This Week in History


Songs of a Sourdough

This story was initially published in 2000

Robert William Service was born on January 16, 1874 in Preston, England. One of Canada's best-known poets, Service romanticized the North and inspired many people to visit the Yukon.

Service at his cabin in Dawson City

Service at his cabin in Dawson City
© Yukon Archives, A.J. Gillis Collection, #4531

Although he started writing poetry at age six, he followed his father into the banking business when he was 15. Seven years later, longing to live in the wilderness, Service left Scotland. He landed in Montréal with little more than the clothes on his back, travelled across the prairies to Calgary and finally reached Vancouver Island where he worked as a farm labourer. After taking odd jobs around British Columbia and the American southwest, he reluctantly returned to banking, getting a job with the Bank of Commerce. He was transferred to the Yukon branch in Whitehorse in 1905.

Service loved the Yukon, soon becoming a true Yukoner or "Sourdough." Though he was content to explore the wilderness alone, he also participated in social events in the area. After giving a recital at a church hall, a friend suggested he write a poem about life in the Yukon. Service was so inspired that he wrote dozens of poems in the next few months and decided to publish a volume. Songs of a Sourdough was an immediate success.

In 1908, Service was transferred again, this time to Dawson City, but soon decided to quit banking to write full time. He rented a log cabin and there wrote his first novel, The Trail of Ninety-Eight, which he brought to New York to be published. From there, he decided to walk to New Orleans! He only made it to Philadelphia before hopping a train.

Klondike Settlers

Klondike Settlers
© LAC / PA-13519

After travelling to Cuba and visiting his mother and sisters in Alberta, Service returned to the Yukon the hard way, by boat. However, after accepting a position as a correspondent in the Balkan war, he left Dawson City for the last time in 1912. Service married in 1913 and settled in France, but continued travelling and writing extensively. He even dabbled in acting, playing himself opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Spoilers in 1941. Service died in 1958, a legend in Canadian poetry.

Although he is not commemorated, the Robert Service Cabin and the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Dawson, Yukon are both part of the Dawson Historical Complex, a National Historic Site.

Visit the Klondike National Historic Sites.

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