Drownded while bathing in open cut.
The record book at the Y.O.O.P. Cemetery in Dawson City says that’s how Alex Murchison died on July 2, 1903.
Y.O.O.P.? Ruth Ann and I were curious. Back at our lodging, we poured ourselves a gin, wondered aloud if Alex had been imbibing the day he succumbed in the bog, and googled Y.O.O.P.
On December 1, 1894, a group of men got together in George Snow’s opera house in Forty Mile to form the Yukon Order of Pioneers, a fraternity, police force and social services club. Why? Because there wasn’t any law in the North and after gold was discovered at Forty Mile and it became Yukon’s first permanent mining camp, the older prospectors felt newcomers lacked collegiality.
Membership was restricted to “men of integrity and good character “who had been in the country for at least ten years. Their motto was “Do as you would be done by.” The 68 members who signed the charter pledged to help every other member should the need arise and to “always to spread the news of a fresh gold discovery.”
Two years later, the Bonanza Creek discovery kicked off the Klondike Gold Rush that attracted men like Alex to Dawson. Three years later, gold with a value equivalent to a billion dollars today had been mined near Dawson.
The Y.O.O.P. settled disputes in mining camps, like breaches of promise, thefts and shootings. A person with a grievance posted a notice and called a meeting. The miners elected a chair, the defendant presented his case, and the prosecutor cross-examined the witnesses before the summation and vote. I read about one sentencing that led to a fine of court costs plus two gallons of whiskey. The jury drank the whiskey.
The YOOPers must have been busy. At its peak, Dawson had thirty hotels and twenty-one saloons open round-the-clock!
Because Dawson’s alcohol supply (120,000 gallons in 1898 alone) rarely satisfied the demand, customers were willing to pay astronomical prices and drink just about anything a bartender poured.
You’d think alcoholism would be the main cause of death up there. But catching gold fever often led to catching typhoid fever. You can imagine the effect on Dawson’s limited water when in just two years the town’s population grew from 500-to-30,000 residents. People got S. typhi from not boiling their drinking water—and from watered-down liquor stagnating in barroom bottles. The ratio of male-to -female deaths from typhoid fever in the Yukon between 1896 and 1904 was 24:1.
Gold lust. While it’s easy to be hard on these young men and the choices they made, there was a huge depression in the late 1890s and massive unemployment. The saloons were a place to get away from their shovels and shanties, to find friends, broker deals, be part of the spectacle of gambling, drinking and women, or just watch it unfold. If you couldn’t afford a drink and had run out of charitable companions, you tipped a dipper into a barrel of free water and drank up.
Another common cause of death was scurvy, often caused by a “3B Diet:” bacon, bread and beans. But looking at the Y.O.O.P. records, there are other more frequent entries for the causes of death:
Died old age and stomach. Heart. Electricity. Accidentally in drift. Explosion in mine. Falling down shaft. Cancer. Pneumonia. Killed by bear. Suicide. Froze to death. Decompemsation?
The Y.O.O.P. members also cared for the sick and raised funds to send the ill or injured to Vancouver or Victoria for medical treatment. And yes Virginia, in those days the Y.O.O.P. was sexist and racist. But the order paid for the funerals of men who worked the creekbeds but died penniless. They established lodges throughout the territory, maintained their social functions and perpetuated the memory and achievements of northern pioneers. The Y.O.O.P. also helped build the Pioneer Dome Road and petitioned for radio communication as well as an all-weather road from Dawson City to Whitehorse for postal service.
With the arrival of the Mounties, it became more of a fraternal and benevolent organization, overseeing Discovery Day (August 17, the day of the famed discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek—Y.O.O.P.’s annual celebration day and a statutory holiday in Yukon) and participating in various charitable drives. Each year, the order selects a Mr. and Mrs. Yukon in recognition of two long-time residents who have made lasting contributions to their communities.
When Magellan and I met up in Dawson, I dragged him to the Y.O.O.P. cemetery to see the weathered markers, to sense the past in a place so peaceful and green.
Afterwards, we went for a drink at Bombay Peggy’s. I’d almost become a regular, as Ruth Ann and I had also stopped in for a martini one night. “You know we haven’t seen a single sign of public intoxication here,” she’d noticed. “Nor any drug-addled people on the street.”
The next time you have a drink, I propose making a toast: “To Canada’s Y.O.O.P.”
“Rushing to the Grave.” National Park Service.
Megan J. Highet. “Catching Gold Fever A Social History of Typhoid Fever Among the Klondike Gold Rushers.” University of Alberta, June 14, 2019.