With the Jim Robb’s Yukon exhibition coming to a close on August 23rd, this week’s Artwork Wednesday will feature his piece entitled The Birthplace of McGee and McGrew currently on display in the gallery.

A popular Northern poem as told by the bard of the Yukon, Robert W. Service, here Jim creates a mystifying composition illustrating the house where the iconic poems The Shooting of Dan McGew and The Cremation of Sam McGee were conceived.  Before his literary career, Service was an employee of the Imperial Bank of Canada and in 1904 he was transferred to the Whitehorse branch. Legend has it, that during a walk one Saturday night, Service overheard the lively sounds of the town’s nightlife drifting from a saloon. Inspired by the cacophony coming from the bars crowd, the verse “a bunch of the boys were whooping it up” was brought to mind. Instantly inspired, he immediately head to the bank to write down the line. In Jim’s piece, the artist depicts the silhouette of Service sitting in the bank window burning the midnight oil completing The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

It was only a short while later that Service heard a story from a Dawson miner about fellow who cremated his companion after a long cold journey. Once again inspired by the fantasy of the North, Service was taken by the tale and embarked on a walk through the forest where he composed The Cremation of Sam McGee. These poems along with a small selection of others all inspired by the Yukon were published in Service’s book of poems titled Songs of a Sourdough in 1907.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
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.

Sam McGee's cabin


This photo shows the cabin of Sam McGee where it was orginally located on Elliot Street between Third and Fourth Aveune in Whitehorse. Today, the cabin is maintained and held on the MacBride Museum site. While Service describes Sam McGee as a prospector from Tennessee, this is merely a testement to the elaborate imagination of the poet. The real Sam McGee was in fact a buisness man, who operated lodgings at Canyon Creek, orginally from Ontario and arrived in the Yukon in 1898. Service ultized the rhyming properties of McGee's name, and excersiced his poetic license in re-creating the Dawson miner's story. 

Service's cabin in Dawson City

Robert W. Service

Read The Shooting of Dan McGrew here, and The Cremation of Sam McGee here. Also, to learn more about Robert W. Service's career and life in the Yukon visit here