Dick North, a Yukon historian now based in Whitehorse, can be credited for finding the facts about novelist Jack London’s year in the Klondike. There has been so much myth and conjecture, but he found irrefutable pieces of evidence that form a picture of the year that served as a catalyst for London’s writing career.
Jack London was born into desperate poverty in Oakland, California. He laboured part-time as a child until he left school at 14 to work sixteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week, at a pickle factory. When he’d had enough of that, he became an able bodied seaman and traveled to the most far flung corners of the world.
When news came to the outside world in 1897 that there was gold in the Klondike, London was ripe for adventure. He headed north with his brother-in-law, their outfit financed by London’s step-sister. London came over the Chilkoot Trail in August 1897, a year ahead of the column of people who would eventually make it to the gold fields.
Dick North found, while searching through archives, a photo of a group at Sheep Camp and by identifying each person in the photo he was able to identify Jack London. This photo is the only known photo of London not only on the Chilkoot, but in the north.
London made it to the Klondike and staked a claim at Henderson Creek, this fact supported by a document found by north: Jack London’s claim registration, dated October 1897 and signed in Dawson City!
While London was only in the north for a year, forced out by scurvy, it proved to be a transformative experience for him and inspired him to write many novels, the most famous of which is Call of the Wild. He sold the rights to this book to MacMillan publishing for a few thousand dollars. This book has not been out of print since and contributed to making MacMillan the powerhouse publisher that it is today.
As if the Sheep Camp photo and claim registration documents weren’t enough, Dick North found his holy grail: one of the cabins Jack London stayed in during his long, dark Klondike winter. This cabin was identified in two ways. The first is that it is described in perfect detail in one of London’s books. The second is a piece of graffiti: London’s signature in pencil scrawled on the inside of a wall.
The cabin was falling to ruin and at risk of getting lost in the wilderness. Funds to rescue it were hard to find, but when the city of Oakland got wind of North’s discovery it offered to finance the rescue on the condition that the cabin be brought to Oakland for display in their Jack London Square.
North decided that this wouldn’t do and he had a crazy, but rather brilliant, idea: split the cabin in two. There are now two Jack London cabins to be seen, one in Dawson, Yukon, and one in Oakland, California. The Dawson cabin’s bottom half is original while the top is a reproduction. The reverse is true for the one in Oakland!
Next to the cabin in Dawson is a bear proof food cache and a newer building that houses pictures and documents related to London’s life.
This excellent exhibit and talk from the Klondike Valley Association come with a $5 admission fee, but it’s only $2.50 upon presentation of an entrance coupon from Diamond Tooth Gerties.
Before I share pictures, here is a quote from Jack London that echoes something I said last summer about my own Klondike experience:
It was in the Klondike I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine.