eight-plane fighter formation had none. After all, it was just Lt Wilfred May's first combat flight.

Suddenly, the temporary tranquillity was broken from above. May heard the shriek of machine-gun fire. Dreaded Fokker's, the pride of the German air force, pelted the Royal Air Squadron. Lt May arced his Sopwith Camel and plunged down toward a blue Fokker, guns blazing. The German pilot slumped in his seat. As the Fokker smashed to the ground, Lt Wilfred May felt both some satisfaction and some remorse. His first kill.

After four years of trench warfare in which millions suffered ghastly wounds and hideous death, the air war was relatively new. Pilots on both sides were learning the art of combat flying on the job. None had learned better than the German ace, Baron Manfred Von Richthofen. He had eighty Allied kills to his credit. His dazzling red Fokker aircraft was the most feared weapon in the German arsenal.

The Red Baron ruled the skies over Europe. He had watched with some amusement as May downed the blue German aircraft. Now Richthofen would turn the tables on May. Down dove May racing the engine of his yellow Sopwith Camel at full throttle. An easy mark mused the Red Baron, as he opened his machine guns on the helpless Canadian. At tree top level they roared. The two aircraft reached blazing speeds. As he dodged the trees, May had every reason to believe the end was near.

Then from behind, Captain Roy Brown swung his biplane toward the red German Fokker. The three aircraft, two Allied and one German danced the airborne dance of death. Trench-based troops watched the unfolding drama in awe. Brown squeezed the trigger. Fiery bullets slammed into the ground near the front lines. May pulled up. Brown waved from his open cockpit.

Wilfred May and Roy Brown had just accomplished the unthinkable. The two Canadian heroes had rid the battle skies of Manfred von Richthofen. The Red Baron would rule the skies over Europe no more. When Lt Wilfred May returned to his Edmonton home at war's end in the fall of 1918, the 22-year-old pilot was a genuine war hero. He had a Distinguished Flying Cross and seven kills in a brief, but vicious, air war to prove it. Now the young man wanted to prove that aircraft and air travel could be used for good as well as evil. A few months after the war, the City of Edmonton was given an aircraft known as a Curtiss Canuck Jenny, a two-seated open-cockpit biplane.

There was no one better equipped to fly the airplane than war hero Wilfred May, who was known in Alberta by his nickname, Wop. He had carried the moniker since he was five years old. His little niece couldn't pronounce Wilfred properly. It always came out "Wop", so the name stuck.

J.J. Clarke, Edmonton's mayor, was a firm believer in the future of air travel. Not many others were. So the city rented the Curtiss Jenny to May for twenty-five dollars a month. He promptly set up a company called May Airplanes Ltd. May barnstormed small towns north to Grande Prairie, carrying reluctant passengers on their first and, for many, last airplane flight. Fear of flying was even more acute in the 20s. The aircrafts were climsy, cold, unreliable and often downright dangerous. What good could these contraptions be?

An answer came on New Year's Day, 1929. Wop May was living in Calgary and had spent a quiet morning with his wife, Violet, when the phone rang. Dr. Bow, Alberta's Deputy Minister of Health, was on the line. The message was simple and stunning. A diphteria epidemic was threatening Little Red River, a tiny native community, sixty miles down the Peace River from Fort Vermilion, that itself was isolated 960 kilometers from Edmonton. Dr. Harold Hamman, the medical doctor in Peace River, had sent an urgent message to the government. Get us diptheria antitoxin quickly or face the most serious medical crisis the Peace Country had ever known. Only an aircraft could do the job in time.

Wop May quickly caught the train for Edmonton, where he met co-pilot and long time friend, Vic Horner. The only aircraft in the entire region equipped for such a long flight in bitterly cold winter conditions was an Avro Avian, a fragile biplane with an open cockpit and a maximum speed of 160 kilometers an hour. At the rough, snow-packed Edmonton air strip, May and Horner shivered in the bitter cold dawn, even though they were both layered with woolen garments and covered in bear skin jackets. Dr. Bow handed May the precious cargo; 600,000 units of diptheria antitoxin. The mercy pilots climbed into the open cockpit seats. The engine sputtered in the -35 degree temperature.

Then as a small crowd watched, the tiny plane bumped down the snow-covered strip and disappeared into the snowy distance.

Pressing hard on the rudder pedal, May swung the nose slowly to line it up with the railway heading north to Peace River. The pair crouched in the cramped cockpit while the vicious wind screamed around them. The precious vials of antitoxin were stuffed under their arms, in their pockets, with barely enough fuel to taxi to a makeshift hut where fuel supplies were kept. By now it was pitch black. An overnight stay to thaw out and sleep was a welcome relief.

The next morning, the men thawed the frozen aircraft with oil heated over an open fire, and continued their mercy flight. At mid-day they landed in Peace River. Both men were so cold they could barely free themselved from the plane to refuel. As they prepared to take off for Fort Vermilon, May thought the improvised runway on the river looked a little short. He was right. As he raced down the icy strip, he saw the metal struts of the railway bridge looming closer and closer. There was no way the plane could clear the span so May flew under the bridge supports. A closer call than his fight with the Red Baron back in 1918, he thought.

The Avro Avian was butted by near gale-force winds that whipped like a banshee through the open cockpits. As daylight began to fade, they spotted a snow-covered building, the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters at Fort Vermilon, beside the marked landing strip. May landed the little aircraft with its precious cargo of antitoxin firmly stowed against his body. Numb with cold and fatigue, May and Horner had to be physically lifted from the aircraft by several Mounties. Dr. Hamman arrived by dog team about an hour later from Little Red River. His news was both bad and good. Albert Logan, a Hudson's Bay employee, had died, but the epidemic failed to materialize.

Still, May and Horner had risked their lives for others. They had taken three days to deliver the precious cargo from Edmonton, a long time by today's standards but, back then, such a feat could not have been accomplished at all during the frigid winter months. The mercy pilots embarked on the frigid flight back to Edmonton including another overnight stop at Peace River.

Unknown to May and Horner, a new radio station, CJCA in Edmonton, had been following the progress of their mercy flight. The news was relayed by ham radio operators, the RCMP and by telegram to the government in Edmonton. Soon, all of Alberta was aware of the drama in the air over the Peace River country.

As the Avro Avian touched down in Edmonton, May was puzzled by the number of vehicles parked along the air strip. It never occurred to him or Horner that during their flight, Albertans were listening and cheering them on. A large crowd ringed the aircraft as the two pilots were lifted, half frozen, from the cockpit.

Though the diphteria antitoxin was not as badly needed as Dr. Hamman had first thought, he decided to err on the side of caution. May and Horner decided it was worth the risk to prove that aircraft could save lives in remote Northern communities. The estimated ten thousand people of Edmonton, who greeted their return, now knew why Wop May had won the military's highest decoration during World War 1. The pilot was, indeed, a hero.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Sinking of the Sophia

It was the worst disaster the Yukon had ever known. The elite of the mining and transportation community, on board the Princess Sophia, were lost in the ice-cold waters of the Inside Passage, October 23, 1918.

The Princess Sophia left Skagway bound for Vancouver. The vessel, owned by the CPR, carried 294 passengers and a crew of 61. On board were many of the elite of the Dawson city mining society. More than 100 employees of the White Pass and Yukon Route, the crew members who had operated the Yukon River sternwheelers that summer, were onboard. It was the final sailing of the season for the Sophia. Captain Locke, a veteran of the Inside Passage, was in command.

At 2.05 a.m., during a blinding snow squall, the Sophia slammed into Vanderbilt Reef, a well charted rock in Lynn Canal north of Juneau. The crash lifted the large liner 8 feet out of the water. A hole 80 feet long was torn through the bottom. Captain Locke sent out an SOS and three large vessels and a number of small fishing boats came to the rescue. The Sophia was high and dry, and not taking water.

On the morning of October 24, the weather was clear and the seas calm. The CPR decided not to try and transfer passengers to the boats standing by. Instead, they would wait the arrival of the Princess Alice, a sister ship which left Vancouver on the evening of October 24th.

The Alice was 740 miles away. The weather remained relatively calm until the evening of October 25th, when a violent storm blew in, chasing away the rescue boats which had been standing by.

The Sophia slipped off Vanderbilt reef and was flooded with icy water. She went to the bottom in minutes. The only survivor was an English sheep dog who made it to shore and walked for two days to a village called Tee Harbour. When the storm lifted, and the rescue boats returned, they were confronted with a horrific site. Oil-covered bodies of 355 people, many of them Yukoners, were floating in the frigid water of Lynn Canal. Later investigation showed that the passengers could have been taken off the Sophia by the small boats standing by before the storm.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Lynn Canal
Long range panorama from Dyea Mountain with Lynn Canal in the background. Date: 1899.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #91.
Click for larger view.

Lynn Canal 2
Exterior view of the buildings comprising the Eldred Rock Lighthouse on the rocky island in the Lynn Canal.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4732.
Click for larger view.


John Zaccarelli

John Zaccarelli was born in 1881 in Pravia, Italy. At a young age, his family moved to Vancouver Island, near Nanaimo. He was just 16 years old when he heard about the arrival of the ship the Excelsior in Seattle carrying a ton of gold. Young John booked passage for Skagway on the steamship, the SS Islander which left Vancouver on July 28, 1897.

He arrived in Dawson City in 1898 and eventually opened a store in downtown Dawson. John Zaccarelli would call the Klondike city his home for the next twenty years. In 1901 was hailed in a promotion about the gold rush mecca which said: "Mr. Zaccarelli, a Yukon Pioneer of ‘98, has made a host of friends and stands high in the esteem of his business associates."

The Zaccarelli store on King Street between First and Second Avenue carried everything from books to bananas including a complete stock of stationary, fruits, and vegetables, imported cigars and confectionary. In 1903, he married Elizabeth Dooley and the couple had two boys - Thomas and Ralph.

John Zaccarelli became one of Dawson’s biggest boosters. He produced post cards of Yukon scenes for sale to the tourists and in 1908, he published a fascinating book called Zaccarelli’s "Pictorial Souvenir Book of the Golden Northland."

Along with an extensive and glowing text about the Yukon’s present and future, the book contained 192 original photographs of life in the Klondike — everything from stunning portraits of Moosehide native people, to snow-covered cabins in the wilderness to scenes of downtown Dawson.

By the fall of 1918, Zaccarelli had wound up his affairs in Dawson, sold out and was ready to move to Oakland, California. Mrs. Zaccarelli and the two boys had gone ahead to a place that John had selected for the family to live on a trip there in the 1917.

On October 13, 1918, John closed his store for the last time, boarded the paddle-wheeler the Whitehorse to connect with the White Pass train to Skagway. On the evening of October 23rd, 1918, he boarded the CPR ship, the SS Sophia along with 343 other passengers - most of whom were leaving the Yukon after their summer’s work and with the intent of returning in the spring.

Hougen Group Yukon History John Zaccarelli
Interior of Zaccarelli Book Store, Dawson City, YT
Click for larger view.

On the voyage through the inside passage in a blinding snowstorm, the SS Sophia ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef. It sat high and dry for two days while the company decided how best to remove the passengers and crew. On the second night on the reef, a fierce gale drove the Sophia off the reef and into the frigid waters of the Lynn Canal.

All on board, including John Zaccarelli were drowned. Mrs. Zaccarelli decided not to stay in Oakland and returned to Dawson in 1919 with her sons’ Tom and Ralph. Tom eventually moved to Oakland while Ralph moved his young family first to Mayo and then to Whitehorse in 1964 where his son Ralph Zaccarelli Jr., grandson of John Zaccarelli, still lives.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




S.S. Tutshi

She’s a burned out hulk now, and her ruins lie in Carcross where she was built. In her day, the steamer Tutshi was a class-act of the Yukon riverboat fleet. The S.S. Tutshi was one of the largest riverboats in the Yukon. Weighing in at just over 1000 tonnes, she was built in Carcross in 1918 by the White Pass Company, for the run between here and Graham Inlet on Tagish Lake. The Tutshi had a crew of 29, and could carry 135 passengers. She started out as a wood-burning vessel, but was converted to oil power when she began carrying tourists to Ben-My-Chree, beginning in the 1920s. Ben-My-Chree at the southern tip of Taku Arm was the garden site of the North. Tourists flocked there onboard the Tutshi to see the incredible gardens created by Mr. and Mrs. Otto Partridge. They imported plants and trees form around the world, and were hailed as the North’s most creative botanists.

Carcross, where the Tutshi was built, was first known as Caribou Crossing because of the large herds of caribou to cross the narrows here. In 1903, Bishop Bompas asked the Canadian Government to rename the community Carcross because of the confusion in mail service between the Yukon town and those with similar names in both Alaska and British Columbia. The Government made the change in 1904, but the White Pass Company continued to use the name Caribou Crossing until 1916.

The Tutshi was beached on the shores of Carcross in 1972, and restoration by Parks Canada began in 1977. The work was carried on over the years, but there was never enough money to install a proper sprinkler system on the boat. In 1991 she went up in flames in what was considered an act of arson, though no one was ever charged with the offense.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin